It’s been That ’90s Show on the internet lately. On Thursday, Bill Clinton revived memories of his DLC centrist presidency, and super-predators, when he extemporaneously lectured Black Lives Matters activists at a Hillary Clinton rally. Also, it was recently announced that Andrew Sullivan would return to regular publication with New York magazine.
Sullivan was arguably the first rightblogger, so this seems a good time to consider his career and what it might tell us about where we, and the whole rightblogger phenomenon, have come since his heyday.
For years, Sullivan’s selling point was that he was a political gryphon, gay, and Tory. Pre-9-11, he was best known in America for two things: devoting the prestige of the New Republic — of which he was then editor — to a serious discussion of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which asserted the intellectual inferiority of black people; and advocating gay marriage from what Sullivan portrayed as a conservative perspective.
While domestic partnership “chips away at the prestige of traditional relationships,” Sullivan argued in 1989, marriage “provides an anchor… in the chaos of sex and relationships to which we are all prone.” Also, gay people’s “need to rebel” via meat rack scenes, etc., had been vitiated, and they were ready to join the wider wedded society: “To be gay and to be bourgeois no longer seems such an absurd proposition,” Sullivan said. “Certainly since AIDS, to be gay and to be responsible has become a necessity.”
Sullivan brought his gay-marriage argument to his fellow conservatives, who were, to put it mildly, unconvinced. (Norman Podhoretz, 1996: “many homosexuals [including Andrew Sullivan himself]… are willing to court death rather than give up being promiscuous…”)
But Sullivan went on with the cause, always making it clear that he was not arguing from a liberal perspective: In 1999, for example, he noted that “it is often minorities who commit some of the most hate-filled offenses against what they see as their oppressors.” Sullivan also claimed that gays and lesbians had been far crueler to him than conservatives: “nothing from the religious right has come close to such vehemence.”
In 2000, Sullivan became one of the first credentialed pundits to seriously take up blogging. In a typical early entry, Sullivan praised President Bush for refusing to see some military detainees and did not suspect a political motive: “He let them see their families again unmolested by politics — a classy, quiet move,” chirped Sullivan. “Can you imagine Clinton staying away? He would have hugged every offspring and probably the sidewalk as well. Part of the slow process of restoring the dignity of the presidency after Clinton’s two terms will lie in gestures exactly like this.”
He also said of a recent visit to San Francisco, “Here in the belly of the beast, Village People look-alikes predominate; and sex is still central to the culture. This can be fun for a tourist, but I’d go nuts if I had to live here full-time.” And he encouraged Bush to cut taxes: “Yes, liberal media outlets will shriek about cuts. But they’ll shriek whatever you’re proposing. Why not give them something to really squeal about…?”
Sullivan’s blog blew up with 9-11, when he revealed himself a complete and unrestrained jingo. He gave the floor extensively to readers who claimed “before September 11th, I was a passionate Democrat,” but were now, mirabile dictu, “September 11 Republicans” And he attacked anyone who hadn’t fallen for the war as hard as he had — especially the New York Times, which he said “has gone from being America’s most reliable [if sometimes PC] compendium of news to being one of the most suspect media entities around…” (Worse, at the Times “conservative voices have been purged”; Sullivan knew because “after criticising the new direction of the Times, I was told that [editor Howell] Raines had barred me from contributing to the paper.”)
This was also when Sullivan came up with his famous “fifth column” slur, essentially accusing American non-jingos of treason. Thereafter he would occasionally revisit and justify this position, as when, enraged by a satirical Ted Rall column, he said, “after 9-11, I was roundly criticized for daring to suggest that there were some people in America who wanted the terrorists to win. But if you read Ted Rall and others, there can be no mistake….” For this Sullivan was praised by conservatives and neoliberals like Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Observer as “an Orwell for our age.”
Sullivan was not utterly blind to the problems with the war — except, of course, the big one of having waged it in the first place — but at first he called only for minor adjustments: During the 2004 election, he suggested that Democratic contender John Kerry “outflank Bush as a super-hawk” to win the election: “We may be seeing a strange replay of Vietnam. But in reverse,” he added. “And quite possibly with an entirely different ending.”
Eventually the clusterfuck became unmistakable to all but its most devoted propagandists, and Sullivan turned against the conduct of the war, if not the war itself. To his credit, Abu Ghraib especially rattled him (“If we legalize torture, even under constrained conditions… we will have lost the war before we have given ourselves the chance to win it”). His erstwhile rightblogger friends rather viciously turned on him; Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit called him an “excitable” “emoter-in-chief” and other synonyms for sissy; Hugh Hewitt allowed “he once was a brilliant writer,” but was now revealed as “a radical, like Pelosi and Reid and the rest of the left, who care only for the results they demand, not the process by which they obtain them.”
Sullivan was equally slow to figure out that his fellow conservatives were not going to get aboard his gay-marriage train, either. In 2003, after Lawrence v. Texas struck down sodomy laws, Sullivan claimed in the Wall Street Journal “many of the people favoring a new tolerance [toward gays] are Republicans and conservatives,” and professed confusion as to why they would continue to oppose gay marriage. And he seemed to remain convinced that George W. Bush was going to give him gay marriage like a medal for services rendered in the War on Terror — even when it became comically obvious he would not.
When the president denounced Massachusetts’s gay-marriage ruling — “I will work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage” — Sullivan actually said, “I’m not sure what this can mean.” When Bush doubled down in 2004, Sullivan blamed… the New York Times: “The Times lopped off the first two critical words — ‘if necessary’ — of President Bush’s statement on a proposed constitutional amendment [against gay marriage]… classic NYT-cocoon,” he said.
It is something to consider how completely Sullivan flipped on Bush; in 2003 he was comparing him to Winston Churchill, and by 2007 he was comparing him to Neville Chamberlain. In the interval Bush himself hadn’t changed in any appreciable way, but a stink of failure did come upon him, which would be anathema to any careerist in his vicinity.
Sullivan’s reversal on the war was extensively chronicled in an e-book and columns and conference appearances in which he explained the wider significance of his errors in judgment: “My traffic went down by sixty percent when I denounced the war,” he told the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2009, “but it went back when those on the left thought I was one of them.”
This makes sense; in December 2007 Sullivan praised candidate Obama, claiming “the Republicans and independents who are open to an Obama candidacy see his primary advantage in prosecuting the war on Islamist terrorism” and “the man who opposed the [Iraq] war for the right reasons is for that reason the potential president with the most flexibility in dealing with it.” And even into Obama’s second term Sullivan had yet to turn on him. I can understand why some “on the left” thought he was one of them, particularly if they were not paying close attention.
As for his fifth-column remarks, Sullivan argued that he’d been misunderstood — “I’m sorry but it’s completely clear I am not damning an entire section of the country because of the way they voted… again, I retract nothing.” He added, “let me take one more chance nine years later to apologize again,” and — instead of saying “I’m sorry” or one of the other traditional methods of apology — pointed to a column he wrote in 2001 which he said reflected his “better angel.” That column mainly condemned the Taliban and American fundamentalists, but maybe in the print edition an apology appeared in the form of an acrostic.
Sullivan continued to work his blog, briefly adopting a for-pay model — and complaining about the “obvious and ugly intolerance of parts of the gay movement” when Brendan Eich was fired by his own board of directors for anti-gay contributions — before quitting in 2015, when he said the pace of the work was “killing” him. But he has not been silent since; Rod Dreher reported in 2015 that Sullivan told a conference in Boston “‘there are intolerant people among LGBTs and their allies…’ [he said] ‘If you find someone who’s genuinely conflicted about doing something for your wedding, let them be. Find someone else.'” And just last week Sullivan went on Chris Matthews’s show to denounce Black Lives Matter, as well as “the Left,” as “Marxist,” because, he claimed, each “believes that race is a structurally, economically, and socially imponderable and completely unmovable force. I mean, I’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
(Sullivan also appears in the film Batman v. Superman as himself — which is perhaps the ideal venue for him, as it affords instant plausible deniability for any opinion he might express.)
Will Sullivan return to his previous preeminence? Some things have changed since 2001. One thing I doubt he can put over anymore is the dance between left and right that originally distinguished him. The past fifteen years have been such a polarizing experience — as my rightblogger columns show every week — that it is hard to imagine anyone looking to Andrew Sullivan or anyone else for a conservative way to be liberal, or vice versa.
Also, whereas in 2001 Sullivan helped convince Americans that 9-11 meant Democrats were traitors, if there were another big terrorist attack in the United States today, we already know exactly how many Americans would think it meant Democrats are traitors — because it would be the same number of Americans as think Democrats are traitors now; the exhortations of a Sullivan would not change anything.
But who knows? There may be a pivotal role for him yet. Bill Clinton’s BLM burst suggests the Hillary Clinton faction is looking for a way to straddle the left and right camps, and they could certainly use some friends in the press. It wouldn’t be a natural fit — Sullivan has had little good to say about either Clinton in the past — but as the old saying goes, it’s a living.