BRIAN LAMB, HOST, CSPAN: Matthew Continetti, why did you write an article for the Weekly Standard with the headline, The Age of Responsibility just a couple of days ago?
MATTHEW CONTINETTI, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, it struck me first when President Obama mentioned it in his inaugural address that what was required of us is a new era of responsibility. But when I look at the headlines, the thing I see most is people acting irresponsibly, not just politicians who are involved in corruption scandals or overspending federal dollars, but business executives who are you know doing their best to bankrupt General Motors, the union bosses who are not giving in to these demands because they have their own interests, the Madoffs who are running away with people’s money, the bankers who overleveraged their institutions and so became too big to fail and then more particularly for me were the cultural figures too.
It was A-Rod I think that got me thinking about this, the fact that he had confessed to using performance enhancing drugs and yet has paid really no substantial price for this. Or Michael Phelps, someone who I, like so many people thrilled to during the Olympics, watching him compete and achieve and then just kind of engaging in skuzzy behavior typical for a young person, maybe, but he’s not just a young person. He’s a role model. There are children’s books that are written about him. Instead he comes off as a character from you know the HBO series, Entourage, someone who’s only interested in pleasure.
So it’s just not the politicians; it was everybody and so I thought someone needed to point that out.
LAMB: Let me start by asking where you’re coming from. Where’s how old are you?
CONTINETTI: I’m 27.
LAMB: Where’s your hometown?
CONTINETTI: Springfield, Virginia, so right outside the D.C. Beltway.
LAMB: And were you born there?
CONTINETTI: I was born in Alexandria, but I was grew up in Springfield.
LAMB: What kind of a family were you born into?
CONTINETTI: Well, my father is a car salesman. My mother is a public school teacher. My brother, he’s a little bit younger than me. He’s he works for Booz Allen, the consultancy.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
CONTINETTI: Columbia University.
LAMB: What’d you study?
CONTINETTI: It’s cause I love it. I thought I was going to be a professor, a teacher. And if I wanted to teach, I wanted to teach history, just because it’s so rich and interesting and also gives you, you know, kind of a universal perspective. If you teach history you also have to know something about periods of literature, art, religion, things like that. But then, the more time I spent in college, the more I realized I might not want to hang around the university for the rest of my life. And so I was writing for the school paper, the Columbia Spectator and enjoying that very much, a political column at first, but I also just enjoyed writing feature stories and then that’s I got into journalism, where you don’t have to be an expert on anything, but you can write about everything.
LAMB: And why did you go to work for The Weekly Standard and when?
CONTINETTI: I went to work for The Weekly Standard in 2003, my first job out of college. It’s been my only job. It was on a fellowship, paid for by a group called the Collegiate Network, for one year to work there as an intern. And at the end of the fellowship, The Weekly Standard hired me on full time. And I wanted to work there primarily because of the writers who wrote for the magazine.
I discovered the magazine in the fall of 2001, right after the 9/11 attacks, which you know affected us in New York, obviously, as they did down here, but very real in my mind and kind of promoted my interest in politics and geopolitics and foreign affairs. So I discovered The Weekly Standard and I fell in love with the writers, people like David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan and of course Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes.
LAMB: Define your politics or if you’re going to put any labels on it, start with a couple for us.
CONTINETTI: Well I am a conservative.
LAMB: Define that first, though. What kind of a conservative?
CONTINETTI: Sure. Well I’m a conservative who is probably less concerned with the size, the overall size of government than most other conservatives. You know people misunderstand the federal government. It’s huge, but most of it is basically just a big ATM, right? Most of our budget goes to paying off interest on our debt, to funding people’s retirement through Social Security, to paying for elderly people’s healthcare through Medicare, Medicaid poor people on Medicaid.
I don’t have unlike a lot of conservatives; I don’t really have much of a problem with any of those things. I think you know old people and their retirement; they deserve to be taken care of. They’ve worked their entire lives. They deserve a break maybe. If anything, I think with those programs what we need to do is figure out how to finance them. And it’s they’re they are on an unsustainable path. There’s no question about that. And so then it becomes well how do we manage them responsibly?
But it’s that last part of the federal budget, the part that I think most conservatives focus on that would make me a conservative too; things like direct payment welfare during the ’90s, those debates. Or the huge regulatory apparatus of the federal government that’s always peaking into people’s lives and raising the barriers to entry in the American economy, making it more difficult to start a business or even more difficult for the federal government to build a road.
I’ve become so incensed during this whole stimulus debate. Everyone wants more roads. I think it’s a good thing to build more roads. I think the government should build more roads. But no one understands that one reason we don’t have that many is because of all the environmental impact procedures and regulations regarding labor and things like that that the government imposes, but that really make these projects delayed, raises the cost of them too high.
So on those things; I’m very much a conservative. On things like Medicare, Social Security, I think I’d have some disagreements with other conservatives.
LAMB: So what high school did you go to in this area?
CONTINETTI: Lake Braddock Secondary School, huge, thousand-plus about 4000-plus students. It was kind of a degree factory. They start you at one end of the building in the seventh grade and six years later you come out the other end of the building with your high school degree.
LAMB: So if I went back to that high school and found some of your friends that were there and said tell me, when you read an article like this and we’re going to go into more detail would you think that that’s the same Matthew Continetti that was here in this high school?
CONTINETTI: Probably. I was maybe a little bit more left of center then and through most of college. I really kind of discovered conservatism in college; about my second year of college.
LAMB: Who introduced you to it?
CONTINETTI: It was a it was a self-discovery. It was actually reading Plato, which everyone at Columbia has to take this core curriculum and part of the core curriculum is kind of a political philosophy course called Contemporary Civilization. And part of that is you read The Republic; Plato’s Republic. I loved that book. And there’s a passage in the book where Socrates debates his interlocutor, this guy, Thrasymachus, about the nature of slavery.
And reading this passage it occurred it to me, when we think of slavery, we think of one person’s or one state’s dominion over another person or a group of people. But as Socrates points out, there’s another version of slavery; it’s internal. People can be slaves to their own appetites, for example. You know you can you can be a drug addict. You can be addicted to food or other things. That type of slavery we don’t talk about and as I thought about it more, it made me understand probably a distinction between conservatives and liberals.
Liberals look at the world and they see basically they’re seeing the eye the world through the eyes of the philosopher Rousseau, who thought we were all born free and great, but society imposed all these things. It made us slaves. But I think when you look at Socrates or you look at some other philosophers you realize that’s not really the case. Men are actually born and women are born with a certain set of appetites they have to overcome. And I think this internal problem is something that conservatives recognize that liberals do not.
LAMB: Do your parents still do the same? Are they still selling cars?
LAMB: Well what’s it like now with the economy the way it is?
CONTINETTI: It’s very tough.
LAMB: What is does your father have a political ideology?
CONTINETTI: I’d say my father is a conservative. My parents weren’t particularly political growing up. I’ve made I think I’ve shaped my own family’s politics a little bit. But I do remember several things about growing up in my in my family. One was we did watch the political affairs shows, programs like the McLaughlin Group or Inside Washington when I was younger. And that really made me interested in public affairs, the Sunday morning shows even, growing up, which is very unusual for an upbringing. And I would watch them with my dad and you know we would talk about them.
And then I also remember conversations when I was very young; my father was very upset about hikes in property taxes. And he would say if you do one thing, don’t raise my property taxes. And so this is a political issue that’s introduced also you know a kind of an anti-tax mentality that I think maybe has stuck with me for a long time.
LAMB: What about your mother? Is she interested in politics?
CONTINETTI: She is, yes, absolutely. As a school teacher you have to be. She likes Barack Obama, so that gives us some fun discussions in the house. I like Barack Obama, too. I like him personally. I think he’s amazing political talent. I think he’s very smart and then also a very good writer. I just happen to disagree with him about basically everything.
LAMB: Let me read just I’m just going to pick a couple paragraphs here and read what you wrote. But before I do, your subhead on this is ”Bill Clinton and Paris Hilton are the Problem; Why Couldn’t David Petraeus and Sully Sullenberger Be the Answer?”
LAMB: Did you write the head?
CONTINETTI: I didn’t write the head, no. But I think it does capture the overall theme of the piece, which is we have all these public figures who have acted irresponsibly. I started the piece since I wanted to make it somewhat concise; I started the piece with the Clinton era, where the President had an affair, he lied about that affair and he never really accepted responsibility for his actions. There was a political price that he paid with impeachment, but personally he still, I think, lives in a sense that he did nothing wrong.
And then you contrast that with public figures. I think people like Captain Sullenberger, for example, do their job responsibly, who don’t you know who do it with a dignity and are common-sense responsible people. I’d like to contrast those figures.
LAMB: Is this article your idea or somebody else’s?
CONTINETTI: It was my idea.
LAMB: And how much time did you have to write it?
CONTINETTI: I wrote that piece in a week. I wrote the original draft in a few days and then I revised it with the help of my editors.
LAMB: I want to ask you, though, who defines responsibility for you? What is a responsible person?
CONTINETTI: Well I a responsible person is someone who lives a dutiful life. And I talk a little bit about bourgeois values in the in the piece. You know things like decorum, civility, fidelity you know paying the bills, raising a family. Of course the Clinton the Clintonite expression, which has become a clichι is you know work hard and play by the rules.
As clichι as that phrase may have become, I think it absolutely describes what a responsible person is. And there are millions of people who behave that way, including some elites, but there are so many others who dominate our public life who do not and I’d rather have a society where people do even our elites work hard and play by the rules than don’t.
LAMB: The year you were born.
LAMB: The year you graduated from high school.
LAMB: The year you graduated from Columbia.
LAMB: All right. You write, ”The lack of accountability among the elites quickly caught back up. There was George Tenet, whose time as CIA Director included two massive intelligence failures. Bush gave Tenet the nation’s highest civilian honor in return. There was the FBI, which still hasn’t definitively figured out who attacked America with anthrax in 2001. There was Rumsfeld, who committed too few troops to fight in Iraq and failed to change strategy when it became clear early on that America was losing the war. He stayed in his job until 2006. The generals whom Bush and Rumsfeld tasked with running the war? None of them suffered any consequences for his failures. One of the main opponents of the successful surge strides in Iraq, George Casey, was promoted to Army Chief of Staff.”
Now, normally when you read something like these are all I guess they would be right of center people.
CONTINETTI: Right. They’re figures in the Bush administration and, but of course, as I go on to point out, the mistake that I think a lot of liberals make is they look at this failure of responsibility in recent times as strictly a conservative thing. Their new theory is that somehow there’s something within conservatives and conservatism that makes them unable to govern. But I think that’s a partisan fantasy. I think both philosophies, conservative and liberal; they can govern if they actually do their jobs.
And what we’re seeing now is that even the Obama administration, right, we now have a Democratic a center left administration, but they’re behaving no more responsibly. We have Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary; the man in charge of the Internal Revenue Service has admitted that he didn’t pay payroll taxes when he was working at the World Bank. And so we have you know name your Democratic congressman who’s embroiled in scandal, whether it’s Charles Rangel who writes the tax code and he’s under fire for tax cheating as well, or Jack Murtha, the appropriator who’s now under fire for accepting campaign contributions from his lobbyist friends.
So you know the partisan insignia at the end of the politician’s name has changed, but the overall lack of accountability and responsibility has not.
LAMB: Critique George Bush’s presidency.
CONTINETTI: I think Bush was an unsuccessful President. I think he was going to be remembered for doing two things for preventing two things. One was a subsequent attack by Al Qaida on America and even in really broadly conceived American interests. And secondly he prevented the loss of the war in Iraq and those with the surge policy. Now, at the same time he also brought us to losing Iraq by failing to have enough troops, by failing to adopt a counter insurgency strategy early on, by failing to have a monopoly of force in Iraq, in which you could create a secure situation that politics could come out of. But he did make the right decision in my view in against all opposition in 2007 to commit to this new strategy and so far it’s working.
LAMB: Your magazine, owned by Rupert Murdoch, run by Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes.
LAMB: DO you have to think like them?
CONTINETTI: No. No, we have writers who disagree. Our writer, Matt Labash, our funniest writer, he was against the war in Iraq.
LAMB: You were for it?
CONTINETTI: I thought the risks of allowing Saddam to remain in power outweighed the risks of getting rid of him. I thought this was a man who’s unique who was unique in world politics. He had invaded two of his neighbors. He had launched missiles at Israel. He had gassed his own people. He’d led a horribly brutal regime and he had these weapons programs.
Now I think my view on the war would have been different had we known what we know today, which was in fact he didn’t have any weapons. But you have to take yourself back to the time right after 9/11 where the country was absolutely traumatized by these attacks and you have to understand the unanimity of opinion, not only with the American intelligence community, but also from the governments that opposed the war, Germany and France. They agreed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. They just didn’t think invasion was the answer. I did. It turns out he didn’t have the weapons and if we had known that I may have had a different view.
LAMB: Do you have somebody right now you would say is your political I don’t want to put a big label on it hero or somebody that you think is your champion out there?
CONTINETTI: Not quite. I like John McCain a lot. I was I supported him in the election. I wanted him to win the election. I thought he was he’s a guy who can build bridges and has right instincts on foreign policy.
LAMB: What are your instincts now?
CONTINETTI: Well, the
LAMB: Other other folks out there.
CONTINETTI: Yes, there aren’t that many. And the Republican Party, which has basically been the carrier of conservative ideas is a caricature of its former self. It’s a rump; doesn’t have much power at all and I think the political figures within it are you know they satisfy themselves with kind of you know stock answers to questions you know. They don’t really have a broadly conceived politics going forward. My overall political hero is Ronald Reagan. I barely remember his Presidency, but this is a man who the parts that I do remember I loved and the more you learn about him, the more you admire him for his ability to be a statesman.
LAMB: So he was sworn in on January the 20, 1981, your birth year. What’s your actual birth date?
CONTINETTI: June 24, 1981. I believe he was actually in the hospital or just getting out of the hospital not Alexandria Hospital, but remember he was shot that spring.
LAMB: March 30.
LAMB: Yes. Let me read some more from you. ”There are moments when it seems as though every figure who waltzes across the public state is a cheat, a fraud, a liar or a failure. Child abuse scandals have tarnished the image of Catholic bishops and priests. Steroid scandals have racked major league baseball.” You mentioned that earlier. ”The Tour de France and the Olympic Games and then there are the celebrities who write books, make music and perform in film and television, where to start.”
I mean cheat, fraud, a liar or failure.
CONTINETTI: Yes. I that’s thinking about that sentence the other day, I realized I left out fink. I would have liked to have included the word fink in there too.
LAMB: That’s an old word.
CONTINETTI: Oh, I like I love it though. It has a great sound to it.
LAMB: So what you know how do you gin yourself up getting using all these words and where do you how do you define those?
CONTINETTI: Well you can go to the dictionary to define them, but I mean a
LAMB: In your own self. Why you know who’s a cheat? Who’s a name a cheat if a liar
CONTINETTI: Oh, the Treasury Secretary is a admitted tax cheat. You know a fraud.
LAMB: Does that seem to matter to anybody?
CONTINETTI: Apparently not. And I think you know there is a political bargain. It mattered to the people who voted against him. Quite a bit of the Senate did vote against his confirmation, but not enough to make any impact. A fraud is you know someone look at Bernie Madoff who’s dominating the headlines, the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of the word.
Failures are everywhere. If you look at the business executives who are on our front pages every day; they’re all over the place. These words describe the political, cultural and economic elites who run the United States. And what’s happening as a result is a populist upswell of anger among the people.
LAMB: How do you know that?
CONATINETTI: Well, we can look at, say the numbers of people who are think the country’s headed in the wrong direction. Obama is President, but that number is still high. It’s gone down a little because, surprise, surprise, Democrats now think more Democrats than before now think things are going OK. It’s because one of their own is in office. But still, that number is very high when we think about it.
You look at just the way that elites talk about America and if you read foreign affairs, right, or you know the Atlantic Monthly, very prestigious publications read by the people who run the country. The discussion there, uniformly, is about American decline. I happen to disagree with them. I don’t see why they I mean so many people accept it as inevitable that America is declining. It doesn’t have to be the way, but people seem to think that.
You look at the over the overwhelming public outcry over things like the first TARP bailout you know the calls that flooded Capitol Hill in opposition to the bank bailout. You can look also at public opinion on the General Motors bailouts. That, too, according to this week’s Washington Post poll, a lot of the public opposes more monies for Chrysler and G.M. So yes, it’s there. It’s a public anger.
We saw it I think too in the immigration debates during the Bush’s second term. Bush wanted to reform the nation’s immigration laws, but he failed. He tried twice and he failed. And the reason why he failed was this populist upswell. We look at Dubai ports back in 2006; there is a failure among the administration to explain to the American people that you know just because this company based in the Middle East was owning the port security firms that that might not have much of an effect on security that should be still staffed with Americans, things like that.
But what we have now is a reaction to globalization and the failures of globalization. We have a resurgent nationalism and resurgent populist anger and I don’t think that the Democrats’ solutions are going to do anything to tamp that down.
LAMB: What do you watch and read and listen to you know to stimulate your thinking?
CONTINETTI: Well I read the papers every day.
LAMB: Which one do you rely on the most, or do you?
CONTINETTI: Probably the New York Times, but I try to read the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal every day.
LAMB: Why the New York Times?
CONTINETTI: Well, it’s the it’s the nations paper of record, for better or worse. It’s something that everyone reads, the first read papers. Even if you work on Wall Street, you’re going to read the Journal, but you’re probably going to look at the Times first. And also because the Times, as much as conservatives like to knock it, is still a top-rate paper. I mean their war correspondent who’s followed the war in Iraq, John F. Burns I think deserves talk about Presidential Medal of Freedom; George Tenet’s should go to John F. Burns. I mean he’s just an amazing reporter and writer and thinker.
And of course, people like David Brooks; I need to hear what he’s thinking. And even, these days, I turn more and more to Paul Krugman just to get a sense of what the left is thinking and often surprising that Paul Krugman can be highly critical of the Obama administration.
So those are the things I read in terms of newspapers, but basically I try to read everything. Ninety percent of my job is reading, whether that’s newspapers, magazines, the Internet, which is you know kind of a black hole in which you could get sucked into very easily, or books.
LAMB: If you’re sitting down at your computer and you want to plug into what’s going on in the world, where do you go first?
CONTINETTI: I like that realclearpolitics.com. That’s a good web site. It’s an aggregator, so you can go there at the morning and see what people are saying. It doesn’t have everything, but it’s a good place to start. And then, from there, you launch off into you know dozens of other places and see. And the National Review Online is also a good place to see what the right is thinking and then the John Podesta’s outfit, the Center for American Progress; if you want to know what the left wing is thinking about, you go to their web site.
LAMB: Do you listen to talk radio and if you do, who do you listen to?
CONTINETTI: I don’t listen to talk radio. I listen to NPR, so. I which is, in a sense, talk radio, but I also happen to contribute to NPR, so I like I like that.
LAMB: Now why? Why do you listen to NPR?
CONTINETTI: Well the stories are it’s just excellent radio. It’s slickly produced, they have interesting stories, you get a perspective on the world. At times it may be a perspective I disagree with, but not all the time. And the programs are good.
LAMB: A lot of conservatives don’t like NPR.
CONTINETTI: I know and I don’t know why. I think they think it may have a liberal bent, to the extent that most media has a liberal bent. That may be true, but I happen to disagree. I think it’s relatively fair and you know they can listen to me on it, so I have a conservative bent.
LAMB: And how often are you on? Do you have a regular slot?
CONTINETTI: Oh, pretty regularly.
LAMB: Does that control why you think it’s good? I mean you know, Follow the Money?
CONTINETTI: No, not at all. I liked it before him.
LAMB: And what about television?
CONTINETTI: Television, I don’t watch much news programs. You know I’ll watch sitcoms or dramas, like most other people, but I don’t get my news from television.
LAMB: Why not?
CONTINETTI: Well television, with the exception of CSPAN, is relatively derivative, right? I mean most news broadcast on the major networks or even on the cable news channels, they’re just taking off from what the Times, the Post and the Journal said that morning. And so if I already read the papers, there’s really no reason to hear it again later in the day. And then in terms of the cable shows, which again, I can be on from time to time, so much of it is partisan and silliness that I don’t pay much attention to it.
LAMB: Are there a lot of 27-year-olds out there like you?
CONTINETTI: Well there are a bunch of 27-year-olds in Washington, writing and thinking about politics. I’d been told from a very young age that you know we’re all individuals; we’re all special, right. You have that little exercise in elementary school I remember we had to do where we had to make the snowflakes and they would tell you oh, you’re all like the snowflakes. So I don’t know if any of them are like me, but they’re my friends. And at times you look across the people writing and appearing on public affairs programs and it almost seems as though all of them are around my age, which is a little bit worrisome you know. I certainly don’t know everything. I have a lot to learn.
LAMB: In your Weekly Standard article; and I want to make sure we have the right date on here, March 2 issue, which comes out a week before that.
CONTINETTI: That’s right.
LAMB: You wrote, ”It wasn’t until last fall that we saw how widely the rot had spread. Everyone was implicated in the financial meltdown. Everyone who took on a mortgage they couldn’t afford, it lent to people who couldn’t pay back the loan, who securitized the unpayable debts and resold them in ways even astrophysicists
” It’s a big, big word; ”
can’t understand and who instituted government policies that spurred a culture of easy money and consumption beyond one’s means. All were responsible.”
Where’s this coming from? Not from I don’t mean where are you coming from, but where why is this country heading in this direction or why are they why are we acting like this?
CONTINETTI: Well I think it has to do with a decline in standards and the decline in, like I said, bourgeois values you know the simple family. You know you go to school you get up in the morning there are many millions of Americans who live this way: get up in the morning, you go to work, you come home, you try to have dinner with the kids, the kids have been at school, you you know eek out some private time. But then you go to sleep and the whole thing starts again. This is how most people live their lives. They have to pay the bills and we should remember that most people are paying their back their loans. Most people are paying their mortgages.
But then you look at the people who write our newspapers or live our appear on our television or make and produce our movies. They don’t seem to live that way at all. They seem to inhabit this different world of it’s a hedonistic world. It’s one where you basically you don’t have to worry about anything because you, quote, unquote, made it. And so you can live life more or less as you please.
This is wrong for a variety of reasons. One, it’s wrong just in terms of behavior. You know people should try to live virtuous lives, no matter their economic, political or cultural standing. But it’s also wrong in the signal that it sends to the broader population. If you turn on the television and you watch you know people are obsessed with you know say The Real Housewives of Orange County, right; the reality shows that follows a bunch of more or less trophy wives living in the Orange County in California.
Now, OK, in once sense I think there’s a lot of people watch that because they’re just kind of you know fascinated in the way that they might slow down when they see a car wreck is fascinating. But in another sense, since these messages permeate all aspects of our society, it corrodes I think this bourgeois mentality. You know well you know I see that over on T.V. and you know maybe it’s not that bad. And I think that what that does is it kind of takes away that moral capital. We talk a lot about political capital in D.C., but our democracy depends also on moral capital, this stock that built up over the centuries of manners and you know codes of behavior, manners, piety, things like this. And slowly, but surely, I think that capital has depleted.
LAMB: Define bourgeois mentality.
CONTINETTI: Well I mean you know so the bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, they were the traders you know. They were this new class. This middle class all the sudden appeared as Europe became more prosperous. They weren’t really into church. They weren’t the nobility, but they also weren’t the serfs. They were bourgeois. They and this has always been a term of contempt from the intellectuals who looked at you know who are these people? They truck in money. They buy; they sell. They have no noble view of life. They don’t want to be heroic. What they basically want to do is they want to prosper and they want their children to prosper and that’s it.
I think that sort of mentality; it’s not greed and selfishness, which we see all the time, because it has the focus isn’t so much on the individual as it is the family unit. I think that’s an important attitude. And what we’re seeing now is the emergence of this middle classes in places that have seen poverty for thousands of years; places like India and China. And we celebrate it there because we understand that that leads to a rise in living standards and things like that. But I don’t think we celebrate it here. You hear a lot about Democrat from Democrats about the declining middle class, but you never hear why the middle class is important.
I don’t think the middle class is important because it exists on the small frame of the spectrum of income. It’s important because the values that sustain it, the values that I talked about; accountability, responsibility. Don’t spend more than you earn. That’s not how we’re going to get by. It’s not how we’re going to prosper as a family. You have to save. You have to do your duty; things like that. That’s what makes the middle class important in my view.
LAMB: ”Meanwhile, as the men who brought the financial system to a brink of collapse were cashing in and remodeling their offices, the executives and union officials who bankrupted the American automobile industry were traveling to Washington, hat in hand, begging the public sector to give them aid. Bush had no credibility with the American public. Treasure Secretary Hank Paulson inspired no one’s confidence. America’s political, economic and cultural elite seemed incapable of behaving responsibly and being accountable for their actions. That incapacity is why you wake up in the morning and dread reading the day’s headlines.”
A lot of the people you’re talking about I’m just guessing I tell me if I’m wrong are probably conservative and probably Republican.
CONTINETTI: That’s right. I mean in the sense that they you know they’ve been in power. But then I talk about later I mean all the celebrities that I mention; they’re certainly not conservative or Republicans.
LAMB: Well I know, but go back and tell us why you think these people who would seemingly have the same values you did, or do, would act this way.
CONTINETTI: Well I’m not sure. I’m not sure they actually have the same values I’m talking about. You know I’m not even sure sometimes I have the you know I need to act more responsibly in my own life. We all do, so I’m not somehow exempt from this whole process, but or critique. I’m not sure why. I think it’s very easy when you get into certain positions to take the easy road you know. It’s you want to cut corners. And there’s also it’s very difficult.
One thing, our government is so large and so complex that the opportunities for corruption increase. I think I think the when we talk about public corruption corruption in the public sector, the opportunities for it increase as the public sector grows. And so we have this huge government and so there are plenty of opportunities for it. I mean just look at former Governor Blagojevich, right. Not a conservative, not a Democrat, but allegedly corrupt and not what you would call the paragon of proper political behavior. But the crimes of which he is accused would not exist hadn’t the government been so entwined in the public sector and or this weird process by which we appoint senators, rather than holding special elections when vacancies occur. So you know both Republicans and Democrats exist in this universe of big government, which allows opportunities for big government corruption.
LAMB: You’re a history major. I go back to I mean I think one of the first things I can remember in politics in this town was when Spiro Agnew was taking envelopes full of money as he was Vice President and Governor of Maryland. People just literally gave him money.
LAMB: He had to resign. Richard Nixon had to resign
for reasons that everybody knows.
LAMB: You go up a little bit farther and we Jim Wright had a problem as Speaker of the House. Bob Livingston couldn’t become Speaker of the House because of his alleged affairs. I’m not even sure; maybe he even admitted to them. Newt Gingrich had problems; ethical problems. He’s still very much alive. This Sunday he’s on the cover of the New York Times magazine.
The Governor of Connecticut went to jail; John Rowland. The Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, had to leave for his relationship with a prostitute. Governor of New Jersey, Jim McGreevey, had to leave because he, I guess had a friend on his payroll or something like that and announced to the world that he was a gay American. What’s when did this start? Has it always been there? As a history major, have we always had this kind of corruption in our
CONTINETTI: Oh, right. Well there’s no changing human nature. I mean that’s why another reason I talked earlier about what made me a conservative and another part of that is you know it’s what I was saying is there’s no changing human nature. And so
LAMB: Why not?
CONTINETTI: Well it’s just the way we’ve been created. You can’t
LAMB: To getting better?
CONTINETTI: Well you can’t I mean the moral weaknesses in humanity have been there from the start. That’s why we had you know that’s why Moses came down with the commandments, right? I mean it gave the law because there’ve always been these problems. It’s unique; that’s how we live.
I think, if I could be slightly optimistic this is a very pessimistic article we’ve been discussing, but I think if I can be slightly optimistic, I would say that one reason we have just this huge blizzard of scandals in our culture is I think somehow our tolerance is lower. If you go back to one of my favorite books is Plunkett of Tammany Hall. You know a book of practical politics written in the late 19th century by a Tammany Hall boss in New York City who says you know ”I seize my opportunities and I takes them.” And that’s just the way that they did things back then and no one really was bothered by it. We’re bothered by it now. I think
LAMB: How bothered?
CONTINETTI: Well we’re bothered by it to the extent that those people that you mentioned had to resign office or were forced out. I mean so we’re bothered to that extent. And I wonder whether either, on the one hand we’re more moral, right, in the sense that we’re we have a lower tolerance for this behavior, or is it because we’re so unsettled in the state of public morality that we have a lower tolerance for it, that you know we’re anxious about the way people behave and maybe the depletion of the bourgeois mentality, to use that phrase again that keeps coming up.
LAMB: When you sat down to write this article, was this something you always wanted to let I mean I’ve got your book here, which was back in 2006.
LAMB: The K Street Gang.
LAMB: And you were how old when you wrote this? You were about 23.
LAMB: When did this begin to build inside you and do you feel anger?
CONTINETTI: No. No, I’m not an angry person.
LAMB: This is just an intellectual approach.
CONTINETTI: This is a this is describing the I try to describe the world as it exists in any given article or book or you know blog.
LAMB: With the hope with the hope that what will happen?
CONTINETTI: That people will read it and find it informative and enjoyable.
LAMB: Do you have someone that reads your stuff every week when it comes out that you rely on to tell you whether it was good, bad or indifferent?
CONTINETTI: Well, my parents.
LAMB: Besides you
CONTINETTI: Mine are I always look forward to my parents’ critique, which is always favorable, so I enjoy that, but.
LAMB: Do you have anybody that says hey, Matthew, that was a piece of junk or?
CONTINETTI: Well those are that’s why you have editors. I mean those are the editors at the magazine, right?
LAMB: Who edits your copy?
CONTINETTI: These days it’s an editor, extremely talented editor named Robert Messenger. And we worked on this piece. I mean we had a this piece went through about four drafts. I wasn’t satisfied with this piece, to tell you the truth, until we arrived at the published version. I didn’t want to come across as you know outraged or in a state of high sanctimony you know things like that. I simply, like I said, I just wanted to describe to our readers what is happening, in my view, in American society right now.
LAMB: You write, ”Populism in is a temper, not a program, a vague suspicion of elites that reinforces democratic notions of equality and majority rule.”
CONTINETTI: Yes. It’s healthy. This passage actually a whole lot of this article, the one thing I have been reading a lot of recently is the financial crisis brought me back to the writings of Irving Kristol and Kristol, writing in the ’70s was he was a conservative who only gave two cheers for capitalism. Cause he thought you know capitalism is great. There’s no other way that we’ve become so prosperous so quickly, but it isn’t quite enough and in fact it can lead to a certain cutting corner mentality. And when I talked about populism, some of the ideas informing that section were also drawn from Kristol.
You can have leftwing populists and you can have rightwing populists: William Jennings Bryan, leftwing populist; Sarah Palin, rightwing populist. So that to me shows
LAMB: How can you be one or the other?
CONTINETTI: Well that to me shows that it’s more an attitude than it is an actual politics. It’s an it’s a it’s a it’s an attitude of those darned elites; we got to do something about it. We’ve got to take this country back. This is the same attitude in a way that almost it antedates the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. I mean it’s very American because it’s what sparked this idea that, hold it, no. The British are doing the wrong thing; we have to stand up for our natural rights.
LAMB: What do you think that during the Bush administration, he didn’t have he didn’t use a veto till July of 2006. And that the he basically let the Republicans in the Congress spend the money. I mean he spent $5 trillion more during
CONTINETTI: He doubled the national debt.
LAMB: Why did they do that?
CONTINETTI: I listen, if I had been telling him giving him advice, I’d be telling him not to do that. I think if you talked to the Bush people they would say that it was politics. They didn’t want to go against the Republican majority. They didn’t want to burn bridges. On the other hand, you also hear that actually the Bush administration never had a very good relationship with the Republican Congress, so it could have been neglect or it could have just been you know what, if we don’t sign these if we don’t veto these appropriations bills, they’ll give us more of what we want.
LAMB: But a lot of the conservative commentators, talk show hosts were cheerleading during that period for this the Republicans and George Bush. They didn’t object to the war being fought off budget and now, all of a sudden, you hear them totally flipping.
LAMB: I mean what are we, as just consumers, supposed to think about this?
CONTINETTI: Well I think the most important thing to remember is how important partisanship is in politics. I mean partisanship is the ultimate driver for me. I mean you look at all these arguments. Take you know the powers over the so-called Imperial Presidency. I happen to favor a strong executive. I think that may be the only way we can control this huge, sprawling thing called the federal government. But there are plenty of conservatives who you who don’t; who dislike the a strong executive and of course there are plenty of liberals who disliked a strong executive when it was George W. Bush.
Now that Barack Obama is in, oh, you know what? It’s good that he’s taking stands, he’s being strong and he’s signing these executives and so forth.
LAMB: You say ”Obama and the Democrats believe that the erosion of bourgeois values can be slowed or even reversed through public expenditure. This is what the Democrats are talking about when they bring up the, quote, vanishing middle class and propose government intervention, but their efforts are doomed to fail. Public expenditure can’t buy virtue. It may even crowd it out.” How do you know their efforts are doomed to fail?
CONTINETTI: Well I think we’ve seen them work before. And I think we have a example a living example of what happens when social democracy really comes to countries and that’s in Europe. And I don’t think European society is any more or less virtuous because they have these robust welfare states. If anything, their churches are empty, right.
LAMB: But aren’t their lives pretty good over there?
CONTINETTI: It depends on how you judge that. I mean I I mean you I don’t know. I mean they’re certainly less free than our lives over here.
LAMB: Give me an example.
CONTINETTI: Well I mean just in the sense that their lives are more circumscribed by the state, right, in a way that American lives I’m not going to say we’re not I’m not going to pretend that America is some libertarian paradise; we’re not. But, as we move closer to the European model, which is clearly what Obama’s intent is, I think we’re going to find more and more ways in which the government says no, you can’t do that, thus making us less free.
I’ll give you an example: healthcare. Now the administration is going to attempt to reform our healthcare system, along the lines in which the government is the insurer of last resort and may actually end up down the road that the government will just be the insurer, through various details of their of their actual program. Well the way that you control costs that’s what they’re talking about is controlling costs. And they always give well if we liberals always give the example of the V.A. healthcare system as a very well run healthcare system that’s done cheaply.
Well the way that the V.A. controls costs, the way that Great Britain and Canada control costs through their government programs is rationing. So you have long lines to get kind of simple you know visits to the doctor and such, where and all these horror stories that conservatives like to talk about. OK, well rationing is making us less free. So I would say that to that extend; and not necessarily leading to you know better outcomes. So it’s not as though the entire world is made up of exactly the same people. I mentioned the snowflakes, right?
So you can’t just impose the lessons that you think you’re drawing from a place like Denmark on this 300-plus million people country, this huge sprawling mass, with so many complex interests continually fighting, whether they’re sectarian or ethnic. I mean they’re not fighting, but you know they’re battling out in democratic politics, or even geographical, right. You know the federal government’s going constantly in battle with the state governments, which have to control the local governments.
So I think liberals have this huge sense that they can just look at a public policy, say in Switzerland, and they look at Swiss you know medical policy, which is actually relatively free market, or so I’m given to understand. And they say oh, you know what? We can just turn that over here. We can make America like that. Well maybe, but I don’t think so, cause reality is so much more complicated. And if there’s anything we learned from, say the Bush administration, it’s that you know reality has a way of confounding your intentions and you know it’s important to remember the costs potential costs or unknown costs of any action before you embark on it.
LAMB: In this book, The K Street Gang, Jack Abramoff is someone that you write about in here.
LAMB: He’s in prison.
CONTINETTI: He is.
LAMB: Cumberland, Maryland; a couple of sentences he’s been given. I checked this morning and what I what I found on the web was some 17 people, in and around Jack Abramoff, have been indicted
pled guilty or have been convicted or are awaiting trial and all that stuff.
LAMB: What’s happened since your 2006 book on The K Street Gang and what do you make of it?
CONTINETTI: Well the scandal I mean I think the scandal has passed to an extent that you know Congressman Ney, for example, he was indicted and stuff. And the political figures, people like Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, or Representative DeLay, former Majority Leader DeLay of Texas, they’ve they’re out of Congress, so there’s not really political waves generated by the scandal, but it’s still very much a Justice Department investigation and we see lobbyists you know being ensnared by it. Even recently I think I saw one who lives in Maryland who’s been who is under investigation for ties to Abramoff.
But you know as I said at the end of the book, The K Street Gang, years ago you know these people would be found and they would pay a price because obviously there was a process in motion when I wrote that book investigating them and about to indict them and so forth. But the overall problems won’t be addressed and so therefore you’re just going to have different people who are involved in corruption. And you look at the Democratic Congress and there are plenty of people you know. Remember William ”Cold Cash” Jefferson? He’s not there anymore, but you know it’s so corruption doesn’t have a partisan affiliation.
LAMB: But a lot of these people that you write about in here are almost all of them are Republicans and almost all of they’re conservatives and
LAMB: They even work for people in Congress that often invoked religion when they
LAMB: What went wrong there and is it ever is that part getting any better because of what happened to them?
CONTINETTI: Well, I happen to think maybe the Republican Party and conservative movement is behaving a little bit better these days, simply because there are fewer conservatives than there were before and some of the guys who were trying to play the system, they’ve either been ejected from it or they’re you know they’re in jail or not. But listen, the reason I write these things, one reason is I think you know conservatives should be held to a higher standard. I mean if you think your ideas are right and if you want to find ways to put your ideas into practice then you need to behave with a certain measure of decorum and that’s why maybe I go after conservatives a lot.
LAMB: So this Doubleday book, this experience, was it a success financially?
CONTINETTI: It was a success financially, in the sense that I got paid to write this book and I enjoyed writing it. It wasn’t a bestseller, by any means, but I like getting paid to write. That’s been since I was a little boy that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I got to do. And there’s nothing like writing a book. I want to write more books.
LAMB: Did it have any impact on anything when you wrote it? I mean can you look back and say because you wrote this book, this happened or
CONTINETTI: Well it
this person read it and said you know I have no idea; and is it still worth reading at this stage?
CONTINETTI: I think it’s an interesting read. It’s you know it’s a fascinating story. Jack Abramoff is many things and one of them is a very colorful character. People read the book. I got some good feedback on it. And we talked a lot about you know it’s good to talk about these issues a lot. And of course the you know the book came out in the spring of ’06 and the subtitle was The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine and sure enough, six months later the Republican machine fell apart, so you know whatever small part that book may have played in it, good for it.
LAMB: One of the interesting things you say about Jack Abramoff is that when he was 12 years old he went to see Fiddler on the Roof and that made him very religious and he wanted to be an Orthodox Jew.
LAMB: Make and he was very involved in funding a synagogue and a school and all that stuff.
LAMB: Where’s the moral you know in this story and what’s going on there? Did you ever do you ever talk to him?
CONTINETTI: No, no. The you know I don’t know. People have always behaved immorally. I mean like I say that’s just human nature
LAMB: Well they’re involved in
including religious people. I mean clearly including religious people, right? And but we have these ideas and standards of behavior and beliefs about appropriate ways to conduct one’s self. You know not everyone is going to live by them, but they’re standards. They’re something to aspire to you know. And sometimes even bad people can do good. That’s just the complexity of human life that we that I think everyone should appreciate.
LAMB: Anybody ever say to you, Matthew, get over all this. You’re too stuffy and conservative and you know what I mean?
CONTINETTI: They haven’t told me that yet. Maybe they will after reading the article.
LAMB: You go back to Columbia, though. We hear all the time from talk show hosts conservative talk show hosts that these schools are rotting the minds of Americans who go there because they’re all a bunch of liberals teaching.
LAMB: You got more conservative after going to Columbia.
CONTINETTI: Somehow. It must have been I was the one
LAMB: Was it
CONTINETTI: I was the exception that proves the rule, Brian. I guess that must have been the case.
LAMB: But was it that liberal place and did it have what kind of an impact did it have on you?
CONTINETTI: Well I think students today you know David Brooks has pointed this out. A lot of students today aren’t that involved in politics. But certainly the professors are and most professors I mean this is social science has shown this. Most professors are of a left of center bent or more. And yes, the universities do play a role, I think, in shaping people.
I heard a great story about David Mamet, the playwright and screenwriter, telling a group of students recently; he said listen, you think you’re getting an education, but you’re not. What you’re doing is being trained. You’re being trained like a like a rat in a lab experiment to press a button and get your reward. And the button that you have to press as students in our universities is kind of you know to learn a language. And the language that you have to learn is a postmodernist leftwing language. And I have to say I completely agree with that, even in my own schoolwork. You know you kind of get a sense eventually of what the professors are want to hear, what will get you a good grade. And that’s what the goal is after all. And so if that means that you have to start you know quoting Derrida or Foucault or all these postmodern French thinkers, you’re going to start doing that or if you’re going to start writing in certain ways.
Say you want to be a professor. Well if you want to be a professor then you’re going to have to start reading a lot of books and articles written by professors. And one thing that I think we can all agree on is that most professors and people who write for these small academic journals and such don’t know how to write. They write extremely complicated, abstruse prose that is very difficult to understand, that you have to read aloud several times and it’s a reflection, I think personally, it’s a reflection of their shoddy thinking, but it’s also a reflection of the style in which they’ve been trained to write.
Well if you want to teach then on the university level, you have to learn how to mimic that style. And so I think that’s the problem with universities today is yes, they don’t they don’t encourage actually a free inquiry. They encourage the training of intellectuals in a certain language.
LAMB: You close your article talking about cynics. You say, ”But the cynics are wrong. Things can get a whole lot worse. A failure of accountability not only erodes the foundations of our culture; it also puts our country on an unstable fiscal ground. A storm of moral and financial insolvency has been brewing for some time. A populist reaction is only the beginning. We’re hearing the thunder; get ready for the deluge.”
CONTINETTI: That’s a dramatic ending. One first on the cynics, one thing that I hear about David Denby, the New Yorker film critic just wrote a book called Snark you know this kind of cynicism that permeates a lot of talk. People like Jon Stewart, who I who I love and I think is very funny and such, but you know it’s kind of a snarky way about talking about politics. It’s a way of speaking that says I know better, but you know we’re let me let me let you in on this little joke.
And I think that’s all over the case. That’s all over the place these days, especially with younger people.
As they survey the scene they kind of develop this cynical attitude. And I think that’s the wrong approach to take. I mean because you have to these things are problems. The failure of elite responsibility is a problem. It’s going to erode our the foundations of our society. And so the appropriate response is to say well, how can we fix it? How can we change you know how can we change people’s behaviors, not to sit back and laugh at it. So that’s the snark and the cynicism.
On how things can get worse you know I’m I don’t know the future, but I have a sense that the worse you know is go back to the Depression, for example. There is an economic crisis that spawned a lot of various populisms, ugly political leaders, people like Father Coughlin on the radio, Huey Long in Louisiana you know more radical politics. And of course, abroad, that global depression led to pretty serious geopolitical consequences that things that no one should want repeated again. So things can as a conservative, one thing you know you think about always is things can always get a whole lot worse.
LAMB: Matthew Continetti. The Age of Responsibility is the article. It’s the March 2nd edition of The Weekly Standard. I assume you can get it on the Internet.
CONTINETTI: It’s there. You can get everything on the Internet these days.
LAMB: Residents of Springfield, Virginia and graduate of Columbia University. Thank you very much.
CONTINETTI: Thank you, Brian.