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David Bradley, chairman of the Advisory Board, recently came out of nowhere to buy the fustian policy tome National Journal and commenced collecting the journalistic likes of Michael Kelly, William Powers, and Stuart Taylor like so many Beanie Babies. The move has stirred widespread interest in all 10 square blocks around the Capitol, but a rare combination of vanity and wonkery may yield something unthinkable: an interesting NJ.

Bradley’s indoctrination into the policy priesthood began early. He followed trends in management and public policy through Sidwell Friends, Swarthmore, a Fulbright, Harvard (MBA), and Georgetown (JD). In the middle of law school, he decided he could commodify his life of the mind in the form of a “for-profit think tank.” His mom offered the use of the library in her apartment at the Watergate, a few card tables, and four princess phones. Eighteen years later, he has moved a few hundred feet south to the Watergate office building and pretty much taken it over. Businesses all over the world pay the Advisory Board’s 750 employees heinous sums to do highest-quality research, primarily in financial and health care areas. The board claims 2,500 member companies all over the world and kicks out 50 major studies in addition to 25,000 customized research briefs each year. A heavily embossed marketing brochure contains even more heavily embossed language:

“Our corporate privilege is to serve as a modest scribe to the remarkable advance of great ideas in commerce and human affairs. The revolutions in our time are of the mind, the triumph of sound and inspired ideas.” Later on in the same brochure, it talks about something called the “Strategy Diaspora.”

Back before he was a corporate captain of the intellect, Bradley was the kind of student who stayed behind when the other fellas went off to the bar so he could chew through the latest NJ, a wonk mainstay since 1969. “National Journal was very much a part of my youth,” says Bradley, who sounds wistful when he talks about his seminal attachment to the magazine. “It was often the centerpiece of my research in school.” And after he made big money in business data, his idea of living it up was to go out and buy NJ when the Times Mirror Co. decided to sell it in September. Bradley was the wallet behind a management-led buyout and has now become the most dangerous of all Washington creatures: a wonk with money.

He has spent his money well, retaining three journalistic wise men: Kelly, recently dumped editor of the New Republic, Powers, the TNR media writer who jumped after Kelly was pushed, and Taylor, columnist for Legal Times and American Lawyer. NJ has also added Charles Green, a Pulitzer finalist for Knight Ridder in 1994, as deputy editor. (And NJ reportedly isn’t done shopping: Slate’s Jodie Allen is reportedly among other journalists who are talking to the magazine.) Nice brand names those, the kind of sparkle that could buy just about anybody a place at the table in Washington circles.

Bradley actually made some initial inquiries about buying TNR before he bought NJ. He is an unabashed admirer of TNR, but sheepish about his effort to get his hands on Martin Peretz’s plaything.

“I made the least effective approach in the world. I hired a magazine broker who inquired whether all or any of the magazine was for sale, and he received an unequivocal answer that it was not. I doubt that Mr. Peretz even knows he was approached. It would have been a remarkable privilege. It is a truly elegant piece of journalism….I am probably its least picky reader,” Bradley says.

So instead of buying an extant journal of politics and opinion, Bradley is going to graft one onto the front of NJ. It’s one way to go, but there is the matter of NJ’s subscription price—$987 a year. And the substantial prowess of Kelly, Powers, and Taylor will spread over a grand total of 7,000 readers.

Paul Starobin and others at NJ offer ample reward to the tenacious reader, but for the time being NJ is read only by people who need to track the federal government’s every wobble to the right or left. Like the Federal Register, its pages are numbered continuously from issue to issue, and it has two holes punched along its margin so it can be archived as soon as it’s received, and maybe sometimes before it’s read. It’s absolutely authoritative, eminent, and almost never read by anybody who doesn’t have to. Journalists crib from it mercilessly in the belief that no one will have seen what they are stealing from.

Publisher John Fox Sullivan says the decision to aggressively recruit some big knockers to NJ’s rarefied policy confines isn’t as wacky as it sounds.

“It’s really an old-fashioned notion. At a time when the rest of the industry is cost-cutting, what we are doing is assembling the best goddamn talent available—along with trying to make the magazine visually more attractive—and then just saying, ‘Let’s see what happens,’” says Sullivan, who is thrilled by NJ’s recent redesign.

Editor Stephen Smith, who was the founding editor of Civilization, says it’s a luxury extended by Bradley, who is “definitely the more equal of equals among the partners in the magazine.”

“We are in the funny position of building a better magazine and having the business plan trail behind it. The key here, obviously, is to drive circulation, and we feel that there is growth out there,” Smith says. He may well be right. The Economist has some 250,000 readers in America, but it’s not priced as dearly as NJ. The subscription price seems to restrict NJ’s target audience to wonk millionaires, but that may change.

“You are watching a work in progress. Whether it is intelligent or flawed, we are going to be figuring it out as we go. The problem with the National Journal is not the 7,000 readers. It is the price point,” says Bradley. “That is a spectacular price, five times what it costs for the Economist, and I think we need to ask ourselves: How are we worthy of that price? There has to be something that sets us above the crowd.”

For the time being, that something will be Taylor, Kelly, and Powers. The chatter around town suggests that the hat trick linked arms with NJ because they were offered “stupid money.” Kelly was reportedly wooed by the New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, and the Weekly Standard. But Taylor, Kelly, and Powers all say that they received comparable offers from other outfits and decided to go with NJ.

“I guess for me it was the people involved,” says Kelly. “I talked to a number of people in this job go-round, and I very much liked the ideas that Stephen Smith, John Sullivan, and David Bradley were talking about. I guess it wasn’t just their ideas but their enthusiasm. I’m comfortable with the magazine. It’s not silly or sensational.”

Kelly, who has never been prized for understatement, gets off a whopper there. His reported column on matters political starts this week. The column has a Thursday close—NJ comes out on Friday—and Kelly hopes to capture the zeitgeist of Washington in any given week. Part of the reason he went with NJ is that it has no problem sharing him with the Washington Post, where he will continue to write a weekly syndicated Op-Ed column. Taylor has an agreement to do special projects for Newsweek, and while his column will appear first in NJ, it will continue to run in various publications in the American Lawyer empire. Powers will be free to pursue free-lance projects and his ongoing gigs on television.

Taylor, who single-handedly reframed Paula Jones from trailer trash into legitimate litigant, says NJ was difficult to resist. And he’s got the horses to show for it.

“I was dickering with them over whether I was going to work there, and we got this letter from Meadowbrook Stables, which is now owned by David Bradley,” says Taylor. “My daughter Molly rides there a little bit, and I mentioned to David or Stephen [Smith] that my wife and daughter were very much in favor of me going with National Journal because they loved the stable so much.”

The Saturday after Taylor signed with NJ, he realized how serious Bradley was. “I looked up from my desk at my house, and there were a couple of ponies on the lawn,” says Taylor, who said that horses don’t frequently visit homes in upper Northwest, where he lives. That’s the kind of attention that usually gets lavished on talent on the other coast, not on guys who do conceptual scoops on Supreme Court doings.

Bradley retained Kelly, Powers, and Taylor to help produce “10 pages in the front of the magazine that are dispositively must-read within the Washington community, whether it is through columns, features, or data.”

Wonky though it may be, NJ has become one more hobby farm on the back 40 of vanity publishing. Like professional sports team owners, the men who buy these magazines can hit the free-agent market and collect big talents as long as the money lasts. Powers, who covered the magazine beat for the Post before throwing his lot in with Kelly at TNR, says that NJ “is happy to pay what they have to pay to get the people that they want. What matters to me is the kind of work that I get to do and the kind of readers that I have.” Powers will be doing an every-other-week column for the magazine that focuses exclusively on Washington media. “I really hope what we are doing here is going to work out.”

What they are doing at NJ that no one will say aloud is trying to build the pre-eminent journal of political commentary, analysis, and reporting. With the newsweeklies in full retreat from Washington, the Weekly Standard stuck in right field, and TNR in disarray, the folks at NJ think there’s room for a political journal that has no discernible partisan tendencies. They will attempt to grow the audience by increasing the talk value and dropping the subscription price. Whether the formula of coating the brussels sprouts of NJ’s core franchise with the chocolate sauce of commentary from the new guys will yield anything more than a mess won’t be apparent for months. The decision to reposition an existing title rather than launch a new one is not without merit, though. The Economist and Roll Call sought to extend their reach by launching Capital Style and apparently have nothing but printing bills to show for it thus far.

The governmental publishing business is not the gentlemanly little game it once was. Congressional Quarterly offers direct and talented competition. Roll Call and the Hill compete tenaciously for time and attention, and various web options have given customers instantaneous access to near-perfect data about the government. Publisher Sullivan says it takes more than solid information to play in the shoulder-to-shoulder market of Washington-style infotainment:

“We are trying to break out of the pack of CQ, Roll Call, the Hill, Weekly Standard, and New Republic. Each has its strengths, and we have always been a player in that group, but we want to expand beyond it.”

Bradley, who is brilliant in an aw-shucks sort of way, entertained notions of becoming a player by running for office after building his company but now feels he is past his prime as a candidate. NJ is the next best thing, and it might have some tidy business upsides. He goes to some length to deny that there is any synergy between the Advisory Board and NJ, but for as many years as he owns the magazine, his name—hitherto obscure—will be on the lips of all the mentioners. For the time being, Bradley is the king of the wonks—not a bad franchise in the world headquarters of policy nerds.

Cashing Out The Post may not have won the sweepstakes for Cowles Media, owner of the StarTribune in Minneapolis, but it can always wipe away its tears with lots of fresh greenbacks. When California-based McClatchy Newspapers Inc. bought the StarTribune for $1.4 billion, the Post walked away with $347.5 million. The Post paid just $73 million for most of its Cowles stock in 1985. McClatchy owns, among other papers, the Raleigh News and Observer, which won a Pulitzer in 1996 for an investigative series on large-scale hog farms. Through a spokesperson, Post publisher Donald Graham said, “We are disappointed not to be the buyer, but McClatchy is an outstanding, high-quality company, and we congratulate everyone at the Minneapolis StarTribune on their new owner.”

Editorial No Comment Former Post editor Ben Bradlee sustains a few whacks in Sy Hersh’s book The Dark Side of Camelot as a Kennedy sycophant, but the normally voluble Bradlee is keeping his thoughts to himself. “I wrote him a lettter and told him what I thought,” says Bradlee. “I don’t want to get into a pissing match with him. I am eminently dismissible as a Kennedy apologist by Mr. Hersh and his crowd, and I don’t think they are correct, but I am going to leave it at that.” But doesn’t it sort of make you angry? “Maybe you didn’t hear what I said.”

The Raw and the Cooked The Los Angeles Times published a story last Monday and Tuesday on the children of drug addicts that makes Janet Cooke’s conjured vision of the 8-year-old addict named Jimmy in the Post seem like a game of patty-cake. Written by Sonia Nazario, the series puts you in the room with kids who are always starving for love and nutrition while their parents pursue the only hunger that matters to them. The pictures by Clarence Williams feature parents shooting dope or nodding in the foreground while kids languish in filthy environs just a few feet away. Some will see the no-holds-barred series as a form of poor-nography, a journalistic exploitation of families in distress, but Nazario’s story is the kind that does not allow anyone, even the squeamish, to look away.

Missing Picture It was recently revealed that four of the pieces that appeared in the National Gallery of Art’s “The Passionate Eye” show in 1990 had been looted by the Nazis when they occupied France. News to you? Only if you rely on the Post, whose historical coziness with the National Gallery left the scoop in the hands of WJLA Channel 7, the AP, and papers in New York, Baltimore, Richmond, and Philadelphia. The show consisted of works collected by Emil Buhrle, a Swiss industrialist who sold arms to the Nazis and was identified in declassified Allied reports as the largest Swiss buyer of looted art. It kicked up controversy at the time it was mounted as well, but all the Post talked about was how “delicious” it found the collection of Impressionists and post-Impressionists. Those of us who live in the Gallery’s back yard will have to look somewhere besides the Post if we want to know why a national museum exhibited work it knew or should have known had been pilfered by the Nazis. —David Carr

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.