The constant conservative: An interview with James Antle
By Bernard Chapin
I first became familiar with W. James "Jim" Antle III in 2003 when I began submitting to enterstageright.com—a website where he was, and is, the Senior Editor. Until very recently, he was also Senior Writer for The American Conservative, but he left that position to take up work with The American Spectator. As a writer, Mr. Antle's style is professional and objective, but he is never afraid to draw upon personal experiences as a way in which to support his conclusions. He also is extremely dedicated, and seems to work while the rest of us sleep. He has been published at practically all of the major conservative venues such as National Review Online, FrontPage Magazine.com, The American Conservative, Human Events, The American Spectator, Reason, the Washington Examiner, Tech Central Station, and a multitude of smaller online publications.
BC: Mr. Antle, thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. First off, let me ask about your career trajectory. You began in business while writing on the side, but at what point did you first become interested in writing? Was it something you always saw yourself doing?
WJA: Before I was aware that there was such a thing as copyright law, I tried my hand at writing knock-offs of "Peanuts" cartoons when I was in first or second grade. Given the plagiarism scandals that have plagued columnists in recent years, I was lucky to get such an early introduction to the concept of intellectual property rights! Initially, I was interested in writing fiction, especially C.S. Lewis-style fantasy novels, and began (unsuccessfully) trying to write books as early as the fourth grade. I dabbled in poetry and briefly considered becoming a music critic, before I realized that my pop-music tastes were too conventional—you don't get to be the next Lester Bangs by listening to James Taylor. Although my interest in politics dates back just as far—I was President Reagan's strongest supporter at Oak Street Elementary—I didn't start writing serious political commentary until later. In high school, I published a few pieces in small local newspapers. The overwhelmingly positive response even in a hostile political climate—I grew up in Massachusetts—convinced me to keep going.
I was the token conservative columnist for Ohio Wesleyan University's newspaper The Transcript for a couple of years and a frequent contributor to the College Republicans' newsletter, which was really an embryonic right-wing paper. But after school, I found myself back in Boston at the height of the dot-com boom. So I did what all the cool kids were doing at the time and went into IT. I got back into opinion journalism as a hobby in early 2000 and only reconsidered my career path after that hobby started to pay real money.
BC: Personally, I admire you very much for just that reason because, at one point, you used to an internet writer only but then you obtained a position at The American Conservative. Was it hard for you to leave a good job and a steady paycheck in exchange for the endless insecurity of writing? Do you have any regrets?
WJA: Well, I haven't endured that much insecurity because I've never lived solely on my freelance income. Ever since I became a full-time journalist, I have held staff jobs at magazines. They might not have been able to replicate my IT salary, but I always know where my next paycheck is coming from. And while journalism can be a volatile profession, it is no more so than IT after the dot-com boom went bust.
Before I came to The American Conservative, I had been working at a terrific marketing and technologies company. I enjoyed my job and my co-workers, but when TAC called to offer me an assistant editor position—I'd been freelancing for the magazine for a few months—I couldn't resist.
BC: As I recall, you started out over at enterstageright.com where you worked for Editor-in-Chief Steve Martinovich. How did that period influence your views and writing?
WJA: I began writing a weekly column for Enter Stage Right in January 2000. I'm about to celebrate seven years on the masthead. Steve Martinovich was incredibly generous, giving me a platform even when we disagreed. ESR allowed me to build up a readership throughout the U.S. and Canada, something I couldn't have done just publishing the occasional piece in a local newspaper. The most loyal have followed me from outlet to outlet since the beginning.
Starting in the late ‘90s, there was a burst of new webzines offering professional-quality content without significant professional connections—Real Mensch, Spintech, The American Partisan and, most enduringly, ESR. Some of the writers manned their keyboards in response to a particular political event that ticked them off—the 2000 Florida recount fiasco and all things Clinton were major catalysts—and then quickly faded when it was over.
But these sites and others like them also spawned an incredible amount of talent. My 4Pundits.com colleagues Jeremy Lott and Joel Miller, The American Spectator's Lawrence Henry, my TAC colleague Daniel McCarthy—they all started writing for a national audience on the web. I expect the trend to continue.
BC: I used to read a great many of your articles and was somewhat surprised, at least initially, when I heard that you had joined The American Conservative. I guess I always considered you to be more of a mainstream party guy. Was their a marked difference between their outlook and your own? Also, do you think the old paleocon vs. neocon debate had any legitimacy?
WJA: You're right that I started out as more of a "mainstream party guy;" I even (very briefly) worked in Republican politics. But as time wore on, I began to doubt the Republican Party's commitment to conservative principles. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, I didn't leave the GOP—in fact, I'm still a registered Republican. Instead, the GOP left me.
After 2001, I was disappointed to discover that many conservatives were reluctant to hold George W. Bush to the same standards we applied to Bill Clinton. If Clinton had proposed the largest new entitlement since the Great Society, a record expansion of federal education spending, amnesty for illegal aliens, or democratic nation-building in the Middle East, conservatives would have been outraged. But when these policies were espoused by a Republican president, too many conservatives rolled over. I liked the fact that The American Conservative didn't.
I was never in favor of invading Iraq and by 2004, when I went to work for TAC, I had come to regret not speaking out more forcefully against the war when it counted. My partisan loyalties didn't keep me from criticizing the administration on Iraq, but it certainly made my criticisms more muted than they otherwise would have been.
That doesn't mean I agree with TAC's editorial positions 100 percent of the time. I am more sympathetic to free trade and somewhat less optimistic about Palestinian intentions, for example. And my domestic-policy priorities probably leave me more common ground with mainstream conservatives. But I don't agree with any magazine's positions all the time, and I was on board when it came to the main ones—Iraq and immigration.
BC: What made you make the move to The American Spectator?Did you sense a better opportunity for advancement? Did you agree more with its perspective?
WJA: It was just the right time in my career to try something new and The American Spectator offered me a position that I felt would make better use of my full range of skills. I've been a contributor to The American Spectator for some time and an enthusiastic reader for even longer, so I was happy to come aboard. It's an exciting opportunity to work with some very talented conservative journalists and discover some new, younger talents.
I am still a contributing editor to The American Conservative and will appear often in its pages, just as I was a frequent contributor to The American Spectator while I worked at TAC. As far as the magazines' perspectives are concerned, my politics remain the same. The American Spectator doesn't have rigid ideological litmus tests. Instead, it is a broad-mindedly fusionist conservative magazine. That's not such a bad fit for me, a conservative on the paleo side of the Reaganite orbit.
BC: I apologize to readers if I'm the only person interested in this kind of question, but what's your writing schedule like? With all the editorial demands that you have to deal with, do you ever find it difficult to find time to write?
WJA: At TAC, writing and reporting actually took up more of my time than editorial tasks. I'm still too new to tell you what the ratio will be at the Spectator. But I do still have a lot of the habits I acquired when I was writing part-time while working in IT—I still spend a lot of my weekends behind the keyboard. Sometimes I get up early and bang out over a thousand words before 10 o'clock in the morning.
BC: Three-fourths of the way through, what is your opinion of George W. Bush? How would you rate his Presidency on a scale of 1 to 10?
WJA: George W. Bush has been good on tax cuts, federal judges, the partial-birth abortion ban, the International Criminal Court, Kyoto, and the initial invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban (though we are seeing some backsliding in Afghanistan presently). Otherwise, he has failed to deliver. He has helped congressional Republicans to engage in a Grand Old Spending Party. He failed on Social Security reform and made the Medicare problem even worse, with a prescription-drug benefit that further detracts from the program's solvency and makes free-market reform even more remote.
But his real legacy will be the war. William F. Buckley Jr. has said that a European prime minister who presided over Iraq would be expected to resign. I think Buckley is right. So far, Bush is a 3—about the same as Bubba. Maybe the Baker-Hamilton Commission will give him an opportunity to progress to a 4.
BC: What's the likelihood of a Hillary victory in 2008? Also, other than our sharing a cell in a Wellesley Reeducation Camp, what's going to happen after she wins?
WJA: It is hard to say what is going to happen nearly two years out. If you had told me a year ago that George Allen was going to use an apparent ethnic slur on camera and lose his Senate seat, I would have said you were crazy.
That said, Hillary has enormous fundraising and organizational advantages that have thus far protected her from the Democratic Party's antiwar base. Even a media superstar like Barack Obama will have great difficult overtaking her. Only a fool would count her out. I'd give her at least a 50 percent chance, even though early polls show her trailing both McCain and Giuliani.
If elected, Hillary will raise taxes, amnesty any illegal immigrants Bush left behind, attempt to nationalize health care and mostly abandon her faux centrism. You will, I fear, see the Left reverse itself on the issues of war and civil liberties—powers they would hate to see in Republican hands are just fine when exercised by Democrats.
BC: I enjoyed your recent piece on black Republicans, but the election faired badly for them. Why do you think blacks remain married to the Democratic Party while continuing to despise the party of Lincoln?
WJA: There are deep-seated historical reasons, some of them unfair, dating back to the Great Depression all the way through the civil-rights movement. During the civil-rights era, many African-Americans found government more supportive of their interests than private institutions. Even many middle-class blacks continue to believe they benefit from activist government. Logically enough, they vote for the party of activist government.
BC: Is there a reason why disaffected rightists should refrain from becoming Libertarians? Why should we continue to pretend that members of the Grand Hyperspending Party actually represent our needs?
WJA: Good question. You forget that your interviewee is pretty disaffected as well. Personally, I tend split my ballot between Republicans, Libertarians, various other third parties, and any non-horrible Democrat I can find. Libertarians arguably cost Republicans Senate seats in Montana and Missouri; a victory in either state would have preserved the GOP's majority. Republicans ought to be trying very hard to answer this question before the 2008 elections.