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A Swan Song for the Old New Republic

I have fond memories of the old golden days of The New Republic from the early 1970s and especially through the 1980s, when the stale old liberalism was becoming very apparent and the need developed for a way to cut through its verbiage and assumptions. Under the helm of Marty Peretz, TNR slowly but surely moved away from the old shibboleths, breaking new ground and antagonizing the dwindling old liberal/left community. Peretz learned the lesson the hard way. As a funder of something called the New Politics Conference held in Chicago, he witnessed its takeover by extremist black radicals who quickly humiliated its white sponsors and unleashed a surge of old-fashioned antisemitism.

Peretz brought in a slew of independent-minded and brilliant editors and writers, including the then-young Leon Wieseltier as chief of the back books section, and journalists like Mort Kondracke, Charles Krauthammer (yes, he left medicine to go first to work on Walter Mondale's campaign and then to TNR) Michael Kinsley, Roger Rosenblatt, Fred Barnes, James Glassman, Steve Wasserman, Charles Lane, and many, many others. The list of names could go on and on. All of them have gone on to prominence and distinction in the field of journalism.

Before long, TNR took positions that furiously antagonized its liberal base. In the '80s, during the Central American wars in which the Reagan administration took on the fight against the Communist revolutionaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua, TNR stood with those opposed to the Sandinistas and the FSLN. Indeed, at a critical moment, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Marty Peretz, openly sided with Nicaragua’s contras, the very armed resistance to the Sandinistas that the liberal community had painted as a bunch of fascist goons. That editorial position enraged many of its editors, who signed a letter to the editor protesting the magazine’s editorial. Before long, whenever TNR took a position opposite to that taken by most self-proclaimed liberals, a new saying emerged in Washington D.C. circles, “even the liberal New Republic says….”

The magazine also soon distinguished itself as the leading journalistic supporter of Israel. Its editors, led by Peretz, understood the centrality to peace and a future in the Middle East that distinguished Israel as a light among nations. That too, as time passed, would enrage so many on the liberal-left, whose leaders turned their back on Israel as they grew to distance themselves from the Jewish state, whose policies they thought had become too conservative.

On a personal level, TNR started my venture into journalism. As a trained academic historian, I never hoped to write for any magazine, least of all one like TNR. One day, out of the blue, Peretz phoned me, having read something I wrote in the very left-wing Nation. He liked it, he said, and asked me to consider writing something for the magazine whose helm he had recently taken. Over the years, I wrote scores of pieces for them. The magazine sent me to Nicaragua on two different occasions to cover the Sandinista takeover. I wrote about Cold War issues and the pro-Communists in the peace movement during the years of peace marches and pressure for unilateral disarmament at home from the Left, and wrote the first piece, with my friend Sol Stern, reevaluating the Rosenberg case.

That 1979 article became one of its all-time best sellers, and led to the eventual book I wrote with the late Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File. The article, in fact, would never have seen the light of day had it not been for Peretz understanding its importance. It was supposed to have been a featured piece in The New York Times Magazine, but was spiked (after actually being printed) by the late A.M. Rosenthal, who feared offending Judge Irving R. Kaufman, the Rosenberg case judge, who then sat on the very court that judged press cases and before which the paper had one pending.

Now, the announcement that it has a new owner and editor-in-chief appears on top of TNR’s web page, written by the new boss himself, Chris Hughes, the roommate at Harvard of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s co-creator. I do not know Hughes, but reading his own remarks, and reading about him on various sites, I -- an old admirer of TNR -- am not too optimistic about its future. He will keep it, he says, a “journal of interpretation and opinion,” and pledges “rigorous reporting and analysis” of today’s very important stories. As an internet pioneer, he wants to make it a magazine that in the long run will be primarily read on a Tablet, which is how, in fact, I now read most magazines. He knows that is journalism’s future, and he is clearly right about this.