Last November I received a friendly request from an editor at a political publication. A liberal himself, surrounded by liberal colleagues, he wanted to make sure that the journalists he was hiring were not drawn exclusively from the left. He wondered if I might help him out with a list of “conservative reporters, writers and commentators” whom I admired most. “Who on the right does the best job of covering politics or the economy or anything else, for that matter, in a thoughtful, fair and accurate way?”
Maybe if I had a time machine and could travel back to the 1970s or 1980s, I could name names. Now, though, I can’t think of a single one.
Sure, the right in previous decades was jam-packed with the same sorts of haters, hustlers, hacks and conspiratorial lunatics that are familiar to us now. But there were lively exceptions. George Nash, a still-active independent historian, celebrated The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America in a classic book published in 1976, when that tradition was very much still alive and kicking. James J. Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader, may have been an intellectual architect of the South’s “massive resistance” against integration in the 1950s, but he also wrote columns that were literary, politically independent and often wise. Kevin Phillips was an idiosyncratic conservative then who wrote brilliantly prescient articles with the same critical acumen and empirical ruthlessness he demonstrates nowadays as an idiosyncratic liberal. He published a piece in Harper’s in 1973 predicting that the Republican Party would “cement its coalition by creating a new managerial and communications establishment that merchandises the values that Middle Americans hold dear” and that “the liberal establishment of the Sixties will begin to wither.” A liberal columnist responded by calling Phillips’s argument “the most ludicrous political analysis of our time.” Knee-jerk inanities like that were one of the reasons it was so important to read conservatives back in 1973.
George Will, National Review’s Washington editor, won his Washington Post column that same year as part of a wave of contributors that evinced the success of an organized and underhanded campaign in the Nixon White House to scare mainstream (“liberal”) publications into hiring conservatives. From that privileged perch, however, he proved positively scathing as a principled critic of a White House that, during 1972, both believed “virtually every possible Democratic candidate was a garish sham who would destroy the country” but that they “couldn’t trust the American people to choose that way in a fair fight.” Thus they ended up destroying themselves via Watergate—and that there’s solid thinking.
Then there was William F. Buckley Jr., a problematic figure in so many ways: seriously proposing marooning welfare recipients on an island off Manhattan, tattooing AIDS sufferers on the buttocks, mentoring flock after flock of right-wing journalists who got stupider and lazier and more hawkish with each successive generation. But at least Buckley himself was intelligent and honest—and granted his adversaries on the left, like Noam Chomsky, the respect of debating them seriously on TV.