Guy Benson is the kind of 19-year-old who has contacts at the Pentagon and refers to himself as being “on the record” in support of Social Security privatization. He’s operations manager of Northwestern’s radio station, WNUR, where he’s also one of the conservative hosts of the political debate show Feedback, and for the past three summers he’s interned at Fox News.
A student at the Medill School of Journalism, he’s the most outspoken member of the Northwestern University College Republicans. When the Daily Northwestern needs a quote from a conservative about Howard Dean or a protest of the war in Iraq, they call up Guy.
I first noticed him while flipping through radio stations on a Sunday night. Down at the low end of the dial, 89.3, I heard a resonant baritone pummeling a liberal on the undeniable correctness of abstinence-only education. “You take a look at a Zogby poll from earlier this year,” he said. “By a five-to-one margin parents of America approve of character-based abstinence education. By a two-to-one margin parents disapprove or strongly disapprove of comprehensive sex education.” The voice was confident and polished, with none of the dweeby mumbling you normally associate with college radio, and for a moment I thought WNUR had been bought out by some right-wing radio syndicate. The show was a perfect facsimile of Crossfire or The O’Reilly Factor, its hosts dishing rhetorical zingers left and right.
When the liberal cohost said his concern was for the teens, not the parents, Guy let him have it: “This is a typical liberal argument, saying . . . parents are really no longer relevant members of the educational community. You’re pretty much saying the school, aka the government, is more qualified to teach your children what they should and should not be doing. You’re pretty much saying, hey, parents out there, you know, go to hell. . . . The state knows better than you do on these issues so we’re going to teach whatever we want to teach.”
Eventually Guy identified the station as WNUR, and himself as a college student. It was like the moment where Spider-Man is unmasked on the train, and the passengers gasp, “Why . . . he’s just a kid!”
Intrigued, I started an e-mail correspondence with him, and almost a year later we arranged to meet in his dorm room. In person he’s not so intimidating. Handsome but young-looking in baggy jeans, a sweatshirt, and a white Yankees cap, he has an almost preadolescent gee-whiz earnestness: Watching Northwestern basketball games is so much fun! His American presidency class is really cool! Ann Coulter is so awesome! “I love Rick Santorum,” he told me. “He’s, like, my favorite senator.”
But even in casual conversation, Guy is a near-constant torrent of quips and talking points, a 24/7 conservative message machine. Social Security is “headed for a crisis,” the gay marriage debate has been foisted on the public by “activist judges,” the war in Iraq was waged to “liberate the Iraqi people.” It’s hard to describe the dissonance you feel hearing those phrases come from the mouth of a teenager. It’s uncanny and a little unsettling. You feel like you’re in presence of a phenomenon, a prodigy. You feel certain that Guy Benson will be famous someday.
We were sitting in the common room of his suite, in Northwestern’s Public Affairs Residential College. It’s your standard undergrad living space: ratty furniture, papers and course packets strewn everywhere, back issues of ESPN magazine. But instead of a Bob Marley or John Coltrane poster, Guy’s walls display an adoring photo of Ronald Reagan leaning against a column outside the White House and a poster of a bald eagle with the word courage across the bottom. Another poster is headlined “Take the Gore/Unabomber Quiz.” It excerpts paragraphs from Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance and the Ted Kaczynski manifesto and asks the reader to identify who wrote what. “Modern industrial civilization, as presently organized, is colliding violently with our planet’s ecological system,” goes one item. “Isolated pockets of resistance fighters who have experienced this juggernaut at first hand have begun to fight back in inspiring but, in the final analysis, woefully inadequate ways.” (Answer: Al Gore.)
We’d just returned from the first College Republicans meeting of the semester. The Northwestern group is a branch of the College Republican National Committee, whose membership has more than tripled in the past six years. On the surface, it had looked like any other gathering of college kids: about a dozen students in Greek-lettered T-shirts and sweats sitting around a classroom, sipping Diet Coke and munching on Papa John’s pizza. But as the group started discussing their agenda, I realized that this humble assembly was an incubator of the future of the right wing. If you’ve ever wondered where the legions of conservative pundits are trained and schooled, where the talk-radio hosts and cable news guests and best-selling authors of jeremiads with inflammatory titles come from, it all starts here, in little classrooms like this one.
What the entire meeting would boil down to was message discipline. College Republicans president Henry Bowles III, a junior whose vintage T-shirt and carefully tousled hair made him look like the lead singer of an indie-rock band, got things started. He told the group that for the duration of the semester, each session would start with a presentation on some important issue. This week Ben Snyder, a member of Students for Life, would give a PowerPoint presentation about the upcoming Supreme Court battles titled “Us vs. Them.” And next week, said Henry, someone would be talking about the flat tax.
“Fair tax. It’s fair tax now,” said a guy in the front row wearing a Zeppelin T-shirt.
“Right,” said Henry. “Fair tax. That’s the euphemism.”
A little later, as Ben discussed the impending battle over Supreme Court nominees, he mentioned the possibility that Senate Republicans would rewrite filibuster rules so Democrats couldn’t filibuster judicial nominees. This strategy is often called the “nuclear option” because it could provoke a war between the two parties, but has, Ben told the group, “now been renamed the constitutional option.”
Guy was the most vocal person in the room, gently correcting his comrades’ facts and terminology, offering up tidbits and arguments that others might want to employ when arguing with liberals. It was clear that he’d done his homework. When Ben talked about renaming the nuclear/constitutional option, Guy raised his hand and provided some background. While liberals express outrage at the thought of amending Senate rules, he said, the practice of filibustering nominees “is at the very least extraconstitutional, perhaps unconstitutional.” Everyone in the room listened intently. In fact, he went on, during the Constitutional Convention no less a figure than James Madison had taken the president’s power to appoint his cabinet to be so strong he proposed that a two-thirds majority be required to vote down a nominee. “So,” he concluded, “I think that’s an interesting tool to use when you’re debating this issue with people.” The other kids nodded, looking serious.
I graduated from college four years ago, and I happen to have spent a good percentage of my time as an undergraduate talking about politics–in my case, sweatshop labor and other lefty causes–with my activist friends. With the possible exception of a few mild admonitions for language that wasn’t sufficiently PC, I never saw anyone interrupt anyone for slipping off message. I was also surprised to see the Republican kids collectively generating arguments to use when fighting with liberals, sharpening their talking points, and preparing for battle. My fellow liberals and I didn’t see ourselves engaged in a war of ideas. We probably didn’t even realize there were any conservatives around to fight with.
The meeting ended with an announcement that the club would soon be conducting elections for officers. Someone asked Guy if he was going to run for president, since he seemed the obvious successor to Henry. Guy demurred, though, saying he thought an official position with the College Republicans might limit his future journalistic career.
As we walked out of the classroom, a pretty girl in a Tri-Delt sweatshirt approached Guy. “We haven’t ever met,” she said, “but I just wanted to say you always have really smart things to say in the meeting.” Guy went from confident to awkward nearly instantaneously. He’d just broken up with his long-distance girlfriend, the daughter of a family friend. (She was a Republican, “but not superpolitical.”) As he made small talk about Northwestern’s basketball team, the sorority girl brought up the one issue that’s sure to bring campus conservatives together: their loneliness in a sea of liberalism. “I’m the only pro-life member of my sorority,” she said proudly. Guy mumbled some words of encouragement before walking off.
Being on message may be “key,” as Guy once told me, but it is nevertheless a strange thing to be as an idealistic college sophomore. To be on message is to understand that no single person can change the world, but that thousands of people all relentlessly repeating the same arguments can.
This is a lesson Republicans have learned well. While Democrats are prone to a kind of ad hoc message improv, Republicans on the networks, airwaves, and Capitol Hill methodically hammer home the same points, using the same language, until, like a jingle you can’t get out of your head, their messages nestle deep in your psyche. Consider this: How many times had you heard the word flip-flopper in your life before last year? How many times did you hear it last year? That’s not an accident.
During the many hours I spent with Guy, whenever conversations turned to the substance of his politics, my blood would start to boil: he calls abortion “genocide,” finds unions “distasteful,” and thinks the government has no business providing retirement security for the elderly. There’s not much we agree on, politically speaking. But when Guy mocked the style of liberals and Democrats, taking shots at Al Gore’s ponderousness, or the hypocrisy of rich liberals, or perpetually aggrieved undergrads, I’d find myself agreeing, siding with him against my own people. The right has virtually perfected swatting at this kind of low-hanging fruit, and they’ve discovered that if you do it enough, pointing out those parts of the left that everyone finds grating, you almost never have to engage with the substance of what those people, or anyone associated with them, say. They’re dead on arrival.
Last year, when Air America, the left-wing talk radio network, was experiencing financial difficulties, the Daily Northwestern asked Guy for his take on the situation. “Air America’s problem,” he told the paper, “is that it is an artificially generated public-relations ploy. Prior to its inception, the open market clearly did not demand a high-profile, left-wing radio network, or else one would have evolved on its own. The fact that a small group of wealthy liberal elites decided that such a network was necessary means very little.”
Ignore for a moment the problems with his argument (all innovative products try to create their own market; you might as well argue that Microsoft was doomed to fail because there was no demand for a uniform personal-computer operating system). The sound bite is a virtuosic bit of right-wing framing. In just a few sentences Guy fuses two central conservative myths: the superior judgment of the “open market” to produce the best outcomes, and the efforts of the dreaded “wealthy liberal elite” to shove their ideas down the throats of the unsuspecting citizenry. The quote was so good it ended up being cited approvingly on a number of conservative Web sites.
Of course, anyone can parrot talking points; the real challenge is to be on message and entertaining at the same time. Guy and the people he looks up to–guys like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity–stand out because while they’re saying the same things every other conservative is saying, they make them sound original, either by being outrageous and obnoxious, like Rush and Hannity, or being funny, like Guy.
Guy is actually fun to argue with, because he loves doing it so much–it’s as though he’s always aware of the kind of rhetorical game he’s playing and, more than that, he’s aware that you’re aware of it too. When I first started reporting on him I feared he’d discover my politics and be wary of my motives, so I e-mailed him to declare my leftism up front and reassure him that I wasn’t interested in making him look bad. He wrote back: “I am fully aware of your political persuasions . . . and that’s fine. I didn’t expect that you’d be trying to write a hit piece on me considering that I’m 19. If you did, of course, there would be consequences–as I would call on the entire vast, right wing conspiracy to ruin your career! 🙂 we’re very efficient and ruthless. hahaha . . .”
He might not have a vast conspiracy to call on, but he and his conservative friends, many of whom live in adjacent suites on the first floor of PARC, do stick together. They call themselves out-of-the-closet conservatives, in contrast to the wimpier, but to their mind more numerous, conservatives who are in the closet. These closeted types are cowed by the liberal consensus on campus, Guy says, but he knows they’re out there. “There’s people who aren’t particularly political, who would rather not go through the hassle of being one of the conservatives. They might quietly vote for the Republicans, but they’re, let’s say, less forthcoming conservatives. A lot of people don’t want to make waves. I’ve made conservative statements in class and been hissed. I’ve gotten a few e-mails after Feedback shows–a couple of people were unhappy with some of my views.” I asked if he ever responds to such critics. “Yes,” he said. “I thank them for listening.”
I spent a lot of my time with Guy trying to figure out how he got so good. He doesn’t go to a conservative school, his family is only moderately Republican (his mother is a straight-ticket Republican, but she doesn’t think about it much; his father, an executive at a multinational financial-services company, says he’s “much, much more politically moderate than Guy”), and, most important, he’s only 19 years old. Then it came to me: like others on the right, he’s better at messaging because he’s been forced to spend every second of his college career arguing with liberals. So he and his friends pool their resources and hone their arguments and become virtually unbeatable. The same thing doesn’t happen for liberals at elite schools. We get good at arguing about how classist the drug war is and how subversive porn is. Then we get out into the real political world and just don’t have the chops to win an argument–or an election.
I ran this theory by Rich Lowry, editor of the nation’s premier conservative magazine, the National Review. Lowry met Guy last summer during the Republican National Convention. Since then they’ve maintained an e-mail correspondence, and Lowry appeared as a guest on Feedback last fall. “If you’re a conservative, usually you kind of like going against the crowd a little bit, that’s sort of the appeal of it,” Lowry said. “It’s much harder to be a lazy conventional conservative, because you’re constantly going to be challenged. So you think: why is opposition to gun control correct? You go and look at articles, back issues of the National Review, and you pay attention to the arguments. You acquire this arsenal. Why is the Iraq war right? You better know if you’re a conservative on campus. . . . All that helps produce something like Guy. That’s not to discount his natural talents, and just the way he is, which is very hard to invent.”
Guy grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City in one of the most affluent counties in the nation. When he was in eighth grade, students in his newspaper writing class went around the room and said what they wanted to be when they grew up. Guy said he wanted to be a sports broadcaster. When his classmate Dan D’uva said the same, the two became best friends.
Their first day of high school, Guy and Dan presented the principal with a petition calling on the school to start a radio station. The principal pointed out that the school already had a TV studio and a channel on local public access; Dan and Guy dove right in. “We started out with football,” recalls D’uva. “It was recorded live to tape, and when we started we had a VHS camera and we bought a couple of microphones at Radio Shack. It was the simplest and most unprofessional thing you’ve ever seen.”
Nevertheless, people started watching the broadcast. Though amateurs, Guy and Dan were entertaining hosts, and their show was the only way to catch the games if you couldn’t make it to the stadium. Other teams from their high school started asking them to broadcast their seasons. The boys moved on to hockey and then lacrosse. The summer after freshman year, D’uva says, “reps from different teams came to us and said, you guys do a great job; we’d like to help you. Would you like money for better equipment? They gave us about $6,000. By the time we were seniors we had six cameras, sideline reporters, a Telestrator, instant replay. It was pretty advanced.”
Guy had had his first real conservative epiphany three years earlier, when his sixth grade class was asked to vote on the presidential candidates and he realized he supported Dole. True to form, he’d done his homework. “It was not because of his charisma,” he says. “The local paper did a paragraph on each of the candidates on the issues–you know, like three sentences on two positions. I looked at the issues and realized that I agreed with Dole more than I agreed with Clinton. Dole lost, by the way, in our middle school.”
In 2000 he discovered talk radio. “One day I turned on WABC in New York, which was the Yankees’ flagship station,” he says. “I thought there was a day game; there wasn’t. Sean Hannity was on, and I would always turn off talk radio immediately because I just always assumed they were liberal, I don’t know why–you always hear ‘liberal media, liberal media.’ But I started listening, and I was like, Whoa! I’m agreeing with this guy.” Hannity had been discussing the Bush-Gore election and “attacking Gore and Hillary.” (Guy hates Hillary Clinton passionately, and, like many of his brethren, hopes she runs for president on the grounds that she’ll be the final nail in the Democratic coffin.)
Guy started listening to Hannity’s radio show religiously and watching Hannity & Colmes, the TV show Hannity co-hosts with liberal Alan Colmes on Fox News. He started writing conservative op-eds for the school paper, and by senior year he’d become editor in chief. He volunteered on campaigns for several Republican candidates. “And then my junior year I started thinking I’d really like to get an internship and just get my foot in the door,” he says. “There was a girl in my high school and I just overheard her mention one day that her father worked at Fox News. Filed that one away.” Instead of talking to his classmate, he called her father one night. “So I called him at home, having no idea who he was. I just sort of explained who I was. I think he had seen some of our high school broadcasts. . . . He was very helpful.” Guy was hired as an intern for Hannity & Colmes that summer.
He was the only intern who wasn’t yet in college. “I didn’t want anyone to find out how old I was, so I wore a suit every day,” he says. At the end of the summer a few co-workers cornered him and asked his age. When he said 17, one guy turned to the other and said, “See, I told you. Pay up.”
Guy was responsible for pulling together packets of articles on the topics that the hosts would debate each night. He managed to get in a fair amount of face time with both hosts (who are, he says, “really, really good guys”), and Hannity, who took a little while to learn Guy’s name, eventually invited him to sit in on a few tapings of his radio show. “It was awesome,” gushes Guy. “I felt like I was out of place, going from someone who just listened each day to being there and having him know who I was. The rule I set for myself was just pretend like you belong here.”
Guy also managed to befriend the woman who ran the Fox News TelePrompTer, and every day in the lull before the show went on air, he’d go down to the studio, sit at the desk, and read through the entire Hannity & Colmes script off the machine. “Just to get practice,” he says, “using the TelePrompTer.”
Last summer Guy landed a gig as an intern for Fox at the Republican National Convention. He was originally assigned the morning shift, but when he found out the evening shift included a chance to watch the speeches, he volunteered to work a double every day. Part of Guy’s job was tending to the stable of commentators Fox would bring in every night to comment on the speeches, including Lowry, Geraldine Ferraro, and former Georgia governor and U.S. senator Zell Miller, the turncoat Democrat who gave a vitriolic anti-Kerry speech at the convention. (“Zell Miller rocks!” says Guy. “He’s a good Democrat. He’s a Democrat I would vote for.”)
Guy would meet the guests on the street with credentials and guide them through the long security line. It was to him what a backstage pass for a concert might be to another teenager. “The most exciting thing was the second night of the convention,” says Guy, his voice a little breathless. “I walked Rich Lowry back out to his limo, and he’s like, ‘How are you getting home?’ And I was like, ‘I’ll get the subway or a cab or something.’ And he was like, ‘No. I live downtown.’ So I shared a limo back with him. I guess we’re both Bruce Springsteen fans, so we talked about that. We talked about politics. He asked if I was serious about broadcast journalism or if I considered doing print. It was so exciting. I was pinching myself the whole time.”
At 7:30 on the morning of the inauguration I met up with Guy and six of his friends from Northwestern at a Metro stop near the Mall in Washington, D.C. Guy had organized this victory trip so he and his fellow conservatives could watch their president being sworn in and celebrate without having to worry about ticking off their liberal counterparts. On election night, Guy told me, they kept the celebrating to a minimum “because we know that had the reverse been true we would have been equally devastated.”
They were a fresh-faced, enthusiastic group: Kyle, the earnest freshman; Lee, the Libertarian; Dave, a sophomore engineering major; Cary, prelaw; Ryan, a broadcast-journalism major who describes himself as a “nonmilitaristic reactionary”; and Brittany, who, at the first souvenir stand we saw, purchased a button with a photo of Bush in his flight suit. “I’ve got to support my commander in chief!” she said.
After purchasing some more Bush flair, we set off to negotiate the byzantine lines of police barriers and security outposts. By 9 AM we were standing in the damp cold underneath the Department of Labor, a concrete office building that borders the Mall, waiting to get through a security checkpoint to watch the swearing-in. There were at least 500 people packed in, half of them Republicans and the other half protesters. Even here, 700 miles from Evanston, Guy and his friends couldn’t get away from liberals. “Are we sure this is the right line?” Guy asked with a pained expression.
Protesters chanted, “Who is a terrorist? Bush is a terrorist!” while Republicans yelled back, “Who is the president? Bush is the president!” “You can tell the conservatives by the people who are dressed sort of nicely. It’s a generalization, I know,” Guy said, eyeing my button-down shirt, long overcoat, and leather gloves. “You’re an exception.”
The group passed the time pointing out particularly goofy signs: a picture of a pig with the word war scrawled across, or one that read U R NOT PRESIDENT! Guy asked, “Is that sign directed to the 260 million Americans who are actually not the president?
“This,” he pronounced, “really solidifies the loony left image.”
Four years ago I was in D.C. protesting the inauguration, but now I found myself sharing Guy’s annoyance. It struck me that protesting the inauguration is a little like a Yankees fan getting in his car and driving the four hours to Boston to protest the post-World Series parade.
Two hours later we finally cleared security and Guy was literally jumping up and down with excitement. As we trotted toward the reflecting pool behind the Capitol to watch the ceremony on a giant screen, a singer belted out a cover of “Let the Eagle Soar,” the treacly patriotic hymn written by John Ashcroft. Guy ate it up. “This is the pomp and circumstance surrounding government that I love,” he said. “I have goose bumps.”
Bush delivered his speech to much applause and whooing from Guy and his friends, and when he completed the oath, Guy initiated a round of awkward high fives. The ceremony concluded with a lengthy, meandering prayer, and for the duration the group kept their heads bowed.
After the ceremony we filed back up to the steps of the Labor Department to await the motorcade. Guy took a call from Dan D’uva and they discussed personnel moves at Fox News. “Carl Cameron got moved to the White House beat,” said Guy. “I’m so happy for him. Bret Baier really deserves a better beat than the Pentagon. He’s one of my favorites.”
Later we struck up a conversation with a woman who was producing a documentary on the First Amendment for PBS. Upon learning that Guy’s group was there to support the president, she said, pointedly, “So I guess you’ll be enlisting after you graduate?” I winced and turned away; Guy politely asked the woman about her movie.
The conversation that followed seemed perfectly respectful, but the tension was undeniable. So it seemed like nothing less than a thrown gauntlet when the producer asked, with feigned nonchalance, if Guy would like to say something for the camera. Sure, he said. Everyone in the group looked at one another: this should be good.
For a liberal, what came next was tough to watch. The producer seemed to think she was firing aces at Guy, but the questions were little more than soft lobs: “There are some people here today who disagree with the president. What do you think about that?” Over and over, Guy calmly and efficiently fired back a string of talking points: “If we were living in some kind of totalitarian state [the protests] wouldn’t be allowed. You’d be silenced or arrested if you said some of the things that I’ve heard said today, and that’s, I think, part of what makes this country great.”
After the interview the producer called me over. “This kid would piss himself if he went to Iraq,” she said.
As we took our leave, Guy wished the producer good luck with her project and then, in an impressive show of indifference, asked if she knew when the program might be airing. By now I’d spent enough time with Guy to know he was secretly pretty psyched about the possibility of being on television, even if it was public television.
Thirty, twenty, even ten years ago, a passionate young partisan like Guy would most likely be majoring in political science and angling for a job on Capitol Hill. But media is where it’s at for today’s conservatives. “Politics involves a lot of compromise,” says Guy. “So let’s say I were to run for Congress and during the primary I was asked about my positions on the death penalty or gun control, which differ from the party. I’d be faced with the choice of being honest and disqualifying myself from contention, or fudging the answer and compromising my principles. I’m not conservative enough on some issues to survive a primary and too conservative on other issues to win a general election.” He paused. “Not that I’ve thought about this a lot.
“Plus,” he added, “I feel like opinion shapers are rarely politicians.”
One of the nights I hung out in Guy’s dorm, after we’d watched Northwestern’s men’s basketball team drop a tough loss to Michigan, Guy showed me a tape he’d sent to Medill as part of his application. It was from the end of his first summer as a Fox intern. One night the TelePrompTer woman had gotten the cameraman, the makeup artist, and a few crew members to stick around after work, so Guy could go through the bottom-of-the-hour two-minute news update in full makeup from the studio desk.
On the tape, Guy’s in a suit, his cheeks a little too rouged, his lips a little hesitant as he begins to cycle through the headlines. But he hits his stride about halfway through as he reads a story about someone stealing money out of a church collection box. He’s got the delivery down, the self-assurance, and that professional-broadcaster voice. If you squinted, you’d swear he was a real news anchor. He wraps up by saying Brit Hume is up next on the “network America trusts for fair and balanced news.” At “fair and balanced” he can’t help cracking a smile, and for a moment he looks, again, exactly like a 17-year-old boy.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia, Lee Ettleman (Interview).