Rummaging around the other evening in a box of magazines and newspaper clippings with my byline, I stumbled upon the November 1975 issue of a journal called the Alternative: An American Spectator. Mindful, as always, of capricious mortality, I have lately been subtracting from the volume of paper my family will inherit, and was briefly discouraged by the several large containers of printed matter in my basement. In the course of tossing out duplicates, however, I noticed that I had saved a half-dozen copies of that issue.
With some reason. The Alternative changed its name to the American Spectator two years later and is still publishing. But that issue represented an early milestone for me. I had grown up in a decidedly left-wing household, had once drafted speeches for the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and as a journalist had worked for what is now called the mainstream media (Reuters, U.S. News & World Report, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, etc.). Indeed, in 1975, I was writing about books and television for Commonweal and was on the staff of the New Republic. But that essay in the Alternative—the cover story, in fact (see illustration)—was my debut on the opposing side of opinion journalism.
Not to worry: This is not an account of my pilgrimage from left to right, which was a protracted affair and, as is often the case in these matters, a complicated story. But I do remember a furtive sense, at the time, of homecoming—or, perhaps more accurately, of taking a stand on principle. My estrangement from the faith of my fathers—and mother, who was a Democratic lawyer-politician—had a very long gestation, and I hesitated to cross the floor. But from adolescence onward, I had grown uncomfortable on the left, and was surprised and disconcerted by the ease with which I slipped, by stages over the next few years, into apostasy.
In fact, I can very nearly pinpoint the moment. In 1978 I was invited to an American Spectator reception at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington in honor of the conservative journalist John Chamberlain (1903-1995). I was no particular admirer of Chamberlain; but I knew of his work at the old New York Herald Tribune, owned a copy of Farewell to Reform (1932), his critique of progressivism, and was interested in seeing a historic personage. This was not the first Spectator gathering I had ever joined, and of course it was a lively affair, presided over by the Alternative’s ebullient founder-editor R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. But the only conversation I remember from that evening was with a tall, bespectacled Southerner, then living in Greensboro, North Carolina, whose name I recognized from his Spectator writings—Terry Eastland—and with whom I seemed to have friends in common, including my future wife. At any rate, he remembered my first Alternative piece—a youthful excoriation of a Washington Post feature writer named Sally Quinn, later Mrs. Benjamin Bradlee—and laughed politely at my jokes.
Nearly forty years later, it is amusing to put this encounter in perspective. The same Terry Eastland is now an executive editor of The Weekly Standard, whose offices are a two-minute walk from the Mayflower ballroom; and examining the 1975 Alternative masthead, I find one William Kristol is listed as a senior editor.
As for myself, during the next three decades, I remained firmly planted in the aforementioned mainstream media. I hung on at the New Republic but continued to contribute to the Spectator and other like-minded magazines. In due course I found a certain success—awkward but rewarding—as resident conservative at various newspapers. This was, in its way, an enviable sinecure: Especially during the Reagan years, institutions like the Los Angeles Times found it expedient to employ a single writer or editor who dissented from the orthodox editorial-page faith. I wrote a syndicated column, as well, and, positioned as I was on the political center-right, was both critic and beneficiary of affirmative action.
Still, toiling in the vineyards of American journalism, such contrarian status could be lonely. My newsroom colleagues at the Lexington Herald once petitioned the editor to have me rebuked; on the pavement alongside the Providence Journal I was guillotined in effigy—although not by colleagues, I hasten to add. There was a famous meeting of “senior writers” at the Los Angeles Times where one well-known reporter, overcome by the horror of my biweekly op-ed columns, burst into tears of shame and reproof. I fought rear-guard actions on Pulitzer juries and led a party of one in the American Society of Newspaper Editors.