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When this weekly speaks, White House listens
David Carr The New York Times
Wednesday, March 12, 2003
WASHINGTON It has been a good if busy season for The Weekly Standard and its aggressive version of American greatness. A change of administrations and Sept. 11 have made the tiny journal, the prime voice of Republican neoconservatives, one of the most influential publications in Washington.

The circulation of The Weekly Standard, which was founded by the News Corp. in 1995, is only 55,000. The Nation, a liberal beacon, has 127,000, The New Republic has 85,000, and National Review, long a maypole for conservatives, counts 154,000 readers. But the numbers are misleading in a digital age in which thought and opinion are frequently untethered from print and reiterated thousands of times on Web sites, list servers and e-mail in-boxes.

"Reader for reader, it may be the most influential publication in America," said Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation and author of "What Liberal Media?" The circulation may be small, but "they are not interested in speaking to the great unwashed," Alterman said. "The magazine speaks directly to and for power. Anybody who wants to know what this administration is thinking and what they plan to do has to read this magazine."

A few weeks ago President George W. Bush attended the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute to compliment Irving Kristol. Now 83, he is the forebear of the neoconservative movement that his son, William, The Weekly Standard's editor, now champions.

The younger Kristol, 50, was happy that Bush graciously acknowledged his father, but he was even more pleased by the text of his speech, which seemed lifted from The Weekly Standard's hymnal.

"If we have to act, we will act to restrain the violent and defend the cause of peace," the president said. "And by acting, we will signal to outlaw regimes that in this new century the boundaries of civilized behavior will be respected."

Five years ago, during the Clinton administration, The Weekly Standard made the broad, seemingly preposterous assertion that America was entitled and even compelled to engineer regime change in Iraq. But under the current administration, driven by Sept. 11, that contention has become conventional wisdom.

"I'm a little amused, but pleased and happy that the bus has become more crowded and that it is heading in the right direction," Kristol said, sitting in the dining room of the Mayflower Hotel here, where the blood sport of politics is accompanied by the occasional clink of china.

"I admire what the president has done so far and am happy that we are in agreement," Kristol said as he poked at a bowl of berries.

"Everyone, including me, is worried about what it might take, but the cost of doing nothing seems higher."

Kristol has spent 18 years in Washington. He served as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and has done occasional stints as a pariah of both the right and left. He acknowledged that the staff he helped assemble seven years ago has made a quick trip from rock-throwing revolutionaries to an amen corner for the administration. But he stressed there was a significant difference between editorializing and governing.

"Look, these guys made up their own minds," he said. "I would hope that we have induced some of them to think about these things in a new way. We have a lot of writers who have independently articulated a version of how we deal with this new world we live in that has been read by Dick Cheney, Condi Rice and Donald Rumsfeld. Hopefully it had some effect."

The modesty is becoming - and consistent with Kristol's nature - but may not be altogether merited.

Conservative broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly may have a monopoly on the angriest white men, but observers from both sides of the debate acknowledge that The Weekly Standard has been setting the agenda among a much more rarefied constituency.

"I am impressed by their success," said Senator John McCain, whom The Weekly Standard supported for the presidency. "Their timing has been excellent. In normal times, not much attention is paid to their major issue, which is the conduct of national security, but they have been fortunate in that people are interested right now."

The Weekly Standard has not achieved influence by cuddling up the administration. Beyond backing McCain, the magazine has taken dissenting positions on issues ranging from China policy to UN inspections.

"This administration hates criticism, but they react to criticism," Kristol said. "We have a funny relationship with the top tier of the administration. They very much keep us at arm's length, but Dick Cheney does send over someone to pick up 30 copies of the magazine every Monday."

His magazine is not the only way that the younger Kristol's influence is delivered to the White House. In June 1997 he formed the Project for a New American Century, which issued papers supporting essentially unilateralist efforts to police the world. It was a call to arms that compelled neoconservatives, who say that America is best protected by exporting its values, but it also stirred people with allegiances to traditional conservatism, who have generally had more isolationist impulses and who have been wary about using American troops to patrol the world.

Signers at the time included many people who are now in a position of power, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, along with others with a more neoconservative impulse, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who heads the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon.

The Weekly Standard's willingness to domesticate and Americanize the globe, at gunpoint when necessary, gives a shiver of delight to most conservatives, but others wonder how that strategy might end.

"They are urging a de facto return to empire," said Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Announcing a global crusade on behalf of democracy is arrogant, blind to local realities, dangerous and ignorant of history."

The Weekly Standard was conceived less as a publishing enterprise than as a conservative antidote to The New Republic. Executives said The Weekly Standard was losing a little more than a million dollars a year.

The Standard must now confront the burden of success: producing a contrarian conservative magazine when the Senate, Congress, executive branch and judiciary all share similar views.

Kristol does not seem worried about defining the magazine. "The world will cooperate and the administration will cooperate by not doing what we would like them to do," Kristol said. "We will have plenty to criticize for the foreseeable future."

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