This Reader’s Digest Editor Was One Tough, Conservative Cookie
My old friend Bill Schulz passed away July 22 after a hard fight with multiple illnesses. Bill, who was born in 1939, was one of the most talented editors I ever had the pleasure of working with. For more than 30 years, Bill was the Washington editor for Reader’s Digest when the Digest was the most-read magazine in America, with over 50 million readers. Bill assured that the Digest remained resolutely anti-communist in the final decades of the Cold War.
Dave Shiftlett, who wrote for Schulz, hailed his editing ability: “Bill could have condensed ‘Ulysses’ to 12 pages.” Much more than technical acumen, however, he brought higher literary and intellectual standards to American conservatism. As a teenager, Bill attended lectures by the legendary Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises at New York University. He recognized that denouncing Big Government was not enough; you also had to make readers understand the deeper perils and the grave political trendlines.
Bill masterminded a 1978 bestseller entitled A Time for Truth that lucidly explained why political takeovers of the economy and American life were disasters for freedom and prosperity. That book was ghostwritten by Edith Efron and published under the name of former Ford administration official Bill Simon, and included a preface by Milton Friedman and a foreword by F.A. Hayek. The book relates how, when Simon was appointed as Energy Czar, President Nixon compared the power he was vesting in Simon with the power Hitler vested in Albert Speer, the Nazi Minister of Armaments and War Production. (If only MSNBC had been around back then to sound the alarm!) The chapters on “Freedom vs. Dictatorship” and “The Road to Liberty” are as relevant now as when they were written and could be profitable reading for many Trump supporters.
After I started writing for Bill in 1984, I never had to go to a pawn shop to pay rent or hitchhike when I was traveling on assignment for Bill. The Digest pay rates gave me the financial breathing space to write for plenty of publications that offered “honorific pay rates” and usually worse editing than Bill delivered.
Bill was one of the most devoted patrons of The Palm restaurant, where he spiced lunches with lively anecdotes on Washington political operatives and poohbahs, often including a fun “behind-the-scenes” nugget about Mayor Marion Barry. I also relished hearing his stories of the great fights he attended, such as the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971, where Bill shouted so loud that he was hoarse the next morning. Maybe Bill liked boxing in part because he was a natural tough guy—he enjoyed publishing frontal assaults I wrote on the Internal Revenue Service, the World Bank, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other targets that most Washingtonians preferred not to criticize.
One of my all-time favorite D.C. brouhahas occurred the day that Bill and I interviewed Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole in 1989. Dole was whooping up the federal Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) program as one of the greatest gifts Washington ever delivered to the downtrodden. Bill recognized a boondoggle when he saw one, and JTPA was a geyser of phony success stories and dishonest statistics. JTPA was corporate welfare at its worst—shoveling out tax dollars to businesses on endless false pretenses.
Secretary Dole greeted us that day as if we were visiting the throne of a small European kingdom. She flashed us a focus-group-tested smile as we entered her palatial office. She was accompanied by her press secretary, a lady practiced in securing the most positive coverage for her boss. She insisted that Dole had only 30 minutes to spare to talk to the Digest.
Dole gestured towards a giant bay window and mentioned she had a great view of the Capitol dome. She declared, “I know that if the lights are still on 6 p.m., then I won’t have to fix dinner for Bob,” referring to her husband, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Her opening gambit revealed that she assumed we were idiots. Schulz later groused that the odds of her making dinner at their Watergate apartment for her husband were akin to a snowball’s chance in hell. Ms. Dole never had a reputation as a homebody.
We barely had time to sit down before Dole launched an over-caffeinated filibuster about what JTPA meant to her. She picked up the framed photograph on her desk showing her clutching a young black woman at a White House JTPA hoopla two months earlier. Dole gushed: “And she cried—and I cried—and we hugged!” Dole kept talking rapidly—seemingly not pausing to breathe—running the clock out on the interview.
I finally interrupted her in mid-sentence to ask about a specific $3 million grant to a floundering Los Angeles training program that was clearly driven by political pull.
Not a facial muscle moved as Dole’s silent “not a puff piece goddammit” alarm went off. After a five second pause, she said she knew nothing about it.
Bill then asked her a question about another prima facie howler of a JTPA program. She replied that she knew nothing about that one either. (Maybe Liz Dole coached Bob Mueller for his recent congressional appearance?)
Then I asked about Inspector General reports that obliterated JTPA’s success claims. She indignantly replied that she had not expected to be asked those kinds of questions. Bill followed up and I noticed that the press secretary’s knees were visibly shaking. We asked a few other questions, none of which Dole attempted to answer.
“It sounds to me as if this may be a better interview for Bob Jones to have,” she snapped. “He’s the assistant secretary for employment training.” She assured us that Jones would answer any specific questions that she could not. (He didn’t give us the time of day.) Dole signaled that the interview was over. JTPA was the Labor Department’s flagship, yet the Secretary knew nothing except her own talking points.
We barely reached the outer corridor of the Dole’s compound before her press secretary ripped into us — with the loudest profanity-laden tirade I had ever received in the 1980s. But the cussing was worth it. Dole sent a formal complaint about the interview to Digest editor-in-chief Kenneth Gilmore, but neither Bill nor Gilmore balked.
Reader’s Digest published “The Federal Job Training Fiasco” in March 1990, helping turn public opinion against the program. JTPA was abolished a few years later—shortly after a long-delayed federally-funded report revealed that participating in JTPA sharply reduced the subsequent earnings of male out-of-school youth. Unfortunately, it was replaced by other federal training boondoggles down the road.
Bill appreciated hard-hitting pieces, and the Digest could afford to pay for lengthy investigations and travel around the United States and abroad. Unfortunately, in this age of social media, many activists are once again content with fact-free howling about Big Government. He will be missed.
James Bovard is the author of Lost Rights, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.