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.
But when it comes to the magazine’s politics, one cannot get much of any sense what it will stand for, if anything. The publication will remain, he says, a “journal of progressive values.” And that, in a nutshell, is precisely what I fear. As Walter Russell Mead has said in a series of columns at The American Interest, what he calls the old progressive “blue social model” is dead as a doornail. (Mead talks about this at AEI next week.) The current editor who will oversee the magazine on a day-to-day basis, Richard Just, is a good man. He too talks about producing a grand new “vision of magazine journalism,” and of hiring new writers and editors. But from his pen, also, one finds not a word about the political and intellectual vision the magazine will have.
To find out what that might be, one must turn elsewhere, and the discouraging answer can be immediately found in a New York Times blog post. Hughes, the new owner and editor-in-chief, one learns, “helped to run the online organizing machine for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.” Let us, then, look no further. Just in time for the 2012 campaign, TNR will become the major cheerleader for Barack Obama, in what promises to be a close race against Mitt Romney, who will most likely be the Republican Party’s candidate.
Does anyone really think that Hughes will let his new magazine be anything but a vehicle for a second Obama administration? Yes, since Hughes is gay and a leader in the “fight for same-sex marriage,” as the Huffington Post reports, the magazine will undoubtedly pressure the president from his left to make the administration’s position more amenable to that of the magazine’s editors and writers. But on the issue of the nature of liberalism and social policy, on the major issues of foreign policy, I suspect its critical edge -- indicated most recently by the magazine running a piece by John McCain in favor of intervention by the U.S. in Syria -- is likely to disappear, out of fear that articles like that will only serve to hurt the president’s electoral campaign.
Yes, we can expect articles from the president’s left, like those by Michael Kazin against Republican business conservatism, or David Greenberg on why Obama should talk like the good left-liberal that he is and not pretend to be a centrist, or like the one by Jeffrey Rosen on how Obama should really fight for civil liberties. But don’t hold your breath to find some by Charles Krauthammer on the vacuous nature of contemporary liberalism, or Charles Murray on equality (the magazine, one must remember, raised a storm years ago by printing Murray’s piece on his early controversial book co-authored with Richard Hernstein, The Bell Curve). Will they ask Mead, for example, to expand his blue social model blogs into a major article, something the old TNR would have done in a flash?
So, I am not optimistic about the fate of the new TNR. The last thing we need is a magazine slightly -- very slightly -- to the right of The Nation. Nor do we need another New Yorker, in which Hendrik Hertzberg’s predictable left-liberal views dominate the political commentary -- and, yes, he too came from TNR as an old editor -- and where its editor-in-chief David Remnick stands by the likes of Seymour Hersh as a major investigative reporter, despite the devastating expose of him in the new Commentary by a former TNR editor, James Kirchick. Indeed, if I were Hughes, Kirchick would be the first hire I would make and I would reinstate him as a top senior editor, since he is, in my estimate, perhaps our finest young journalist, whose output and quality make him second to none. Again, I do not hold my breath.
So, this is a swan song and sad goodbye to the old TNR. I wish the magazine well, and perhaps I will turn out to be very wrong. But as a natural pessimist, and for good reason, I only expect the worst.