Easy Chair — From the July 2013 issue

Trio Grande

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The lady who changed the world,” was how The Economist described Margaret Thatcher in its obituary. Whether or not we believe that individuals ever wield such power over history, it is certainly true that the world changed during Thatcher’s premiership — and that it seemed to be moving in her direction.

Thatcher wasn’t the only empire builder to die in April. So did Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, and Howard Phillips, one of the principal architects of what came to be called the New Right. And when all three departed in quick succession, it struck me that they shared a certain sensibility. Each would have made an excellent case study for the Great Man (or Great Woman) theory of history, defying the world and recasting it through heroic labors. And each went about this task in roughly the same way. They were populists who bitterly denounced elites; they were worshippers at the shrine of free enterprise; and they all reached their zenith in the early 1980s.

[1] With the discovery in 2010 of oil just off the Falklands, however, it has become retroactively less pointless.

It was 1982 that saw Mrs. Thatcher’s triumph over Argentina in the Falklands, one of the most pointless wars in recent history.[1] It was in that same year that Neuharth, then CEO of the Gannett newspaper chain, launched USA Today, one of recent history’s most unlikely feats of entrepreneurship. Nowadays, of course, no one would dream of launching a national print newspaper. But even in 1982 the idea seemed not only quixotic but dangerously capital-intensive: you needed printing presses all over the country to pour out those full-color pages and a satellite communications system to beam the copy from coast to coast. Before the paper finally turned a profit, in 1987, Gannett lost $233 million on the venture. Neuharth himself wrote in what I came to think of as the USA Today style: brief, choppy, chummy. I almost said “pared down,” but that’s not accurate — Neuharth’s ideas were simply too potted and obvious to require much in the way of verbal expression. Here, for example, he explains the founding of the paper in a 1997 installment of his column, Plain Talk:

Our mission in creating USA TODAY was pretty simple, albeit a bit risky: Reinvent the newspaper to attract the TV generation. Color a must. Also lively, compelling content and presentation. Maximum of information. Minimum of wordage. No confusion or hassle. A place for everything and everything in its place.

It’s one thing to deploy this style from what was basically a publisher’s pulpit. What’s amazing is that Neuharth sounds exactly the same in his 1989 memoir Confessions of an S.O.B. He not only fills the pages with USA Today–style bullet points, but splashes them across the cover as well.

There was always something off-putting about Neuharth’s combination of banality and brazen self-assertion. Still, somewhere in his heart, this guy actually cared about journalism. Despite Gannett’s well-known contempt for what is called the “news hole,” Neuharth fought to expand USA Today’s staff and upgrade its editorial content while many of its competitors were slipping into their long death spirals. And although his egotism was famous, Neuharth didn’t treat USA Today as his personal political soapbox. Contrast this with the ideological vanity of the media lords who have come after him. The standard management model for newspapers seems increasingly to involve rich men, quirky personal politics, and heavy doses of deliberate propaganda: think of Philip Anschutz and the Washington Examiner, Dean Singleton and the Denver Post, and the queasy-making possibility that the Koch brothers will gobble up the entire Tribune Company, which owns not only ten daily papers but twenty-three television stations and numerous other media properties.

Neuharth was different. He wanted to make a profit — and the bad journalism produced by profit seeking is much preferable to the bad journalism produced by ideological fantasy. Better stories about pets than screeching jeremiads designed to advance the political interests of the owner. Even Neuharth’s syrupy optimism and taste for populist stunts now seem relatively benign. (In 1987, he took a bus trip around America and wrote sappy columns about the wondrousness of each state as he passed through. “Life in the USA is upbeat,” he concluded, three days after the start of the rancorous Iran-Contra hearings. “The mood of the country is good.”)

In a sense, the launch of USA Today marked the dawn of our modern media age. Back in the Eighties, Gannett execs used to boast that USA Today was “edited by our readers” — a reference, presumably, to the company’s relentless use of focus groups. And Neuharth developed an entire theory of media elitism to dismiss the papers that did things the old-fashioned way. Thus did the Gannett crew anticipate the vox-pop-worshipping ideology of the Internet by at least a dozen years. Today, many businesses are reluctant to make a move without consulting the never-adjourning focus group that is the Web. And even old-school stalwarts like the Wall Street Journal now pay heed to the virtual masses — at that paper’s morning news meetings, there is reportedly a thorough parsing of traffic stats, popular search terms, and the trending topics on Twitter.

Of the three people I mentioned above, the New Right strategist Howard Phillips is the least well known. This is due, in part, to the marginal methods by which the man chose to address the world: direct-mail solicitations, newsletters, self-published books. For an apostle of capitalism, he was remarkably unconcerned with self-promotion. The endlessly scheming Neuharth once managed to game the New York Times bestseller list by having Gannett employees buy copies of his memoir at selected bookstores around the country. Phillips, meanwhile, actually left the title of one of his books off the spine. Even his cable TV show, Conservative Roundtable, bore the unmistakable marks of technical ineptitude, with its tawdry set and cheesy synthesizer intro.

In matters of temperament as well, Phillips was the polar opposite of Neuharth. He aimed not to spread contentment across the land but to ring the alarm bells — constantly, frantically, professionally. Today we are all familiar with this technique, thanks to Fox News and Glenn Beck, but in those days it still had the whiff of novelty about it. Phillips was one of the original entrepreneurs of panic, a man who always saw national disaster just around the corner. Our precious Panama Canal was being forfeited; the Soviets were about to grab all of southern Africa; the State Department was filled with traitors; and now look — Central America was going red as well![2]

[2] Phillips was not the only one to invest so heavily in panic. In her biography of Margaret Thatcher, Claire Berlinski quotes a 1977 memo to the future prime minister from her adviser Nigel Lawson that reads, simply, “A well thought-out scare campaign is a must.”

“To organize discontent” was Phillips’s goal, he told the author Alan Crawford in 1980. Like so many of conservatism’s successful ideas, it was borrowed from the historical left — and borrowed, ironically, around the time Democratic leaders were beginning their long, fruitless quest for consensus and “grand bargains.” Still, it was a success for Phillips. I don’t mean to suggest that he triumphed personally in some way; on the contrary, he kept moving further to the right all his life, repeatedly running for president as the candidate of a fringe group called the Constitution Party. But as a prophet of polarization, he was heeded.

Here, for example, was his advice to Republicans, circa 1982: Give up your “strategy of consensus or ‘détente’ with your political adversaries” (meaning liberal Democrats). Find yourselves a “conflict-oriented leader” and “get off the defensive. Attack. Attack. Attack. Attack.”

Phillips devoted his life to transforming American conservatism into an extremist movement. The energy that went into this campaign was astonishing. Like Neuharth, he traveled the country constantly, signing up angry citizens by the hundreds of thousands for his grassroots group, the Conservative Caucus. (He also had a hand in founding the Young Americans for Freedom and the Moral Majority.) In 1980, Phillips’s friend and colleague Richard Viguerie called him “the nearest thing to a perpetual-motion machine that the New Right has.”

His efforts paid off handsomely: these days, as we watch Republican intransigents in Congress and conservative utopians in the state legislatures, it all seems as natural as gravity. We take for granted today that the right wing has the funding, the strategy, and the ideological high ground within the Republican Party. Of course G.O.P. moderates are dying out, we think — they have nothing to back them up either on the ground or in the realm of ideas.

Economics are the method,” Margaret Thatcher told an interviewer in 1981, and “the object is to change the heart and soul.” In some ways, this was the core of Thatcherite governance, the distilled essence of all her Hayek talk and her monetarist schemes for battling inflation. The goals of politicians are ordinarily to win elections, reform this or that, and be done with it — but Thatcher’s aims were always grander. She wanted to reconfigure society altogether, to not only defeat her opponents at the polls but to wreck them for good.

And this was typical of the Eighties. The question of the decade was: What do we do about the left? The British historian Ross McKibbin sketches out Thatcher’s answer in a 2004 essay:

Her fundamental aim was to destroy the Labor Party and “socialism,” not to transform the British economy. If the destruction of socialism also transformed the economy, well and good, but that was for her a second-order achievement. Socialism was to be destroyed by a major restructuring of the electorate: in effect, the destruction of the old industrial working class.

What’s really remarkable about the career of Margaret Thatcher is the degree to which she succeeded in carrying out this contemporary Thermidor. The Iron Lady privatized countless industries, public housing, transit, and even water utilities. She abolished local governments, deregulated banks, instituted a punishingly regressive poll tax, and crushed the power of organized labor.

Back in America, Howard Phillips had come to the same conclusion: the goal of conservatives should not be merely winning elections but dismantling the left for keeps. Phillips believed he had found his own approach to the problem, which he described in his 1983 book The New Right at Harvard. During the days of the Nixon Administration, Phillips related, he had briefly run the Office of Economic Opportunity, a (now defunct) agency charged with prosecuting Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The business of the OEO, Phillips noted, was to give millions of dollars to left-wing nonprofits that were supposedly carrying out federal policy but were in fact working, “at taxpayer expense, to change the nature of American society, culturally, politically, and otherwise.”

This was the tiny epiphany from which the mighty crusade against ACORN sprang. If the structures of organized liberalism were propped up with public funding, then all you needed to do was cut off the money supply. “Defund the Left” became Phillips’s lifelong rallying cry, as he declared war on everything from the Legal Services Corporation to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Howard Phillips never completely transcended crankdom, but his plans for attacking the left would become, in other hands, something far greater than a direct-mail fund-raising pitch. The saga of USA Today, meanwhile, hints at the other side of the story — by which I mean, how liberalism changed as it came under these ferocious assaults.

[3] On the other hand, it is important to remember that Neuharth was one of very few voices in American journalism to call bullshit on George W. Bush during the march to war in Iraq. This was a huge achievement, nearly justifying all the man’s monuments to himself.

Gannett, with its free-market zeal and distaste for organized labor, is scarcely an organization of the left.[3] Yet the sensibility of USA Today — reflected in its endless polls and carefully cultivated folksiness — was most definitely the sensibility of the evolving Democratic Party. Not surprisingly, it was the favorite paper of the Clinton Administration. And consider the tag Neuharth invented to describe its anodyne style: the “journalism of hope.” Here was the empty word for the age, the perfect virtue for an era of false promises and no alternatives, and a mandatory element of Democratic campaign-speak ever since (think of Jesse Jackson’s “Keep hope alive,” Clinton’s touching faith in “a place called Hope,” John Edwards’s “Hope is on the way,” and Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope). What “hope” came to mean in those days was: Be credulous. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Have faith that things might just work out, even though they never do and nobody in power has any intention of reversing the neocon tide.

In his memoir, Neuharth recalls how he assembled a board of directors for Gannett that was “handpicked for maximum diversity.” Then he proceeds to boast about how he got these diverse souls to do his bidding with barely a whisper of dissent. It sounds like the prototype for Bill Clinton’s celebrated cabinet that “looked like America” but behaved like the One Percent.

And, with a little imagination, it also sounds like the role the left generally has been assigned to play in the post-Eighties world. We no longer discuss nationalizing the steel industry, say, or enacting any sort of full-employment proposal. Changes like that are off the table. But when leftists are deployed as virtue offsets to mitigate or camouflage the ugly deeds of corporations and elected officials, they and their rhetoric can still be marvelously useful.

This is no doubt the reason BP donated so many millions to the Nature Conservancy in the years before the big Gulf oil spill. (The Dow Chemical Company has also enlisted the Nature Conservancy for a high-profile “collaboration.”) Over at ExxonMobil, the virtue of choice is feminism — or more specifically, “a global effort that helps women fulfill their economic potential and drive economic and social change in their communities.” Walmart, for its part, supports a nearly identical effort. Other stigmatized corporate entities choose different flavors of goodness with which to align themselves: the nation’s biggest military contractors, according to the journalist Steven Thrasher, are regular and conspicuous donors to Human Rights Campaign, which fights for gay equality.

Even the noisiest of Eighties oppositionists can be cut to the appropriate fit. Last month, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a show called Punk: Chaos to Couture, which showcased fantastically expensive clothes for narcissists, many of them predamaged for the wearer’s convenience. The exhibition kicked off with a gala party attended by a jolly parade of CEOs, movie directors, and fashion bosses. Givenchy’s creative director appeared on video to explain what “punk” was. And then, dressed up like members of the social class Margaret Thatcher ruined, the winners of the market order marched in a smiling processional past adoring members of the press and public, who paid tribute with a storm of camera flashes meant to illuminate our latter-day gods, the only ones still capable of changing the world.

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