A Toast to the Standard

Published December 14, 2018

National Review Online

Today brought the sad news that, as has been feared and rumored for months, The Weekly Standard is closing. The death of that other conservative magazine is a tragedy, pure and simple. And it’s compounded by the chilling, spiteful, and pernicious manner of its execution. John Podhoretz, who was among the Standard’s founders, recounts the details here, and what I have heard comports with his report.

The news is tragic not so much for the loss of a venue for conservative political opinion writing, or the loss of an outlet for clear-eyed political journalism. The Standard was both of those things, and its demise would have been bad news even if they were all it did. But it is tragic news because the magazine did so much more.

It was, simply put, a writer’s magazine, defined by the distinct intelligences of the extraordinary people in its orbit. From its earliest days, in the mid-1990s, it was home to a strange and wonderful blend of gloriously middlebrow cultural criticism, unabashed idealism about America, seasoned realism about politics, and a sharp yet always somehow sympathetic disdain for the ridiculous humanity of the men and women who populate the upper echelons of our political, cultural, professional and other elite institutions.

This blend of attitudes was practically embodied in the permanent sly half-smile of its longtime editor in chief, Bill Kristol. The Standard always had something of Bill’s personality—steeped in political philosophy and ready to quote the great romantic poets on a dime but deeply immersed in the minutia of the political moment, open to crazy ideas, always speaking precisely half in jest, and somehow friends with practically everyone.

But though it was broadly overarched by something of this personality, the Standard’s great strength was that it mixed the strong, distinct voices of its stable of in-house writers—that it brought in great people and let them be great. From the elitist anti-elitism of David Brooks’s brilliant cultural writing in its early days through the sharp young-fogey heterodoxy of Matt Continetti’s political writing in its middle age to the extraordinary wealth of analytic, literary, and reporting talent of its last several years (Mark Hemingway, John McCormack, Michael Warren, Alice Lloyd, and on and on), the Standard has been an incredible incubator of great writing.

But it has been all the more incredible for the voices that have defined it most throughout that span. Christopher Caldwell has been an unmatched prophet of our post-cold-war woes. John Podhoretz is the answer you should offer to anyone who wonders just exactly what a critic does that’s worth a damn. Matt Labash knows that real comedy is deeper than tragedy. Jon Last can always spot the permanent in the ephemeral. Andy Ferguson is what would have happened if Mark Twain had time-traveled to the 21st century and become the nicest guy you know.

I could go on. I should, really, because there are lots of other extraordinary writers in that stable. The Standard was always a good venue for outside writers too. They were great spotters of talent (though they let me on to their pages pretty frequently, so their judgment wasn’t perfect). But it was the in-house crew that really set the tone and made it something special.

It’s not a coincidence that a lot of the best and most enduring of their writing was in the back of the magazine, in that fantastic books and culture section. Long, discursive essays on old books and new ideas, on faith and philosophy, on culture and technology. Like NR, and like every great magazine, the Standard understood that politics is downstream of culture—for good and for bad. And that back of the book has grown even deeper than ever lately, which makes it even harder to see the Standard go.

Look, these are friends of mine. And they’re awfully decent people who have been treated far less well than they deserve. So I’m not objective. But I challenge you to immerse yourself in the archives of The Weekly Standard and come out objective—or anything other than sad to see it end and angry that it had to.

“A magazine, when properly conducted, is the nursery of genius,” Tom Paine said two and a half centuries ago. And the Standard offered proof. This grateful reader gives his thanks.

— Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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