Power Punk: Rich Lowry

Buckley brat is right wing’s flapper in the city; ‘normal’ American ‘guy,’ dates vegetarian.

Rich Lowry, the editor in chief of National Review magazine, was having dinner at the Union Square restaurant Coffee Shop near his office and apartment. It was early November, and Mr. Lowry, 35, was in the middle of promoting Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years . Billed as a “shattering indictment” of Bill Clinton, the book’s cover is an unflattering photograph of the 42nd President looking anxious, hunted and guilty.

“People have joked that it looks like he’s about to skulk into the woods and flash someone,” Mr. Lowry said.

Although in Legacy he calls Mr. Clinton “the Navel Gazer in Chief,” Mr. Lowry admitted that his subject has stamina.

“It’s never over,” he said. “It’s like the Jason movies where he’s got an ax in the head, but he’s always coming back at you. Clinton’s never going to give up flacking for his legacy; he does it every day. Last week it was, he’d warned Bush about bin Laden. And if you listen to every Democratic debate, all the criticism of Bush is made in the context of ‘Clinton did things better’ …. I also think, in the area of foreign policy, you can’t understand what the country’s dealing with now without understanding how we got here, which was the 1990′s. And then there’s Hillary, who’s going to run on his record-not this time, but certainly in ’08. So they’re not going away.”

Was it a depressing book to write?

“You know, slogging through the scandal stuff wasn’t particularly fun-not what you’d want to do on a Sunday afternoon,” Mr. Lowry said. But the only thing that really got his blood boiling was how Mr. Clinton allowed terrorists to flourish.

America is benefiting from its current “self-confidence” abroad, he said.

“There’s people we need to go out and kill,” he continued. “We no longer can bomb empty buildings and empty tents. They’re really evil guys out there who you have to go out and get, and Bush temperamentally is comfortable with doing that in a way Clinton never was and never will be.”

Legacy made it to No. 25 on the Times best-seller list. He dedicated it to his father, a retired English professor, his mother, a retired social worker, and his older brother, who is handicapped and “who laughs more than anyone I know.”

Growing up in Arlington, Va., Mr. Lowry was “rambunctious” and “always dirty and sweaty,” more contrarian than troublemaker: When everyone was going on about Star Wars , he didn’t join the herd.

“One thing that played into my development as a conservative was a skeptical attitude to authority and received wisdom,” Mr. Lowry said. He hung out with other medium-cool kids outside the 7-Eleven asking people to buy them beer.

His first political memories were in 1984, when he became a Reagan supporter after discovering William F. Buckley’s show, Firing Line . He’d read the National Review in the back of the classroom. At the University of Virginia, his grades were “poor to terrible,” but he hooked up with the conservative newspaper, The Virginia Advocate , and wrote articles that pissed people off. A guy in the student council tracked down Mr. Lowry’s mother by phone and said, “Do you realize you’ve raised a fascist?”

“The advantage of being a conservative journalist on campus-because political correctness can be so suffocating and so humorless-you get to be kind of the rebels that are kind of fun and raise hell and have some laughs in the process,” he said.

The Virginia Advocate’s funding got cut off and the university president, a First Amendment scholar, didn’t pipe up soon enough. The Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial.

After graduating, Mr. Lowry became a research assistant for columnist Charles Krauthammer. He entered a National Review young writers’ contest and tied for second. He began badgering the magazine to hire him. Soon enough, he was the national political correspondent, and in 1997 Mr. Buckley appointed him editor. He was 29.

“I founded the magazine when I was 29, so I felt it was a good tradition,” Mr. Buckley said. “He’s very talented.”

“He’s just an all-American guy. The thing that Rich brings to the magazine-which is kind of rare in its history-is normality,” said National Review contributor Richard Brookhiser.

Dec. 4 was an extra-full day for Mr. Lowry: He finished a tongue-in-cheek cover story endorsing Howard Dean, then headed to Washington, finishing a column about John Kerry on the train. Then he went to the White House to interview President Bush.

“It was very cool,” Mr. Lowry said. “Any time you’re around him in close proximity, you just realize those people like Maureen Dowd and Chris Matthews who suggest somehow he’s not in control, or being pushed around by his aides or manipulated, are just totally out to lunch, completely ill-informed.”

Mr. Lowry’s girlfriend, Jennifer Wotochek, works in philanthropy. They met at the Republican National Convention in 2000. A vegetarian, Ms. Wotochek often takes him to the Veg-City diner on 14th Street, where Mr. Lowry orders a fake-meat sandwich with tofu called a “sloppy no.”

“I’ve been evolving that way,” he said.

-George Gurley