Andrew Ferguson on journalism, politics, and culture

January 16, 2017 (Episode 76)

Table of Contents

I:   A Career in Writing 0:15 – 28:22
II:  Revenge of the Baby Boomers 28:22 – 44:58
III: Conservatism and Journalism 44:58– 53:3
IV: “Crazy U” 53:31– 1:18:51


I: (0:15 – 28:22 ) A Career in Writing 

KRISTOL: Hi. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS, I’m Bill Kristol. I’m very pleased to be joined today by my colleague Andy Ferguson from The Weekly Standard, author of many, many brilliant articles over the years.


KRISTOL: Three or four. I was going to say four. And three books: most recently, Crazy U, which we will talk about a little later, on current system of higher education; Land of Lincoln, and then a book of essays from 1996, I think, Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces. Where did that title come from?

FERGUSON: Well, it was imposed on me by my publisher through the agency of P.J. O’Rourke, who wrote the introduction. I’ve never quite figured out what it means. It was my idea, actually!

KRISTOL: It’s deep, there are many levels to it.

FERGUSON: Yes, I just don’t know what they are. I’m sure there are many levels. The phrase is from an aphorism. It goes, “Fools’ names, fools’ faces are often seen in public places.” The idea being that I think there are a lot of idiots in the world. And the conceit of the book was that it was a series of semi-profiles or discussions of individuals – Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, Donald Trump, and a number of other people – who were kind of known for their ridiculousness. I wouldn’t say that about Bill Bennett, I should take that back.

KRISTOL: I picked it up just a little while ago. I hadn’t looked at it in a while. I guess it came out, what, just after The Weekly Standard began, as I recall. In ’96, yeah. I had forgotten that there was an essay on Donald Trump, which makes it very topical. Written in 1990, I think?

FERGUSON: Probably, ’90 or ’91. It was a book review, and it was written – If anybody who has read a good Trump book – that is where he’s had somebody [ghostwrite it] who tries to mimic his tone and his cadence and everything – you start reading it and you just get caught up in the rhythms of these, you know, his bombastic phrasing of everything. Everything is an exaggeration; everything is to the extreme. So when I wrote the review, I thought probably the easiest way to make fun of it was just to use his tone and his conversational pacing, and so on. And so I did, and I thought it was one of the meanest things I’d ever written – up to that point. But apparently, he loved it. He called up –

KRISTOL: Is that right? Did he call you or did he call the [Wall Street] Journal?

FERGUSON: No, no, [the Journal]. Loved it. Saying, “Good review; fair.” And I said, “Oh God, I didn’t do it then.” If he liked it, then I didn’t achieve my objective.

KRISTOL: I re-read it a couple of weeks ago and it’s obvious you’re mimicking him or mocking him. But you do so in sort of a gentle way, in a somewhat kind way. The book cheered me up a lot because these are all essays from 20-25 years ago about how ridiculous our public life is. And I’ve been sitting around all year this year – it’s the end of September now, 2016 – thinking we’ve gone totally downhill from some height in the past to this new low in our politics. And reading your books made me think maybe we’ve always been this way.

FERGUSON: I think you can go to any particular era, certainly in American history – you go back to the 1840s and there are people laminating the decline – I mean, Thomas Jefferson, before he died, was lamenting “the decline of character,” and so on. That was sort of the theme of this book 20 years ago, and if anything, it’s just gotten worse.

I don’t think that the fact that it’s a common trope among social observers that, “things used to be better and they’re worse now,” invalidates the point. So, it’s not really an argument against saying, “God, things are really going to hell,” by saying, “people said that in 1840, and they said it in 1950,” and so on. It just may be the fact that things are always going to hell in a hand basket.

KRISTOL: Let’s talk about that. Is it worse, and in what particular way – is there one thing that jumps out to you? You’ve been writing about this your whole adult life.

FERGUSON: There are lots of different things that are going on that I think weren’t going on even 25 years ago. Trump is the perfect embodiment of a kind of decline. I remember Ronald Reagan running in 1980 and people said, “My God, this is the end of American politics; you got a guy who is a bad actor and in bad movies, and superficial, clearly doesn’t know anything. By God, back in the days of Ike or Roosevelt, you could never tolerate a man like this.”

Of course, he turned out to be a fine president, and actually quite intelligent person, and well-read, and so on. I don’t think that’s going to happen with Trump. I mean, if, God forbid, he was actually the President of the United States. I don’t think that we will find that, you know, back of him, as it was back of Reagan, a long trail of books read and ideas gone through.

KRISTOL: Handwritten radio addresses, which he himself edited.

FERGUSON: And which are very well written. I just don’t think that that’s going to be the case with Trump. Reagan was a creature of fame, obviously. He wouldn’t have gotten to politics, or he couldn’t have achieved what he achieved in California politics if he had not already been famous, and very good looking, and well-spoken, and so on.

But Trump has taken pure fame, which is to say, well-known-ness, fame without any particular achievement behind it. It’s almost as though there is nothing behind the celebrity. That’s different from the way it used to be.

KRISTOL: I guess that became, though, a theme of critics in the ’60s, ’50s. I want to say, “famous for being famous.” Didn’t Daniel Boorstin write something on celebrity? A book or an essay?

FERGUSON: Yes, he has a wonderful essay on celebrity.

KRISTOL: I should go back and look at that. I haven’t thought about that until this minute.

FERGUSON: Actually, he wrote some amazing things anticipating what was going to happen. You know, he coined the term pseudo-event, too.

KRISTOL: This is Daniel Boorstin, the great American historian –

FERGUSON: And then became Librarian of Congress; Reagan appointed him, in fact.

KRISTOL: Died about 10 or 15 years ago.

FERGUSON:  A really very impressive guy. Wonderful, wonderful writer and, I guess, a good historian, if I were able to judge that. He coined this term, pseudo-event, because he noticed in the late ’50s that the press conference, for example, was a new thing. That is an event totally manufactured just to create news. It was done with, of course, the cooperation of reporters and people in the journalism business. So, he thought, isn’t it odd that they can actually create an event that is an event just to be covered? For the sole purpose of getting publicity. Of course, now we are so far beyond that. There are layers upon layers of falsity that have gone on top of the pseudo-event. Now we are at the stage of pseudo, pseudo, pseudo, pseudo-events, I think.

KRISTOL: Was TV really the break? We hadn’t really thought about this again until now, but you do think that somehow the television and mass televisions was a moment where democracy went to a whole other level of –

FERGUSON: It was truly a mass phenomenon unlike anything. There was – movies, of course, were visual, but to see a movie you had to get up, go the movie theater, and then you had to leave, and so on. The TV was something that came right into your home.

KRISTOL: And was live. Could be live.

FERGUSON: I’m very interested, in fact, I was thinking about this the other day: Even now – with, of course, the saturation of the Internet in everybody’s lives and its ability to convey information, which has just really taken over everything else – I still believe that TV trumps, if you’ll excuse the phrase, everything. TV fame is unlike Internet fame, with all due respect to the medium. You can’t get famous as quickly and as enduringly as you can on television. There are all these YouTube celebrities and so on, but to achieve a fame that will last, say, maybe three weeks as opposed to 48 hours – television is still, you just can’t beat it.

KRISTOL: I guess movies before that were extremely big but that was, again, you’d see a movie by someone every six to nine months, television’s every week or every day, if you’re a newscaster.

FERGUSON: Again, it wasn’t ubiquitous, in the way – you didn’t have Clark Gable in your house every day. Whereas, you do, unfortunately, have Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in your house every day.

KRISTOL: And you don’t think this is a good thing for America, civilization? Communication, more knowledge, all these things that people use to justify –

FERGUSON: It’s interesting to think if you could combine television fame and Aristotle, you know? That would be one thing, but television can’t do that. You can’t screw Aristotle into television. Television, by its nature, rewards people like Donald Trump.

It’s a marvelous medium in a number of different ways. I mean, you can still convey lots of information and you can make experiences immediate in ways that you can’t through other media. But it still places demands on the people who exploit it and, basically: the more superficial, the better.

KRISTOL: I guess what’s changed – but you should discuss this, not me – but somehow it seems like when we were younger there was television and that culture; but then there were other cultures: you had high culture, intellectual culture, university culture. Not that they were all so great, God knows. And it’s sort of a swallowing up of all the others by the mass culture.

FERGUSON: Yes, that kind of flattening of everything. You know, I always think about public television. When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was launched in the ’60s as part of “the Great Society,” E.B. White wrote a wonderful essay, slightly pretentious, about how we were going to rise or fall on the strength of television. And here, finally, was the promise of television being fulfilled, because it was going to be public; it was going to be guided by intelligent people, it wasn’t going to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and so on and so on. And of course, now, you turn on a PBS station and you’re likely to see doo-wop groups. Because of television, and the mass saturation that it allows, there just wasn’t room for high culture anymore.

KRISTOL: That’s interesting.

FERGUSON: You remember, when we were kids, Leonard Bernstein had these marvelous series – which are still available on DVD – series explaining classical music. Young people’s concerts they would give in Carnegie Hall, and they would tape them. He was so charismatic and wonderful to watch. That was just sort of standard fare; it was expected that intelligent people should take responsibility for what they’re doing by putting it on television. And now, I don’t think anybody feels that compulsion.

KRISTOL: It’s striking. One of my favorite essays in this book, which I should say is, of course, available on Amazon–

FERGUSON: For a penny.

KRISTOL: For one cent. That’s what I paid. It’s one penny.

FERGUSON: Worth every penny.

KRISTOL: But what about the $3.98 for shipping? I hate paying more for shipping; there’s something wrong about paying more for shipping than for the book.

FERGUSON: I don’t get a cut of the shipping.

KRISTOL: That’s good, you get a cut of the pennies. Anyway, it’s a very fine book. You could buy it new, and pay more and get a nicer copy of it. One of the great essays in that book – and they really are terrific, all of them – is the essay about you being on television with, do you remember which one I’m talking about?

FERGUSON: Oh yes, Gennifer Flowers. Who was the first of, to use the phrase the Clinton people used, of “the bimbos” who erupted as Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992.

KRISTOL: That seems quaint, doesn’t it? I remember, all of us – well, you and I were in the Bush White House at that time. You spent a year or so away from journalism writing speeches, we should talk about that in a minute, for President Bush. We thought, “Well, that could kill his campaign.” And now? Can you imagine?

FERGUSON: Oh, I remember when the story broke, I walked into the office of my boss, Tony Snow, the late Tony Snow, and I said, “Mr. Clinton, he dead.” And Tony said, “I’m not so sure.” And Tony, of course, was right.

But Gennifer Flowers managed to achieve this astonishing celebrity. She posed for Penthouse Magazine and all these sorts of things. So, I was asked to be on a show, a kind of an Oprah knock-off, up in New York, and I went on with, I think it was Jacob Weisberg, who was then at The New Republic, and a woman named Jane Furse, who was a reporter for the New York Daily News

KRISTOL: So this is what, like in ’98, I think? During impeachment?

FERGUSON: Yeah. She kind of kept trying to find ways to angle her way back into the spotlight, and impeachment was one of those. She also had a book coming out, which, of course, is important. So, it was sort of Jacob and Jane on one side, and me and Gennifer on the other side. I didn’t quite realize that we were supposed to be a tag team, and I was supposed to be her journalistic-defender.

KRISTOL: As the anti-Clinton sort of guy.

FERGUSON: Yeah. And as the taping went on, she was actually quite, um, attractive. Above the usual run of Bill Clinton. Prettier than Janet Reno, for example. Anyway, so, right before a break Jane Furse was kind of insulting poor Gennifer, and she said to her – well, I can’t remember what the claim was – but she said, “Well, if you believe that,” Jane Furse said, “I mean, you’ll think that Jennifer Flowers is a natural blonde.” And people were, “Hooo-oooh,” you know. And they “Cut!” and go to the commercial. I could feel the heat radiating off of Gennifer Flowers. And she slowly rose out of her chair and walked over to Jane, and stuck her face in Jane’s face and said, “Now listen, I have never claimed to be a real blonde, but I can tell you this: my tits are real!” And I thought is she going to, you know –

KRISTOL: This was not on air, unfortunately.

FERGUSON: This was on the break, alas. And of course, the audience didn’t get to hear it. I think she would have won over many more sympathizers to her side if they had been able to hear her make that claim. So, I wrote it up, actually, the whole event, and mentioned that line and it went out over the New York Times’ wire. And Gennifer was so pleased by the story that, in her next book, she wrote about how, really, there had only been one defender in the media of her dignity, and it was “Andy Ferguson of the New York Times.” I thought, “Well, I never really wanted to work for the New York Times, and now I’ll never work for the New York Times.”

KRISTOL: They didn’t insist that the publishers issue a correction? Destroy the book?

FERGUSON: Or at least an errata.

KRISTOL: That’s an old-fashioned idea; I wonder if they have those anymore? You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I remember when you came to the [first] Bush White House – you should talk about that a little. You were a journalist your whole life, really, then you took that, what was it? About year and a half? I can’t remember now.

FERGUSON: Just a year. Exactly from, like January 15, 1992, when he was running for election, to whatever it was, January 15, 1993, when they kicked us out.

KRISTOL: And how did you come into, who asked you? I’m just curious. How did you become a speech writer?

FERGUSON: John Sununu. A call came from John Sununu. But I think Tony Snow, who had been hired as the chief speech writer – Tony was actually, at the time, a quite prominent columnist and TV personality. A very good guy – I think Tony had kind of put Sununu up to it. John Sununu was the Chief of Staff for President Bush – this is the first President Bush, of course, not the second.

I was at Scripps Howard Newspapers, in the Washington bureau. And so, you know, I’d always wanted to see what the world looked like from that vantage, and I thought it could only help me as a journalist. And so, I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do that.”

It was – I mean, before I’d been there two weeks, Tony had been fired.

KRISTOL: Yeah, I remember that. Right? Because you came in – I was there as [Vice President Dan] Quayle’s Chief of Staff, so I was watching this from, so to speak, a little bit of a remove.

FERGUSON: I haven’t counted in a while, but I think by May of that year, I’d had five different bosses. But you’ll remember, President Bush was running for re-election, had no real rationale for his re-election. His heart didn’t really seem to be in it.

KRISTOL: He’d been a good president, especially in foreign policy, but the Cold War was over, so.

FERGUSON: The Cold War was over. And he was the last of the World War II generation, which, actually, is one of the things that made me so proud to work for him: he was a genuine war hero. So, I always said, when they hired me in January, Bush’s approval rating was, I think, at 48, and by March, and I’d gotten down to 32.

And it just felt like that: you were in free fall the whole time. There was this churning of bosses. At one point, they only had two speech writers left for the president, writing not only his speeches as president but also the stuff he would use in his campaign. It was chaos. I would never do it again, but I would never trade that experience for anything.

KRISTOL: Wasn’t there some guy who came in – we don’t have to mention his name, but – after Tony, who was kind of a high-brow, I would say, director of speech writing. Interested in conservative ideas –

FERGUSON: Tony had us meet with Tom Wolfe and other writers.

KRISTOL: Pick the brains of serious people. And then there was some guy who was brought in who was more from the advertising world? I actually don’t remember his name, so we don’t even have to say it here, but –

FERGUSON: He had worked for a PR firm in a large corporation, and sort of wrote in jingles. Hardly ever used a complete sentence. But then, you know, President Bush hardly ever used a complete sentence. I remember, I used to joke that I was the speech writer in charge of pronouns, so my stuff never got used. Because the joke was that the president hated to say “I,” or “me,” or “my,” or anything. It was part of the Yankee upbringing from his mother, who told him never to talk about himself – which is a real liability if you’re running for office. So, he would kind of speak in these fragments, and to his credit, the guy from the large corporation understood that about him and got into the cadence that Bush had. There was a kind of natural cadence that Bush used. He was very good, and Bush ended up absolutely loving him.

KRISTOL: Really? I didn’t know that. But they weren’t very effective speeches, somehow, I think, maybe.

FERGUSON: They were not. They were not the deepest speeches. Again, I mean, you know, we were entering a phase where big, deep speeches weren’t called for.

KRISTOL: Right, right. I just remember, being Quayle’s Chief of Staff, and they used to circulate – this was pre-email. I guess it really was. We had an internal thing.

FERGUSON: Intranet in the White House.

KRISTOL: But they circulated the drafts of speeches to senior staff, so someone could just read it to catch a mistake or suggest an improvement, obviously.

FERGUSON: Every speech writer hates that process more than anything, of course.

KRISTOL: Right. All you need is some character from some other office saying, “Hey, I think you should do this,” or, “What about this issue? My favorite, pet, ridiculous issue.” But I do remember the change from fairly high-brow political rhetoric – speeches Tony and his team were doing – to these somewhat jingly, as you say, like things. Literally, you’d look at them and it was written like jingles. The paragraphs –

FERGUSON: He used ellipses. He wouldn’t use a complete sentence and you’d have to connect them by ellipses. And again, it was ingenious because it really did appeal to the president’s sense of verbal rhythm. This was the way that he communicated. And, you know, it was effective to the degree that it pleased him. Which is not an inconsiderable thing.

KRISTOL: Didn’t get him re-elected, however. Didn’t keep us – we were both out of work on January 20, 1993, I think. Did you deal with him much? I mean, how much access did you really have to him, personally?

FERGUSON: Well, the speech writing shop had been explicitly downgraded in ’88 and ’89 when –

KRISTOL: By contrast with Reagan.

FERGUSON: Yes, to set up a contrast with Reagan. Reagan was showbiz, Reagan was all glitz and all that kind of stuff. But, you know, “we were doing the hard work of governing.” And so speech writers who had actually held a fairly high-up status in the Reagan White House were then demoted. And people were hired, who didn’t really have much experience, and Sununu wanted that to be a symbol of the changing of the guard: that we were now past the Reagan age and we were now into the Bush era.

I remember talking to a guy, I wasn’t there at the time, but the people who were taking over the White House and kicking all the Reagan people out when Bush was elected saying, “You know, the Reagan era is just going to be thought of as the prelude to the Bush era.” Maybe you have to convince yourself of things like that when you go to work for a president, but I thought it was absurd at the time. And it was, obviously.

KRISTOL: And what did you learn from that experience? You said you always wanted to do it, to see it from the inside.

FERGUSON: Well, I learned that government policy is created in chaos. And I was never given to conspiracy theories, but if I had been, it would have disabused me of any inclination like that. The idea that government can operate efficiently enough, say, to orchestrate the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or whatever the crazy conspiracies are, is just absurd.

And so much of the way a policy takes place is through personal considerations. Mrs. Bush used to have this phrase: “What happens in your house is much more important than what happens in the White House.” That was kind of a clever phrase. And I remember saying: “What happens in the men’s room is much more important than what happens in the speech writers’ room.” Meaning – nothing salacious – that people would exchange ideas, or tick each other off, or insult each other while they were passing each other in the men’s room, and that would affect policy more than anything that we could do as “conscious policy makers.”

Of course, speech writers aren’t supposed to be policy makers, but it did kind of fall to us; because there was a vacuum.

KRISTOL: Well, and it had become such a thing under Reagan with Peggy Noonan, who had made it famous, I suppose, with her memoir. And others that were well known; some of the speech writers became well known, I guess.

FERGUSON: This was right after Peggy’s magnificent book had come out. And it is a magnificent book, but it’s also something slightly uneasy-making about it for anybody who works around a president or a politician; which is that you really ought to keep your mouth shut about what happened in terms of who wrote what, and that kind of thing.

KRISTOL: I mean, this is another sign of – I don’t know, decline may not be quite right, but let’s just say – change in public mores. When her book came out, I think it was the first time – maybe [David] Stockman’s book had come out, too, I can’t remember now – a book had been written about, not the first time, but people were shocked that someone, especially someone who was loyal and a fan of the president, had written a book about the White House, his White House, while the White House was still ongoing. I mean, in the middle of the term, not the end of the term. And it was considered, “Oh, she’s revealing conversations,” and all this sort of thing.

I mean, now, it seems so quaint to even worry about that. People quit. Really, even Bob Gates or serious, distinguished public servants, who I don’t think had simply, you know, money-making goals – though, I’m sure that was a little bit of it – or settling-scores types goals. No one really said much when Gates’ book came out, in the middle of Obama’s presidency, about conversations he had with President Obama. And everyone has written those books, right? I think, literally, there must be half a dozen.

But that was a little shocking at the time. And a lot of the people kept quiet after the presidency. [Published ] ten years later or something like that, you know. Or masked their conversations with the president directly a little bit. Or were somewhat cryptic about those. But to come out in the middle of a presidency and talk about how the sausage was made –

FERGUSON: I tried to sort of trace the origins of that, and I went back to William Safire, who later became a very well-known columnist for the New York Times, who was a speech writer-plus, kind of, for Richard Nixon. Before Nixon was out of office, Safire had quit and had published a book that had an awful lot of what would you think of as privileged stuff.

KRISTOL: That book came out while he was still president? Or as Watergate was un–

FERGUSON: Yes. I think the first one was in ’73. And then he wrote another one, called Before the Fall. Which really, really, I mean, there were – he threw all caution to the wind.

And then, you know, James Fallows wrote a piece, who was a speech writer for Jimmy Carter, spilling the beans about Carter and was actually quite negative about Carter. And under Reagan, there were more than you could count.  David Stockman, and Donald Regan, who had been the Chief of Staff for Reagan, wrote a very insulting book about the president, while he was still in office.

You know, I still don’t think, whether it’s common or not – a lot of awful things are common in the world, and that’s one of the awful things; I just don’t think that you can do that.

And Clinton had a ton of them, too. Some of them are very good books, as I said about Peggy’s book. George Stephanopoulos wrote a book [All Too Human], that I actually wrote a long piece about in The Standard, which is just dazzling, in a way, about a young man being introduced to real power for the first time. They tell me that he wrote it himself, but anyway, it’s a fantastic book. But it is so damaging to Clinton and it came out, I think, right after Clinton had been re-elected. A wonderful book, but kind of a low motive, I think.

II:  (28:22 – 44:58) Revenge of the Baby Boomers

KRISTOL: You mentioned that President Bush, the first President Bush, was from the Yankee background and modest, but also, of course, from the World War II generation. I think a theme of a lot of your writing has been this sort of generational differences between the Greatest Generation, as it was dubbed, and us Baby Boomers, who’ve had three straight presidencies after George H.W. Bush. And now, with Clinton versus Trump – we’re speaking at the end of September – I guess is the final revenge of the Baby Boomers, I think, right? It should have like gotten out of the way, and somehow its –

FERGUSON: The aging Baby Boomers, the last sort of groan.

KRISTOL: Horrible. And then the millennials coming up. But say a little bit about – you’ve seen this transition in Washington.

FERGUSON: Not to dwell on President Bush or my rampant fuddy-duddyism, but I remember – we all had a thought that something big was happening when Clinton ran. First off, the Gennifer Flowers stuff didn’t really affect him. The fact that he dodged the draft quite explicitly, didn’t hurt him.

KRISTOL: Whereas, Quayle – if I can say, from self-interest – four years earlier, had paid a price for not really dodging the draft.

FERGUSON: Yeah, for being in the National Guard. We just thought, this is not right. We’re working for this guy who’s, you know, managed world affairs as well as you probably could and a great war hero, and this guy who talks about his underwear on MTV? I had that feeling most explicitly – Typically, the campaign for President Bush didn’t want any mention of his war service, because that would brand him as an old guy. As the old generation that is now passing away. And he was going to be youthful and vigorous, and so on.

Then, immediately – as they also did, often, with the people of the campaign – reversed course and they decided, “Well, this is really his strength.” So, overnight I got a call that they had put on his schedule to come out to the Iwo Jima Memorial over in Arlington, by Arlington National Cemetery, to address a gathering of Veterans of Guadalcanal.

KRISTOL: This is 1992?

FERGUSON: I think it was the, what, 50th anniversary? Guadalcanal was in ’42.

KRISTOL: So, these people would be in their 70s, presumably? Or very late 60s.

FERGUSON: It was the generation, that was the generation that saved the world, and so on. So, overnight I have to learn everything I can about Guadalcanal and, of course, the president had served in the Pacific. I found this little bit of doggerel that apparently was quite common at the time among the troops: “Save a prayer for your pal on Guadalcanal,” because word of the carnage had come through to everybody. Everybody knew what was going on, even though communications were terrible.

So anyway, I had that as the last line of the speech. And Bush had this thing where he would say, especially at war events earlier in his presidency, “Don’t make me cry.” I don’t think I’m giving away anything bad, this has been written about before.

KRISTOL: He would say privately to you, to the speech writers?

FERGUSON: Yeah, yeah. “Don’t. I tear up, I get very emotional about this. Do not write things that will make me cry.” He was humorous about it, but. So I was really skirting the edge with this ‘Say a prayer for your pal on Guadalcanal’ thing. But he got it out.

And it was this sea out by the Iwo Jima Memorial, the huge lawn, it was a sea of old, fat guys in Hawaiian shirts on little folding chairs, lawn chairs that they’d all brought, and they had picnic baskets and such. I thought, here’s the last World War II president and these are the guys that he actually, you know, he was in the Pacific and flew in the Pacific. It was terribly moving to me.

And we went back to the, drove back to the White House afterwards, and there was something, I can’t remember explicitly what it was. I think Clinton had just been on Arsenio Hall, which was a popular talk show at the time, playing “Jail House Rock” or something on his saxophone. “Heartbreak Hotel,” I guess. Anyway, in shades and stuff. I was thinking, “Okay, this is the United States. They’ve got this guy, this World War II hero. Or they can have this guy who talks about his underwear and plays ridiculous music on late night TV.”  And of course, I know who they’re going to choose; and of course, I was totally wrong.

You did have this sense that, okay, something has shifted now, with the Baby Boomers coming in. The standards, whether higher or lower, the standards were different.

KRISTOL: And the person – this is sort of more of an historical curiosity – but in every subsequent campaign since then, the person with no military service, or less military service, if you want to call it that, or less-serious military service, has won the presidency.

Dole of course, extraordinary war record, and the wounds and coming back, and the personal courage that took, and the dignity with which he bore himself – nothing. Clinton clobbered him. 2000, Gore, not huge, but did serve in Vietnam. Kerry in ‘04, a little more than George W. Bush, who was sort of stateside in the National Guard – they both lost to Bush.  And of course, McCain was sort of the culmination of that, I suppose, for me, against Obama. Some people, like us, kept thinking, okay, well, he’ll get some credit for what he did.

FERGUSON: And people, when they actually sit down and think about it, they’re going to go for somebody who has done something substantive, and brave, and courageous in his life over somebody who, you know, played the saxophone in the high school band, and ran for student council president, and that sort of stuff.

KRISTOL: So, we have no Vietnam president. McCain – of course, that’s not Greatest Generation, that’s the next generation. His father, I think, an admiral in World War II. But being a Vietnam POW and the courage, that was sort of the last, I would say – not to take anything away from people who have fought since then – but the last moment in American history where there is sort of a huge recognition of amazing courage by many, many people, really, when they came back. I remember that. Flew back in ’73 and stuff. McCain was not quite the leader, but one of the prominent people, of course.

FERGUSON: Partly because of his great story, which was they wanted to let him go. The North Vietnamese wanted to let him go because his father was head of the Naval operations in the Pacific at the time. And he wouldn’t do it. So, they hung him by his broken arms for weeks on end, because he wouldn’t let them let him go. You just kind of, don’t we owe a guy like that something? If he wants to be president, let him be president.

KRISTOL: Maybe not, you could argue. It’s a job for four years; you want the person who agrees with you, or whatever. I don’t really begrudge people.

FERGUSON: And I don’t necessarily think he would have been a great president.

KRISTOL: But it is still a little amazing how little credit. I do think Bush/Clinton was a moment, in that respect. End of the Cold War, there is a lot going on in that.

FERGUSON: And the economy hadn’t been great, and people wanted something fresh.

KRISTOL: It is amazing. You know, I always say, I went to work for Vice President Quayle at the beginning of the Bush/Quayle administration, and Bush had been elected, I think, with 54 percent of the vote, and after four years of my hard work, Bush exited with 38 percent. It is amazing how much the collapse was. Of course, you and I felt in ’92 on a campaign that was flailing around. To be fair, it’s easy to flail, or hard not to flail around, when you’re in this bad environment. Everything goes wrong and then you try to compensate.

FERGUSON: I had sympathies for the guys who were running the campaign. They didn’t know what the hell was going on.

KRISTOL: It’s hard when the wind is against you.

FERGUSON: And they thought the way I was just saying; they thought people would come around.

KRISTOL: Right. So our generation, the Baby Boomers, were you ever friendly to your own generation?

FERGUSON: No, I’ve always been a self-hater. A self-hating Baby Boomer. And that was part of it. I mean, that experience in the White House. I kind of always, I’d like to not admit this but it is true, I’ve always kind of born a semi-personal thing about Clinton. And Clinton does have a unique, or did, what seemed unique at the time, capacity to drive people crazy.

KRISTOL: So, you became a conservative at a young age? When I met you, you were already conservative but you were already an adult.

FERGUSON: I was a – my parents were Republicans. So, I think pretty much everybody comes home, eventually. So, it may have been preordained. But I was quite self-conscious lefty in college and graduate school. I ran the Eugene McCarthy for President campaign in California in 1976. And nobody remembers that he ran in 1976.

KRISTOL: I was about to say – as you started to say that sentence I thought, well, you were too young to have been involved in that in 1968, because you’re younger. So ’76? That was the nostalgia for McCarthy – that’s funny. I forgot about that.

FERGUSON: I should say, it was the student part of the campaign. So, I’d have to go recruit people and–

KRISTOL: This was at Berkeley?

FERGUSON: No, this was in Southern California at Occidental College.

KRISTOL: Should have been at Berkeley.

FERGUSON: I retained great affection for Eugene McCarthy all the way until his dying day, and still do. So, I was very serious about my leftism.

I went to graduate school, one of the things that started to push me over is I went to graduate school in Berkeley. And Berkley was a place where the left had gotten everything it wanted. Every crazy idea that ever went through any left winger’s head had been enacted as policy by the city government. And the place was a mess. I remember talking to my poor landlord –

KRISTOL: What are we in the late ’70s now?

FERGUSON: Early ’80s; late ’70s, early ’80s. And my landlord explained what it was like to be a property owner in Berkeley, and there were homeless people obviously treated terribly everywhere, couldn’t have any access to services. Anyway, it was just, I thought, well, if this is what they’re aiming at, I don’t think I want to sign onto this. And there were various other things that happened.

Also, when I was at Berkeley, I came across the American Spectator magazine, which at the time was kind of like a right-wing New York Review of Books or something, except for the humor. R. Emmett Tyrrell was the editor and it had just this marvelous, lively, slashing humor bursting out of every page. So, it was like very high culture on the one hand, and then this kind of buffoonery on the other – that’s not quite the right word – satirical edge. I just thought, hey, you know what, you can be a right-winger, which I never wanted to be, and still retain your sense of humor, and still, in fact, retain a sense of high intellectual standards, that was kind of the essence of the thing.

KRISTOL: You were in grad school, right? Just to be clear.

FERGUSON: You could see the collapse of intellectual standards. It was when people were just, [Jacques] Lacan and [Michel] Foucault, and Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, and all of these crackpots were still revered. I thought, jeez, these people have really abandoned the sense that you can learn from the past, or that there is some kind of human reservoir of wisdom that we can draw on from the ancients. And they just abandoned all that.

I thought, it looks like these conservatives are the ones who are really trying to retain that, hold on to that sense of intellectual humility and appreciation for the past in Western civilization. So, after I kind of crossed that thing where it was no longer to me socially undesirable to be a right-winger, I was a goner.

KRISTOL: Then what?

FERGUSON: Well, then I decided to go to another graduate school. There’s all kinds of graduate schools that I never completed a degree at. I went to a journalism graduate school, as it happened, in Bloomington, Indiana, where the American Spectator was headquartered, where it had been founded by R. Emmett Tyrrell. And I wrote a profile of him for a magazine, a freelance piece. And I got to know him and then he offered me a job, and I thought, “Why am I in journalism school when I’ve got the dream job? I get to be an editor at this wonderful magazine.”

KRISTOL: So, you started at the Spectator?

FERGUSON: It was my last graduate school. Finally pulled myself away.

KRISTOL: You started at the Spectator, in Bloomington, and then came to Washington?

FERGUSON: Right. In ’85, I think, the magazine moved to Washington, and I stayed with it for another three or four years; met my wife there. It was a wonderful community of people. That’s sort of what the conservative movement was to me, at the time, just these really wonderful people.

KRISTOL: Let’s talk about the conservative movement since that is such a – You’ve been in it as much as one can be in it when you’re a journalist also writing about it, and writing often critically or amusingly about it. You know, everyone these days is in despair – we’ve produced Donald Trump, this is what, 30 years, 50 years, 60 years since Bill Buckley has come to. Is that fair? What’s your sense?

FERGUSON: It was probably – well again, my fuddy-duddyism. You mention Buckley. You know, Buckley was famous for his purges where he would get rid of the, running National Review, he would get rid of the John Birch Society, anti-Semites, racists and just push them out the door as a way of sort of purifying the movement.

He was also purifying – he wanted to maintain intellectual standards. You couldn’t really be a smart, educated person and be a Bircher, or an anti-Semite, or a racialist, as they called them back then. He wanted the conservative movement to be a repository of just what I was talking about, you know, an appreciation of Western civilization, and it was becoming the last redoubt, as I say.

Perhaps inevitably, when conservatism sort of won, when conservatism collided with political power, it had to dumb itself down. It’s just the nature of politics: you have to have a broad base.

So, you know, where Buckley had great, world-class intellectuals like James Burnham or Willmoore Kendall, we now have Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. You had a great political consultant named Cliff White who was a genius in politics and maintained very high standard. Now you have the kind of people we have running politics now in the Republican Party. As I say, maybe it’s inevitable, and I don’t know what the point is in boo-hooing about it.

KRISTOL: And real things were accomplished, right? Conservatives were right about some of the big issues. Not all of the big issues, but some of the big issues.

FERGUSON: No, I think the country is a better place because of what happened. Because of the political success of conservatives, going all the way through the end of the century. I mean, Gingrich, for all of the energy I’ve expended poking fun at him, those guys really did real things in collaboration with Clinton. And the country’s better for it.

III: (44:58– 53:31) Conservatism and Journalism

KRISTOL: I’m interested – I’m a little older than you.

FERGUSON: Quite a bit older, actually. [Laughing]

KRISTOL: Thank you. Yes. So, we were influenced – [William F.] Buckley was actually the first real conservative I’d ever read, and then it was my father and the neo-conservatives, and so forth. But it’s interesting you came to it, somewhat later, through the American Spectator. Were there particular, I’m just curious, particular authors, either historical or contemporary? You picked up the American Spectator, is there one person who jumped out?

FERGUSON: Well, Bob Tyrrell himself, really because of his ability to combine humor and ideas, and the kind of fearlessness that he had was really very inspiring to me. You know, you’re an editor at a magazine like that, it becomes kind of a graduate school because you are – what’s thrown in your face every day is some new topic and with the demand to deal with it intelligently and amusingly, and so on, so you just learn stuff every day. It was so much better than real graduate school.

There were great writers at the Spectator back then. My first boss at the Spectator, actually, was Malcolm Gladwell, who is now famous for all those things he’s famous for. Tom Bethell was a wonderful writer. Washington correspondent Fred Barnes used to do a critique of the press every month. John O’Sullivan, the great British journalist. We had a lot of wonderful British journalists who had – all British journalists have a kind of fluency – which can also quickly tilt over into BS-ing. But they were just a delight to read; like Shirley Robin Letwin, who was a historian, and Colin Welch, who was a journalist, Peregrine Worsthorne. It was a great privilege to read people like that.

That all led me into reading other great journalists who weren’t around anymore, like, of course, the ubiquitous [George] Orwell, who should be everybody’s role model. I actually think he’s one of those people who is loved and worshiped by almost everybody and actually deserves it. I started reading your father and [William F.] Buckley, who I had known of, of course, because he was so famous from television. Anyway, to me it was a whole world, an intellectual feast kind of opening up in front of me.

KRISTOL: I hope that’s what a good magazine can do for its readers. Editor is a particularly good place to be since you get to deal with the people, of course. But reading introduces you to people, who then themselves introduce you to people by whom they quote, and cite, and write about.

FERGUSON: I think the first thing, I read 1984 in high school but the first way I encountered Orwell was reading a piece about him in Harper’s by Norman Podhoretz. Norman, who’s a writer I greatly esteem, you know, opened the door to Orwell.

KRISTOL: This was probably in, or right before, 1984. I remember there was a whole spate of Orwell commentary since his book had been called1984, obviously. Or set in 1984.

FERGUSON: Norman kicked it off, I think, by claiming him for the neo-conservative cause, which was quite controversial. I remember Christopher Hitchens wrote a particularly vicious response.

KRISTOL: Then, 20 years later, Christopher was writing for The Weekly Standard, and we were all on the same side of foreign policy.

FERGUSON: It’s funny how Christopher Hitchens worked, not just the world.

KRISTOL: He was a talented journalist.

FERGUSON: Probably the greatest of my time.

KRISTOL: You really think so?

FERGUSON: Just in terms of the fluency and the range. The sense of provocation that he always had. It wasn’t just trolling, as they say nowadays, he was just intellectually provocative. Large element of BS to it, but that’s journalism for you.

KRISTOL: And literary. I always think the best journalists often have a lot of both appreciation and knowledge of literature. I mean, Hitchens could recite hundreds of lines of poetry. That’s a particular thing, British thing, I think, or something.

FERGUSON: Our great friend Joseph Bottum can do that, too, and he also has the same kind of fluency and eloquence that Hitchens had. And he’s an American, by God.

KRISTOL: I once ended up, this was a big mistake, on a panel with the two of them. Do you remember this? At AEI. It was on “your favorite poetry for children.” I don’t know, they probably put me on because I was editing the magazine, so someone thought I should – sucking up to me, probably. I dutifully found three poems I could read that we liked reading to our kids. I think Susan basically told me what they were since she actually has all the literary taste and had read them to the kids. So I did my thing.

They, of course, just recited versus or stanzas of Kipling, or Tennyson, or whatever. Some of which was for children, and some of which was appropriate for children but not for children. It was embarrassing, humiliating, being on with them.

FERGUSON: It was kind of intimidating. The great thing about Hitchens was he could do it stone drunk, too. After my second cocktail, I tend to forget things. But if anything, it revived him.

KRISTOL: I’m just curious, while we’re on the topic of recommending people, since then, you’ve studied, or read so much of earlier essayists. You have a real appreciation and taste for that genre. If someone asked you, “Who should I read, to become a good – not for the purpose of becoming an essayist myself, perhaps – but to understand what it is to write a great essay, or be a great journalist?” I do think that’s the best way, don’t you think, to become a good writer, is to read good writers? My father always said that.

FERGUSON: Saul Bellow has a great line, which is, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” That is, you read something and you think, I want to be able to do that someday. And I had that experience with a lot of people.

I mentioned the old New Yorker writers, like E.B. White, who still repays reading many of his essays. All these people are journalists, so a good 80 percent of what they do is dross; it’s just the nature of the beast. But E.B. White wrote some essays that are just models of a kind of modesty, and fluency, and just a kind of tastefulness of expression. A.J. Liebling, who wrote on a whole range of things.

I’m always drawn to writers who have, who aren’t humorists – I would hate to think of anybody ever calling me a humorist – but humor is always close by when you’re reading it. There’s always a twist at the sentence that kind of just gives a little spin of humor or lightheartedness to it; and I’m always drawn to people like that.

KRISTOL: Yeah, well, you do it so well yourself. Liebling and White, anyone else? Orwell.

FERGUSON: The Brits: Orwell, of course; Max Beerbohm, who’s really wonderful; G.K. Chesterton, that’s sort of because of the religious angle, I guess. He can be quite irritating, as can Beerbohm, because they were so good at what they did that there’s an offhand quality to it.

KRISTOL: They wrote an amazing amount, at least Chesterton did.

FERGUSON: It’s really unbelievable how much he wrote. And after you read enough of it, you see what tricks he’s deploying. But you know, tricks are part of the game, too.

KRISTOL: It’s high quality. It’s extraordinary.

FERGUSON: Chesterton’s thing was irony. You get through some of those essays or a book and you are so sick of irony, and paradox. It’s like, no more paradox, I get it.

KRISTOL: Those paradoxes are a little – and they are formulaic after a while, of course – but they’re still striking.

FERGUSON: Very aphoristic.

KRISTOL: Enlightening, yeah. You mentioned this was your grad school and a better grad school, the magazines. I feel the same way, having left the academy. I learned more than I would have, I hope, maybe, than if I would have stayed in the academy. Serious scholars learn stuff in a different way, of course, but I was never going to be that, I realized at some point.

FERGUSON: Yeah, me too.

IV: (53:31– 1:18:51) “Crazy U”

KRISTOL: What about the academy, though? Obviously, it’s been something that has been on your mind for a long time. You wrote the Crazy U book a few years ago.

FERGUSON: I wanted to be an academic at one time, and I finally – I was at Berkeley and I dropped out because I realized I would never get a job. So that was my first objection to academia, was that they weren’t going to hire me.

Again, the fuddy-duddyism, the decline in standards there, which is what I think I perceived in the late ‘70s and early ’80s, people abandoning a defense of “the best that’s been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold put it. It’s had long-lasting consequences.

Again, we go back to Trump. People talk about how, especially liberals, will talk about, “Oh my God, can you imagine this country would actually have someone like this as their president?” Well, you know, the country has now been in the hands of a public school system that has been owned by liberals for almost three generations. Going back to John Dewey, if you want to say that. And this is what happens. When you rob them of the intellectual defenses that education used to arm people with, in terms of civics and history, when you strip that away, you’re going to be able to be much more susceptible to demagogues like Trump.

KRISTOL: No, that’s a really an important point, I think. And I would say, wouldn’t you say, at the higher end level, it’s the academy, which is dominated by liberals, obviously, of various stripes, who’ve legitimated, and praised, and held up for emulation a bunch of either frauds or mediocrities. Kind of fluent mediocrities or fashionable-types. Once you do that for 20, 30, 40 years, I do find it wonderful, these liberal scholars to be suddenly – so-called scholars, liberal academics – to be suddenly appalled at Trump. The people they’re writing nice reviews about, are not quite Trump, but they’re somewhat con-men in their own way.

FERGUSON: In their self-flattery, I’m sure they would point out that the higher your education level, the more the support for Trump drops. Which is true, but it doesn’t negate the point you’re making, which is the people who are lionized in the academy now, and the kind of people who have the power to intimidate academics, really are not impressive intellectually. It’s not about intellectual achievement as much as it is about fashion, appearing sensitive, and so on. Things that aren’t particularly intellectual.

KRISTOL: Post-modern cleverness of a certain type.

FERGUSON: Lots of irony; they’re just not as good as Chesterton, I don’t think.

KRISTOL: Isn’t that funny? That’s partly because they’re liberals, I think, or progressives. A little hard for progressives to be ironic if you have to earnestly labor to make the world better. Chesterton was not a big believer in that.

FERGUSON: No, no. Puritans are never real laugh-meisters.

KRISTOL: No, and this, of course, reminds me of Allan Bloom’s great book [The Closing of the American Mind], which you wrote an introduction to the re-issue of.

FERGUSON: The 25th anniversary.

KRISTOL: I guess that’s right. So, it came out in ’87 and that would have been 2012. Did that book strike you at the time, in ’87?

FERGUSON: Yeah, actually, there’s a funny story about that. I was at the American Spectator and I didn’t know who Allan Bloom was. We got a manuscript over the transom from, I think, Simon and Shuster saying, “Would you like to publish some part of this manuscript?” It was called “Souls Without Longing,” was the title.  Fantastic title. And we had a disagreement in the office.

I took it home one night and thought, okay, it’s kind of well written, sort of funny, not for us. My immediate superior, Wlady Pleszczynski, one of the greatest editors I’ve ever met, wanted to take out a chapter about rock and roll, in which there’s all these insults thrown at Mick Jagger, who I quite liked at the time. The other thing, talking about fuddy-duddyism, I thought, “We can’t run this, it’s too fuddy-duddy.” So, we rejected it. And they wanted the manuscript back and, it was a Xerox copy of it and we had to send it back.

And then, within a year, it was one of the biggest sellers of the 1980s. It was at the top of the best seller list for, I don’t know, two months or something. No one could have foreseen that, I say in my defense. Then, years later, I was asked to write an introduction to the reissue. As any reader who’s looked at it can see, I resisted the temptation to mention that story, that I had once rejected the book.

KRISTOL: You should take credit for that, that’s good. My father has an account of when he was at Encounter magazine in ’56, I think it was, rejecting Michael Oakeshott’s classic essay on rationalism and politics. For complicated reasons, actually. He appreciated, also, that it was an excellent essay, of course, but it’s like the best essay anyone’s ever rejected. But Bloom, rejecting an excerpt of Bloom, that was pretty impressive.

FERGUSON: Your father wasn’t apologetic about that decision. He still thinks he did the right thing. I realize that I really blew it.

KRISTOL: That’s funny. Well, maybe he really, I don’t know how much he really thought – maybe it was a brave face there. Maybe he has an explanation on why he thought was not right for them at that time. That’s what we say in the magazine business, when you want to reject something and you don’t want to get into a long discussion of why it doesn’t quite fit, or you don’t agree with it: “It’s not quite right for us.” That’s an excellent phrase that I’ve learned.

FERGUSON: It’s good to say “right now.” Because then people think, “Oh, so I have a future.”

KRISTOL: That’s really nice to lead them on that way. So, you then wrote an excellent book about higher ed about 20, 25 years after Bloom. But with a different focus, not so much the intellectual problems but more the institutions themselves. Admissions.

FERGUSON: Particularly admissions. It’s more sort of pop-sociology than it is a critique of intellectual trends or anything.

KRISTOL: But very revealing about the institutions, in my opinion, of higher ed, the actual, how they work. The business of higher ed, so to speak.

FERGUSON: The further you get into it, the absurdity, quite apart from intellectual standards and so on, the absurdity of these institutions, is just unavoidable. They way they’ve given themselves over to marketers and the kinds of tricks that they’ll play on really undeserving young people. The whole, huge edifice that is designed to do nothing but get people to borrow money so that they can buy a product that is demonstrably not worth what they say it is. They would disagree with that, but there are reasons why I think I’m right on that.

Two things about college. One is, people who graduate from it don’t really learn a lot. That’s clearly been demonstrated. And it cost too much. Now, how you put those two things together – you have a failed product that sells at an inflated price. And everybody is under tremendous social pressure to gain access to it. That in itself is something, for a journalist, is like really worth writing about.

KRISTOL: You had some great experiences talking to admission officers. Who’s that, the consultant who helps you– one pays a ton to in New York City – who gets you into college?

FERGUSON: The little profile in there about a woman who, at the time, was charging $40,000 for a soup-to-nuts program to get your kid into one of the top three schools of his or her choice. The catch to that is that she helps the child pick the top three schools. And so, it’s kind of can’t lose for her.

But it was a perfect example of the kind of insanity that had gone on, the idea, whatever $40,000, now would probably be $55,000. You know, somebody is making too much money if they’re willing to throw that kind of dough at somebody just to get into Harvard, Stanford.

Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, you actually can demonstrate that there is a correlation to future earnings, and so on. But it’s also well demonstrated that where you go to college has no relationship to future happiness, earning power, life satisfaction, all those sorts of things are just not related to the school that parents drive themselves crazy to try and get into.

KRISTOL: I guess the sorting process, though, and the prestige, people still believe it gives their kid a leg up.

FERGUSON: Again, it’s a kind of insanity. And they believe, I think, if you go to Harvard, nothing against Harvard, you have life wired in a way that you might not otherwise. If you go to –

KRISTOL: Which is a mixed blessing, though. You learn better lessons about life going to the University of Michigan or something.

FERGUSON: If you go to the University of Illinois versus DePaul or Perdue, there’s no difference in your life. I mean, you’re going to have different friends, of course, but in terms of something that is really determinative of what your life is going to be, it’s just not there.

KRISTOL: So, is it a bubble? As our friend, a lot of people want to say? Or can this interest go on forever?

FERGUSON: It’s got to be. You can’t have inflated prices like this and a kind of inelastic demand without sooner or later somebody figuring out a way to puncture the bubble. And I think it’s already happened. The rate of increase in tuitions is leveling off now. It’s not quite a burst bubble. And people are going to figure out alternatives.

The real importance of a college degree, the sociological importance of it, is that it’s a signaling mechanism. It says, okay, I got a degree, which means I can wake up in the morning, tells an employer certain things about you. That continues to be valuable. The question is can somebody else come up with an idea to make the same signaling happen without forcing parents to pay $200,000. I’m sure that will happen sooner or later.

KRISTOL: Once, don’t you think, I guess this has happened already, someone breaks the cartel’s ability to say: “You need four years.” Which is ludicrous, really. Once you say, “Three years and a couple of summers. Or two-and-a-half years and one summer, and some extra courses taken at night,” I just think there will be huge pressure, and there already is, I suppose, on school. Because that’s just pure money, in the sense that paying for three years’ tuition is a lot less than paying for four years’ tuition.

FERGUSON: That goes to the confusion that may be at the very heart of the whole thing. Which is we don’t know what we want from higher education. I mean, do we want to familiarize our children with the best that’s been thought and said, and turn them into good citizens, and spiritually developed, intellectually developed, or do we want to set them up to get a good job?

As long as those – most schools, especially small, liberal arts schools, were set up and designed to do the first task and not the second task. But there’s more and more a utilitarian view of what education is, higher education. Parents want something for all that money they’re putting out. They want to make sure their kids get a good job – which is a different thing than what these places were designed to do.

KRISTOL: Do you think it’s a – I kind of go back and forth on this in my own mind – is it a big problem for America that we have this big, expensive, time and money wasting, and often foolish higher education establishment? Foolish, I would say, in the views it tends to encourage kids to have, and how they should spend years 18 to 22, and so forth.

Or is it just like, “We’re a very rich country. The kids are going to do something between the ages of 18 to 22. They might as well be messing around in a dorm where there’s someone vaguely watching out for them as opposed to somewhere else. Maybe they’ll have one good teacher, then it’s not the worst thing in the world.” I don’t know.

FERGUSON: I’m not really a Pollyanna about it, we are a rich country. However, this is a lot of wasted money. A lot of money thrown down the drain. These are huge, bloated institutions that, as I say, again, demonstrably fail at what they’re supposed to do. That can’t be healthy for a country.

The other thing I say is the matter of debt. The idea that you have responsible people who are taking kids and telling them, “Don’t worry about the money; you’ll be able to borrow the money. Just go to college. Just go to college, and we’ll take care of the money.” And that is a terrible life lesson for people, quite apart from the practical difficulties that they face when they graduate and they’ve got $90,000 of debt to pay off.

KRISTOL: Then not learning much, maybe, and not learning good, important things. Now, how much people ever learned is an interesting question. You sort of feel like you got a lot of your education post-college, and post-grad school, for that matter. That’s always been the case, really, but –

FERGUSON: A friend of mine I quote in the book said an interesting thing about Harvard, actually. He said, you know, Harvard is very proud of its diversity now and how it creates a class: it has an oboe player here, and a transsexual baccarat champion and all of that sort of strange considerations that they use to put together a class. But he said, strangely enough, in the 1930s, you probably had more diversity at Harvard than you do now. Now, they’re all achievers, they’re all people who have learned how to suck up – nothing against Harvard people again – who have learned how to manage the tricks of getting ahead. Back in the 1930s you had drunkards, you had blue-bloods who weren’t very smart, you had real go-getters, you had great athletes –

KRISTOL: Eccentric intellectuals.

FERGUSON Eccentric intellectuals. That’s a genuine kind of variety. Harvard doesn’t have that kind of variety now, I don’t think.

KRISTOL: I do think one of the worst things about the modern academy is sort of the opposite or the flip side of the normal, critique, or middle American critique, which is: “It’s a bunch of people who don’t know anything about the real world, and fall in love with these abstract ideas and indoctrinate the kids and all that.” That’s also true.

But the other problem is the opposite: It is now full of conventional students who are taught to be strivers, and academics who are extremely conventional in their views, oriented towards “achieving” things in their discipline. I sort of feel like the time when I was in school was the very end of the eccentric, genius professors. You don’t find many of them anymore, with their own quirks and oddball interests, and willing to advance very heterodox theses that shake up some discipline – even if it’s a very exotic discipline like Roman history or something.

FERGUSON: When I would go around and talk to professors, one of the dominant emotions I felt emanating from them was a kind of fear: that you really can’t step out of line. For example, the school I went to, Occidental College, which is a little liberal arts school, has now become irredeemably politicized. It is essentially a place for propagandizing young people in leftist politics.

When I went there it was, you know, you had a lot of crackpot professors, but they could recite Hamlet backwards. I still remember being in some of those classes and having this sense of intellectual thrill. I mean, it was thrilling to be able to hear somebody talk about Midsummers Night’s Dream in ways that had just never occurred to me before.

I wonder now, at a place like Occidental or other schools that were reputed to offer an intellectual experience, does anyone ever get thrilled anymore? Does anybody ever think, have these vistas open up to them, or do they think, ah, okay:  “America is this, and you know, politics should be handled this way, and race mean this.” I just don’t think that there’s room for that now.

KRISTOL: In addition to the political correctness, I guess there’s also the more disciplinary focus of all the disciplines: history, political science, literature. You’re filling this gap, or you’re going to modify this thesis by showing something. I do think it just seems more conventional and less daring.

I mean, I remember auditing a class on Roman history. I mean, I knew nothing about Roman history, but I vaguely sensed and the professor said this, that he was challenging the mainstream interpretation. He had a totally opposite interpretation or something. I don’t even remember what it was, and I was totally incapable, obviously, of judging this, I didn’t really do the reading or take the course, I just sat in on a few lectures. But it was exciting. And I think the example of someone willing to just say, “For 50 years this whole understanding has been wrong. And let’s look at it the opposite way. And here’s what I’m basing it on and here is my interpretation of this speech of Cicero or something – I can’t remember.” I mean it is – Even if you don’t learn anything concrete from that – I know nothing about Roman history today, as well – you do get a taste of what real, intellectual challenging of orthodoxy is, which I’m not sure people get today.

FERGUSON: I haven’t seen evidence of it in what I did. I’m sure that there are places where that is encouraged and where it happens. And I think we really can overstate the degree to which political correctness has infiltrated that.

In my experience with my kids, when you got to a serious subject being taught by a serious professor, they knew enough not to indoctrinate kids. They were about actually a higher thing. I’m sure there’s still a lot of that going on, I would say, in my defense, so that people don’t think I’m a complete fuddy-duddy. But I am actually.

KRISTOL: So, let’s close on the topic of our kids’ generation, the Millennials. We talked about the Greatest Generation, the World War II generation, the Baby Boomers. Where are we? We’ve got some young people at The Weekly Standard. That always cheers me up to see 24-year-olds show up and be full of interesting ideas. Many of them, though I’d say, have gotten their ideas and their education, or their intellectual stimulation not from the colleges and universities. I’m always struck by that.

FERGUSON: I’m always heartened by the quality of people we have passing through our office. Some pass through and stay, which is wonderful.

KRISTOL: Or even interns for the summer.

FERGUSON: That’s wonderful.

KRISTOL: So, where are you on the Millennials? Are we in agreement that they’re all kind of terrible?

FERGUSON: It’s hard to generalize. I generalize about the Baby Boomers because I am, as I say, sort of a self-hater. But the Millennials, it’s tough. There are obviously, if you believe polls, they’re much more left-wing; they’re not as well educated as people with a comparable level of education might have been 30 years go. Those are all things that are just true. And you can document and quantify. This is the thing to me that’s distressing about Trump, not to beat that dead horse.

KRISTOL: He’s unfortunately a live horse, at least at this moment. Not unfortunately, I don’t want him dead. But, I mean, unfortunately, politically and culturally, a very live horse.

FERGUSON: Yeah, and he will have, no matter what happens to him, will leave a mark. I had a young person, very closely related to me, in fact, telling me, asking me to imagine: “You’re an 18-year-old and you’re graduating from high school about to go off to college. This is the first real presidential election year that you’re paying attention to, and you look at the Republican Party; and you look at that ridiculous convention that they had, and you look at the man who is leading the party.” Is there any 18-year-old in America that will say, “I want to be part of that. I want to spend my life advancing that cause”? I don’t think there is.

Whereas earlier, you know, Reagan did that. “I want to be part of that.” Even George W. Bush and, God knows, Barack Obama. People looked at that, “I want to spend part of my life advancing what this guy stands for.” It’s just not going to happen now.

KRISTOL: It happened with Barry Goldwater, who got crushed. It’s not even a matter of winning or losing, really. There were a ton of people who were inspired by Goldwater as a challenger of the orthodoxy, and even Ronald Reagan, in a way, and many young conservatives we know. A little older than we are. They’re not young anymore, but they were young 40 years ago, 50 years ago. They really got their start that way. That’s the political side.

Then there’s the more technological side. I’m sort of struck by this, and, again, one doesn’t want to sound too much like a fuddy-duddy, but how much does the world of email, texting, iPhones, change people’s way – a lot of it’s good, and they have access to a million things – change their way of learning, change their way of reading? Make them less likely to discover Orwell and E.B. White? And spend three weeks reading –  I think I once did that – reading through the four volume book of essays – people of our generation probably have this – of Orwell’s essays. Which must have been done what, after he died, but in the ’50s or ’60s, I suppose?

FERGUSON: ’60s I think or early ’70s.

KRISTOL: So everyone our age, many people our age, who wanted to think of themselves as intellectual, had those. And a lot of people read a lot of it, or dipped into it, at least.

FERGUSON: They’re endlessly amusing. They’re hard to get a hold of, but I’ve gotten a hold of several sets and given them to young people at The Weekly Standard, because I found such inspiration in the intellectual clarity and hygiene that he embodied.

What strikes me most about the wonders of digital technology and the Internet, which is so wonderful on so many levels, is that it’s ended the phenomenon of serendipity. I’d go to the library and just wander the stacks. I’d get one book but then I’d look down the aisle and there was this or that, and you could end up sitting on the floor and reading for two hours a book you’d never thought of when you went in. Now, because it is so efficient to find things – which is, again, marvelous – you don’t stumble on things as much. Now, I may be wrong about that. There may be people, especially Millennials, who will say that, you know, you’re on Facebook and things happen to you that you never would have anticipated. But I think in the kind of way that I’m talking about as kind of an intellectual, not discipline, but intellectual matter that we’ve lost that serendipity. Simply by things being so efficient now.

KRISTOL: That’s why I think it’s important to recommend. Maybe one has to do more recommending. It’s good that you’re giving people the Orwell essays.

FERGUSON: I think I may have just reached the pinnacle of fuddy-duddyism by arguing against efficiency. Maybe I have transcended myself.

KRISTOL: The Internet and iPhone. I think that’s a good note on which to end. The two of us, the pinnacle of fuddy-duddyism. That is what we aspire to, right?

FERGUSON: Not in my better moments.

KRISTOL: Not aspire to. That’s where we end up at. Let’s be honest. Andy, thanks very much for taking the time today.

FERGUSON: Thank you so much for having me.

KRISTOL: Thank you for joining me on CONVERSATIONS.