Alex Heard
May 18, 1990 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In its May issue, Spy took a ”road trip” to Washington, which it calls ”Wonk City,” the turf of ”earnest former student-council presidents who drive Honda Accords.” Washington responded with its version of muscle-flexing: gruff appraisals by policy jocks who said Spy failed to turn up anything ”new.” A Washington Post reviewer, for example, scoffed that Spy‘s roundup of dumb ambassadors was ”a chestnut among Washington journalists.” Perhaps. But outside D.C., where people often greet Washington news by claaping hands over their ears and loudly repeating nonsense syllables, the D.C. issue may seem new enough.

A look at Washington’s magazines sustains the Wonk City charge. From the bible of insiderism, National Journal (it soon will have competition from The Washington Reporter, scheduled to debut October 1 and described as a daily diary of the Inside-the-Beltway dream, covering ”federal government, politics, lobbying, law and media”), to local lifestyle and business magazines such as Washingtonian, Washington Dossier, and Regardie’s, there’s no escaping D.C.’s chief product: politics. But your own wonk road trip should begin with three general-circulation political magazines, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and The American Spectator. The Spectator, for you who thrive on political labels, is the screaming-meemie right-wing one. I like this magazine — though 90 percent of its opinions make me cringe — because it offers doctrinaire ranting without the precious sniffing of New York’s National Review. (On the down side, it lacks the Tory quatrains by W. H. Von Dreele that NR publishes.) The May Spectator contains a screed against former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan by Mary Eberstadt (Noonan’s crime: She turned her back on movement conservatives, calling them ”creepy little men with creepy little beards”) and a gloating, rather lazy report on Nicaragua’s election by P. J. (Holidays in Hell) O’Rourke.

The New Republic‘s politics have been the subject of more thoughtful scrutiny than columnist Ellen Goodman’s navel, but it’s not that complicated. TNR editor-in-chief Martin Peretz has stocked the historically liberal opinion weekly with some conservatives (for example, Fred Barnes). But the staff also houses old-fashioned L-worders like editor Hendrik Hertzberg. The result, in this the most widely read of Washington’s policy magazines, is what’s often called ”lively unpredictability.” (With exceptions: In TNR, you can be certain that Israel won’t be bashed and that Woody Allen will.) Because TNR is weekly, it can react to events quickly. Just in time to rain on Earth Day’s parade, the magazine ran a jillion-word debunking-fest by Gregg Easterbrook called ”Everything You Know About the Environment Is Wrong.” And shortly after the Journal of the American Medical Association printed the much-publicized study alleging a genetic link to alcoholism, TNR published an analysis by NBC science correspondent Robert Bazell that nicely separates fact from hype.

The Washington Monthly is ”neoliberal,” which means stripped down. If you wander into its pages with a mind full of liberal shibboleths, you can expect to leave. . .rattled! The glory days of Monthly cantankerousness probably are behind it — no longer can you open the magazine and expect to find an article titled, say, ”The Case Against Free Trade.” But it still has moments. A few months back, its cover billing of a story on the homeless read ”There Aren’t Many Henry Fondas Out There.” The Monthly‘s grab bag of precepts for curing society’s ills — the so-called ”gospel” of editor Charles Peters — will wear you out after a while, but the magazine is always worth a periodic visit. Some of its alums — The Atlantic‘s James Fallows and Nicholas Lemann, among others — still contribute regularly.

If, after all this, the policy-prose monkey on your back jabbers for more, feed it The World & I, the jumbo all-purpose monthly put out by News World Communications, the very-deep-pocketed outfit that publishes the conservative Washington Times. This baby, which runs articles on politics, the arts, science, books, and culture, should quench any print appetite. Like many fashion magazines, the May 1990 issue is huge — a whopping 704 pages long. But in true Wonk City style, only 12 pages of this total are advertisements.

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