Loving Leon

Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, is finally getting some good press. In this week's issue of the Weekly Standard, contributing editor Andrew Ferguson -- a witty and normally skeptical writer -- knocks the New York Times for obliquely identifying Kass with "religious conservatives." He pens a breezy account of the commission's first meeting, at which Kass and Princeton scholar Robert George traded thoughtful aperçus about Nathaniel Hawthorne. And he dispenses a couple of blowjobs to Kass, including the observation that "Kass is blessed with a somber baritone that carries an unmistakable authority quite apart from his well-deserved reputation as a thinker."

But there a few things Ferguson does not do. For instance, he doesn't inform his readers that The New York Times is largely correct: Although Kass holds academic and medical degrees, the man hasn't been near a lab in twenty years, and his writings consist mostly of archaic religious superstitions (he dislikes in vitro fertilization and "our dissection of cadavers") dressed up in pseudo-intellectual clothing and presented as free-thinking ethical reasoning. Nor does Ferguson acknowledge that the folks at the Standard have been Kass's chief boosters among the conservative intelligentsia for the past few years -- indeed, helped bring about his appointment -- and might have a vested interest in making him look good.

After all, in an August article in the Standard, editor William Kristol and contributor Eric Cohen praised Kass's "brilliant critique of human cloning." In a July 9th editorial, Kristol and Standard staffer J. Bottum effused that of all the testimony for a House bill to ban human cloning, "the most ringing words came from Leon Kass of the University of Chicago" -- praise echoed by Cohen in a June 18th article in the Standard, where he wrote that the case for a ban "is made most eloquently by bioethicist Leon Kass. . ." Last May, when cloning-ban legislation first came up in Congress, Bottum intoned: "[H]alt it we can, and should -- for reasons compellingly presented by such thinkers as Leon Kass." Standard contributing editor Charles Krauthammer has also gotten on his knees: Months before praising "distinguished bioethicist Leon Kass," in his Washington Post column in July, Krauthammer urged George W. Bush to appoint Kass -- "[a] doctor by training, a philosopher by nature. . .one of those rare Socratic beings who can get you to see what you have never seen" -- to the post of Surgeon-General.

This is embarrassing, even for a magazine dedicated to the promotion of conservative ideas. But The Weekly Standard's obsequiousness has not gone unrewarded. When Kass and George W. Bush announced appointees to the council, they included that great moral philosopher and bioethics expert Charles Krauthammer, whose qualifications consist of a dusty M.D. from Harvard and a half-dozen unremarkable op-eds on the topic. Unlike Krauthammer, Cohen has received no such appointment. According to New York Times economics columnist Virginia Postrel, however, Cohen recently became a paid consultant to the council. Now that's "moral reasoning."