Matthew Continetti, editor of the Washington Free Beacon, has worked himself into one of the fine populist frenzies, which, alongside wild accusations of anti-Semitism, are his stock-in-trade. What set off Continetti this time is Jacob Weisberg’s puffy Vogue profile of Washington power couple Alex Wagner, an MSNBC host, and Sam Kass, the White House chef. Continetti finds the profile to be deeply revealing of the awful insularity of Washington (or, at any rate, liberal Washington).
Continetti tells us, again and again (redundancy being the hallmark of the Continetti literary style), that Weisberg’s story inadvertently reveals a “discomfiting ethnography of contemporary meritocracy, an acid test of how power is transacted in America today.” He explains how Kass and Wagner have benefited from social connections:
The assumption is that, with the right institutional mix, one’s natural talents will carry one to the appropriate social station. It is not who you are but what you do that is supposed to count …
I could not help noticing how these attractive, talented, up-and-coming thirty-somethings relied, again and again, on personal connections to get where they are today …
They are members of a self-perpetuating milieu, a caste of right thinking yuppies whose position and wealth and patterns of consumption are the fruit of personal relationships spanning decades …
What the Chinese call guanxi, networks of influence, benefited Kass and Wagner …
This is the way the clique that runs America justifies the inequalities endemic to “meritocracy,” the way it masks the flaws of a power structure that generates Brown-educated cable hosts and personal chefs who open ballparks with a phone call. This is how a new American aristocracy comes into being, one as entitled and clueless as its predecessors, but without the awareness of itself as a class.
Weisberg’s piece itself does radiate a certain insularity and self-satisfaction. Two decades ago, he chronicled the way members of the Democratic administration and leading journalists socialized and intermarried and blended together in a memorably scathing New Republic story titled “Clincest.” Now he is describing the same phenomenon in tones of breathless boosterism for a glossy magazine. You can’t help but feel that if the old Jacob Weisberg was transported into the present day and saw today’s version, he would write a vicious hatchet job about him, or perhaps smother him to death in his sleep.
That said, Continetti does allow that Wagner is the best host on her network (“I’d rather watch an hour of her than any of the other MSNBC hosts”). I share that assessment and have appeared on Wagner’s show. (I’ve never tasted Kass’s cooking.) The concession that Wagner is the best host on MSNBC would seem to pose a deep if not fatal blow to Continetti’s thesis. If “it is not who you are but what you do that is supposed to count,” as Continetti says, and Wagner is the best at what she does, how does her success threaten the meritocratic ideal?
But what’s truly amazing about Continetti’s passionate screed against the nepotistic liberal elite is that it was written by Matthew Continetti, who epitomizes what the Chinese call guanxi more than either Kass or Wagner, and arguably more than any American alive.
After graduating from college, Continetti received a well-funded fellowship at the Weekly Standard financed by a wealthy organization, founded by William Simon and Irving Kristol, which is dedicated to subsidizing conservative journalists. Book editor Adam Bellow had an idea for a project, and asked Bill Kristol, Irving’s son, for a name. Kristol suggested his young charge, Continetti, who was also
in the process [see update below] of becoming Kristol’s son-in-law (you can read the wedding notice in the New York Times). Kristol probably didn’t trouble himself too much about the threat to meritocracy, having himself attained his position in life in part by being the son of Irving Kristol. Needless to say, Bellow — the son of Saul Bellow, and the author of In Praise of Nepotism — probably didn’t mind, either.
Continetti nurtured early dreams of writing for magazines like The New Yorker, but instead gravitated to movement journalism. He authored a hagiography of Sarah Palin (who, like Continetti, is a Kristol patron), started up the Free Beacon, along with lobbyist Michael Goldfarb, with a memorable clarion call, headlined “Combat Journalism,” which explained the publication’s credo. Starting from the premise that the liberal media consists of “hackneyed spin, routine misstatements, paranoid hyperbole, and insipid folderol,” he set out to create an equally hackish version for the GOP: “At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.” And so he has done it again.
Update: Continetti’s engagement to Kristol’s daughter occurred several years later. I think the overall pattern of connections in his career very much resemble the “clique” and “web of connections” he is decrying. But it’s fair to say that I overstated things when describing Continetti as having benefited from social networking “more than any American alive.” He began his career in normal ways, acquired patrons quickly through work, and only later married his boss’s daughter. It does not obviate but does weaken the point. My apologies for getting the chronology mistaken.