The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol led an open revolt against Donald Trump’s presidential run in 2016. Kristol had encouraged former GOP nominee Mitt Romney to think about a last-ditch bid and had similar talks with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). By late May, with few viable options left, Kristol had a private dinner in Washington, D.C., with a National Review writer named David French.
Up until that point, French hadn’t remotely thought about being a presidential candidate, though he shared Kristol’s views on Trump. The subject of French mounting a bid never actually came up during the course of the meal. It was only after French left that Kristol and another dinner companion began discussing how French, an Iraq War veteran and lawyer, had an appealing resume.
The next morning, Kristol, without warning, floated French’s name as a possible Trump foil in a Weekly Standard piece. “I happen to know David French,” he wrote in the piece, which later appeared in the June 6 issue of the magazine. “To say that he would be a better and a more responsible president than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is to state a truth that would become self-evident as more Americans got to know him.”
In the latest episode of our “Candidate Confessional” podcast, French recalls being “absolutely stunned” by the piece. Later in the day, he and Kristol jumped on the phone to discuss the idea. “He said, ‘I’m completely serious about this,’” French remembers.
French agreed to give it some serious thought. But before he could come to a decision, Kristol once again upped the pressure. “Just a heads up over this holiday weekend,” he tweeted on May 29, ”There will be an independent candidate ― an impressive one, with a strong team and a real chance.”
It wasn’t too much of a mystery who Kristol’s mystery candidate was. But French was left alone to deal with the fallout. Right after sending the tweet, Kristol jumped on a plane to Israel.
“It certainly accelerated and put the process on steroids. There is no doubt about it,” French recalls. “I like Bill a great deal. I respect Bill a great deal. I’m not upset about this. Let me say this: In hindsight it had a beneficial effect and that beneficial effect was to immediately impress upon [me] the gravity of the decision.”
What French soon discovered was that you don’t need to be a formal presidential candidate to be scrutinized as one. The reaction was quick and not kind. New York Magazine described Kristol as “desperate.” A writer for Slate asked: “Wait. Who? You know, conservative magazine staff writer, David French. Tennessee lawyer David French? Still nothing? Well, fear not, you’re not alone.”
By that point, French still hadn’t ruled out running. In fact, he began making calls to prospective campaign managers, looking at his fundraising potential and even mapping out ballot access laws and electoral strategy. But fairly quickly, the narrative surrounding his potential bid was getting well beyond his control, and he did the one thing politicians shouldn’t do: He began reading his coverage online.
“Don’t do what I did, which was unplug for 90 percent of the day and then right when the day is winding down and you should be getting much-needed rest, then opening your Twitter app and then starting to go down that rabbit hole at midnight and start reading everything that’s been said, which if you’re a human being ― if you’re a normal human being even somebody with a relatively thick skin ― that is opening Pandora’s box,” French explains. “You are getting alternatively mad, thankful, grateful as you see what people are saying, exasperated, frustrated. That just destroys any rest you’re going to have.”
Listen to the full episode above.