The first thing — the first political thing — you should know about the Weeklyis that we popped onto the scene just six months after the passage of Proposition 13. That is, we were conceived as a Left paper — sometimes New Left, sometimes Old, sometimes greenish, sometimes red — and dedicated to pushing the dominant liberal order leftward. And lo and behold, the dominant liberal order had been kneecapped by a right-wing onslaught and was unceremoniously crumbling while we were still in journalistic utero.
On our 20th anniversary, we find ourselves chronicling a world that is well to the right of what anyone could have imagined back in 1978. ä The era of big government has been officially interred. Welfare is history. The safety net has been shredded. And California, since the enactment of Howard Jarvis’ handiwork, has been winning the race to the bottom — the quality of our schools, our public spaces and, at times, our public life sinking to levels we had naively believed might still be found in the backwaters of the South, but never in the Golden State.
A lot we knew.
To make matters more perverse, it is largely politicians and parties of the center-left who now preside over this brave new world, placed there by voters yearning for some brake on the marketization of health care, security, culture, everything. The easy moral clarity of our first decade — when bad things happened to good people because bad administrations (Reagan’s and Bush’s) made them happen — has given way to the exquisitely complex distinctions of our second decade — when bad things, and a smattering of good ones, happened to good people because administrations we reluctantly supported cut deals with the forces that seek to make bad things worse.
In short, it’s been a golden age of lesser-evil endorsements.
Our first dozen years, though, was a time of unconflicted indignation at Reaganism, its Robin-Hood-in-Reverse economics and its Big Stick adventurism. If nothing else, we saw it coming. "His [Reagan’s] advisers are considering serious military buildups to put down popular uprisings in places like El Salvador," founding editor-publisher Jay Levin wrote in his 1980 presidential-endorsement editorial (which gave the advantage to Jimmy Carter over Reagan on issue after issue, then ended with an out-of-left-field recommendation of third-party candidate Barry Commoner). For the next decade, the Weeklyturned administration policy in Central America into its signature issue. Here’s a hopeful Levin on Contragate, in the issue that appeared during the first week of congressional hearings into the Iran-contra scandal:
Oliver North could be implicated in multiple murder (of journalists, of all people) and be extradited to Costa Rica to stand trial. Approval of drug smuggling by the contras could be found to reach into the highest quarters of the Air Force, the Defense Department, the CIA and the White House . . . Any conspiracy indictments could reveal a significant Reagan role in the contra affair, and refer the matter to the House for the consideration of impeachment.
(Ah, for an impeachment that would have been about something! Looking at Whitewater in 1994, even before the Lewinsky affair arose, I noted that "in the 20 years since Watergate, we’ve progressed from a scandal that Americans are unable to explain to Europeans, to a scandal that Americans are unable to explain to themselves.")
The Weekly’s powers of prophecy in matters Reagan went beyond Central America. Here’s Phil Tracy on "Why I Love Ronald Reagan," in the January 23, 1981, issue — three days after Reagan’s first inaugural:
Unless everything I believe is 180 degrees off base, Reagan is going to really screw things up with a brilliant series of right-wing blunders. Kiss and make up with all our old Latin American dictators. Double the defense budget and completely ruin the economy.
In fact, the doubled defense budget was the one part of Reaganomics that brought about the California boom of the ’80s — and, when the Cold War ended, the California bust of the ’90s. Having thus created an immense deficit, the right then proposed to slash social spending to bring our finances into order. Which, at the expense of schools, infrastructure, public health and the like, it did.
Beyond question, the Weekly’s best-known political story during our first decade was "George Bush, Loverboy," an account of ä then–presidential candidate George Bush’s extramarital affairs that ran in our October 14, 1988, issue — timed to coincide with the final Bush-Dukakis debate, which took place at UCLA. The story detailed (well, actually, it didn’t detail; it alluded to) two extramarital relationships that Bush was alleged to have conducted, one with his appointments secretary, another with an unidentified woman who was a friend of one of the story’s unnamed sources.
In fact, the story had about as much hard sourcing as the creationist account of the origins of the Earth. It quoted "two impeccable sources . . . people of stature in their respective fields." One, "a long-standing resident of Washington," recounted how a friend of his who worked in Bush’s office told him about Bush’s affair with his secretary (whom his friend characterized as "an incredible bitch" — imparting a happy air of verisimilitude, at least, to an otherwise skimpy account). The second source, who was identified as a figure in the film industry, said that his friend had also had an affair with Bush. (That’s not a synopsis of the source’s account; that’s the totality of it.)