After nearly a decade of working for the Washington Times, I was fired last September. Technically, I “resigned,” but Wes Pruden, the Times‘ editor-in-chief, asked me for a letter of resignation, and I had no real choice but to agree. Nor, by that time, had I any real desire to remain on the staff. The reasons for my defenestration from a paper whose editor styles it “the official voice of the conservative movement” are complicated and—at least to me and many who express support for me—somewhat mysterious, though in certain quarters my firing and the disappearance of my column from the Washington market are reasons for satisfaction, if not outright glee. Not only did Pruden demand my resignation, but he also immediately forbade the publication of my syndicated column in the Times.
But the circumstances of my decline and fall at the Washington Times point to a story more important than what happened (or happens) to me and my column. The story has to do with larger matters: the direction of American conservatism, the boundaries of what is called the “public discourse” and who decides where those boundaries lie, and the real meaning of free expression in a nation that loves to boast of its commitment to “openness.” If I dwell on myself and the circumstances of my firing even at the risk of sounding self-serving, it is because these issues are best understood in the context of my relationships with the one newspaper I have worked for.
From 1986 to 1995, I served the Times as an editorial writer, deputy editorial page editor, acting editorial page editor, and nationally syndicated staff columnist. When, six months after arriving at the paper, the editorial page editor who hired me and four of his senior writers resigned in anger over an editorial dispute, I declined to walk out with them and stayed on, helping the paper save face in one of the most embarrassing episodes in its history. In 1989 and 1990, I won the most prestigious professional journalism awards the Washington Times has ever won, the Distinguished Writing Awards of the American Society of Newspaper Editors for editorial writing. My twice-weekly column was a popular feature that appeared every Tuesday and Friday for four years in the Times‘ Commentary and op-ed pages, and its disappearance has cost the paper readers.
I served the Times as an editorial writer and junior editor from 1986 to 1991. In May of the latter year, Pruden offered me the position of staff columnist, writing two signed columns and two unsigned editorials a week under the new editorial page editor. Tod Lindberg. For the next two years my column, which gained national syndication in November 1991, appeared in the Commentary section of the Times and, as the Washington Media Guide reported the next year, as a columnist I “quickly established [my]self as a force.”
When I began the column, I knew what I wanted it to be—a hardball expression of paleoconservative principles that would not hesitate to criticize the mainstream right and the general political and cultural direction of the country. I had no interest in rewriting Republican Party press releases or booming the idols of neoconservative or movement conservative adoration. I also wanted to broach a variety of issues from a perspective that was seldom heard in the press—immigration, trade policy, questions of globalism and national sovereignty, post-Cold War foreign policy, race, and American conservatism in general. I have, some tell me, a gift for sarcasm, and I did not hesitate to use it.
I understood that there was a risk in what I was planning, that I would be stepping on a great many toes and pushing the boundaries that surround the fashionable dogmas of both the Washington right and left, boundaries the Times seems petrified of transgressing. But Wes had assured me when he made me a columnist that I would have a much freer rein than I had as an editorial writer, and I cannot say I found this to be untrue.
In September 1993, the paper’s Commentary section underwent a reorganization. It lost one of its three regular pages of opinion pieces, and a separate op-ed page was created that would carry opinion pieces from outside writers as well as those of the three staff columnists. The editor of the new op-ed page would be Tod Lindberg, who continued to run the editorial page as well.
If Hillary Clinton is a “congenital liar,” Tod Lindberg is a congenital neoconservative. In his college days at the University of Chicago, he studied with the late neoconservative guru Allan Bloom and, perhaps more significantly, was the roommate of John Podhoretz, son of neoconservative czar Norman Podhoretz and by 1991 an editor at the Times himself. Tod had previously worked as an editor at the neoconservative journals The Public Interest and The National Interest, both founded by the other neocon heavy, Irving Kristol, whom Tod once described to me as his “mentor.” As for Tod’s view of the paleoconservatives, in a recent interview with Washington’s City Paper, he called their ideas “horsesh-t.” Thus speaks the “official voice of the conservative movement.”
Despite the obvious divergence between our views of conservatism, I got along well with Tod in the four years I wrote editorials under him. He was a remarkably easy editor to work and write for. He never held editorial staff meetings, did not require writers to stay in the office after meeting their deadlines, and seldom altered what I submitted for the page.
As for Wes Pruden, a notoriously aloof editor, I had little contact with him. Other than grunted greetings from him in passing (sometimes not even that), I had no conversations with him at all between the time he made me a columnist in 1991 and the day he canned me in 1995. My talk with him on the latter occasion was the longest I ever had, and that seems to resemble the experience of most writers and reporters at the paper.
The son of a Baptist minister in Little Rock who was the leader of the segregationist Citizen’s Council during the city’s 1957 desegregation crisis, Pruden writes a regular column for the paper that often defends the Confederate Flag and the Southern heritage and displays a taste for ethnic rabbit punches (only a few days after he fired me for expressing views he claimed to find “racially insensitive” and “offensive,” he published a column in which Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March is characterized as “The Shuck and Jive to Terrify the Mind”).
But though Wes is a competent wordsmith, his column is essentially shallow, offering little more than invective directed against the usual targets of liberal Democrats and the Establishment media. A conservative columnist once described what Wes does in his column as “nothing more than picking out a couple of liberal Democrats every week and engaging in Billingsgate about them.” For all his chest-thumping about Southern and Christian traditionalism, he’s careful to avoid sniffing out the wrong ideological fire hydrants.
A fervent proponent of Zionism, Wes wrote in his column in 1989 that the Israelis are “adrift in a sea of 400 million murderous fanatics,” a line that had Arab embassies in Washington threatening to cut off press relations with the paper’s foreign desk. During the Persian Gulf War, he accused columnist Joe Sobran, an outspoken paleoconservative critic of the adventure, of harboring “dark motives,” called him an “embittered Israel-baiter,” and said Sobran “skirts close to sedition” in his opposition to the war. After the United States’ victory in the war, Wes inaugurated a running feature in the paper’s Life section, then edited by John Podhoretz, called the “Hall of Shame,” which week after week reprinted criticism of the Gulf expedition from paleo and liberal columnists, including Sobran and Pat Buchanan, to hold them up to ridicule.
The Times buys Sobran’s syndicated column, but by Pruden’s personal command seldom publishes a writer who is one of the most gifted in American journalism, and while Buchanan’s column was always the lead feature in the Commentary section before his 1992 presidential campaign, after his return to journalism, and again by Pruden’s command, it began running below the fold. How much of Wes’ zest in chopping at paleoconservatives is due to his own personal beliefs and how much comes from what he figures is in his interest remains unclear, but what is clear is that anyone on the neoconservatives’ enemies list quickly shows up on his. It’s also clear that his outrage at racial “insensitivities” is highly selective; Arabs and pro-Farrakhan blacks are just as much fair game for his journalistic backhand as paleoconservatives critical of Israel.
Yet despite my ideological differences with Tod and despite the lack of personal rapport with him or Wes, I had no reason to believe I faced a problem with either. Wes had made me a columnist, and I regarded his professions of Southern loyalties as a sign that he was an ally, if not a fan. In 1993, Wes commented in a memo to me, “I consider your column an adornment to our pages,” and in March 1994 I received an annual assessment from Tod (the only “annual assessment” I had in the four years of working under him) that gave me 13 “fives” (the highest grading) out of 20 categories of job performance (I also received six “fours” and one “three,” both of them high or satisfactory gradings). In an assessment question asking about the “employee’s strengths,” Tod wrote that I “write a mean column; the editorials are always delicious as well.” Various senior editors and colleagues at the paper also offered praise for specific columns. I was fully aware that there were those at the paper who didn’t like my column, and I occasionally heard from them too, but I never heard any criticism from an editor.
By the middle of 1995, I believed I had established myself as a Washington columnist who wrote a unique, controversial, but popular feature. My syndication was prospering, and I found myself quoted more and more often by other writers. I received an increasing number of speaking invitations and an evergrowing body of fan mail. I sometimes worried about the future of the newspaper, which still does not make a profit after 13 years of subsidization by its owners, but I had absolutely no worries about losing my position and maintained cordial if distant relations with the local authorities.
On June 28 of last year, this euphoria came to an abrupt end. The day before, I had published a column blasting the Southern Baptist Convention for adopting a resolution expressing “repentance” for its historic support of Southern slavery. I argued that it made no sense in Christian theology for individuals to “repent” of a sin they had not personally committed and that in any case there is no evidence that owning slaves is a sin in traditional (or fundamentalist) Christian theology. Indeed, I wrote, there are at least five clear passages in the letters of Paul that explicitly enjoin “servants” to obey their masters, and the Greek words for “servants” in the original text are identical to those for “slaves.” Neither Jesus nor the Apostles nor the early church condemned slavery, despite countless opportunities to do so, and there is no indication that slavery is contrary to Christian ethics or that any serious theologian before modern times ever thought it was. The point was to argue that the Baptists seemed to be motivated by a desire to accommodate themselves to modern political sensibilities rather than by serious religious or ethical precepts, and that this trend did not augur well for the future of the traditionally conservative denomination.
The column set off a few bombshells, and some writers at the paper took me to task for it. I learned from one reporter that he heard Jack Kemp angrily denouncing the column and me at a reception the night after its appearance. As for readers, some called to tell me they thought the column was “brilliant,” while one lady informed me it made her “want to vomit.” Well, all in a day’s work, I figured; the day passed, and I forgot about it.
The next afternoon, Wednesday, June 28,1 was told that 7bd wanted to see me in his office. Upon entering, he told me to sit down and without prelude informed me that after conversations with Wes they had decided the paper no longer wanted to sponsor my column as a staff column, that from that moment on I was no longer a staff columnist, and that my salary was being reduced by half. I could continue as an editorial writer, and the paper would carry my column as a syndicated feature. I had 24 hours to accept this proposal or resign from the paper.
Thunderstruck is not exactly the word for my reaction. I asked Tod what problems the paper had with my column, and he replied (as I recall) it was the style, subject, contents, themes, ideas, and just about everything else except the anchovies. My first thought was that this was not only a calculated insult but also an invitation to leave. I protested that I thought it was grotesquely unfair (to which he replied, “Oh, it’s perfectly fair”) but told him I had no choice but to accept. But even as I left his office I was determined to quit the paper as soon as possible.
Later in the day I got to see the wizard himself and had a little chat with Wes. A stolid man by habit, Wes tried to muster some anger with me. He asked me if I didn’t know that we live in a city with a majority black population, told me that I was “just too insensitive” to black concerns, that I “just went too far,” and that my column about the Baptists “could only be read as a defense of slavery” (it was not). I hadn’t realized grown men really talked seriously in this way, but I told him that neither he nor Tod had ever expressed any displeasure with my column, that no one had objected to the column before it was published, and that it had been published without alterations and in a prominent place above the fold of the page. If Tod had a problem with it, why hadn’t I heard about it before it was published, and if it was so offensive why was it published at all? I also told him that the 50 percent reduction of my salary threatened to leave me financially strapped, that I had had only one annual assessment from Tod since starting work under him four years before, and that he had not expressed any dissatisfaction with my column or any other aspect of my work and conduct.
Wes grumbled that he would look into the salary matter. The next day I got a note from Tod telling me they were willing to raise my salary to 75 percent of what it had been if I agreed to write three editorials a week instead of two. I had no choice but to accept this increased workload at a lower salary, but even the increase still left me at a pay level less than my starting salary in 1986. By now it was Thursday afternoon, and my Friday column, ordinarily published on Tod’s op-ed page, did not appear. For the first time in four years the paper carried no column by me on the day of its regular publication.
Many of my readers sniffed trouble and started calling to ask why my column hadn’t appeared on June 30. In the weeks that followed, when the column inexplicably moved to the Commentary section and my tagline dropped the description of me as a staff columnist, word that something bad had happened began to seep out. Various conservative newsletters, activist groups, and talk show hosts began muttering about it. I started receiving copies of letters from readers to Wes expressing support for me and the column and often copies of his replies to them. There began to be talk of boycotts, demonstrations in front of the paper, and letter writing campaigns. I actively discouraged talk of any action against the paper, and I never asked anyone to write a letter to Wes or anyone else, but they did anyway. As of this date, I have copies of more than 50 such letters, and Wes later told me he had received “more than a hundred letters” expressing support for me. Apparently this made no difference to him.
At the end of August, Wes dispatched a blunt memorandum to me, snorting that Whoever is running the letter campaign should get his facts straight. “The messages to my office are all over the ballpark. Each correspondent is getting a reply considerably more polite than most deserve, and I make the point that if these correspondents actually admire you and your work, as they insist they do, they should not spread lies about you. You have told me that you are not a party to this, and I am glad to hear it.”
Why he sent this memo other than to suggest that I was somehow orchestrating a letter writing campaign I don’t understand, and I wrote him back to reiterate that I had never asked anyone to write or call him on my behalf. I also told him that in the copies of the letters I had received, “I have not seen anything that could be called a lie. . . . Why would I be party to a campaign to spread lies about myself? If lies are being spread, I would like to know what they are and who is telling them.”
It soon became apparent who was telling lies. When one reader wrote Wes with the precise facts, that I was no longer described as a staff columnist and that the location of my column in the paper had changed, Wes replied by saying “I don’t know where you are getting your nutty misinformation” and assured him that I continued as “an editorial writer for the Times, which is a position of highest prestige within our organization.” This was the general line he followed in responding to the letters, virtually denying that my status at the paper had changed and insisting in a form letter that “the voice of Sam Francis is as vibrant as ever, his column appears prominently in the Washington Times, as it has from the beginning, and he continues to contribute editorials as a valued member of the editorial page staff.” Those replies of his that I have seen are almost invariably curt to the point of rudeness, disingenuous if not outright dishonest, and often misspelled or ungrammatical. They almost never answer the writers’ questions and often wind up telling them it’s none of their business anyway. In at least one letter (to Jared Taylor) he explicitly said that the change of my column’s placement within the newspaper “was not a result of his column on the Southern Baptists’ apology for slavery” and wrote that “to describe this [my dismissal as a staff columnist and the drastic reduction of my salary] as ‘firing’ a columnist is truly bizarre.” He also emitted dark hints of a conspiracy. “Someone,” he wrote ominously, “is trying to do a job on Sam.” Some readers were taken in by this, and they wrote me asking what the real truth was.
By the end of the summer, I was still on the payroll, though I figured my days were numbered, and I had lost any desire to stay anyway. After nine years of professional success at the paper, I had been smacked in the face and was only a few steps away from financial distress. As for the “job on Sam,” it seemed to proceed briskly. I undertook writing three editorials a week plus my two syndicated columns and developed my plans to get the hell out of Dodge. But unknown to me at the time, others were also developing similar plans for me, though not for quite the same reason.