In Search of Right-Wing Gonzo

March 26, 2009

Multiple Pages

or Why Culture11 Sucked So Bad.

Bob Barr was eating a chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream cone from Dairy Queen. I was driving him to Raleigh-Durham International Airport after his appearance at the North Carolina Libertarian Party state conference in Burlington.

It was April 2008, and Barr’s entry into the LP presidential contest had made the former Republican congressman from Georgia the odds-on favorite for the nomination—at least as far as major news organizations seemed to know. The mainstream press had its storyline clear: The disillusioned conservative who had once spearheaded the impeachment of President Clinton would get the Libertarian nomination and, by peeling away votes from Republican candidate John McCain in key “swing” states, would make a decisive difference to help elect a Democrat in November.

From McCain

“Come November, Barr conceivably could be to John McCain what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore in 2000 – ruinous.”
~George F. Will, Newsweek, April 21, 2008

That scenario ultimately didn’t work out, for several reasons that would take too long to explain here, but it does have something to do with why I was driving across North Carolina that Saturday afternoon last April while a former member of the House Judiciary Committee ate a Dairy Queen ice cream cone in the passenger seat of my KIA Optima. What I knew—and what most mainstream reporters seemed not to grasp in April 2008—was that the biggest obstacle to their “Bob Barr the Right-Wing Spoiler” scenario was the Libertarian Party.

Barr had only joined the party two years earlier. He was viewed skeptically by many long-time Libertarian activists, and his belated entry into the LP presidential contest angered his several rivals for the nomination, some of whom had been campaigning for two years. Barr strategist Stephen Gordon had done a phone survey of delegates to the party’s national convention in Denver and, while the numbers were encouraging, it was certainly no lead-pipe cinch. So Barr had come to woo the North Carolina LP gathered at a La Quinta Inn near the Interstate 40 off-ramp in Burlington.

Get close to your sources. If there is one piece of advice I would give to any reporter trying to get ahead in the news business, that’s it. Stop worrying about that objective “ethical” bullshit, where the job of the reporter is to be an aloof adversary playing “gotcha” with the people whose words and actions constitute news. Instead, try to penetrate their comfort zone, gain their trust, and show them you’re smart enough not to report everything you hear. You’ll get more good stuff that way.

So when, as the North Carolina LP gathering was winding down, I overheard Gordon discussing with other Barr supporters how they were going to get the former congressman to the airport, I didn’t hesitate: “I’ll give him a ride.” It was a 40-minute drive out of my way, but there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to spend that much time alone with the candidate who might just play a pivotal role in the election. Plus, when he’s truly off the record—as he was with me on our ride to the airport last spring—Barr is a helluva funny guy. And he bought me an ice cream, too.

There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bullshit, but because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for.”
~Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72

She is a slender honey blonde with brown eyes full of . . . it is “innocence”? “Vulnerability”? There must be a word that captures exactly the quality of Anita Thompson’s eyes, but I’m on deadline and don’t have time to look for it right now. Whatever the word, Anita is altogether beautiful, and meeting the widow of the legendary gonzo journalist was one of the highlights of my career in the news business.

Olsson’s Books in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood has gone out of business since that day in September 2007 when Anita came to do a book-signing event for The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Seeing her mission as saving her late husband’s legacy from academics and other intellectual elitists, Anita told the audience, “He was not writing for professors, he was writing for his people.”

He was also writing for money. Anyone who has read The Proud Highway, a collection of his letters from 1955-67 published in 1997, knows that Thompson spent the early years of his career bouncing from job to job, eking out a meager living as a freelancer. His original ambition was to be a novelist like his heroes F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, but that didn’t work out, and so Thompson was always trying to hustle up another assignment, writing outraged letters to editors who rejected his submissions or who failed to pay up on time.

The professors and literary critics who try to understand Thompson fail to grasp the extent to which his most famous works were, at some level, a vengeful discourse on the fate of the freelance journalist. He never forgot those years of impoverished obscurity, when the rejection notices were frequent and the occasional check for $100 or $200 was like manna from heaven. He blamed his misery on the editors who ran the publications that rejected him. He denounced them as “Rotarian bastards” who preferred cautiously mediocre writers to those with genuine talent. And he never forgave them. Ever.

The story that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for example, began with Thompson landing a surprise assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 500 motorcycle race in Las Vegas. Apparently, some SI editor had the idea that it would be a clever thing to hire the author of Hell’s Angels to cover this event. (One can imagine that weekly assignment meeting at HQ in New York: “It’s motorcycles, see? Hell’s Angels, get it?”) All Thompson had to do, in return for this expense-paid trip to Vegas and a handsome fee, was to file several hundred words that would accompany the photographic coverage of the race.

For a few months in 1958, however, Thompson had earned $50 a week as a copy boy for Time, and he had apparently spent more than a decade nursing a grudge against the Time-Life publishing empire, of which Sports Illustrated was part. So he talked Time into giving him a cash advance for expenses, bought a bunch of dope, rented a Chevy convertible and drove to Vegas with his radical Chicano buddy Oscar Acosta. Whatever he wrote about the Mint 400 was lunatic gibberish that the editors refused to publish. Yet the magazine was on the hook for his expenses, and Thompson did a double-burn on them. Not only did he run up a massive tab for hotel room service and other expenses, but he used the Vegas trip as the substance for a two-part feature in Rolling Stone, which at that time was a radical counterculture journal 180 degrees out of phase with the Rotarian sensibilities at Time-Life.

Thompson’s sense of journalism as a form of adventurous combat, a blood sport where ripping off a publisher for whom he had no respect and flipping a finger in the face of the Establishment was part of the game—this is what is missed by most of the imitative Gonzo wannabes who aspire to write what they are afraid to live. They crave the acclaim of a great writer, but they live the Rotarian life.

The superficiality of faux-Gonzo annoys the great man’s widow. “A lot of young people are under the assumption that if you do a lot of cocaine and drink a lot of Wild Turkey, you, too, can write like Hunter S. Thompson,” as Anita told the crowd at Olsson’s in September 2007.

It was an opportunity for a healthy retreat from politics for serious and thoughtful conservatives, a chance to sort out who they were and what they wanted to accomplish outside of the glare of party politics. Providing the online meeting place in which they could do it seemed like a great idea to Culture11’s founders, maybe even one that could succeed as a for-profit enterprise. One of those things turned out to be true.”
~Charles Homans, Washington Monthly, March/April 2009

“How would we be different, [Culture11 CEO] David [Kuo] asked, if we had the same writers as everyone else? That was all the permission we needed to become, as David would often say, ‘Rolling Stone in the ’70s.’ We wanted to be the place that found the next Cameron Crowes and Hunter Thompsons.”
~Culture11 managing editor Joe Carter, Jan. 30, 2009

In less than six months of publication, Culture 11 burned through a stack of start-up capital rumored to be north of $1 million. Kuo hired a staff of young writers and ensconced them in a waterfront office in Alexandria, Virginia. And with a few exceptions—like some “conservative case for gay marriage” thumbsuckers that drew approving linkage from Andrew Sullivan – they were ignored by the online world.

“I never even heard of this Culture11 site until I read that it was gone,” said veteran conservative blogger Dan Riehl. “If someone wants to know why it failed, extrapolate that out to other bloggers and web surfers, that was it. Having never seen it, all I can conclude is that it really must have sucked.”

Charles Homan of the liberal Washington Monthly naturally pursues the theme that there is some ideological flaw in conservatism that accounts for the failure of Culture11. “How does a movement that yearns for the values of the past confront a culture that prizes novelty? This was a problem that had bedeviled modern American conservatism since Buckley first inveighed against the Beatles in his syndicated column,” Homan writes, attempting to expand on an idea expressed by former Culture11 political editor James Poulos.

Homan has got it all wrong. The problem at Culture11 was that personnel is policy. Poulos and arts editor Peter Suderman were the two writers of indisputable merit at Culture11, but Poulos was probably misplaced on the politics beat. Launching their project in the middle of a presidential election year, why didn’t Culture11 have had an honest-to-goodness political reporter on their staff? The guy they needed to hire was David Weigel, who now writes mainly for The Washington Independent and who, for my money, is the best young political reporter in D.C. (At a conference last Tuesday in Washington where Grover Norquist announced that Sen. Arlen Specter would vote against cloture on the Big Labor-backed “card check” legislation, Weigel actually broke the news on his Twitter feed. His tweet got picked up by other journalists, so that The Huffington Post got the big traffic on what was actually Weigel’s story. The guy is tough to beat.)

Yet it wasn’t so much the staffing of Culture11 that was the problem, as it was the fateful decision to entrust the project to David Kuo. Nothing in his biography suggested he was qualified for the job, and Carter’s reference to Kuo’s invocation of “Rolling Stone in the’70s” caused me to remark: “Ponder the yawning chasm between David Kuo and ‘the next Cameron Crowes and Hunter Thompsons.’ It’s as if one day Kenny G announced he was looking for ‘the next Ramones.’ ”

Before Culture11 launched, I was solicited for a contribution by one of their staffers, who said in an e-mail their intent was to offer “irresistibly interesting perspectives on life in America from pop culture to politics, from faith to family.” This sounded interesting, but three days later, I saw in The New Republic that Kuo was in charge of the project, and replied to the staffer that under no circumstance would I have anything to do with any project involving Kuo.

It was the principle of the thing, as Hunter S. Thompson would have instantly recognized. I’d read Kuo’s book, Tempting Faith, in which he intended to expose the Bush administration as faithless to its religious conservative allies. In the process, however, Kuo exposed himself as a second-rate mediocrity, the kind of worthless small-timer who couldn’t make a profit on the snow-cone concession in Hell.

Kuo’s decision to hire a staff to report to a brick-and-mortar office was a foolish blunder. In case any Taki’s Magazine readers don’t realize it, the office from which Richard Spencer works is wherever he happens to log onto the Internet and access the software. He’s the only “staff,” and the rest of the contributors are paid a piece-rate. Whether or not the total output could be called “irresistibly interesting perspectives,” the total traffic exceeds anything Culture11 ever mustered, and for a fraction of the price.

Mainstream publications give our insights insufficient due, hence the rise of right-of-center outlets. But those publications rarely influence the apolitical, centrists, or liberals, for they are funded by, produced for, and read by those already sympathetic to the right—and mostly ignored by everyone else. Escaping this ghetto requires understanding why the media slants left. Contra the least-thoughtful conservative critics, there isn’t any elite liberal conspiracy at work. Bias creeps in largely because the narrative conventions of journalism are poor at capturing basic conservative and libertarian truths.”
~Conor Friedersdorf, 2008

“Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”
~The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Spare me your “insufficients,” your “hences,” and your “narrative conventions,” Mr. Friedersdorf. The problem with conservative journalism is that it is not as ruthless as the free-market economy that conservatives are supposed to favor. There are too many easy 501(c)3 sinecures that attract lazy poseurs who think that subscribing to a certain set of ideological principles entitles them to full-time employment and praise from all their second-rate buddies sucking on the teats of The Movement. Hustling to meet a deadline, trying to score a scoop—that’s for the lowly proles, says the arrogant young intellectual, who covets praise from “serious and thoughtful conservatives.”

To Hell with that. I’ve got ties older than you, kid.

Most of my experience has been in sportswriting, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews. I can work twenty-five hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations. I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.
~Hunter S. Thompson, Oct. 1, 1958, letter seeking employment at the Vancouver Sun

“Hey, Richard, I need to talk to you about getting paid, man.”

“Well, I’m in Montana now, Stacy, but how much do you need?”

So I explained that I was at the county office to deal with the shut-off notice on our water bill. The question of how much I was due was discussed, and I confessed that I wasn’t exactly sure whether it was a lower or a higher amount.

“Just cut the check for [the higher amount], and if it turns out it’s more than I’m due, you know I’m good for it.” Paid my water bill and headed down to D.C., where I eventually found myself hanging out with – of all people – former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe. (Get close to your sources, right?)

From McCain

These young wannabes can’t write gonzo because they’re too cowardly to live gonzo. They want to do their internships and their fellowships and sit on seminar panels while they suck the milk from the non-profit teat. God forbid they should ever actually have to work.

Shortly after the Hindenburg-at-Lakehurst implosion of Culture11, at a cocktail reception, I was talking to another Washington writer, explaining how I didn’t get involved because I saw the project as doomed from the start. My friend said, “Dude, you should have taken the money. They paid me [impressive sum in Internet journalism] for 700 words.”

Hmmm. Yeah, but if I die tomorrow, at least my friends can say, “He never worked for David Kuo.”

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