By Michael Miner
An Ideologue’s Stunning Debut
Someone once told me a story about the Red Army and the resistance in the Caucasus. Marauding Bolsheviks stormed the guerrilla redoubt, whereupon the boards beneath their boots gave way, and Lenin’s shock troops found themselves dangling from the floor joists by their armpits. Then the partisans got busy in the cellar, yanking down the invaders’ trousers to disembowel them.
What made me think of that? What I was meaning to write about was Linda Bowles, a west-coast columnist with only a pen to take to liberals. Anyway, last week Bowles joined the op-ed page of the Chicago Tribune.
The publisher of the Tribune, Jack Fuller, has thought long and hard about the epistemological obligations of the daily press, and now has written a thoughtful treatise on the subject, News Values: Ideas for an Information Age. Out of motives low and ironic I glanced through the page proofs of Fuller’s new book. I counted on him for a high-minded challenge to debate by mutilation.
He fervently appeals for thoughtful discourse: “At the Chicago Tribune we have struggled to find a simple way to describe our fundamental purpose. The phrase we have come up with is: ‘helping people master their world through knowledge.'”
It remains to be seen how Bowles, now at home on the Tribune op-ed page each Tuesday, will contribute to this mastery. But she clearly performs two other functions: (1) Many of us need someone in our lives who does nothing but make us furious. (2) Others need someone who validates every last furtive bias.
These are burdens Bowles gladly bears. “I show a tremendous amount of thoughtfulness,” she told me when I alluded to an element in Chicago that believes her first Tribune column showed none whatsoever. “However my sensitivity is usually aimed toward the conservatives. Although I would say the liberals enjoy reading my column. You can almost say they’re religious about it. You can say they love to hate me.”
She had written: “The liberal vision for America consists of two theoretical ideals”: “economic socialism” and “social hedonism.” This vision, “of course,” is inconsistent with “the letter and the spirit of the Constitution” and with “religious faith.”
She also explained why the Clinton administration didn’t balance the budget during its first two years, when Democrats ran Congress and fiscal sanity could have been restored in a twinkling. The White House, alas, had “more important business.” Her list of its “big pushes” is too long to repeat here in toto, but it included: to “diversify the sexes from two to five…legitimize sexual deviancy, sissify the military…foster class warfare…return California and Texas to Mexico, foster anti-American multiculturalism, protect endangered weeds and kangaroo rats, keep Hillary out of jail…use the good offices of the United Nations to teach Third World countries the joys of wholesale abortions.”
If you don’t recognize how witty this is, too bad for you. “I don’t like to come across as being bitter, so I use satire to point out the funny things,” Bowles said. “I think satire is a totally lost art, and I’d love to revive it. Obviously anyone with a sense of humor could see there was a lot of satire there. Obviously I’m not actually saying Clinton turned California and Texas over to Mexico. That’s a joke.”
I told her that I was a little mystified by that line myself. “Obviously I’m talking about immigration,” said Bowles, whose home is a small ranch on the edge of the California Sierras. “It’s a very serious problem.”
Unsurprisingly, her sallies sailed over the heads of liberal readers. Several flaunted their opacity in published letters: “A string of half-truths and weak sarcasm.” “A rambling list of flippant exaggerations and falsehoods.” “I would appreciate it if you would cancel my subscription.” “Old Col. McCormick must be smiling from ear to ear in his grave.”
Tribune columnist Eric Zorn took the remarkable step of responding to his new colleague in print. “We liberals do not have a scurrilous, ideological bomb-thrower on our team of mainstream pundits…one who sees nothing but benightedness, ineptitude and ill-intentions across the political aisle.” But typical of his liberal ilk, Zorn lapsed into sentimentality. “Maybe poisonous half-truths that ridicule and impugn, no matter how entertaining, don’t get anyone anywhere. Maybe they polarize us, infect our debates and impede progress toward building a nation that lives up to our ideals.”
“It seems to me the conservative audience has a little better sense of humor than the liberals,” said Bowles.
By monitoring America Online, she was able to savor much of the local distress. Zorn himself went on-line with an afterword: “Thanks to all who have responded and who continue to respond to the Bowles column. To those who say that conservatives like Bowles are simply giving liberals what liberals gave them, I invite you to find and post here a column or op-ed piece in a mainstream publication in the last 40 years that attacks conservatism in the broad, sneering contemptuous way that Bowles attacked liberalism.”
An answer soon arrived. “That’s not the way liberals attack,” wrote “MikeMcKing.” “So you aren’t likely to find many examples. Liberals prefer to attack conservatives with smug and often unspoken assertions about their own moral superiority. Liberals ‘care’ about the environment, the poor, the children, etc etc, and by implication, conservatives don’t. Liberals are simply better people; conservatives are selfish and greedy. That is an ‘attack’ equally as broad and contemptuous, just not as in-your-face sneering.”
Well, love Bowles or hate her, everyone’s sure to read her, right? But that’s not how the Tribune thinks. “The Tribune might start running pictures of naked models on the front page,” Fuller muses in News Values. “I guarantee you, it would sell newspapers. And then it would kill the franchise. It attracts attention by selling off credibility.” Bowles’s debut smacked of forensic cheesecake.
Why did you pick her up? I asked Don Wycliff, editor of the editorial page.
“I decided we need a conservative woman’s point of view in our pages among our stable of writers there,” he said. “Among all those available, she looked the best.” Wycliff wanted to drop the liberal Ellen Goodman, because he felt that she’d begun phoning it in. So there’d be room.
Was Bowles’s first column typical? I asked.
“I certainly hope not,” said Wycliff, who’d read some earlier columns before deciding to add her. “I informed her syndicate that I hoped her future columns would show as much thought as she showed spleen. I think we need a conservative woman’s viewpoint on the page. I don’t think we need a caricature of that point of view. A column is difficult to write. To be frank with you, there are a lot of people out there who think a column is just popping off, saying what my gut tells me. But a good column requires reporting, rational thought, and making an argument. That’s what I thought I was getting, and that’s what I’d better get.”
Because Wycliff had been out of the office, he didn’t see Bowles’s column until it ran. He called the Creators Syndicate rep who’d peddled him Bowles; she called Creators president Rick Newcombe; and Newcombe called Bowles out at the ranch and told her the Tribune wanted her to ease up. “I told Linda this is what was happening in Chicago, but I said in the end that it was her column.”
Bowles told Newcombe that this week she intended to write about Hillary Clinton.
“In a list of 100 subjects, the one I’d want her least to write about is Hillary Clinton,” Newcombe told me. “I tried very hard to get her to not write about Hillary Clinton. We syndicate Hillary Clinton. But she was adamant. And in the end it’s her prerogative. That’s my answer to Wycliff. ‘Why couldn’t you rein her in?’ Tell me about it.”
“This was a very typical column,” Newcombe said about Bowles’s first. “What generates this kind of passion is that the reader doesn’t know the author. You take that column that ran in the Tribune and take her byline off and put Pat Buchanan’s on, and people would think, ‘Oh yeah, it’s Buchanan being Buchanan.’
“This in the end is what enlivens debate and makes newspapers relevant. Get people to talk about it. ‘Did you see what the Tribune said today, or what Linda Bowles said today in the Tribune?’ The Tribune ran Mona Charen and stopped. They ran Tony Snow for a while and stopped [Creators syndicates both]. Now they’re running Linda Bowles, and it sounds like they intend to stop. It sounds like they don’t want a fiery conservative. That’s their prerogative. But I don’t think every column should be a legal brief.”
“Maybe he’s got something there, but I don’t think so,” said Wycliff. “Tony Snow was putting out a lot of unmemorable stuff. I personally found Mona Charen kind of shrill–but nothing at all like this.”
“I’m not a one-note columnist,” said Bowles. “I also write straightforward political commentary, and from time to time I openly celebrate the religious perspective. I wish they could have started me sooner so they could have seen my Christmas column.”
(“The fear, even the loathing, of His message is why the celebration of Christmas gets more pagan each succeeding year. The United States of America is no longer a Christian nation, or even a religious one. A massive assault on the religious community is rapidly taking on the ugly character of open religious persecution….Religious apartheid is official U.S. policy.”)
“I think my raison d’etre,” she said, “is to encourage conservative people to voice their opinions. To understand it’s not going to be a disaster if they speak their minds.”
Why should they think it would?
“That’s something I don’t totally understand. It could be because of the liberal reaction. When conservatives disagree with liberals they tend to argue the issues. In my experience, when liberals–this is the hardliners–disagree with what I say, they tend to try to blackmail the newspaper by saying they’ll cancel their subscription. That kind of thing. They want to try to shut down the conservative viewpoint.
“I’ll say this, the present climate in America is beginning to open doors to conservatives. Newspapers are beginning to understand there are conservatives out there and they want to read ideas to match their own.”
And so in January 1996 the Chicago Tribune awakened to conservativism.
On his own behalf and Mavrides’s, Newcombe tried to lobby the governor. He got nowhere. “Linda and I were talking one day,” Newcombe recalls. “I said, ‘Do you have friends in the California legislature?’ She said, ‘Yeah, lots of them.’ Bowles called a state senator she knew, and suddenly Newcombe and Mavrides had their champion. “He sent a feisty letter to the board,” says Newcombe, “the exact letter I’d been trying to get Pete Wilson to write.”
Two weeks ago the equalization board voted three to two to rescind Mavrides’s $1,000 tax bill. The board then revised its regulations, explicitly exempting cartoonists’ work from sales taxes.