US right hoists its Standard

Conservatives have captured Washington and a new weekly magazine, backed by Murdoch, will make the point. Daniel Jeffreys reports

In the Washington of Newt Gingrich, 42-year-old Bill Kristol is an aristocrat. Impeccably well connected, he's respected throughout the Republican hierarchy. Since 1975 he's been a Washington insider - chief policy adviser to Ronald Reagan's education secretary, chief of staff to former Vice-President Dan Quayle. Maybe that's why Rupert Murdoch gave him $4m to start a new weekly magazine. The Standard made its debut yesterday with Newt Gingrich toting a machine-gun on its cover.

Last week Kristol was besieged in his office by the US press. The US has not had a new weekly conservative political magazine for four decades. The Standard will try to define a new generation of conservative thought and Washington has been abuzz about its launch for three months. That's why Kristol has to deal with 15 photographers before we can talk. Later he expresses his astonishment. "I suppose it just proves that Washington is ours now; the right is the focus of interest."

Kristol seems an unlikely media hero. A bookish-looking man in a suit, he's indistinguishable from so many other fortysomething Republicans who now clutter Washington's power eateries. Despite that, when Murdoch decided his empire needed a political weekly Bill Kristol got the job. "Actually we took the idea to Rupert," says Kristol. "That's true," says deputy editor John Podhoretz, former speechwriter for George Bush. "We were having coffee in New York, at the Utopia on Amsterdam Avenue. It was before last November's Republican landslide. We sensed a big victory was coming and we wanted a slice of the action."

The action moved from a New York greasy spoon to a silver service dinner in Beverly Hills where Murdoch keeps a mansion. That was where Kristol sealed the deal. "The first thing Rupert said was that we could have editorial independence," he says. "I believe he means that and so far we've heard little from him. He's been busy and so have we."

The Standard has set itself a tough job. It wants to reach politicians, journalists and academics - the type of people who usually avoid Murdoch tabloids such as the New York Post - without losing too much money, although it's doubtful that the Murdoch empire would be bothered by the kind of losses the Standard may make, given its hoped-for political influence. "We will be the interpreter, the critic, the conscience and the ideological promoter of the new conservative era," boasts Podhoretz. All this for three bucks an issue.

Putting the new magazine together, Kristol says, has "not been without its travails". Insiders confirm that there have been some fierce arguments about the choice of staff and the magazine's style. Some say they are disappointed that the format is so staid. "The Standard looks like a snappier version of the Spectator and there will be some cartoons," says Kristol. "We're not trying to be like Vanity Fair or anything glossy."

Kristol says what makes the new magazine unusual is its commitment to ideas. Its senior editors insist that the Standard will criticise Republicans as well as attack the Democrats. The first edition keeps this promise with a review condemning much of To Renew America, the book by the House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as "nonsense on stilts", and a leader by Kristol that dissects Bob Dole's many weaknesses and urges the retired Gulf war General Colin Powell to declare his interest in the presidency. Articles such as this, Kristol argues, prove his independence from Murdoch. "If Murdoch were simply acting to maximise profit, he would have shied away from a controversial magazine like this because it could actually hurt his relations with some politicians," says Kristol. "We've made it clear we are going to be critical and that we'll go after Republicans, too."

Each week, Kristol says, the Standard will try to be politically provocative, and senior Republicans believe the tactic will soon make the magazine indispensable. "This first issue has already made people take notice; they realise it has a power," says Senator Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Rupert Murdoch told the New York Times in June that he thought the Standard would be "fun". "We don't think it'll lose much. For a company our size, I suppose it will be a bit of a hobby. But I think it will be an important voice."

In other parts of the launch edition Standard columnists take aim at lesbians, gays, Aids sufferers and black activists. Two articles are intended to be comic but read more like a bank manager making a joke. But, says Kristol, the Standard cannot survive on laughs anyway. "We all have our ears to the ground and our strength will be the depth of our reporting. Established Washington journalists have got a little lazy - they were used to Washington working a certain way, but now that's all changed." By this he means that the Democratic domination of Congress for 40 years left Washington's mostly liberal journalists with few road maps when the place became Republican in November 1994.

Although Murdoch's patronage of the Standard is unlikely to make him much cash, it will place him in a role he has often enjoyed. Like the New York Post, which has grown stridently conservative, it will give him a political forum in one of the media capitals of the world. That's worth $4m of anybody's money.

The Standard will have tough competition. The American Spectator has established itself as the new favourite of conservatives and now has a circulation of 250,000. Kristol has poached some of the Spectator's staff to help his launch. The National Review has sales of 220,000 and has always appealed to conservative intellectuals. Then there's Public Interest, run by Irving Kristol, Bill's father - but then nobody said Washington wasn't a tight-knit community.

To prosper, the Standard will have, as Kristol promises, to be controversial. "A non-partisan, non-ideological political magazine is a non-selling magazine," says Robert Lichter, director of the Centre for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "The people who want to read about politics don't want high-minded bromides, they want red meat."

Kristol and Murdoch hope the magazine will build a circulation of 100,000 within two years - that is, by the time America has re-elected Bill Clinton or delivered the White House to the Republicans. It should be an interesting ride. When liberals were ascendent their magazines looked for ways to break down barriers of sex and race. Kristol and Murdoch want to put some barriers back up; they say their new magazine will show how the liberalism of the past has left America without a clear set of values.

If the launch of the Standard means anything, it is that the right believes its new dominance in American politics will last. "Oh yes, this is about a long-term agenda," says Kristol, sounding just a little smug. "That's why we want to encourage young writers. We are training a new generation of Republican leadership and it's one that will have enormous power. We chose the Standard as the name because this will be an activist magazine. I'll be satisfied if it sells well, but I'll only be happy if it helps to change people's minds."

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