Collywobbles from the Crocodile

September 14, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The first issue of the Standard, a political weekly magazine with the requisite deep-pockets sugar daddy and a stable of pedigreed conservative writers, appeared in mailboxes this week promising to be the new voice for the new era.

No doubt some found this promise appealing, but it had seemed to me that the new era had entirely too many voices already, most of them all speaking at once. And I would have thought that Washington, where the Standard is published, needs another political magazine about as much as it needs another law firm.

But even with these misgivings I became a charter subscriber, and have to report that on the basis of this initial effort, the new arrival looks lively and not at all redundant. It seems to have some bite, and has already given much of official Washington the nervous collywobbles.

This is partly because of its political philosophy, considered bizarre in the capital but mainstream in most communities not served by the Washington subway system, and partly because it is being underwritten by Rupert Murdoch, the fearsome Australian media crocodile. Democratic politicians who have spent decades hammering Mr. Murdoch are concerned that the Standard will afford him a new way to hammer back.

Whatever his political objectives, however, Mr. Murdoch does seem to have an obsession with profit. He likes his publications to make money, which journals of opinion seldom do, and there's no guarantee he'll make up the deficits for this one forever. The editors -- who include the redoubtable Fred Barnes, formerly of The Sun -- must feel under some pressure to get their product established quickly.

One question raised by the birth of the Standard is whether it can sustain the demands of weekly publication, even in what appears to be a bull market for conservative commentary. Its chief conservative competitors seem to be flourishing, but they come out either monthly (the American Spectator) or biweekly (National Review).

Among the major opinion magazines, only the New Republic publishes every week. This has less to do with its philosophy, which is a sort of eccentric and cranky liberalism, than because its core constituency consists of people in government and academia who have plenty of time on their hands for reading magazines. Conservatives are more likely to have serious jobs ,, and thus less surplus time.

In fact, the Standard's ultimate undoing may come about because it is so patently a product of ''conservative'' Washington policy wonks, who dress and behave and in some cases even think just like the ''liberal'' ones who came to town with Bill Clinton.

An amusing and informal column in the inaugural issue by deputy editor John Podhoretz is a perfect example. Mr. Podhoretz despairs that his father (Norman, the long-time Commentary editor) has, late in life, taken up a hobby -- thus shocking his son, who had grown up believing that truly literate people have no use for hobbies because there is too much to read.

For someone presumably in tune with the philosophical revolution that swept the country last year, this self-description seems astonishingly limp; perhaps we've caught a revealing glimpse of a generic Washington wonk disguised by a big new conservative hat. Much of the appeal of National Review and the American Spectator, by contrast, has been that they, like Ronald Reagan, seem to speak above all as capital outsiders.

But heck, the tone of the Podhoretz column is tongue-in-cheek, not arrogant. The new guys deserve a chance, and their first issue is an excellent one.

There's a lot of inside-baseball stuff about politics, including the usual lucid and informed reportage of Fred Barnes; a cautious and thoroughly hedged prediction by editor William Kristol that Colin Powell will be the Republican presidential nominee next year; and a rather tart retrospective on the career of the late William Kunstler.

The arts pages offer Lynne Cheney on how government grants created the career of Larry Clark, director of the trendy child-porn film ''Kids;'' an examination of political correctness in the pages of Sports Illustrated; and a wonderful deadpan collection of quotes from woozy celebrities explaining why they signed a New York Times ad calling for a new trial for the convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. (Gloria Steinem: ''You know, I cannot right now remember the circumstances, but I think anyone who remembered them would reach the same conclusion.'')

And for Baltimoreans especially, there's the piece about Orioles owner Peter Angelos that I never saw in the newspapers and always wondered why -- a detailed explanation of how he cashed in on the asbestos litigation that made him so rich, how he came to hire state Senators Norman Stone and John Pica, and how they then sponsored special-interest legislation on his behalf.

With all that, the Standard is off to a good start; even illiterate hobbyists should find this issue worth its $2.95 cover price. If it can keep up this pace for another 49 issues, it will have had quite a first year.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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