Matthew Continetti is not afraid of controversy. He gave Republicans indigestion in 2006 when he took aim at the incestuous relationship between lobbyists and the GOP in The K Street Gang (Doubleday, 2006). And now three years later, he’s got another hot story on his hands, The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star (Sentinel HC, 2009).
So he isn’t a little concerned about the coming reactions to Persecution, a full-throated defense of perhaps the most polarizing politician on today’s political stage? Continetti shrugs. “I don’t read reviews. I don’t watch myself on TV. I don’t Google myself,” he says. “I’m really not interested in what people’s reactions are to me. Some people will like it, some will hate it.”
With his argyle sweater and black-frame hipster glasses, Continetti doesn’t seem like the type to ruffle feathers. Sitting in a coffee shop, this 28-year-old associate editor of the Weekly Standard explains that despite the highly politicized subjects of his books and articles, writing—not politics—is his real passion. Political journalism was simply “a way to get paid writing.”
As a precocious 12-year-old in Springfield, Virginia, Continetti spent his Saturday nights “watching ‘The McLaughlin Group’” with his parents. He was well on his way to becoming a full-on news junkie, devouring Slate, the Atlantic, and Andrew Sullivan.com. At Columbia University, where he majored in history, he discovered National Review—“Jonah Goldberg: he’s really crucial to me”—and his future employer, the Standard.
But Continetti didn’t consider himself a conservative yet. That didn’t stop him from writing his first op-ed—about a series of campus suicides in fall 2000—with a distinctly conservative theme. In the pages of the Columbia Spectator, he argued that “Columbia’s rejection of the in loco parentis philosophy” could have something to do with the campus’s high suicide rates. Unhappy college students, thrown into a city not exactly known as nurturing, had virtually no source of authority or community to help them find their way.
The September 11 attacks cemented his move rightward. Seeing the “moral equivalence on the part of the left—people making arguments that the attacks were a result of blowback and that saying it’s understandable why these terrorists hate us,” he says, “sealed the deal.”
“I’d stumble home from the bars after going out, and the first thing I would do before going to bed was visit the [Standard’s] website to see what the new story was. I really wanted to work there.” And sure enough, on the night of George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, Continetti was offered a year-long Collegiate Network journalism fellowship at the Standard, which became a full-time job.
Looking back, he says, “I wanted to be David Brooks,” who was a senior editor at the time. Like Brooks, he saw himself primarily as a reporter-essayist. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to work at the Standard: He was there. Then I showed up, and he left three weeks later.”
But Continetti couldn’t be too disappointed. He got assigned his first piece for the magazine—a profile of General Wesley Clark during the 2003 presidential primaries—when the editor who had previously covered the general “didn’t feel like writing about him again.” And the contract for The K Street Gang fell into his lap after another Standard writer, Andrew Ferguson, passed it up: “Andy had already signed papers to write his book on Lincoln [Land of Lincoln]…At that point, I was 23, and again, had no clue what I was doing.”
The K Street Gang was a mixed success for Continetti. While reviews were generally positive, the Wall Street Journal thumped the book for its lack of “skillful reporting.” “If Mr. Continetti interviewed a single human being in the course of writing The K Street Gang,” the reviewer wrote, “there is no evidence of it…Mr. Continetti may have produced the first example of a new journalistic genre: the Nexposé.” A review in the Washington Post, though more admiring, echoed the Journal’s complaint. Continetti was largely unfazed by the criticism: “I was simply pleased that the book came out period.”
The K Street Gang certainly raised his profile as an up-and-coming conservative pundit. His byline began appearing in the pages of mainstream outlets like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times; the New York Times featured him a 2008 campaign blogger alongside his hero Brooks; and NPR tapped him as a political analyst.
As he followed the twists and turns of the ’08 campaign, Sarah Palin, then-governor of Alaska, naturally came to his attention. In Persecution, Continetti describes her as the standard-bearer for the “new populism,” the revolt against the coastal establishment elite. “Palin represents everything liberals dislike about a certain form of American and a certain way of living in America,” he explains. “[She] cuts against what most people in D.C. and New York think is acceptable.”
While Continetti is hesitant to forecast Palin’s political future, he has no doubt she will give her opponents a run for their money. “She has graduated to an interesting form of political power, the power of celebrity,” he notes. Her new book, Going Rogue, “was a number one bestseller weeks before it was published. She changed the direction of the national healthcare debate by a mere mention of death panels. She’s the most popular politician on Facebook after Obama.”
And even in the media, Continetti detects a slight shift in Palin’s favor. “The reaction to her resignation was not monolithically bad,” he says. “Once people who are exposed to her…actually talk to her, become familiar with her accomplishments and realize that she’s not a Bible-thumping dogmatic ideologue, they begin to respect her.”
Continetti is already thinking about his next book, but has “no firm plans” yet as to its subject. Perhaps the 2012 elections will give him more fodder. Continetti is fond of quoting an old adage in British politics: “Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose elections.” The main challenge for conservatives, he says, is stopping Obama. “I don’t want this country to look like New York or New Jersey or California,” he says. How about Alaska? As early as 2012, Continetti thinks a certain firebomb from Wasilla will make a bid for the presidential ticket. Her chances? “Better than you think.”
Emily Smith is a Collegiate Network Journalism Fellow. Photos by Katherine Ruddy.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire