The Lost Bardo of Bill Kristol

“Although the world is full of people who will tell you who you are, what you are, and what you are to do and not to do, they wander amid their unaddressed confusion, fear, and need for consensual belief to still their own anxious journey.”

These words, taken from Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey by James Hollis, bring to mind the case of Bill Kristol. Kristol was an important figure on the American Right in the 1990s, when he ran the Weekly Standard and worked for Vice President Dan Quayle. Then, like so many others, Kristol lost his mind when Trump was elected. Rather than do something else, Kristol insisted on trying to stay relevant in the tiny world of Beltway politics. Frantically, he turned left. 

Kristol’s hysteria doesn’t seem to come from a place of reason and genuine concern, but from a deep subconscious need to remain in the spotlight. As the quote above suggests, his Maddow-lite jabs and liberal admonitions come from a place of weakness and anxiety, not strength. 

Imagine how different Kristol’s life could have been had he pivoted away from politics when the Standard ceased publication in 2018. Like fellow conservative William F. Buckley, he could have done some traveling. Or scuba-diving. Or something . . . anything.

The Buddhists have a concept called a “bardo” which means a death and a rebirth. People can experience several bardos in life—such as when you have your first heartbreak, or when you lose a parent, or when you endure a tough illness. All such milestones call for some big change in perspective.

As the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron notes in her recent book How We Live Is How We Die, a bardo is full of chaos and terror, but also the opportunity to gain wisdom and chart a different course. It’s a fact of spiritual life and a gift from the universe. 

“To be fully intimate with life, I feel we have to be fully intimate with death,” she writes, advising us to “develop the capacity to stay in . . . uncomfortable, edgy places of uncertainty.” Such acceptance allows us to come out stronger and wiser on the other side.

A bardo can mean a drastic life change, like when James Martin left Wall Street to become a Jesuit priest. Yet it can also mean expanding the way you do the thing you feel is a calling. A doctor does more volunteer work, a teacher remarries and changes the subject she teaches, and so on. It’s easier if you have done different things in life already. Someone who has had summer jobs at the local restaurant or home improvement store or a journalist who has covered a lot of different subjects can more adroitly survive a bardo when it comes along. The change isn’t so jolting. One of the things I like about the populist journalists I sometimes meet is that they are farmers, mechanics, professors and other things that have nothing to do with politics. They have accepted their bardos in life. 

People like this who are editors are also far and away more receptive to my “outside” ideas for stories—skateboarding, surfing, jazz, even ranking nonalcoholic beers. Part of the problem with the school-to-pundit pipeline today is that too many media figures become famous young and narrowcast on a specific field. They then have difficulty writing or talking about anything else. Ben Shapiro isn’t about to write a book on surfing. It’s entirely possible he will be on a college campus “owning the libs” when he is 60.

Lacking the experience of life change—Kristol inherited punditry from his dad—people like Shapiro and Kristol now repeat themselves over and over or frantically founder around trying to stay afloat on the digital sea. They resemble the old joke about the specialist: someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. They are a cautionary tale about what happens when we avoid our bardos. 

Rather than take up parasailing or gardening when his time came, Kristol founded the entirely useless Bulwark, whose content is no different from that of The Nation or The New Republic—leftist magazines the Weekly Standard used to mock. I wrote for the Weekly Standard for the first couple years of its existence in the mid-1990s, and in those days Kristol was a serious yet kind man who saw that the threat of political correctness and academic Marxism was real. One of the first pieces I did for him was about the radicalism that had taken over Georgetown University. That radicalism has now metastasized into wokeness, which has destroyed lives and crushed free speech. 

On his Twitter feed recently, Kristol posted a video of Ron DeSantis condemning this neo-Marxism. Kristol’s comment? “This is the way the American conservative movement ends—not with a bang but a whimper.”

It was around the time I was writing for the Standard that I saw a young journalist named Norah O’Donnell on TV. O’Donnell was a reporter for The Hill. I still remember the sinking feeling I had seeing her—dear God, I thought, this is a gorgeous and smart young D.C. reporter. She will quickly graduate to a network and then become an anchor. Please let her avoid that banal fate. She didn’t. I recently saw a photograph of O’Donnell at the White House Correspondents Dinner. She was wearing way too much makeup, and looked embalmed. Without a bardo, which can lead to a rebirth, O’Donnell had slowly zombified in the rot of the swamp. And she’s not even the worst example. Margaret Carlson, who probably covered the Civil War, is still writing her same liberal column. Nothing seems to stop these undead scribblers, nothing ever seems to make them want to write about any other topic than politics. 

Jack Shafer, the “media critic” for Politico, barely slowed down in 2007 when it was revealed that he had edited and published a story while an editor at Slate that was entirely bogus. The story actually claimed that people in Florida fished for monkeys. After the story was ripped apart within hours (then, as now, there were not a lot of street smarts at Slate), any normal person would’ve taken the hint that the universe maybe wants him to do something else. Shafer, instead, got promoted to Politico, where he offers insights into the media. His “monkeyfishing” debacle, which in any other profession would have been a career-ender, has been scrubbed from his Wikipedia page. He will be writing his same tired column until they bury him next to Maureen Dowd in Georgetown.

Trump’s arrival in 2016 was a signal that something foundational had changed in America. A populist outsider was taking over and for many D.C. lifers, it was an unfathomable existential threat. Even though it was in a different context, Hollis captured the great significance of what happened: 

One of the most powerful shocks of the Middle Passage [in life] is the collapse of our tacit contract with the universe—the assumption that if we act correctly, if we are of good heart and good intentions, things will work out. We assume a reciprocity with the universe. If we do our part, the universe will comply. Many ancient stories, including the Book of Job, painfully reveal the fact that there is no such contract, and everyone who goes through the Middle Passage is made aware of it.” 

If we ignore our bardos, in other words, we just end up staying in a path that has long dried up for us. Then our souls revolt and we suffer with a vague sense that something is wrong without having any idea what to do about it. Yes, we admire a guy like Tom Cruise who still makes a go of it at his age. But how many buildings can he jump off? Isn’t Cameron Diaz, who left the business to become a mother, much more admirable?

Hollis adds, “aging itself does not bring wisdom. It often brings regression to childishness, dependency, and bitterness over lost opportunities. Only those who are still intellectually, emotionally, spiritually growing inherit the richness of aging.” Ironically, Kristol is like the Trump of his own fever dreams in the sense that he seems emotionally stunted, a resentful and spoiled child who threw a tantrum when the conversation turned away from him.

It’s a sad ending. Kristol—like Andrea Mitchell or Joe Scarborough on one of his juvenile, predictable, and performative rants—seems to be someone who missed a chance to grow up and gain some wisdom, gravitas, and self-reflection. All of these media figures seem less like their younger (and, weirdly, more mature) selves, and more like teenagers incapable of creative thinking and desperate to fit in with the cool crowd. 

Avoiding life’s bardos has landed them in a hell of eternal recurrence. 

Ironically, the leftist ranting of these formerly interesting journalists makes them more predictable than the staunchest and most boring conservative. It’s reminiscent of something Hollis wrote: “We are not here to fit in, be well balanced, or provide exempla for others. We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange, perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little clunky, chunky selves, to the great mosaic of being. As the gods intended, we are here to become more and more ourselves.”

Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.