Inside Game?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Long-time supporters of National Review, the venerable conservative publication founded by the late William F. Buckley, have grown increasingly worried the outlet is becoming the house organ of the Republican establishment. This has been a long time coming, but concerns — expressed both publicly and privately — reached a fever pitch when the magazine surprised even close NR insiders by publishing what can only be described as an unusual editorial.

Officially titled “Winnowing the Field” (the headline on National Review Online’s front page was simply: “Against Gingrich”), the December 14 editorial bashed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but stopped short of explicitly endorsing Mitt Romney (as the magazine did in 2008). It sparked an immediate backlash from observers — some of whom are closely connected to the magazine.

National Review’s Andy McCarthy said it “surprised” him. National Review Online’s editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg wrote, “I don’t see perfectly eye-to-eye with it myself.” And Buckley friend Rush Limbaugh lamented that “National Review used to, indisputably, it was the voice of conservatism … Now, it’s not so much that, as it is the voice of Republicanism….”

Radio host Mark Levin (who contributes to NRO), called it a “hit piece” and asked, “why all but endorse Romney when, in fact, you are going to endorse him in the end?”

A former NR columnist and regular contributor who worked closely with Buckley echoed the sentiment, describing it to me as, “A less than candid attempt to help a guy who accepts Obama’s arguments on the economy and taxing the rich, put Planned Parenthood on a Massachusetts health care board, wants gays in the military, and has a political team with a bunch of unimaginative careerists — like himself.”

National Review contributing editor Larry Kudlow said on his C-NBC show: “I don’t happen to agree with this editorial.” And writing on his Facebook page, Buckley’s nephew, Brent Bozell, said: “National Review’s endorsement of Romney & Huntsman proves only that this is no longer the magazine of William F. Buckley Jr. My uncle would be appalled.”

The fact that dissenting views appeared on NRO is perhaps proof the outlet is still welcoming of diverse opinions. But signs National Review has moved closer to the GOP establishment in recent years are not new. In 2003, then-NR contributing editor David Frum called Pat Buchanan and Bob Novak “unpatriotic” for opposing the war in Iraq. More recently, in 2010, two high-level Republican sources told The Daily Caller’s Jon Ward that the National Review editorial praising House Republicans’ “Pledge to America” had been “prearranged.” Reid Buckley, WFB’s brother, also called NRbeltway snobs.”

But while some critics express a general disappointment with the direction of the publication, others quietly offer a more conspiratorial charge — that National Review’s editorial team is currying favor with the GOP elite.

“This is a magazine that Bill wanted to be for thinkers and writers,” said one former NR columnist, “not three people doing adolescent maneuvers in hopes of making themselves political players.”

In citing “three people,” this source is referencing NR editor Rich Lowry, as well as Kate O’Beirne, and Ramesh Ponnuru. (Ponnuru personally endorsed Romney prior to the controversial editorial, in a column titled, “Romney’s the one.”)

While sources indicate NR did discuss the editorial with some members of the board, National Review publisher Jack Fowler told The Daily Caller, “The decision is made by the editor,” meaning that, at the end of the day, it was Lowry’s call. (Note: Lowry declined to talk with TheDC on the record.)

“The editor of the magazine decides what editorials appear,” Fowler added.

Those who see something sinister in the editorial note that O’Beirne is president of National Review Institute, the organization’s non-profit arm. In 2007, the New York Times reported that, “Mr. Romney and a group of his supporters also contributed a total of about $10,000,” to the Institute. One source — implying something unethical was at play — noted that O’Beirne’s husband’s appointment as White House liaison to the Pentagon was pushed along by their friend Karl Rove.

Most sources who spoke with TheDC were quick to dismiss the conspiracy theories, instead arguing that the magazine has slowly and organically become co-opted by GOP insiders during the Bush years — and that this naturally impacts the editorial decisions made by the publication. For many, though, this was the final straw. “With that editorial, they chose the Bushes over the Reaganites,” said one former NR scribe.

Whether coincidental, or not, NR now finds itself allied with the GOP establishment — an odd place for a conservative publication to be. The Bushes, for example, clearly dislike Gingrich — this goes back to Gingrich’s opposition to the Bush tax hike. The disdain is evidenced by the fact that George H. W. Bush (who recently said of Gingrich, “I’m not his biggest advocate“), former Vice President Dan Quayle, and former Bush Chief of Staff, John Sununu — have all endorsed Romney.

But if the Bush family isn’t fond of Gingrich, they (especially Rove) hate Texas Governor Rick Perry even more. And this was a point of contention to many sources TheDC spoke with. Many found it especially curious that NR’s editorial didn’t just bash Gingrich — it also went out of its way to describe Rick Perry as being unacceptable. To many, it seemed like an odd non sequitur. Perry, after all, is the longest-serving governor in America. His state boasts the best jobs record in the nation. And he was floundering in the polls at the time the editorial was published. He was hardly a threat to anyone.

Clearly Romney is the natural favorite of both the elite conservative intelligentsia — and the GOP establishment, including the Bushes. For example, the Christian Science Monitor reported that “the new pro-Romney PAC and American Crossroads [a Karl Rove-advised 527]  share a key executive” — and the Washington Times noted that “Members of the Republican money machine that powered presidential elections from their time as ‘Rangers’ for George W. Bush are betting almost entirely on Mitt Romney …”

NR’s out-of-the-blue criticism of Texas Gov. Rick Perry — which appeared in the editorial — struck many as a curious occurence. As the popular conservative blog HotAir noted at the time, the Gingrich attacks were, perhaps, understandable, but “Not so persuasive is the idea that we should rule out Perry because he’d supposedly spend ‘much of his time’ as president doing damage control over gaffes. No one seriously believes that…”

Andrew McCarthy wrote that the editorial’s attacks on Perry (and Rep. Michele Bachman) were “simply inexplicable in light of the frivolousness of its reasoning and of the Editors’ embrace of Jon Huntsman, a moderate former Obama-administration official, as a serious contender.”

At the end of the day, the editorial simply left many people scratching their heads, wondering what Bill Buckley would think of his magazine.

NR publisher Jack Fowler believes the editorial was completely consistent with William F. Buckley’s founding motto, “to stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!'” As Fowler told me, “We yelled ‘Stop’ about something.”

… And that something was Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.

Matt K. Lewis