Learning from a Legend
Terry Eastland, 1950–2023. RIP.
Sad news this morning: An old friend of mine, Terry Eastland, has passed away. You probably don’t know him, because he was a figure from another era. I want to tell you about my own experiences with him and then tell you about his public life. Because (1) Terry meant something to me, personally, but (2) he is an example of how Washington used to be, back when America was a better, more liberal place.
I hope you’ll indulge me in some stories.
As an adult, I’ve only had four “bosses.”1 One of them was Terry Eastland.
This was between 2000 and 2008. Terry was the publisher of The Weekly Standard and I was the magazine’s first digital editor. In 2000, Terry had decided that the magazine needed a website. I knew a little about HTML, so he asked me to build out a digital product.2 (For reasons that never made much sense, in those days the digital product reported up to the publisher side of the house, rather than the editorial side.)
At first, I didn’t think much of Terry. He didn’t know much about the nascent online world. His Texas affect struck me as slow and I was a young guy in a hurry.
It turns out that I misunderestimated him. By a lot.
It was Terry who taught me the value of wisdom in a leader.
Terry was very smart, but he wasn’t an intellectual freak, like some of my Weekly Standard colleagues.3 No, what Terry was, was wise.
He was patient. He knew what he didn’t know. He asked smart questions. He prioritized shrewdly. The sum total of these attributes was that they gave Terry the ability to see around corners.
I came to view his judgment as superlative. Put it this way: I have always had a . . . healthy . . . regard for myself. Yet I quickly came to view Terry’s judgments as better than my own.
And as a colleague? Terry was aces. Unfailingly kind and collegial. Utterly without ego. Generous with his time and wisdom. Loyal.
When I started working for Terry, I thought he was useless. After 10 weeks I was ready to run through walls for him. I was a Terry Eastland Guy.
After a long run, I fell out of Terry’s direct report and that’s probably a good thing, because after Phil Anschutz purchased The Weekly Standard in 2009, Anschutz and his idiot goons made it their mission to ruin Terry’s life. Eventually they pushed him out. He was the first casualty of the Anschutz reign and it was his defenestration that convinced me of two things: (1) that Phil Anschutz was a moron; and (2) that Anschutz would eventually destroy the magazine.
I was right. In the most spectacular act of intellectual vandalism yet seen in American letters, Anschutz shut down The Weekly Standard in 2018 rather than sell it to a willing buyer.
When the end came, many people were shocked by it. I wasn’t. I had seen around that particular corner. Because I had learned from Terry.
He was a great boss; a fine mentor; a generous friend; a holy soul.
I’m still a Terry Eastland Guy. And if you had known him, you would be, too.
So let me tell you a story about Terry from before I knew him, so you can see exactly how great he was.
2. Honor Among Politicos
Terry first came into wide notice during the Reagan administration when he served as Attorney General Ed Meese’s spokesperson.
You may have forgotten, but Meese’s entire tenure was rotten with scandals. He never broke the law, exactly, but his ethical lapses were stunning and he was the subject of multiple independent counsel investigations.
Terry was charged with defending this man, in public, every day.
And Terry did his best—but he viewed his job as to only defend Meese with the truth. He was unwilling to lie for Meese and was also unwilling to disparage the special counsel or prejudge the special counsel’s report before it was written.
Because of that, Meese fired him.
Here’s an excerpt from Terry’s resignation letter:
You have expressed to me your desire to have as director of public affairs someone willing to aggressively defend you against, in effect, any and all criticism. . . .
While I believe I have defended you to the best of my ability, exercising good judgment and acting in a manner consistent with the obligations of this office, you have concluded that my efforts have not sufficed. . . .
My view of the Office of Public Affairs is that it has an obligation to serve not only the attorney general but also the Department of Justice and the American people.
That’s the kind of public servant Terry was. He was there to do a job and he understood that his job wasn’t to protect the boss man and climb the ladder. It was to serve justice.
After his firing, Terry held a short press conference to explain to reporters what had just happened. C-SPAN still has the video.
Absolute legend. Terry is 38 years old here. He’s a kid—a lot younger than I am now. And yet he stands there like a man. He announces his own firing with a dignity and grace that borders on the supernatural.
Look, I don’t expect you to watch the whole 30 minutes. But give me the first four minutes. Do that for me?
Terry starts out by saying that he has no rancor for Meese and that Meese is well within his rights to fire him. Terry goes on to bless the guy who’s replacing him and promise the press that this man will be a pro. Terry thanks the reporters for their professionalism during the time he's worked with them.
Then he takes questions. And by God, he answers them. With candor and good faith.
This is what Washington used to be like. It’s why, once upon a time, I fell in love with D.C.
Because it was a place where men like Terry Eastland labored.
Please keep Terry and his family in your prayers today.
3. Eastland on Will
Here is a piece by Terry, reviewing a book by George F. Will (one of my other heroes), in Commentary (one of my favorite magazines). It’s a trifecta of awesome.
His sentences respect important logical distinctions (such as that between “that” and “which”). He is fond of semicolons and parentheses; metaphor (John Wayne’s walk is “the heavy heaving of a barge on a rolling ocean swell”) and simile (presidential campaigns “involve candidates bouncing around the continent like popcorn in a skillet”). The rhetorical devices of repetition, antithesis, and juxtaposition make frequent appearances in his columns. As for epigrams, when Will is not quoting someone else’s (his mind must be a bin of quotations), he is composing one of his own.
Of all the syndicated columnists, perhaps only William F. Buckley has a stylistic signature so immediately recognizable. And no columnist writes on such a variety of subjects—including the oft-neglected topic of American mores. Will devotes whole columns to life in cities other than Washington and New York (Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles); to life in a particular state (“Nebraska: The Fairest of Girls, The Squarest Boys”); to life on the baseball diamond, such as it is (“The Chicago Cubs and the Decline of the West”). . . .
But this collection is notable for more than Will’s abilities as a writer. Taken whole, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the idea summed up by the archaic phrase in the book’s title—the pursuit of virtue. In his introduction to this book Will writes that “a society that dedicates itself to the pursuit of happiness had better dedicate itself, including its government, to the pursuit of the virtues indispensable to ordered liberty.” What these virtues are, and how America is lacking in them, are the constant themes of almost all of Will’s columns.
Thus, for Will, the self-described conservative, free enterprise must not be all that free. Capitalism, whose energies he praises, should be constrained by government regulation, and also by people of character. The marks of character are honesty, respect for others, and a recognition that the public good is not produced by “the unfettered pursuit of private goals.”
I spent 25 years at The Weekly Standard, where Bill Kristol was my notional boss. But Bill’s view was that journalism was an inherently egalitarian enterprise, so he ran a flat organization and I only directly reported to him for about 10 years in the middle of my time there.
True story: When I was in my twenties, if Bill Kristol was going out for coffee, he would ask the kids at the magazine if they wanted him to get anything for them.
Think about that: This famous guy didn’t just not send the kids to fetch his coffee. He offered to get coffee for them. I can count on one hand the number of D.C. personages who took that view of office life.
By “build out” I mean that I worked with my then (and current) colleague Catherine Lowe to project-manage the design process. This started near the bursting of the first dotcom bubble and we saw some crazy stuff.
One vendor came in and bid $2 million for the design of the site. Their team wore all black and had very trendy eyewear. Someone on our staff interrupted the presentation to ask if their RFP included an actual, physical building.
Those guys were like a Jeopardy Tournament of Champions All-Star Team. In terms of raw intellectual horsepower I’ll never be in setting like that again. It was freakish and intimidating and energizing.