October 29, 2006

Bernadette Malone: What’s Your Story?

By: Jeremy Axelrod

Bernadette Malone has light eyes, wavy blonde hair, and soft, friendly features that arch intelligently as she nods and listens. She asks me about my interests and my background until it seems as if I am the one being interviewed. It’s clear that I am experiencing the sharp, inquisitive attitude that has landed her a plum position at a top-shelf publishing house. We are sitting at a restaurant in Manhattan called Rare, which is fitting since Bernadette is a kind of purveyor of red meat conservatism. So when she recommends a beef item from the menu, I order it.

Three years ago, Penguin Books lured Bernadette from Regnery, an exclusively conservative publishing house in Washington, D.C., to work in New York City as an editor for its Sentinel imprint, and soon promoted her to senior editor. Her comfortable office, enviably cloistered from the scores of cubicles strewn across Penguin’s headquarters, is lined with the latest efforts of conservative intellectuals and provocateurs. Sentinel’s own titles include: A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush by Ronald Kessler; Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes by Mary Eberstadt; and A Patriot’s History of The United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror.

“I suppose the other imprints don’t acknowledge their political bias,” Bernadette says, aware of the double standard. No special liberal imprint had to be founded at Penguin to publish authors like Ted Kennedy and books like John Dean’s Conservatives Without a Conscience. But “there were qualms about publishing conservative books in mainstream imprints.” So Penguin founded Sentinel.

“A distinct imprint with an acknowledged political bias has plenty of advantages,” she adds. Because it is “devoted only to one philosophy,” Sentinel can nimbly seek out the media that will be most receptive to its books. Instead of flacking titles to the New York Times Book Review or trying to get calls back from the bookers at Good Morning America, Bernadette turns to Fox News, conservative talk radio shows, the Weekly Standard, and National Review. Knowing that a book is “written by a conservative, edited by a conservative with an ear to conservative needs and conservative themes,” helps focus the marketing strategy.

After getting her Bachelor’s at SUNY-Binghamton, Bernadette won internships at the Leadership Institute and the National Journalism Center, both in Washington, D.C. At the latter, she worked for Robert Novak as an editorial assistant and then as a reporter. In 1999 she pursued an ad in the back of the American Spectator for an editorial page editor of the ultra-conservative newspaper the New Hampshire Union-Leader. Taking this job just a year before the fiery 2000 election, she wrote constantly — “two editorials a day practically six days a week” — until she moved to D.C. and worked for Regnery for the next year and a half, while continuing to write a column for the Union-Leader. In 2004, Bernadette moved to New York to work for Penguin Books. “That’s how I ended up the only conservative in Greenwich Village.”

“How is that going?” I ask.

“Well, my great-uncle was a Catholic missionary in Communist China, and this is only a little bit easier.”

After majoring in philosophy as an undergraduate and completing six years of graduate studies in religion at Georgetown, she is certainly appreciative of the subtle argumentation necessary to strengthen the embattled right and to confront poor thinking on the left. But for Bernadette, winning over liberals is not a central concern. Her job, as she sees it, is “to find conservative readers, listen to their concerns, fulfill the needs of the market, and do it better than any of my competitors.”

Bernadette’s journalistic experience helps her anticipate how a conservative book will be attacked or rebutted, and where it needs fuller documentation or shrewder debate. But not every book, she recognizes, needs to function as an intellectual chess move. “I try not to impose my idea of what a book’s purpose should be on the people I’m trying to sell books to,” says Bernadette.

With the election of George W. Bush, it came as a surprise to many that, with Bill Clinton out of the White House, there was still a significant market for conservative polemic. Yet demand has only grown in recent years. “The kind of conservatives I talk to are still ticked off and still feeling embattled even with Bush in the White House and Republicans in charge,” says Bernadette. “They’re still ticked about immigration, budget, terrorism, and political correctness.” But most publishers, she remarks, were aloof even to Clinton-era conservative interest: “When Rush Limbaugh published The Way Things Ought To Be in 1992, it was a huge success, and no one saw it coming inside traditional New York publishing. The ways of detecting it and answering it hadn’t been perfected until the latter half of the 1990s.”

When she started college in 1991, Bernadette recalls, “I felt like I was the only conservative, and so I met five or six more on campus. The only thing binding us together was Rush Limbaugh. You found out another person liked Rush Limbaugh, and you knew you had a ‘Rush Room’ where we could come together and listen to him on the radio.” Today, the Internet provides an endless supply of Rush Rooms, where conservatives in any location can find each other and ask, as Bernadette puts it, “Am I crazy, or is it the rest of the world?”

The books Bernadette edits at Penguin receive far more mainstream press attention than the ones she shephereded at Regnery, but most of the attention is negative. Is any press good press? She points to Edward Klein’s The Truth About Hillary, which came out last summer. “It could not have been more widely disparaged by the New York media, and it’s our best-selling book.”

Conservative books are, however, difficult to publicize to non-conservatives, Bernadette laments, because the press only sees the book’s political bent. She says that when a successful leftist book on the women’s movement comes out, the press generally reports, “Here’s a very smart book on the women’s movement.” When the press sees a new book from Sentinel’s side of things, they say, “Here’s a very conservative book on the women’s movement.”

Take Bernadette’s “sentimental favorite” among the titles she’s edited for Sentinel, Home Alone America by Mary Eberstadt, which argues that the decrease in time parents now spend with their children — as divorce, working mothers, and day care increase steadily — has been largely detrimental to children and even to the moral sensibilities of parents. The question itself, Bernadette says, incensed liberals, even though Eberstadt, a distinguished journalist and stay-at-home mother who relied on babysitters in order to finish her book, showed quite a bit of of sympathy for working mothers. But it more or less takes a conservative audience to entertain the question and appreciate the rigor of Eberstadt’s case.

Ideally, Bernadette would like to be showing liberals a nice lean cut of conservative thinking and writing, while still feeding the appetites of conservative book-buyers for the kind of books they’re otherwise not getting from major mainstream publishers. As we talk about this over lunch, I realize the burger she recommended is easily the best I’ve had in New York City.

Jeremy Axelrod is an editorial intern at The New Criterion.