Kinsley Goes For The Net

IF YOU PLOT MICHAEL KINSLEY'S TWO decades as a journalistic wunderkind, you realize how hard he's had to work to keep up with the world's increasing production of stupidity. He started out skewering the idiocy of the Ford administration at The Washington Monthly, then moved to The New Republic, a weekly, around the time Jimmy Carter became president. Two administrations later, as it became clear that the nation's need for iconoclasm could only be satisfied on a daily basis, he became the neoliberal scourge of CNN's "Crossfire." But even television's 12-hour news cycle, from evening newscast to the next day's morning shows, has been hopelessly outpaced by the endless, incomprehensibly burgeoning flow of data on the Internet. So beginning early next year, Kinsley will move to Seattle to create and edit an online magazine of political and cultural commentary for the Microsoft Network and the World Wide Web. Now, when someone does something stupid anywhere in the world, any time day or night, Kinsley will be able to crush him with an aphorism at the speed of light. You wonder if this is the vision of the future Newt Gingrich really has in mind.

For Kinsley, the move marks another chapter in a brilliant yet eccentric career that has fueled the dreams of glib, ambitious Yuppies in the way their mothers might have fantasized about Grace Kelly. When he left The New Republic for TV, there were mutterings from his colleagues--especially those still earning five-figure salaries in print journalism--that he had shamefully traded possible greatness for celebrity. Hisresponse-maybe so, but what if it's worth it?--was characteristically frank. Kinsley is now infinitely more famous than he was when he was just one of the best columnists and editors of his generation. As he acknowledged in a recent article ("Confessions of a Buckraker"), his fame has led to a lucrative career debating conservative journalists at conventions of rich businessmen, a role he compared to that of "the team that gets to lose to the Harlem Globe-trotters," only less taxing.

His new role will be very different: he'll be a property of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, whom Kinsley has never even met. In adding Kinsley to a string of recent acquisitions, from a da Vinci manuscript to the derby-hatted multitudes of the Bettmann Archive, Gates is making "a statement that content on the Internet is a serious thing," says Russell Siegelman, whom Kinsley describes as "my 22-year-old multimillionaire boss." (Siegelman is actually 38. Kinsley is 44.) But Kinsley, a computer dabbler, is no high-tech fanatic. The content remains, at this point, fairly vague, along with the form, timing and even the name of the new venture. And so are the finances. Almost everything on the Internet today is free, but Kinsley, who isn't accustomed to giving insight away, hopes to charge for his magazine someday. "Someone will make something so good that people will pay for it," he says, "and maybe it will be us."

Well, you can only wish him luck as he prepares for a new life 3,000 miles outside the Beltway and the elegant Washington dinner parties where Kinsley has been a fixture. His friends admire his courage; they wonder how he will survive the famed Microsoft culture, with its well-known Cult of Bill. Others of Gates's properties, such as Leonardo da Vinci, don't have much say in how he uses them, but Kinsley is accustomed to somewhat more independence. He, after all, was the young writer who was summoned for an interview with the legendary William Shawn of The New Yorker--and made fun of it. He was the editor who quit The New Republic over a matter of principle--and returned two weeks later. Although he won't talk about his financial arrangements, Kinsley--who is on record as believing that journalists have a right to be rich--will undoubtedly be well compensated, in Microsoft's legendary stock options if not salary; he turned down a similar, but reportedly less lucrative, offer from Time-Warner. As for the psychic rewards, only time will tell. Asked whether he will have any regrets if in 10 years he walks into a restaurant and nobody recognizes him, he says he hopes he'll be over it by then. "But ask me in three months," he adds, "and I'll probably feel terrible."