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Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2002 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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It's all about federalism: Ten minutes with … Jonah Goldberg | Jonah Goldberg, whose column appears in JWR and is editor of the much-praised National Review Online, has his ideological papers in perfect order. But he belies most of the conservative pundit stereotypes.

Just 33, he's neither old, nor stuffy, nor pop-culturally clueless. He's known for his irreverent, chatty, jokey and often argumentative Web column, the "Goldberg File," where he often criticizes the ideologues and "leave-me-alone" libertarian elements he says are making trouble among conservative ranks.

In addition to lecturing college kids on the benefits of conservatism, the son of conservative troublemaker and Clinton nemesis Lucianne Goldberg is a regular contributor to conservative magazines and to the news-talk shows of CNN, where he is an occasional guest host on "Crossfire."

I called Goldberg in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, where he was still waiting for Geraldo Rivera to catch the Beltway Sniper.

Q: What kind of conservative are you - other than the fact that while you are not as young as you were, you're still pretty darn young?

A: Right, and I'll never be as young as I was again. What kind of conservative am I? I am in the process of trying to shed all adjectives and labels to conservatives. I'm trying to write this piece for another magazine about how we should no longer use the word "neo-conservative," because it has no meaning any more. And I never liked "compassionate conservative," partly because I'm an Old Testament guy and I like my conservatives with lots of smiting and wrath.

But jokes aside, if you asked me what kind of a conservative I am, I'd say, "I'm a conservative." There are certain factual adjectives that you could apply to me - that I'm Jewish, that I'm young, that I'm East Coast, or whatever.

I think there's a lot of labeling that goes on that is unnecessary and tends to distort more than it reveals.

Q: So if you were to lay some of your core conservative principles on us, what are they?

A: It's the second most dull topic in the world after the War Powers Resolution, but I think federalism is the big thing. It's dull as tar as a topic, but federalism solves most problems in society in terms of the culture wars, disagreements of the right, disagreements between libertarians and conservatives.

Federalism is a system that was designed to make the most people possible happy, because it allows majorities in different places to live lives that make them happy.

When you have a federal government that goes in and tries to impose one way of living across the entire country, that's what causes the culture war, that's what causes conservatives and liberals to scream at each other.

But if you live in a society which says San Francisco gets to live the way San Francisco wants to live and South Carolina gets to live the way the South Carolina wants to live you actually have a system that makes more people happy, and makes more people free.

About the only place where I would kind of disagree with (Weekly Standard editor) Bill Kristol and George Bush is that those guys basically want to have that fight at the federal level.

They want the federal government to be involved in these things. They just want the federal government to send the right messages. George Bush is a Big Government conservative. I'm not necessarily saying he's wrong on the issues, but people need to keep in mind that compassionate conservatism is not Newt Gingrich conservatism. It's Big Government conservatism.

George Bush wants to spend more money on marriage counselors to encourage people to get married. That's social engineering. It may be the right policy, but it's not what we used to associate with conservatism, which is federalism and limited government and those things.

Q: A few years ago you wrote a great piece about "The Simpsons" and you probably gave a whole lot of old conservatives … heart attacks when you said that the show was riddled with conservative values.

A: Right.

Q: Can you summarize that argument?

A: I don't think it's a conservative show. What I think it is, is a show that questions the silly false pieties of our culture … and since so many of the silly pretensions can be found on the left or the politically correct side of the aisle, "The Simpsons" indirectly scores a lot of the essentially conservative or rightish points by making fun of those things.

"The Simpsons" is much more equal opportunity in terms of going after humor wherever they find it. But being equal opportunity means that they are somewhere close to 50 percent of the time going after the left or liberals, and that's 49 percent more of the time that we're accustomed to getting, so we're delighted for it.

Q: Of the various pundits out there, which do you make sure to read?

A: I'd say the very best non-National Review people out there are Charles Krauthhammer, Michael Kelly and Mark Steyn.

Q: Of the following pundits, writers and TV talking heads - Ann Coulter, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Krugman, Bill O'Reilly, Paul Begala, Phil Donahue, I could go on and one - should any be imprisoned or deported?

A: (Laughs) Ahhh….. You know, I'm one of these guys who believes that, it's sort of like the great chain of being of medieval times that even the creatures that slither and crawl upon the earth have a role in our ecosystem. So I'm not sure I'd want to get rid of any of them.

Phil Donahue, except for the fact that no one's watching him, provides a valuable service of reminding people how knee-jerk and unthinking a lot of liberal "thinking" is.

Q: He brings on people you'd never see otherwise.

A: I agree. You get to see who's on the liberal's bench - who they call to see what to think about something. That's useful.

If you look at the state of liberal punditry today, it is in such disarray. There's no really intellectually respectable liberal columnist in America today. Krugman (of The New York Times) is a wasted intellect. Tom Freidman (also of The Times) is good, but he's good mostly because he has got reportorial experience.

Q: He's more of an expert than a commentator.

A: Right. If you made a movie with a Maureen Dowd character, the feminists would scream at you for running a parody or caricature of what female columnists are about. All she is about is catty, gossipy, personal stuff. Very little substance. Just enough spine and substance from keeping the whole thing from falling over.

In terms of liberal pundits on TV, Paul Begala and James Carville are very good at what they do, but no one sees them as thinkers. They never come down on a surprising side of an issue.

Q: What about (a liberal) we carry … Molly Ivins?

A: Maureen Dowd, too, like Molly Ivins, is a good writer. You can never take that away from them, but you don't feel when you're reading them that they are thinking though something. They're thinking through sentences full of insults. They're not thinking through arguments.

Liberals who make persuasive arguments in the classical sense, where they are really trying to build on a series of facts and interpretations in a way so as to persuade people to their side - it's very difficult to think of a liberal who does that. It's very easy to think of lots of conservatives who do that.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald