“A lot of people have trouble understanding how a 14 year old could know more about the issues than they do.”
Marla Krohn, a teacher from outside Atlanta, was explaining the trouble with her son Jonathan. She spoke over the afternoon hum of Serendipity, the famous Upper East Side ice-cream parlor. Sarah Palin had stopped by the restaurant on a recent trip to New York, but when the waiter guided Marla and Jonathan past the lunching mothers and daughters, he talked instead of Marilyn Monroe, who once sat at their very table, wearing nothing but a trench coat.
“You may remember in the '80s,” the young man born in 1995 begins to say. Jonathan does this a lot.
Jonathan, the author of the newly published Defining Conservatism: The Principles That Will Bring Our Country Back, smiled tightly. Soon, he ordered a frozen hot chocolate. Just north of bar mitzvah age and south of five feet tall, Jonathan became the dauphin of the right wing with a two-minute speech at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. With a child actor’s self-possession, Jonathan took the stage and called for a return to first principles. He’s the closest thing Republicans have to a Jonas Brother of their own, and Jonathan returns to the conservative conference this week after a year spent sharing the stage with Miss America runner-up Carrie Prejean at Tea Party rallies, trading jabs with Bill Bennett on his talk-radio show, and penning columns for right-wing Web sites.
When talking about his colleagues in the media, and yes, Jonathan does use the word colleagues, he addresses them by their full name and title (as in, “Dr. Marc Lamont Hill told me, you date the iPhone, and you marry the BlackBerry”). The formality may be a result of a firm Southern upbringing, but just as likely stems from the effects of years listening to talk radio, where hosts remind listeners who will be on after a short commercial message.
Jonathan wore a blue pinstripe suit, with a requisite American flag pin, a white Oxford, and a rep tie. The only departure from Washington’s official uniform was a head of hair which had dodged a mother’s comb that morning and a set of braces. He launched into a disquisition on the state of the American polity, his right leg bouncing energetically beneath the table, in the cadence of a veteran talking head.
“Here’s the deal,” he says, “I’m not like a lot of my colleagues who think President Obama’s goal is trying to harm the country. That’s insanity. That’s out there. That’s loony tunes.”
Instead, Jonathan sees himself as the grownup in the conservative caucus. He downplays loud yappers on talk radio. “Sean Hannity is a very angry guy,” he says. He believes that conservatism’s strengths are self-evident, although prides himself on a catholic worldview. “I don’t just read conservatism by Bill Buckley,” he says.
Jonathan rattles off statistics about test scores and the GDP. That turns to a discussion of how under-regulation of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae led to the financial crisis. He would like to see Palin wonk out a bit. He’d love for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to run in 2012. And if Daniels doesn’t go, then his fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich.
“Do I think he’ll be able to win? I know a lot of people who have doubts that he’ll be able to win. He’s been around the block a few times. I love Newt. He’s a good friend of mine. I’d love to see him run. I think he would do very well,” Jonathan says.
“You may remember in the '80s,” the young man born in 1995 begins to say. Jonathan does this a lot. Earlier that morning, he brushed off a question from a St. Louis radio host about his favorite baseball card by saying he hadn’t looked at those things “in a long time.” He loves Broadway but says he quit acting “a long time ago”—14 years of age apparently being an unfathomable distance from 10.
Jonathan speaks with the weariness of a media veteran. He likes talk radio more than television because it has a wider audience share. He knows that putting together his book over the course of three months this summer was no ordinary task. “That’s like no time in the publishing industry,” he says.
Jonathan’s capacity for humility and bravado would make Bill O’Reilly jealous.
“I was worried it would not come out right,” Jonathan says about his book. “It came out beautifully. I’m now one of the top five bestselling conservative authors in the country, according to Amazon.com. I’m pretty proud of that.”
But Jonathan’s not proud of the prodigy label that many try to stick on him.
“It makes me feel like I’m awkward, but I’m not awkward. I’m not weird,” Jonathan says. “Then, people on the left say”—here he changes his voice to that of a Muppet—“‘He’s not a prodigy. He’s a weirdo, and I think he should be put in child protective services.’”
The only time a teenager’s awkwardness gets the better of the pundit’s assuredness is when the subject of girls comes up. He sputters and crosses his arms.
“That is what we call a personal question,” Jonathan says.
His mom jumps in to say that he does have Facebook friends.
Jonathan has his heart set on Princeton for college, where he’d be able to do radio from New York, he says, and then shuttle back for class. He’s particularly drawn to the conservative Christian professor, Robert P. George, who teaches there.
“He goes on both sides of the aisles,” Jonathan says, “I love Robbie George.”
After a few years at George’s seminar table, Jonathan says he’ll go on to get a doctorate in political philosophy.
Before that, though, a 15th birthday awaits. More immediately, Neil Cavuto wants Jonathan on his television show in Midtown in 30 minutes. The car is outside. Jonathan offers his business card and heads out the door.
“God bless,” he says.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.