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Murdoch launches a magazine for the right

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- In this season of Republican triumphalism, does Washington really need a new voice trumpeting the supremacy of political conservatism?

Bill Kristol, a successful Republican political strategist, believes it does. So does Fred Barnes, an esteemed journalist and commentator of the right. Today they introduce that new voice, The Standard, a weekly magazine of conservative thought and ideas.

They are the principals. But somebody else is involved, another man of the right who's paying for it all, the sotto voice behind the new voice.

It's Rupert Murdoch, America's own Citizen Kane. And Britain's. And Australia's. In Britain, the 63-year-old Mr. Murdoch owns the Times of London, The Sunday Times and the lowbrow but savagely political Sun. But here Mr. Murdoch's holdings, which include the New York Post, TV Guide, various publishing houses and the Fox TV network, are decidedly non-political.

With The Standard, he enters the Washington arena, where he already wields plenty of influence with the Republican-dominated Congress. Earlier this year, Congress gave him a multi-million-dollar tax break on the sale of two TV stations to a minority-owned corporation.

Mr. Murdoch's relationship with House Speaker Newt Gingrich is under scrutiny by the House Ethics Committee because of a $4.5 million book deal the speaker was offered by one of Mr. Murdoch's companies, HarperCollins. Mr. Gingrich gave up the lucrative advance, but will still make millions from his first book, "To Renew America."

The question The Standard provokes, of course, is: What does Rupert Murdoch want?

"He wants what he wants everywhere else, a respectability, power," says Andrew Sullivan, editor of The New Republic, one of the new magazine's competitors. "I think this is one way he hopes to get it, by intellectual credibility instead of just the power of money."

"He wants a presence here," says Mr. Barnes, the executive editor. "I'm not sure he's looking for enhanced authority in Washington, or just a voice."

So far Mr. Murdoch has put up only the $3 million needed to get the magazine through its first year, to cover its production costs, mailing, salaries for its 25 staff members, the rent on the new suite of offices in Washington, on 17th Street, comfortably close to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, upstairs.

How much say will he have over the The Standard's content? Though Mr. Murdoch typically maintains a tight grasp on his other publications, Mr. Kristol, the editor and publisher of The Standard, says he has been assured total editorial control. And the magazine, he promises, "won't be doing any puff pieces for the Republican Congress."

The first issue, he hopes, will make that point clear. It carries an essay by conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer which respectfully dismisses Mr. Gingrich's Utopian embrace of digital technology as elaborated in "To Renew America." Another, by author David Frum, criticizes the new Republican Congress for losing enthusiasm for its own agenda.

The whole package, he says, will send the message that, despite its publisher's affinity for Republicans, and despite the financing of Mr. Murdoch, The Standard is nobody's poodle.

An air of newness

The walls are still wet with paint at the new offices of The Standard; the desks are without clutter.

If there is any mystery about the politically radical inclinations of the people running around in here, the flag on the wall with its colonial circle of stars should clear it up, or the words of the national anthem that frame it. Then there is the glass elephant candy jar on the receptionist's desk, a clue that you are in a Republican theme park.

At the center of it all is Bill Kristol, a short man with pink skin as fresh as the new paint in the place. He's 42 and smiles a lot, seemingly devoid of the fever ideologues often radiate. He is not glib, nor even persuasive, and seems almost tentative for a man with a formidable reputation as GOP political strategist.

His now defunct political action group, Project for a Republican Future, helped plot the successful Republican resistance to President Clinton's health-care reform plan in 1994, a strategy formulated in the line: "There is no health-care crisis."

He is the son of Irving Kristol, the co-editor of The Public Interest who began his intellectual life as a liberal then moved rightward. The senior Kristol, along with a number of other liberal intellectuals, such as Norman Podhoretz, retired editor of Commentary magazine, Nathan Glazer, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, clumped together in the 1970s into a powerful nucleus of neo-conservatives. (John Podhoretz, a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan and son of Norman, is deputy editor.)

Though Mr. Kristol enjoys the credibility among Republicans that the Oracle of Delphi had among Greeks, his history in Washington doesn't suggest an unerring instinct for picking winners. He began here as William Bennett's chief of staff. Mr. Bennett, Ronald Reagan's secretary of education, is said to harbor presidential ambitions, which not many people expect will be satisfied.

In 1988, Mr. Kristol guided Alan Keyes' campaign for one of Maryland's seats in the U.S. Senate. The candidate got clobbered.

After the Keyes debacle Mr. Kristol signed on with Vice President Dan Quayle and eventually became his chief of staff. It was like hitching his wagon to a falling star.

Mr. Kristol, who earned a doctorate at Harvard in political philosophy and then taught that subject at the University of Pennsylvania, has long felt that conservatives needed their own magazine, something better located than The National Review and with more intellectual gloss than The American Spectator.

The right time

This is the time, he believes. A conservative era is in full flower. "The '94 election showed that a political era had ended, that the New Deal, Great Society era was over," he said, though he admits the new tide from the right might not be as ineluctable as many conservatives like to believe.

He is reminded of the faltering of Reaganism, the reconquest of the White House by the Democrats, that nothing in politics is inevitable.

"Conservatives could mess up," he says, which is why more debate and discussion is needed. Which is why The Standard is needed.

Mr. Kristol says he is not certain that bringing out a conservative political magazine at a time of Republican ascendancy is a good thing. "In some ways it is easier to have a good magazine in opposition. One of the challenges we have to face is not to become apologists for those who are winning."

For Fred Barnes, the quintessential Washington political journalist, the moment has come, and The Standard his instrument for seizing it. He is amazed that no conservative weekly magazine is available to the public, nothing like The Standard.

The American Spectator is a monthly, and Mr. Barnes believes this precludes it from closely monitoring the continuing debate thrown up by the Republican resurgence. The National Review is in New York and would probably benefit from a shooter of Geritol.

For Mr. Barnes, "the bread and butter of a conservative magazine that wants to be taken seriously has to be based in Washington. It has to be weekly. The cycle is weekly if you are a magazine, if you want to be reflecting this new conservative era, if you want to be criticizing, cajoling, advancing it, you have to be in Washington."

The problem with weeklies

R. Emmett Tyrell, the editor of The American Spectator, disagrees: "Weeklies have a problem. If you don't get to them the first day or so, they are tired. People don't read them later in the week."

They are also, he says, intellectually weaker than monthlies, less reflective.

Mr. Barnes has been around a long time. He spent 10 years at The New Republic, before that with the Baltimore Sun's Washington Bureau. Before that he was at the Washington Star. Perhaps more than the others occupying these pristine offices on 17th Street, he appreciates the cyclical nature of politics in America and knows that nothing comes easy.

"I'm convinced this is a magazine conservatives will want to get," he says. "But we are going to have to work hard to make it a magazine non-conservatives will want."

He's also aware that few, if any, opinion/commentary magazines make money. But he adds, "We did not sell the idea to Murdoch on the basis of its profitability."

Meanwhile, in New York, the Murdoch organization expresses happier expectations. Richard Hawkes, executive vice president of News America Corp., says: "Like any business, our expectation is that it will make money. . . . We expect to break even in a few years."

Asked how they expect to defeat such a historical trend of non-profitability for opinion magazines, Mr. Hawkes replied: "We like to believe we're smarter than everybody else."

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