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Jewish World Review March 5, 2002 / 21 Adar, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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10 minutes with ... Rich Lowry -- GROWING up in the Reagan years, Rich Lowry sharpened his youthful conservatism by reading National Review and studying the intellectual moves of its founding editor William F. Buckley Jr. on "Firing Line."

In 1997 - at age 29 - Lowry became just the third editor of National Review, the political think magazine almost single-handedly kept conservative ideas alive during the 1950s and made the Reagan Revolution possible.

Lowry, now 33, is a syndicated columnist and a frequent guest on CNN, Fox and MSNBC talk shows. To find out how his magazine, his popular Web site ( and the conservative movement in general are doing, I called him Wednesday at his office in New York City.

Q: In your columns lately you've been really riding the horse of campaign finance reform. What is your biggest concern about all that?

A: The biggest concern is that the reformers pretty much explicitly, if you listen to what they say, say they want less political argument in the country - because political advertising is just a form of political argument.

All the things that the parties do, whether it's buying advertising or running get-out-the-vote efforts or registering people to vote, is a form of political argument. All that, I think, is a good thing; it is what reformers think is a bad thing, and that less money should be spent on it. So the whole thrust of this legislation seems to me to be misconceived.

Q: What's the best 60-second argument you can make against the Shays-Meehan bill?

A: Well, the push for it lately has come from Enron. And nothing in that bill would have prevented the Enron bankruptcy from happening. There's no evidence that Enron got anything untoward from all its contributions. A lot of the bill is just a total non sequitur, because there are limits on the sort of advertising that independent grassroots groups can do. And what possibly does any of that have to do with Enron?

What we're seeing is a real cynical game where a lot of the defenders of this bill know it's unconstitutional. The White House knows it's unconstitutional, but the White House appears ready to sign it anyway. Which to me is a really cynical and opportunistic act, and one unworthy of our plain-spoken Texas President.

Q: Switching gears, how do your positions differ from someone like (Weekly Standard editor) Bill Kristol or William F. Buckley or George Will or others in the conservative world?

A: Well, my views differ not at all from Bill Buckley's. That's part of my job (laughs). But I think National Review conservatism - we're very free-market oriented. Economic liberty means a lot to us. But we don't go too far in that direction and ending up some place like Reason magazine, the libertarian outfit, which basically wants to legalize everything and thinks there's hardly a role for government in any aspect.

On the other hand, though, we are much more enthusiastic about the free market than Bill Kristol's magazine is. Tax cuts are really not that important to them. They're more concerned with foreign policy and social policy and we agree with them on a lot of that sort of thing.

But our mission from the beginning has been to try to keep all the conservatives roughly on the same page and to argue that social conservatives and economic conservatives at bottom have similar interests. And the conservative movement can only succeed when (it) hangs together.

Q: National Review's initial, or original role in the 1950s, was sort of as the last hangout for the conservative remnant.

A: That's right. And you see people today - whether it's Bill Kristol from one angle or Pat Buchanan from another - hoping to blow up the current conservative movement for their own divergent reasons and we take it as our responsibility to try to keep it together.

Q: Since the 1980s conservatism has been collecting bodies and minds - and pretty good ones. Is that still happening? There are young guys like you and Jonah Goldberg. But Dartmouth Review stuff? The Dinesh D'Souzas? Are they still coming along?

A: I was attracted to conservatism through Reagan and Buckley, two very high-profile compelling personalities. I think having figures like that are a little bit of an accident of history. I'm not sure whether we have anyone quite like that at the moment. George Bush is very popular, obviously, but you wouldn't point to him as a conservative leader in the sense that Reagan was.

But as far as young conservative journalists coming off campuses - the next Dinesh D'Souza - I tend to think they are there. I pay a lot of attention to conservative journalism on campus because I'm occasionally asked to judge contests and things of that nature. It's pretty darn good. It may even be better than the Dartmouth Review was in its heydays in the '80s.

Q: What is the conservative movement's greatest weakness?

A: I would say one worrisome tendency in conservatism, and it especially came to the fore during the whole Clinton impeachment controversy, was a real distaste for politics itself, for the messy compromises that are necessary, the incessant arguments that are necessary, because nothing's ever settled in politics.

There were conservatives like Paul Weyrich who in their public statements said they just wanted to pull up their stakes and leave. Certainly, that's a tendency on the Christian right as well. I think that's a real dangerous tendency.

Q: Not that I have anything against Mr. Buckley, who once helped me on with my raincoat when I interviewed him, and who was my early hero, but the magazine hasn't changed a whole lot since he left. Any plans to make it different, fresher, livelier?

A: When I came on board, one of my goals was to redesign it, which we did. We didn't tear up departments necessarily but we freshened the look.

I think we run fairly lively stuff as it is. Jonah Goldberg has written for us on Budweiser and the Simpsons. So there's more of an effort to be engaged in things that might be a little bit more fun or connect more with an ordinary person's life, a little more coverage of pop culture.

On bottom, we're a very serious magazine and it's always going to be really text-heavy and the topics are always going to be weighty - too weighty for the vast majority of readers. That's why we're always going to be around 150,000 or so (in circulation), which is very small in the scheme of things, although it's the highest of any of the political opinion magazines.

This is just who we are. It's a formula that's worked for what we've wanted to do for 40 years and it's working now. So the basic approach is sound and won't change.

Q: How long will you be doing this?

A: I have no idea. It's a great blessing for me. I became a conservative through Reagan and Buckley. In high school I would tape episodes of "Firing Line" and replay portions of them just to make sure I followed the arguments exactly correctly.

I looked at Bill Buckley and said, "That's the ideal job. That's the kind of thing I want to do, when I grow up, is be an opinion journalist. And to have him let me edit his magazine is just an extraordinary stroke of good fortune and a great blessing. A lot of the time I still can't entirely believe it.

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

02/26/02: 10 minutes with ... Tony Snow
02/12/02: Has Soldier of Fortune gone soft?

© 2002, Bill Steigerwald