A Bush policy guru’s dicey past
March 9, 2006, was a bad day for the White House. Weeks before, Claude Allen, the president’s chief domestic policy adviser, had resigned, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Then, on March 9, Allen was charged with having stolen some $5,000 worth of merchandise from Washington-area department stores during a months-long shoplifting spree. Even by the standards of a White House already awash in negative publicity, it was an enormous embarrassment.
A few blocks north, at almost exactly the same time, David Gerson, the executive vice president of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, was dealing with a headache of his own. Staffers at The American Enterprise–the think tank’s magazine, which was published eight times per year and boasted more than 20,000 subscribers–were threatening revolt against its longtime editor, Karl Zinsmeister. Frustration with Zinsmeister had been building for some time, and, by early 2006, one former staffer recalls, the situation was so bad that “if I got a good offer from McDonald’s, I would have taken it.” It wasn’t just Zinsmeister’s direct employees who were disgruntled. In mid-February, one former American Enterprise staffer wrote in an e-mail that Veronique Rodman, head of media relations for the think tank, had urged staffers “to mount a ‘coup’ against Karl within AEI.” Magazine employees began meeting with Gerson and airing their grievances. And, on Friday, March 10, one staffer e-mailed co-workers to say that “I’m not feeling a whole lot of motivation to come to the office on Monday.” The staffer noted that another employee “feels the same way, and we’ve even discussed not coming as a show of protest.” Six days later, Zinsmeister announced in a mass e-mail that he was “migrating” from his post at the magazine “to a position as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.” Gerson’s headache appeared to be over.
And Zinsmeister’s not-so-smooth departure from The American Enterprise might have remained a footnote in AEI history–except that, two months later, he was named Claude Allen’s successor at the White House.
Zinsmeister got off to a rocky start in his new job–which consists of overseeing the president’s domestic agenda on issues ranging from education to immigration and working with Congress to implement it–when, two days after his selection, The New York Sun revealed that he had altered a local paper’s 2004 profile of him before it was reprinted on his magazine’s website. (A quote that had previously denigrated “people in Washington” was changed to instead disparage the country’s “overclass.”) But he soon apologized for what he called a “foolish” lapse, and–perhaps because the White House isn’t exactly the Columbia School of Journalism, or perhaps because Bush officials found the impulse to clean up quotes considerably less creepy than the impulse to rob department stores–Zinsmeister was allowed to keep his post.
Publicly, conservatives praised the appointment. Grover Norquist called him an “intellectual’s intellectual,” while Zinsmeister’s former boss, AEI president Christopher DeMuth, said he was “thrilled” with the White House’s decision.
But, privately, many conservatives were stunned–and horrified. “Everyone who knows Karl that I’ve spoken to reacted with blatant shock,” says a former editor at The American Enterprise. Another former staffer at the magazine told me that, after Zinsmeister’s hiring, “the last vestige of confidence I had in the Bush administration–which wasn’t very much–was shot to hell.” A prominent neoconservative Washington journalist put it this way: “Everyone thought it was wacky.”
Exactly how wacky became clear as I spent more and more time talking to Zinsmeister’s former colleagues at AEI. Why, I wanted to know, had they so despised him? And why did he leave The American Enterprise?
Zinsmeister–sharp-jawed, tall, now in his late forties–first came to AEI as a research assistant to neoconservative Ben Wattenberg in 1982, shortly after graduating from Yale. He went on to work for Michael Novak as well as for Bill Bennett’s Department of Education. He also freelanced as a journalist and radio commentator. All the while, he was honing his political philosophy–a mix of populism, religiously inspired social conservatism, and hatred for coastal elites. In an interview last year with Wattenberg, which aired on PBS, Zinsmeister said that “if I had to put myself in any label, I’d say I’m a militant middle-American advocate.”
In 1994, Zinsmeister was named editor-in-chief of The American Enterprise, where he quickly got results. With his fiery style and desire to provoke, he changed a dry public-policy magazine into something more readable and less esoteric. “Karl wanted his magazine to be seen not just as … a glorified newsletter for the institute but a serious intellectual publication,” says one former AEI employee. The strategy worked. During Zinsmeister’s twelve-year tenure, the magazine’s subscriber base would increase from fewer than 4,000 to more than 20,000. (Full disclosure: I was an intern at AEI in the summer of 2004, and I later wrote several pieces for the magazine’s website. At no point did I have contact with Zinsmeister.)
Among Zinsmeister’s personal trademarks was a visceral disdain for Washington, which he avoided at all costs, editing the magazine from his home in Cazenovia, a small town in upstate New York. In an e-mail, he once described himself as “kind of an oddball who doesn’t like the Washington whirl,” and former employees recall that he frequently referred to D.C. in general and AEI in particular as full of “effete men in suits.”
In 2003, Zinsmeister embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq. That summer, he published his first book, Boots on the Ground, a celebration of the soldiers with whom he had traveled. “One thing I will always admire him for,” says Karina Rollins, a former American Enterprise editor who now works at the conservative Hudson Institute, “is his courage in going over there and reporting on the courage and sacrifice of the troops.” Zinsmeister was a steadfast supporter of the war, and he would become a relentless critic of what he described as the American media’s “bias toward failure.”
As he spent more and more time on his Iraq projects–which would eventually include a second book, Dawn Over Baghdad; a comic book, Combat Zone; and a PBS documentary called “Warriors”–Zinsmeister’s attention to the magazine began to fade. “Ever since he went to Iraq for the first time, he was out of the office much more than before, and he would be gone on speaking tours without telling us,” Rollins recalls. “He was gone often during deadline time, and he would blame deadline problems on us.” Soon after his first trip to Iraq, the daily morning conference call that Zinsmeister held with his Washington staff abruptly ceased. Increasingly, Zinsmeister’s managerial style veered wildly between two extremes: neglectful and domineering. On the one hand, the magazine often ran long excerpts from books that had been published months earlier. As one current AEI scholar put it, during “the last couple of years he was running the magazine, there were very few original features. It doesn’t take much genius to imitate Reader’s Digest.” On the other hand, former editors recall that some authors, including Dr. Laura Schlessinger, rescinded their work after Zinsmeister edited it beyond recognition. “I can’t say I know anyone at AEI who was particularly proud of the magazine,” says one former colleague. While Zinsmeister had certainly turned The American Enterprise from a wonkish journal into a pugnacious voice in the culture wars, a scholar at another conservative think tank says that “the magazine had been floundering under his leadership for many years, that’s no doubt.”
To be sure, Zinsmeister was hardly the first magazine editor to neglect his publication while writing books. The bigger problem was that he had come to see the magazine as an extension of himself. Zinsmeister, according to a former colleague, looked to another conservative magazine editor, William F. Buckley Jr., as inspiration for marketing himself as an iconoclast. The prolific Buckley had long offered his books as an enticement to potential subscribers.The difference, of course, was that Buckley was a god to conservatives, and there was reason to believe that readers of his magazine might actually want his books. The same couldn’t exactly be said for Zinsmeister.
Still, he pushed forward. And so it was that AEI began buying Zinsmeister’s books to give to new subscribers. The strategy, which debuted in 2003, was to lure people into subscribing through direct mail by offering a free Zinsmeister book with their subscription. At first, these mailings offered multiple options for subscribing, some of which included a Zinsmeister book, some of which did not. The magazine’s then-business manager, Garth Cadiz, says that the offers without Zinsmeister’s books invariably received better response rates. Yet, in June 2005, Zinsmeister eliminated the option to get a subscription through direct mail without buying one of his books as well. The move was a flop, according to Cadiz. Around that time, subscriptions, which had been climbing for years, began falling. No books by other AEI scholars were ever offered in similar arrangements, Cadiz notes. Zinsmeister also printed ads for his books free of charge in the magazine. In 2004, Zinsmeister wrote an e-mail to his editors concerning Dawn Over Baghdad: “I have promised Encounter [his publisher] we will run Dawn ads in TAE for the indefinite future in return for them paying for some of the media interview travel.… So please treat the Dawn ad as a paid ad for the near future (i.e. pull something else, not it, if there is a space crunch).” According to a former AEI employee, it was widely known at the think tank that “Karl was in it for Karl,” and his use of the magazine to promote his own books was “sort of like a running joke.” The books were shipped to Zinsmeister’s home in Cazenovia and mailed to subscribers from there. Over three years, according to an e-mail David Gerson would later send to Zinsmeister after he had announced his plans to step down, AEI purchased 13,700 Zinsmeister books at a cost of $131,000. And what a gift that proved to be for Zinsmeister, as AEI’s purchases wound up accounting for 45 percent of the total sales of Dawn Over Baghdad’s hardcover edition–and more than half its paperback sales.
It wasn’t just the books that irked Zinsmeister’s colleagues. There was also his wife, Ann, who was added to the magazine’s masthead in early 2003 as its marketing director–a job that Karl described in an e-mail as “part-time.” “The role of his wife Ann was never clearly explained to us. … She spent an awful lot of time scheduling radio and TV appearances,” says Rollins. According to several former employees of the magazine, Ann did little besides arrange her husband’s public appearances and mail his books. Still, she made her presence felt. Ann would occasionally call the D.C. staff to order editorial changes–once, while her husband was away, spending several hours in a dispute with the Washington office over the correct use of apostrophes. “How do you contradict someone sleeping with your boss?” a former editor asked me. Jo Roback-Pal, the magazine’s former art director, says that Ann “screamed at me constantly.” (Ann did not return a call seeking comment for this article.)
But the biggest grievance harbored by the magazine’s staff concerned Zinsmeister himself. “He went to his son’s basketball game, and then he would give Jo [Roback-Pal] a hard time about a doctor’s appointment,” Rollins says. “That happened all the time. If one of these things just happened every now and then you’d write it off. … But there were so many of these things and so often.” Roback-Pal, who was originally hired to work four days a week, saysZinsmeister demanded that she start working five days–with a small increase in pay–or accept a salary cut to stay at four. She threatened AEI with a lawsuit but eventually settled for a severance package. While Zinsmeister frequently complained about Roback-Pal to other staffers at the magazine–telling Cadiz that she was “useless” and “never there”–her former colleagues say that she never missed a deadline and that he was “abusive” toward her.When she angered him by taking a four-month maternity leave, Zinsmeister told Cadiz, “I am never going to hire another woman because they just get pregnant and leave.” For her part, Rollins says that her relationship with Zinsmeister–which she described as “fantastic” during her first two years at the magazine, starting in 2001–eventually soured so badly that he stopped speaking to her for the two months prior to her departure. Another former editor said that “people in the office tried to avoid talking to him.” Magazine employees began referring to their think tank with the inverse of its acronym–IEA:the Institute of Evil Administrators–and calling Zinsmeister “Captain Queeg” behind his back.
Former magazine staffers point to “Zinsmeister’s Law,” which he repeatedly invoked, as the basis for his rudeness. “Remember Zinsmeister’s Law:Assume people are stupid,” he wrote in one e-mail. His ire wasn’t confined to those who worked for him. A former editor at the magazine saysZinsmeister called Gerson a “pinhead,” and Cadiz says he referred to AEI’s director of human resources as a “boob.”
Despite all this–the declining quality of his magazine, his questionable use of subscription sales to promote his own books, his unprofessional treatment of co-workers–Zinsmeister still had one thing going for him: his relationship with AEI President Christopher DeMuth. It was widely known at the think tank that Zinsmeister was a DeMuth favorite; indeed, his office-wide nickname was “the golden boy.” In 1997, he was given an endowed chair, and, as late as 2002, he was one of the think tank’s five highest-paid employees (excluding officers and directors), making $125,000 per year.
But even DeMuth’s affection could not protect Zinsmeister from the growing exasperation of his own staff. And so, on March 14–several weeks after his employees had registered their disgust with their boss in discussions with Gerson–Zinsmeister met with Gerson in Washington. Two days after that,Zinsmeister sent out a mass e-mail announcing his resignation but said he would continue editing the magazine while AEI searched for a replacement.Two months later, he had a job in the White House.
Was Zinsmeister fired from The American Enterprise? Only he and top AEI officials know for sure. Zinsmeister declined to speak to me, while Gerson told me, in an e-mail, “Any suggestion that he was asked to step down from running the magazine … is completely false.” For his part, DeMuth wrote, also in an e-mail, that “Karl was not fired, dismissed, moved aside, or in any way encouraged to step down from the position. The decision was entirely, 100 percent his own. His performance in the position was outstanding and he could have continued in it indefinitely.”
But other evidence suggests that the move was not so amicable. “It’s sort of a little weird that you announce your departure without naming a successor,” a prominent scholar at another conservative think tank says. Indeed, James Glassman–a former TNR publisher who would eventually take over forZinsmeister–told me that he was not approached by AEI until after Zinsmeister had disclosed his resignation.
Moreover, the day after Zinsmeister announced his plans to resign, Cadiz came to Washington to meet with Gerson. At their meeting, Cadiz says that Gerson discussed Zinsmeister’s behavior toward staff and was insistent in his queries about how many books the magazine had ordered, to whom it was shipping them, and how much money was changing hands. He also brought up the subject of potentially “missing” books that Zinsmeister had ordered on behalf of AEI, estimating that as many as 6,000 were unaccounted for. Gerson, says Cadiz, asked him multiple times, “What does Ann Zinsmeisterdo?” To which Cadiz, long kept in the dark about Ann by her husband, replied, “I don’t know.” “We have been sending 1.2 million dollars of AEI’s money to Cazenovia per year, and we don’t know what he’s been doing with it,” Cadiz recalls Gerson saying. Gerson made clear to him, Cadiz says, thatZinsmeister had been “removed” from the editorship of the magazine. Another former AEI employee recalls that Gerson had said a few weeks earlier thatZinsmeister had committed “fireable offenses.”
On the morning of April 12, a month after Zinsmeister had announced his resignation and six weeks before the White House announced his appointment, AEI’s controller sent an e-mail to Gerson. Zinsmeister was still running the magazine at this point, and she had received a request from him, via Cadiz, to pay for a further 1,000 copies of Dawn Over Baghdad at a total cost of $7,500. In an e-mail to Zinsmeister that afternoon, Gerson wrote that “over the past three years, AEI has purchased $131,000 worth of your books (including $12,000 worth of comic books) to use as subscription premiums. … That’s been good for St. Martin’s and Encounter–assuming a customary commercial arrangement; you’ve received more than $32,000 in royalties on those purchased.” It seems clear from the e-mail that Gerson was annoyed. “We haven’t pushed books by other AEI authors in the same way,” he continued. “As we change our magazine and its marketing going forward, I want to tip the balance of the book premiums we offer to a more representative cross-section of AEI’s products. Charles Murray’s In Our Hands sold more than 1,600 copies last week alone, and it costs us $3 a copy. Let’s try that book as a premium.”
Then, on May 24, Zinsmeister sent a triumphant mass e-mail to AEI staff. “I am an admirer of Cincinnatus,” he wrote, “and had intended to return quietly to my writer’s plow after I completed my last issue of The American Enterprise. When I announced my departure, however, I received an unexpected flurry of proposals, one of which I could not ignore. I have been asked by the President to serve as his domestic policy advisor.” A well-known scholar at AEI says that many people at the think tank responded with “bemusement. It’s not a role we would have seen him as playing.” “I personally thought it was very strange,” says the head of a prominent conservative organization. “I was completely stunned. … I think people were like, ‘What? KZ?'” But, while many conservatives found Zinsmeister to be an odd choice for the job, others thought the appointment made perfect sense. With his disdain for Washington and his hatred for elites, Zinsmeister undoubtedly appealed to “Bush’s weakness,” speculates one former American Enterprise editor, while another laughs at the thought of “two people complaining about elites in D.C., who both went to Yale.”
For his part, Cadiz was offered the opportunity to relocate to Washington for the relaunch of the magazine under new leadership. But, with a working wife and two high school-age children in upstate New York, he could not accept. He departed AEI, he says, on agreeable terms. It will no doubt be tempting for AEI to paint Cadiz as a disgruntled employee, but the words of Zinsmeister and Gerson suggest otherwise. In an e-mail Zinsmeister sent just days before assuming his job at the White House, he told Gerson that Cadiz had been “a diligent, error-free, and creative employee for 41/2 years, who has saved the magazine a lot of money on various business processes during that time, so I hope TAE can be generous with him during this involuntary separation.” And, in an e-mail sent to AEI’s senior staff the day after Zinsmeister announced his decision to step down, Gerson wrote, “In consideration of Garth’s fine work in helping to build the magazine, I committed that AEI will make every effort to treat him well as we sort things out.”
In a coup de grace, Zinsmeister made sure that his last issue of The American Enterprise bore his fingerprints. A tribute to Zinsmeister by writer Bill Kauffman, titled “KZ from A to Z,” related how Zinsmeister met his wife while on a trip to Tanzania. “Karl, ever unwilling to observe rules and regulations, sneaked out of camp with Ann on a sightseeing lark,” Kauffman wrote. But, when he edited the piece, Zinsmeister removed the phrase “ever unwilling to observe rules and regulations.” The irony of the change was not lost on Zinsmeister’s beleaguered staff, one of whom wrote to his colleagues, “Can’t go breaking rules at the WH, now can we?”
But, propensity for rule-breaking aside, one imagines that Zinsmeister has proved a good fit in the Bush White House. After all, like the president he now serves, Zinsmeister long ago mastered the trick of railing against Washington while arrogating to himself as much of the city’s power and privilege as he could grab. “People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings,” Zinsmeister told the Syracuse New Times back in August 2004. That quote obviously bothered him, since he would later soften it on his magazine’s website. Perhaps it haunted him merely because he worried administration officials would read it as an insult. Or, maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the back of his head, Karl Zinsmeister knew that it described the person he had become.