In 2002, I was a recent graduate of the University of Houston’s law school and had previously received a master’s degree in public administration from the highly regarded program at the University of Georgia. In my eagerness to do something like Christian political advocacy, I found a job with the Georgia Family Council in Atlanta.
Under the tutelage of one of the best guys in the conservative movement, Randy Hicks, I was busy learning how to influence things at a big state capitol, but I was terribly frustrated. It wasn’t the work so much as my own sense that I had things to say and no way to get the ideas out into the culture. I was stymied.
That same period was probably the low point for The American Spectator (TAS). They were trying to come back from the failed attempt by George Gilder to make the magazine into a slick new conservative version of Forbes + Wired. After reading a piece at the website that got some fact wrong about the late Paul Coverdell, I emailed the editor and apparently caught Wlady Pleszcyznki at his desk. We traded a few messages and somehow I ended up sending him a piece I’d written. That was the beginning of a whole new way of life for me. Over the next few years, I wrote something like 30 pieces for the website and had a couple published in the magazine. Without the start the Spectator gave me, I don’t know that I would have had any of the wonderful opportunities that have followed in the years since. For example, I seriously doubt that I would have ever written The End of Secularism or the forthcoming Political Thought: A Student’s Guide without the encouragement toward writing that TAS provided. The magazine prides itself on launching careers. It did so with me.
I still remember that the first couple of checks (or at least the first ones I remember) I received from TAS were signed by Al Regnery, the son of Henry Regnery who founded the legendary conservative publishing company. He appeared to be the man chosen to rescue the publication from its precipitous fall after hitting a giant peak during the Clinton years. I know very little of the internal dynamics of The American Spectator, but it seemed to me that it could only be good to have a man like Al Regnery on board. Recently, I heard Regnery is leaving after losing some sort of argument with the magazine’s board. The news has stimulated memories.
For years after becoming a regular freelance contributor, I received invitations to attend annual pig roasts put on by the magazine. In either 2008 or 2009, I finally resolved to go. The event was held at a property owned by Regnery somewhere out in the sticks of Virginia.
My expectations ahead of the event were all wrong. For example, I don’t know if the Regnery’s are wealthy, but I assumed so based on the many big sellers the company has published. Accordingly, I expected a mansion of some kind with rolling green hills and a manicured lawn. I thought I would see people dressed very nicely and having witty conversations. Instead, I struggled to find the property in the backwoods. When I finally did, I realized I would need to figure out the parking situation and tucked my rental car into some shady alcove. I walked up to a ramshackle structure where a grizzled man sat upon a white bucket. His hair was unruly. His face was unshaven. He wore a weathered aqua knit shirt, old shorts, and a pair of clogs of some kind. Could it be? Was it . . .? “I’m Al Regnery,” he said, as he extended his hand. “I’m Hunter Baker,” I replied and began to explain my identity. “I know who you are,” he said, which pleased me.
As usual with parties, I was on-time which meant that I was very early. I made small talk with two men roasting a large pig over a fire as people slowly began to arrive. The scene was very rustic. Friends showed up and we chatted. It took me nearly an hour to stop flinching at the nearly continuous sound of gunfire. The real action at the roast centered on the guests trying out a variety of firearms. I’m a good conservative, but my interest in the second amendment of the constitution has typically been more a point of principle (a way of backing up the social contract) than a way of life.
By that time, my contributions to TAS were much diminished. Part of it was that I became less interested in political pugilism and more interested in a level of abstraction a little higher than immediate political disputes. Of course, that may have been a self-defensive reaction to the Bush presidency’s miserable entanglement with Iraq and subsequent loss of majorities in both houses of Congress.
The Regnery story indicates that he had different ideas about the necessary direction of the magazine than did the editorial staff and the board. I don’t know what his ideas were, but it is a terribly difficult time to be in the business of punditry. The American Spectator was the kind of publication you could read with delicious pleasure on a Sunday afternoon. It featured witty and satirical conservative opinion pieces. Fifteen years ago, such magazines were unusual finds. People could remember when they first got their hands on a National Review or an American Spectator. Discovering them was like joining a club. How I recall my own thrill at reading NR many years ago or in finding First Things in the mid-1990’s.
But now, there is no shortage of conservative opinion on the web. It can be found in many places and can be further broken down into many of varieties of conservatism, each designed to please a particular niche. Best of all (for readers, at least), it is generally free. National Review was quicker to master the internet space (in large part due to Jonah Goldberg’s influence and personallity), while The American Spectator struggled to be reborn as a going concern at the beginning of the millennium. TAS was behind. And while it had had a Tyrrell as its own sort of Buckley in the print period, it never had a Goldberg.
I don’t know what the future holds for TAS or for Regnery, but I wish them both well and am thankful for the opportunities they have given me. (Indeed, I still contribute the occasional blog item.) We need publications of TAS’s type, especially if they are able to bring together people of insight, talent, and influence. The odds of making a profit or covering the costs with subscription or ad fees are long, but the chances of making a positive contribution to the broader culture are significant.