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Liberalism's flagship adrift at sea.

For the past eight decades, The New Republic has considered itself the foremost political journal of left-leaning intellectual thought. And, at various times during that period, a not insubstantial portion of the Washington establishment has agreed. But for the past several years, TNR has been falling apart. It has lost its mandate, its vision, and numerous editors. It has become smug and cynical -- the embodiment of much that is wrong with political journalism today.

In the most recent chapter of The New Republic's saga, this fall, editor Michael Kelly was unceremoniously canned, becoming the magazine's fourth editor in the past eight years to exit the scene. The departures are not only getting more frequent, they are getting uglier. When Michael Kinsley bid TNR goodbye in January of 1996 (having stayed on as a writer after vacating the editorship), the magazine wrote that "we wish him well, very well" Things had been slightly less loveydovey when editor Hendrik Hertzberg, Kinsley's successor, decamped in 1991; he later recalled leaving TNR because he was fired of being a [liberal] frontman" for the more conservative magazine. When Andrew Sullivan departed abruptly in April 1996, things were tenser still. It's unclear whether Sullivan was fired or quit, but his subsequent disclosure that he was HIV-positive only exacerbated the drama. Literary editor Leon Wieseltier, widely considered one of the forces behind Sullivan's fall from grace, told The Washington Post, "I wish Andrew a long and fruitful life, but he has changed the subject. The problems around this office were not medical problems. He was responsible for an extraordinary amount of personal and political unhappiness"

For the next seven months, through the heart of the 1996 elections, TNR went editorless. (Wieseltier's remark gave fair warning to job candidates -- a number of whom reportedly turned down the prestigious post -- that the magazine's office politics were perhaps more fiercely argued than the politics in its pages) Then in November of last year, and with huzzahs and smiles all round, Kelly was named Sullivan's replacement. TNR's owner, Marty Peretz, called him "my best hire ever." And for some months all seemed well, despite grumblings about Kelly's fixation on the White House's ethical shortcomings at a time when Peretz, a former teacher and current intimate of Al Gore, seemed fixated on Gore 2000. Then, in September, the guillotine dropped, reportedly because Kelly refused to print an item making light of the scandals swirling around Gore. Regarding Kelly's farewell, TNR had not a kind word. A short "Notebook" item read only that "as you may have learned from the newspaper, with this issue Charles Lane succeeds Michael Kelly ... " Lane, the Peretz-penned squib continued, "represents continuity with the deepest traditions of this journal: political independence, intellectual seriousness, good writing, and decency toward those with whom one disagrees" "Outside of TNR's pages, Peretz was even more direct, telling the magazine I work for, George, that Michael Kelly couldn't recognize a big idea if it hit him in the face" That "decency toward those with whom one disagrees" didn't last long.

And so a new editor, Charles Lane, takes the stage, and one can only wonder how long it will be before the curtain falls on him. Will he last through 1998? It would be a surprise. Because these days, The New Republic spins in a cycle of irrelevance and cynicism that spits out some staffers while causing others to flee. The magazine advocates virtually nothing, but finds fault everywhere. Here's TNR's "Notebook" section on U. S. News's "20 Ways to Save the World" issue: "These are not solutions to problems; these are problems shalowly considered by people who mistake earnestness for seriousness..."; on a Time magazine anecdote in which former GOP speechwriter Peggy Noonan offers to keep an eye on one young mother's baby during a Dole rally: "The pampered columnist as babysitting everywoman: let's hear it for civic journalism!"; on journalist Sydney Blumenthal's joining the Clinton administration: "With any luck ... he'll get his back pay." The magazine's features have proven no less vitriolic, a prime example being Hanna Rosin's May 19 piece on this springs volunteerism conference. Focusing resolutely on the pointlessness and phoniness of the gathering, Rosin reduced it all to a self-indulgent gab fest -- thus the piece's title, "Blah-blah" Blah-blah indeed.

But in attacking everything, the magazine has grown confused. What does it stand for? Not truly conservative, certainly not liberal, The New Republic has become increasingly marginal in its own city. One struggles to think of the recent New Republic article that is widely discussed or debated -- in other words, influential. And the examples that come to mind do so for less than sterling reasons: Because they're influential but wrong (Betsy McCaughey Ross's attack on the Clinton health care plan); or wrong and not influential (the excerpt from Charles Murray's The Bell Curve).

TNR, frankly, has grown toxic. As it skitters from one end of the ideological spectrum to another, it falls to radiate the sense of a magazine with a purpose, that wonderful feeling the best magazines provide when you open their covers, of having entered a community with common interests and goals. Too often these days, reading The New Republic leaves one with a bad taste in the mouth.

Which is both an awkward and a sad thing for me to say. Sad, because as a young man I worked at TNR as a reporter-researcher (the lowest rung on its editorial ladder, yet still a wonderful experience) and have since occasionally written for the magazine. Awkward, because TNR has been a frequent and vituperous critic of my current employer. But being on TNR's enemies list doesn't particularly sting -- it is a long list -- and this article is not intended as retribution.

The truth is that I have always liked and admired Marty Peretz, and I care deeply about the magazine's well-being. Its current condition is so distressing because, personal matters aside, The New Republic has a long history of principled championship of liberalism, and one hates to witness its decline. It is too important a magazine not to feel passionate about. Watching it turn sour is painful -- like watching a novelist whose gift has dried up grow frustrated and bitter, reduced to merely railing against the words of other, more productive figures.

Sailing Too Close to the Wind

Once upon a time," Andrew Sullivan wrote wistfully not so long ago, "magazines were writers" collectives held together by a common ethos or philosophy." The New Republic's problems stem largely from the fact that it is as far away from that state of being as an institution can get: It lacks a common ethos, and it is steeped in a philosophy of opposition -- an anti-philosophy that is ultimately more damaging to its practitioner than to its targets.

This deterioration didn't happen overnight. Its seeds were planted in the mid-1980s, some years after Marty Peretz had bought the magazine and Michael Kinsley had become its editor. Peretz was a 1960s liberal who'd become disillusioned with the policies and the ethos of that era and moved rightward. On questions ranging from race to Israel to American intervention in Central America, he toughened up his magazine. Michael Kinsley was a brilliant Harvard graduate with a mind that could see around corners, and he pushed the magazine in a different way. Kinsley had a great talent for untangling the knots of people and policy in Washington, and an eagle's eye for hypocrisy. Then something of an outsider in the capital, the nerdy, endearingly awkward Kinsley made the deftly executed hatchet job the magazine's hallmark.

At the time, the combination of ideological flexibility and merciless butchery of Washington is sacred cows worked. Who could forget Kinsley's evisceration of Washington hack Bob Strauss, or staff writer Henry Fairlie's deflation of self-promoter Pamela Harriman? The New Republic was unpredictable, lively, and contentious in the best sense of the word; that is to say, it kicked up a fuss because it believed in something. In a time of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis, The New Republic was insistent about examining and changing what the Democratic Party stood for. And rightly so.

At least in the short run, this mode of existence brought the magazine oodles of gushing publicity. After all, TNR was winning some important battles: against the poisonous nature of identity politics, the long-term corrosive effects of affirmative action, the temptations of the Central American left. The magazine was changing the Democratic party, and if the debate was heated, that was because it mattered -- and as a result, so did the magazine.

But in retrospect, the dangers of this modus literati seem more evident. Peretz and other TNR editors used to boast that readers never knew where on the ideological spectrum the magazine's writers would come from next. Yet while no magazine strives to be predictable, an opinion magazine needs to have a focus, a direction. An opinion magazine can spend some time rethinking its convictions, but it had better decide on them sooner or later, because if it doesn't what at first seems a bountiful intellectual debate can degenerate into fruitless bickering. Indeed, in the years after Kinsley's departure, TNR lost its direction, couldn't decide whether it supported Bill Clinton or not. And if it didn't, was there any Democrat (other than Gore) whom it did like? In this context, contrast TNR with The Weekly Standard, the two-plus-year-old conservative weekly. The Standard still feels young, and it is sometimes immature. But as it tries to hash out the meaning md consequences and direction of the Republican takeover of Congress, the reader at least gets the feeling that the publication is contributing; that it cares about something.

But caring about something can leave one vulnerable -- it is easier to attack than propose -- and because The Vez:, Republic has attacked so many, it cannot afford to leave itself vulnerable. Or such is the feeling one gets from reading its pages.

Like Rats From a Sinking Ship

The slide accelerated under the editorship of Andrew Sullivan. Anointed in 1991, the 28-year-old English expatriate was a controversial choice. The description of Sullivan -- young-gay-Catholic -- conservative -- grew old fast. In truth, Sullivan was conservative, but not "a conservative," as in, not part of the modern conservative movement, a distinction that many failed to make. Still, his reputation for conservatism struck some TNR-watchers as ominous. It was tolerable to have conservative writers, such as Fred Barnes, who covered the White House. But to have m editor who was conservative?

There are three standard criticisms of Sullivan's tenure, and at least two of them strike me as seriously off-base. The first charge is that he was a poor manager of people -- as might be expected of anyone in their late-twenties taking such a job -- and by all reports this is the true one. Sullivan is at his best an introspective and at worst a narcissistic person, and he apparently didn't worry much about the care and feeding of a high-maintenance staff It is probably no coincidence that TNR began to suffer from a serious brain drain during his time there: Such impressive writers as Robert Wright, Jacob Weisberg, Mickey Kaus, and, yes, Michael Kinsley said goodbye to the TNR offices during the Sullivan regime. It's unfair to lay that entirely at Sullivan's feet -- people move on -- but he does appear to bear some of the responsibility. And this is a significant failing: If there is no esprit de corps among the employees of a magazine, there can be no consensus within its pages.

It was also said -- at least by people in Washington -- that Sullivan paid too much attention to popular culture and not enough to "politics" Critics lambasted articles by Camille Paglia on Hillary Clinton and Douglas Copeland on OJ. Simpson's Los Angeles and Bruce Feiler on the politics of country music. Sullivan, the argument went, didn't pay enough attention to politics, which in this case seemed to mean that TNR wasn't covering enough congressional campaigns or think-tank tomes for its Washington readers. But Sullivan was right to argue that in order to stay relevant TNR had to focus on the politics of culture as well as the culture of politics. He was just a little ahead of his time.

Finally, the magazine under Sullivan was criticized as "too gay." Yes, Sullivan did bring gay issues into TNR -- gay marriage, gays in the military, AIDS. But in fact, the number of articles relating to homosexuality was a tiny percentage of TNR's content. (The charges that there was too much material about gays said more about the people making them than about the magazine) In truth, the articles about homosexuality showed that The New Republic had a human side; that it wasn't afraid to say something constructive, or even comforting; that it did more than sit in judgement of everybody else. The real reason those articles stood out was because they contained a sense of mission in a magazine otherwise devoid of it. And this was one of the less-noticed problems of Sullivan's tenure: that for all of his labels -- or perhaps because of them -- he failed to move the magazine in a politically coherent direction.

During Sullivan's term, both he and Peretz described the magazine as "non-ideological," which they meant as a good thing -- no monolithic New Deal liberalism here. But if TNR lacked a set of beliefs to inspire it and give it meaning and create a community of readers; and if its critics inside and out weren't prepared to broaden its focus to cultural as well as political analysis -- then what was left for it? And so the magazine has become something of a journalistic farm team, at which young writers can practice their swings before moving up to the big leagues.

On one level this was a smart move for TNR, for it helped the magazine deal with an unpleasant -- and growing -- truth about the economics of political journalism. The days when the best and the brightest automatically migrated to The New Republic because it gave them freedom and paid about as well as anywhere else in print journalism are gone. Now, many of the best political journalists in the country are signed up by glossy magazines such as George, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and GQ -- all of which pay a living wage rather than the 15 to 20 cents a word TNR pays freelancers. TNR's staff writers have come to rely on money they make freelancing. Rather like Walters who earn subminimum wage but survive on tips, they have turned the magazine into a platform for their more lucrative, high-profile work. TNR gives them experience and credibility; they give it what time they can.

For TNR, this reality isn't all bad. By hiring young talent and giving them a chance to show their stuff, The New, Republic doesn't have to rely on the dribs and drabs offered it by high-price-tag, established writers, and can cultivate a reputation as a breeding ground for future stars. Moreover, most of its young writers retain a sense of loyalty to the magazine when they go on to bigger and better-paying gigs.

In some ways, however, this training-ground approach has highlighted the cynicism-over-substance culture of TNR. Young staffers quickly learn that the best way to advance up the masthead is to find some apparently easy target -- some perceived practitioner of hypocrisy or sleaze -- and meticulously wrap a web of venomous words around it. Perhaps the best known of the young talents who have slashed their way to success at TNR is Ruth Shalit. A conservative whose journalism attacks both left and right, Shalit was, a few years back, the master of the TNR hatchet job -- a fluttery-eyed, breathy young woman who'd get people to say the darndest things and then make them look asinine for it. Yet Shalit's reporting techniques proved as controversial as her articles. If one followed the magazine's letters column, about two weeks after every Shalit story would come an outraged missive from the person involved, invariably claiming that he or she had never actually said those things. People certainly resort to such denials after they've been quoted saying something they shouldn't have, but in Shalit's case, there seemed to be a pattern. Soon enough came accusations of plagiarism against Shalit -- one, two, three -- which TNR never really seemed to care about or honesty confront. A "Notebook" item hemming and hawing about one plagiarism instance was headlined "Oops" Such a casual attitude toward journalistic ethics didn't help Shalit, and it didn't help the integrity of a magazine that was busily firing away at every target in sight. An enormously gifted and intelligent writer, Shalit appears to have curtailed a bad habit. But for a time, she embodied the culture of cynicism draining the spirit out of TNR.

On a larger scale, TNR's cult of the hatchet job ultimately poisons itself After all, a hit piece is only truly effective when two prerequisites are met: One, when it is the minority article, when it surprises because it stands in contrast to the more prevailing, constructive, or explanatory story. At The New Republic, the hatchet job has become the paradigm, and as a result feels formulaic and predictable -- and, thus, discountable. And two, such articles are like surgery: Clumsily done, they can certainly damage the subject, but they also do harm to the practitioner. Kinsley knew how to perform an elegant surgery, but the doctors who followed him were not all so gifted.

Cap'n Kelly

Into this pool jumped Michael Kelly, the ostensible antidote to Andrew Sullivan. He wasn't gay, for one thing. That experiment was over. He was a reporter who covered politics, which would mean the perceived lack of political coverage in the magazine would be addressed. And coming from The New Yorker, he was expected to bring some of the cachet of Tina Brown's high-priced journalism to a magazine that really couldn't afford it. Moreover, Kelly understood the value of encouraging the young talent on staff

In another way, however, hiring Kelly was a drastic mistake. He was acerbic in the extreme, and unlikely to rein in the magazine's growing nihilism and cynicism. If anything, junior staffers looking to Kelly for editorial direction would see nasty and snide as the way to go. What's more, upon his hiring, Kelly admitted that he had no particular interest in ideology. A gifted reporter himself, he wanted the magazine to emphasize reporting -- though he should have known from his experience at GQ and The New Yorker that The New Republic cannot survive simply as an organ for reporting. Too many other places can afford to do it better. A magazine in search of a point of view had hired an editor who explicitly disavowed the need for one.

The irony is that, through his writing of the magazine's" "TRB" column and the editorials, Kelly did try to chart a return to liberalism. But his liberalism was, in the most literal sense of the word, repellent. It was defined by a visceral dislike of any lingering hint of the 1960s. h was personal in nature, often singling out not the left's ideas but its types. h was written with an anger and rawness that seemed more intent on intimidating than on convincing. If Michael Kelly's liberalism could have taken human form, it would have been an irish cop from the 1950s, swinging his nightstick and looking out for any fairies or long-hairs who might like to mix it up a little. As Kelly said to Rolling Stone, liberals spend too much time worrying whether [schools] should be teaching Heather Has Two Mommies."

First and most insistent was his obsession with President Clinton's ethical wrongdoings and personal shortcomings, themes Kelly returned to again and again and again, as f the failure of each new column to make Clinton confess his sins drove Kelly to distraction. "It is time to speak well of Bill Clinton," Kelly announced in a column in December of last year. "He is of course a shocking liar. He will say absolutely anything at all.... He is breathtakingly cynical.... "He is an opportunist of such proportions that the only thing that exceeds his reach is his grasp. ... He is the fairest of fair-weather friends ... " Is this The New Republic speaking? Or Rush Limbaugh?

With writing like this, Kelly made the debate about TNR's ideological moorings completely irrelevant. He had, in tone and technique, morphed The New Republic into a conservative attack-dog. The problem was not that Kelly was always wrong. It was the inabillty to discuss Clinton in any, other context beside the ad hominem -- as if the repeated litany of insults constituted meaningful argument. Kelly, the man who talked of the need for reporting, seemed to revel in the simple fact that, in an opinion magazine, he could say whatever he wanted. And so Kelly went on to describe Clinton as "hummingbird-in-chief"; "pedestrian as a postman"; and "not really a very righteous man," a man who had about him "an obvious air of the rogue, the seducer, the sly-dog, the self-consciously bad boy." Did Kelly want to spank him?

Then there was the exaggeration. "The Clinton effort at manipulating and discouraging hostile press attention is not unprecedented in scope," Kelly wrote. "The precedent is the Nixon operation" Equating the Clinton White House and the Nixon White House is not only silly and wrong, it is dangerous; it is either historical ignorance or historical revisionism. In a column about the excesses of the left, Kelly wrote that liberalism's animating impulse is to marginalize itself and then to enjoy its own company. And to make itself as unattractive to as many as possible: If it were a person, it would pierce its tongue" This is not an argument. It is a pronouncement of an ungenerous mind.

The truth was, Kelly just didn't seem very comfortable with liberals. They were too touchy-feely, too ... squishy. After a vacation, he wrote, "You cannot swat a black fly in Vermont without disturbing the vacant-eyed rest of a pallid, hairy, and purposefully ugly white person' " (Kind of wish you could, well, just slap 'em around a little, don't you, Michael?) Ah, but the real danger was not that these ugly white people were sleeping, but that they were busily taking over -- and we normal people were too blind to see it! It was up to Kelly to raise the alarm. "When the subject of the left is raised these days, the general liberal response is to assert that the left scarcely exists, consisting only of a fringe element, isolated and ignored, in a few editorial boards and humanities departments. This is wrong. The left is not nowhere; it is, in a bland and vague way, everywhere. As the aging sandalistas have accrued power and raised children ... " They are pervasive. They are breeding. They wear sandals. Run.

Kelly's definition of liberalism, clearly, excluded "the left" And by the left, he seemed to mean the return of Jack Reed. As Kelly later argued, what he really feared was "schemes of social engineering" achieved through a brutal system of mandated behaviorism," also known as the "Nurse Ratched state" A creative and brutal system of mandated behaviorism? Was Kelly trying to tell us that the Cold War isn't over -- it's just moved to Burlington? An example of that "brutal system? Well, there's the "fanatical" FDA commissioner, David Kessler, who has the audacity to insist that tobacco is a drug and should be defined as such by the government. Kelly, however, argued that smoking a cigarette on the 4th of July is "my patriotic duty [and] yours, too, if you care about living in a nation predicated on the idea that the citizen must be protected from the natural tendency of the state to expand into his or her own life" Just make sure it's not a joint, or a pint of Ben & Jerry's, or Kelly might bust you.

Michael Kelly, in short, brought The New Republic full circle. In a place that, a decade ago, struggled with the best qualities of liberalism -- its respect for multiple voices, its optimistic view of human nature, its commitment to freedom of thought and speech and, yes, decency towards those with whom it disagrees -- he reproduced some of the ugliest qualities of modern conservatism: its taste for the sneer, its substitution of insult for argument, its caricature of the culturally different, its willingness to turn fear and hate into mockery and diatribe.

All Hands on Deck

So where does The New Republic go from here? Despite all the unpleasantness, Kelly's stint could prove instructive in a couple of ways. One, Peretz would be wise to continue Kellys policy of looking to journalism's rising stars for the magazine's reporting base. Regardless of who's m the editor's seat, The New Republic cannot afford high-priced, celebrity journalism. And with the alienated Kelly exiled, now is as promising a time as my to begin dismanding the magazine's cult of the hatchet job.

Two, on the whole Kelly was misguided in his vicious rhetorical crusade against the Clinton/Gore administration. Peretz is entitled to stake out a position for his opinion magazine to take on Al Gore, just as long as TNR is up-front about its stance. What Peretz needs to accept, however, is that, in order for his publication to command the respect of its readership, it must bend over backwards to address any real misdeeds or foibles of Gore's that may come to light. Otherwise, The New Republic will find itself without a shred of credibility on the most important political figure in the next three or seven or perhaps 11 years.

But if Peretz finds it too painful to face his friend's shortcomings, which would certainly be understandable, then maybe it's time for him to consider something radical: putting the magazine on the auction block. Without question, Peretz has been a courageous owner. For all his whims, for all his blind spots, he has been willing to subsidize a vital but money-losing venture, and he has created a haven for some of the most significant writers in American life. The New Republic may have slid back into the second-tier of magazines; but without Peretz, it would not have recently risen into the first. Still, all good things ... . Peretz has made noises lately that he is starting to weary of the magazine's financial woes. He has also decreased his involvement, and started a new, theoretically money-making venture, The, an online service for investors.

So why not put the magazine up for sale while it's still a hot commodity? Granted, you never know what the new owner might do. He or she might fire the entire staff But if the folks at TNR are opposed to anything, it's entitlement programs and affirmative action. They could handle it. And, in the hands of a new caretaker, one of the century's most important liberal voices might just survive.
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Title Annotation:decline of liberal magazine 'The New Republic'
Author:Blow, Richard
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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