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Jewish World ReviewJan. 4, 2000 /25 Teves, 5760

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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How I Made Conservatism Fashionable in Time for the 21st Century --
AN ESSAYIST in The New Stateman-sort of a British version of The Nation, only intelligent-sadly argues that in our new century, conservatism will be even stronger than it has been, in America and Britain since the age of Reagan and Thatcher: "It is quite possible that we are moving from a century of progressive ideas, led by conservatives, to a century of triumph for conservative ideas, led by people only professing to be on the left." If this is so, then the Top Drawer section of New York Press, its generous and patient founder Taki, Jim Holt, and, most of all, I, deserve the credit. And now, standing at the top of golden hours, it may be a good time to recount how so many of us struggled to give birth to the idea that has turned Bill Clinton's Democrats and Tony Blair's New Labour party into conservatives--the story of Top Drawer itself.

In 1984, I was living in the hills of western Massachusetts, working as associate publisher of a regional magazine called New England Monthly. I was hired because-well, for the same reason I have been hired by every employer I've ever had-because a girl I went to Bennington with made her husband do it.

There, slowly, in utter isolation, I changed my political stripes. I was propelled by disgust at the nuclear freeze movement, by the realization that the "progressive" forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua were just as murderous as the previous regimes, and by the failure of American liberals to support Solidarity in Poland. And of course I was still bitter about when the dream died for so many of us in the 1984 Massachusetts primary-the dream that Reuben Askew of Florida should become the Democratic nominee for President.

What I didn't realize was the degree of social ostracism my decision would involve. My more urbane friends thought it was "cute." Most were horrified. The depth of my ignominy came when I was asked to a dinner party by the husband of the Bennington girl as the date of a distinguished and devastatingly attractive woman writer-and she was so disgusted by my views that she left early. (Oh, Jan Morris-wherever you are, don't I deserve a second chance?)

I realized then that in America, having principles and winning arguments and making things work-bringing peace and prosperity and lowering taxes while increasing government revenues-don't matter. What matters is what is fashionable. The cooler you were, the more liberal you became. To be conservative made you seem stupid and square. But the American right was not only unfashionable-it didn't even care that it was. I decided to address this problem head on. I would start a stylish magazine of arts and entertainment that was not tendentious or polemical, but would simply be not-left. It would make conservatism hip.

What would the magazine be like? I thought of the scene at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life" when Bedford Falls appears as it would have done had Jimmy Stewart never been born. The movie palace showing "The Bells of St. Mary's" has turned into a girlie joint. Everyone is hard-boiled with a short fuse. Instead of being a fulfilled wife and mother, Donna Reed is a fearful and repressed librarian. I decided we had been condemned to live in that world. But we didn't have to if we chose not to. I would call my magazine, ironically, "Civilization."

I took my idea to people like Rupert Murdoch and Robert Hersant, late publisher of Le Figaro. I sought advice from the only other conservative in the Massachusetts hills, George Gilder. He told me not to expect much. "Conservatives are conservative partly because they don't care what people think of them." "But I care what people think of me," I protested-thinking of course of Jan Morris.

Gilder looked at me pityingly. Or rather I should say pitilessly.

Then in 1989 I came to New York to become publisher of a magazine called Wigwag (where another Bennington girl made her husband hire me). Wigwag was started by a group of young ex-The New Yorker editors who left when William Shawn was fired (my new colleagues had known Shawn so intimately that they all called him "Mister.") It was the age of George Bush's "kinder and gentler" presidency, and Wigwag was a kind and gentle magazine. When I arrived in town, another early Bennington boy, Roger Kimball of The New Criterion asked me to join a monthly gathering of conservative journalists called "Vile Bodies," after the Evelyn Waugh novel.

There I first met the writer Jim Holt, who plays a crucial part in this saga. For Jim was in social agony at this gathering lest anyone think him a habitue of any group so declasse as Vile Bodies. It was clear that the need for my magazine was desperate, and I could state its raison d'etre very clearly: to cure Holt's Syndrome, which has been defined formally as "uncontrollable mortification at being seen at parties with National Review and New Criterion sorts of people."

Finally, the event which has already altered the course of our new century: in 1991, thanks to Richard Brookhiser of National Review, I met Taki. He also had been dreaming of starting a magazine-a magazine of quality, integrity, and where his own work could never be spiked. We spent much of the ensuing decade refining and perfecting our plans, discarding one editor after another. Fortunately for our consciences, our discards were picked up, dusted off, and offered jobs at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Finally, in 1998, we were ready. Jim Holt wanted to cure his Holt's Syndrome so badly that he agreed to join us. Toby Young, by an amazing coincidence, had just been laid off from a magazine job, and had the time to write as well. Yes, some people have left-there's no need to mention their names. One followed his dream and is now a dental hygienist. We discovered that the claim of another staffer to be a son of Susan Sontag was simply false, and so we had no choice but to let her go. But all in all, we've experienced less than the normal staff turnover to be expected at any new editorial venture.

And as a result, the world has changed. Conservatism is fashionable again. Just look around you. Here in New York City, you see young people with chopped-off hair and body punctures carrying copies of Milton Friedman. Look in that stretch limousine which brought the supermodel and her rap-artist boyfriend to the club-you'll see a dog-eared copy of President Nixon's Six Crises. And the Reverend Al Sharpton and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-defamation League have joined a study group devoted to the works of Allen Bloom and C.S. Lewis. New York City hasn't yet turned itself into Bedford Falls, But Mayor Giuliani is considering my proposal to have a continuous feed of "The Bells of St. Mary" into Times Square.

And remember-whenever you hear a bell ring, it means that the husband of another girl I went to Bennington with has been forced to offer me a job.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


©1999, Sam Schulman