Politics & Media
Jan 30, 2009, 04:58AM

INTERVIEW: Nick Gillespie

The Editor-in-Chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv talks about the print media crisis, his editorial philosophy, and why his libertarian publication won't be going easy on Obama.

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Nick Gillespie, the 45-year-old editor-in-chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv, is one of the most colorful and acerbic contemporary American journalists. A frequent contributor to publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Slate and Marketplace, among others, Gillespie is a vituperative libertarian and, as the Post described him, “a doctor of literature.” He answered by email a number of questions posed by Splice a few days ago.

SPLICE TODAY: Do you expect the content of Reason and reason.com to change much during the Age of Obama, or are you impervious to who's in the White House? And what are you immediate goals for your empire?

NICK GILLESPIE: Like Cincinnatus, George Washington, and Todd Rundgren (proclaimed "God" by at least a dozen fans in the late 1970s, and not without reason), I walk away from empire in all its forms, including writing hit records at will. Until you mentioned it, I wasn't aware I had any relation to empire other than the one we're all living in now: The Bailout Empire. Look upon my public works, ye mighty, and despair!

Reason in all its forms—print, web, and video—was an early and persistent critic of the Bush administration and the idiotic GOP Congress that busted the budget while layering on more levels of regulation and federalized frosting than you'd get in a Cheesecake Factory dessert. Based on his first days in office, during which he backed away from his own incredibly mild ethical rules, bombed Pakistan, and bumped up the amount of his own bailout plan, I'm sure we'll be equally antagonistic to the Obama presidency. And let's not get started yet on the Democratic Congress, which, like the stock market of late, demonstrates that however low you think you are, you can always go lower.

Who is in the White House, the statehouse, anywhere but the outhouse (unless you're Larry Craig, and even then), matters a lot to Reason. We're libertarians here, we support "Free Minds and Free Markets," which means two things when thinking about politics.

First and foremost, we believe that politics—a rotten, zero-sum game in which the winners rub the losers' face in dog shit like a schoolyard bully—should not be the primary focus of human activity. It should be squeezed into the smallest box possible so that individuals and the communities they form can get on with far more interesting and exciting and liberatory stuff.

Second, you need to keep a close eye on the adult version of the student council presidents and the bright boys who know the one best way to do anything and will force you to live their way or the highway. So we'll be pursuing an endless and sleepless critique of government action at all levels (I hate my local zoning board more than I hate the federal Department of Veterans Affairs) while also showing what people do with the economic, lifestyle, and cultural freedom they still have. However bad the political arena is, we've got this terrible, terrible freedom to make and consume the culture we want. That's worth remembering, celebrating, and expanding. Economic and foreign policy crises are not the be-all and end-all. Remember the 70s, when we had the equivalent of an economic Chernobyl—or at least a Three-Mile Island—going on for years? By the end of the decade, we were far freer than at the start. You can look it up.

ST: Why has the Super Bowl become a de facto national holiday? Do you watch it and prepare a table of fast food and snacks, and do you care who wins? And do you think people who say "I only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials" are full of shit?

NG: I have never quite gotten over losing a $5 bet to my father when I foolishly bet on the Redskins to beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII (that's 7, for those folks like me who have trouble with regular math, let alone Roman numerals). Why would anyone, even a stupid 10-year-old kid, ever bet on Billy Kilmer to win anything other than a hot dog eating contest? That stupid fucking one-bar facemask! Like the rest of America, I walked away from that game a huge Garo Yepremian fan.

Now I watch the Super Bowl for wardrobe malfunctions. I mean, who doesn't want to see Ken Whisenhut split his pants? I think America lost its innocence when we witnessed Justin Timberlake touch a woman, any woman. It was like staring directly into a total eclipse of the sun, the heart, you name it. And it started the current cycle of FCC mania about protecting TV viewers from anything other than really shitty halftime shows.

In short, watching the Super Bowl is a great way to kill some time. Just make sure your bungee cord is secured properly and don't stint on the Tostitos.

ST: Are you as appalled as me that Bruce Springsteen, that Philip Berrigan kind of liberal who eschews materialism, is playing the half-time show at the Super Bowl?

NG: Why Springsteen? Is Gary Glitter still stuck in Thailand? Is Buddy Holly not returning the NFL's phone calls?

I grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey, which contains both Springsteen's hometown (Freehold) and his early haunt (Asbury Park), so I can't stand him in the same way that only a New Yorker can really, really hate the Yankees. I'll say this much about the Boss: His output over the past 25 years or so would make even Beethoven nostalgic for the first few albums. Springsteen is in that elite group of rock stars who have objectively sucked two, three, or even four times longer than they were ever any good (are you listening Sting, David Bowie, R.E.M., Patti Smith?). That, and in the video for "Glory Days," he had the worst fake baseball throwing arm since Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees. Which is saying something.

Watching Springsteen perform at the Super Bowl—and before him, rock mummies like Tom Petty and Rolling Stones—let's just say I'd rather go straight to the Bodies exhibition, where at least no one is pretending that the corpses on display aren't actually dead.

ST: Christopher Hitchens wrote recently in The Atlantic that perhaps with Obama's election, political correctness might be dialed back and that the word "cat" would no longer raise eyebrows as being racist. Do you agree, or, as a friend said, might the day after Thanksgiving now be referred to as "African-American Friday"?

NG: As a graduate of Catholic schools, I can testify that political correctness—speech codes and related restrictions—has always been with us in one form or another.

One of my unironic hopes for the Obama presidency is that it does close out 400 years and more of odious racial discourse in America and with it, a good chunk of political correctness. Then again, right on Inauguration Day, you get the minister Joseph Lowery praying about how he hopes that one day the U.S. will become anti-discriminatory: "Lord...we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right."
What the hell was that? An unpublished Nipsey Russell rhyme from a lost episode of The $100,000 Pyramid? Yellow will be mellow? When the Jew can drink Mountain Dew? The wop can be a cop? The kraut can give a shout? Between Lowery, Rick "I've eaten dinner in gay homes" Warren, and Obama himself, there was way too much god-talk for me. I think religion is a great thing, but I also think that religiosity in a limited-government, small-r republican structure is always annoying, whether it's coming from a biblical literalist such as George W. Bush (who could only bring himself to read a condensed "One Year" version of the Bible) or from a cosmopolitan such as Obama.

I realize Lowery is an old man and I cut him some slack for all the crap that he and too many others like him had to deal with for far too long. But I think we've hit that day where black is not asked to go back. And Asians, those poor, sad-sack model minorities, don't have to be any more mellow than the fans at a Ted Nugent concert. That's good news.

ST: From your perspective, what are three things that Obama could do in his FDR First 100 Days that would pleasantly surprise you?

NG: 1. End federal medical marijuana raids on legal-under-state-law dispensaries in California, as he said he would do during his campaign.
2. Actually stick true to another promise, that he wouldn't allow pork projects to enter his stimulus bill. Which would effectively kill the bill, which is all pork.
3. He could repeal Don't Ask-Don't Tell.

Of course, he could have done all this (and more) in his first 100 minutes. Maybe the best thing he—or any other president could do—is to declaim the idea that he's got to hit the ground running and pass a lot of laws right away. At the outset, FDR was good on prohibition and pretty much bad on everything else. According to many economists, his frenzied activity froze investments and his laws restricting flexibility in wages and prices exacerbated and lengthened the economic recession. So screw FDR and the whole 100-days concept.

ST: As the economy continues to sour, do you think there could be an even more restrictionist (a la Lou Dobbs and Pat Pat the Water Rat Buchanan) view towards immigrants in the U.S., legal or illegal?
NG: Anti-immigration fervor is historically one of the vilest traditions in American life. It's been there from the beginning, coupled with a recognition that we're all immigrants (except maybe for Sen. Lamar Alexander). Strangely, restrictionist sentiment tends to be at its worst during relatively prosperous economic times, such as the 1920s and the 1990s. It typically recedes in times of economic recession and depression, partly because immigrants stop coming. So in that sense, the economic downturn may well mean that people stop bitching about immigrants for a while. Immigrants who, like my grandparents from old Ireland and Italy, came here to work and only add to the American economy and society in every way.

ST: Who, in your opinion, is more obnoxious: Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Sean Hannity, Frank Rich or Manny Ramirez?

NG: One of the great things about America that I learned from 7-11 in the 80s when they introduced fountains serving Coke and Pepsi products was what they advertised as "freedom of choice." You really can have it all. The great thing about the list you offer is that you don't have to choose just one.

ST: Say you have an unlimited budget at Reason. What writer would you sign on?

NG: Nobody. I enjoy the writing of many people—you mentioned Hitchens above, also folks such as Andy Ferguson and Matt Labash at The Weekly Standard, and Anthony Bourdain, and Mary Anastasia O'Grady at The Wall Street Journal, and my former boss Virginia Postrel at her Deep Glamour blog and The Atlantic, and Greg Gutfeld at Fox News, and a ton of others—but I'm more a fan of publications than individual writers. I'd be more interested in hiring somebody with a creative consciousness that would, like an orchestra conductor, make something bigger than the sum of its parts.

The most important people in the record business are the producers. I think the most important folks in print journalism are the top-level editors who sculpt an imagined world that readers can wander through the way you do with a great catalog or novel. The guys behind Spy, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, were like that, far more important than any of the great writers they cultivated (look at them now and they're kind of like Sting or Springsteen; see earlier answer). So were Louis Rossetto, Jane Metcalfe, Kevin Kelly, and others at Wired. They didn't just happen upon a gaggle of great writers and let them loose, like man-beasts trapped on the Island of Dr. Moreau. They refined them the way you refine gold or train a pigeon to play ping pong. It's a long, arduous process. And they placed them into an exquisite publication that just really pushed the limits of how we thought about stuff.

ST: Will you shed a tear if The New York Times is either sold for scrap parts or withers away in the coming year? What daily paper, if any, do you pay most attention to?

NG: No. My tears are reserved for my children and the people who have to interact with me on a regular basis (I feel almost as sorry for them as I do for myself). Seriously, who really cares about the newspaper industry other than the folks in it? My Reason colleague, the great Matt Welch, a veteran of totally marginal startups in places such as Prague and the mighty Los Angeles Times, puts it best when he notes that "the industry they (and I!) so cherish, which has suffered mind-blowing valuation losses and several dozen rounds of downsizing both in personnel and column inches, is still bloated after all these years, with costs that no publisher would dream of incurring if he was starting a newspaper from scratch in 2009."

It's been a great ride for print and that ride is far from over, but media and reporting and all that isn't going anywhere even if daily newspapers have to change the way they do business. Like the rest of the world, sure I'll miss Judy Miller's spoon-fed reporting on Iraq weapons of mass destruction and “The Ethicist” column and the Jr. Jumble Acrostic and all that. But if that's what stands in the way of media designed for the 21st century, I'm willing to sacrifice them so that others may live.

It's been a long time since I subscribed to a print edition of any daily newspaper. I hit the Cincinnati Enquirer on a daily basis because I live in its orbit (just outside of Pluto) half the time. I like USA Today online, The Washington Post, The New York Post. But mostly I look at Google and Yahoo News. The Washington Times, believe it or don't, has great cultural coverage.

ST: You live in Washington, D.C. How awful is that? Or am I just a rube and missing out on the pleasures of the city?

NG: I live in D.C. part-time. The other time is spent in Oxford, Ohio, home to Miami University (which produced Ben Roethlisberger) and the grave of Weeb Ewbank. It's a good place and no more real than D.C., or New York or anywhere else. Everybody here wants more government in certain areas and less government in others. D.C. was the world's first Brasilia—a fake capital created just for political shenanigans. In many ways, the city still reveals its roots—or more precisely, its lack of roots. Unlike, say, Philadelphia or New York, the life here isn't thick in the way it is in a city that gets built from the ground up. What's the last retail trend or store that started in D.C.? For the most part, it's a place where chains come after they've been proven in Los Angeles, Chicago, or elsewhere. It's got genuinely abysmal public schools, which cost as much or more than anywhere else. It's filled with the most shallow, careerist folks this side of Hollywood. It's overpopulated with the detritus of failed regimes that are practically carried around on litters, like ancient rulers. Remember Clark Clifford, the great D.C. fixer whose big claim to fame was being an even worse Secretary of Defense than Robert McNamara and who was finally revealed as the dime-store cheater that he was? D.C. is chock full of junior varsity Clark Cliffords.

Having said that, I like D.C. a lot. Sadly, it's like Broadway for political journalists. What Willie Sutton said about banks is true of DC: It's where the money is.

ST: What book, new or old, would you recommend to our readers? What pre-1990 film? And what's your favorite television show?

NG: Here's three, based on the notion that the Obama administration is picking up where the Bush admin left off and will be dictating more and more of how we spend our money:

1. Robert J. Samuelson's The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence, which came out late last year and is a great guide to how smart economists and politicians fucked up the American economy and how Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan broke the back of inflation in the early 1980s. It is a disturbingly contemporary book.
2. The Decline of American Liberalism, by Arthur A. Eckrich, which originally came out in the 1950s and treats U.S. history as an ongoing struggle between forces of centralization and decentralization.
3. The Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a great and underappreciated novel about how utopian schemers always get it wrong and cause too much hurt along the way.

The last film I saw that really rocked my world was The Battle of Algiers, which is exciting, disturbing, relevant given Islamic terrorism—and unexpectedly hilarious in terms of its ending. Algerians regained control of Algeria—they should have had it all along—and it's arguably worse now than when the film came out in the mid-60s. The original Ghostbusters is as good a libertarian meditation on government as has been made. And I reserve a soft spot for It's a Wonderful Life for giving us that all-too-brief glimpse into Pottersville, the alternative Bedford Falls that is filled with gin mills and gambling joints.
I watch TV the way I eat Entenmann's baked goods: by the yard. It matters less what's on than that the electronic hearth is on. I watch a lot of cooking shows and I genuinely enjoy the drama of whether Rachael Ray is going to plate her fried green beans before the credits roll. Or whether Mario Batali is going to explode by the end of Iron Chef America. On the History Channel the other morning, I caught an old Movietone about Konrad Adenauer and how he saved postwar Germany from economic despair and enjoyed playing bocce when he was 80 years old. To bring it back to Springsteen: He once complained that there were "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)." What a lack of imagination!
Then again, he'll probably be right during the Super Bowl.

  • This guy is funny. More articles like this, please.

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  • Entertaining interview. I like Gillespie's combination of wit, cynicism, and thinking-man observations, mainly delivered in a funny way. Makes Stewart and Colbert seem a little dated and hamhanded, and Gillespie is a writer, not a comedian. Wonder how Gillespie would translate to the TV talk show medium.

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  • It's good to hear this kind of frank candor from someone in the media - I think the most dangerous thing that could happen is if the media and all democrats let the Obama honeymoon continue indefinitely. Good to see that Gillespie sees the light.

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  • This was a great interview and the line below slayed me! "NG: Why Springsteen? Is Gary Glitter still stuck in Thailand? Is Buddy Holly not returning the NFL's phone calls?"

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