In which Marty Peretz forgets himself

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Martin Peretz, former publisher and editor in chief of The New Republic, had a column in the opinion section of yesterday's Wall Street Journal that possesses considerable stunt value: The man who sold his magazine just last year to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes hops up on a prominent perch to lament what Hughes has done with the thing.

But the burn may be the least fascinating thing about it.

It is a very small cultural document—the typical square of print newspaper inches that allows somewhere between 800 and 1,000 words—but it's like a dense rock formed from the slowly cooled magma of decades of intellectual feuds, vanities, grudges and soul-searches that characterized the American political-intellectual tradition that gave birth to The New Republic. Which is to say every sentence in Peretz's article felt ancient.

He's right that the new New Republic is not the old one, though he's wrong about what the new one is.

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Let's start with a structural note on his piece: It's on the Wall Street Journal opinion page. That would seem to be an unlikely forum for Peretz, a historically important advocate for a certain species of liberalism and neorealism who has only recently confessed a disappointment in Barack Obama.

(Peretz also recently wrote a book review for a newspaper I used to edit, The New York Observer, which is now edited by Giuliani biographer and friend Ken Kurson. The review dealt with a new book about Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and used Moynihan's positions on Israel to talk about how bad the United Nations is.)

Peretz's chief target, the supposed madeleine that made clear to him how his old magazine has changed, is The New Republic's most recent cover story, by Sam Tanenhaus.

The article, "Original Sin," is a long history of conservatism in American politics that makes the argument that the Republican party is doomed for its strategy of continuing to racialize the electorate in its campaign strategies even as society becomes more comfortably multicultural.

Conservatives and Republicans and their history and intellectual tradition are Tanenhaus' longstanding specialties. Peretz knows this, and has admired it before. A very similar piece by Tanenhaus, titled Conservatism is Dead, ran in the magazine's Feb. 18, 2009 edition, when Peretz was editor in chief of the magazine and a month before he purchased the magazine (for the second time) and, for the second time, became its publisher.

The piece differs in its position on the Republicans mostly at a highbrow level: Its death-spiral is attributed to the spirit of revanchism, where in the more recent article, it's attributed to the party's historic debt to the political theory of John C. Calhoun.

Tanenhaus' offhand remarks about voter-registration strategies are a minor point, but it's the thing Peretz professes now to find objectionable.

So he takes to the pages of the Journal to use Tanenhaus' interior critique of conservatism as evidence of the magazine's unfettered, unfiltered adherence to the Democratic party line, as opposed to the old New Republic which specialized in ... internal but loyal critique of the Democrats.

Tanenhaus is regarded by many conservatives as a turncoat, at least: someone who uses his credentials as a historian of the conservative movement and the Republican party as a way of ingratiating himself falsely to center-minded readers who assume that if a conservative like Tanenhaus is saying it, then it must be as fair a critique as the Republicans can get. The position may seem familiar to Peretz.

Very early on the morning Peretz's piece was published, R. Emmett Tyrell took to the website of The American Spectator to explain this to us:

It has happened again. Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, referred to by Paul Krugman the other day as “a long-time conservative,” has essayed in the New Republic the modern conservative movement, and traced us all back to John C. Calhoun. I suppose our point of origin could have been more sinister. Sam could have traced us back to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the former Confederate General who went on to be an early member of the Ku Klux Klan, but John C. Calhoun is bad enough.

See, the fact that Paul Krugman (liberal) can call Tanenhaus a "long-time conservative" is one of the chief difficulties Tyrell has with Tanenhaus' essay.

And this:

Incidentally, I have extended a friendly hand. Some years ago I invited him to a gathering I maintain in New York City called the Saturday Evening Club. There were there that night writers from the New York Post, the New York Sun, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the New Criterion, National Review, The American Spectator, and doubtless other publications. There were serious business people in attendance. I asked Sam to ventilate his opinions. He has never reciprocated in any of the editorial space he controls.

Amid all the contemporary talk of writing on the web being too focused on personalities and the "I's", and on where everyone hangs out and eats and who is mad at whom, it's easy to forget how many parties and clubs and "I's" and personal-intellectual feuds powered the golden age Peretz is so wistful for on behalf of The New Republic.

In the narratives of this set, the personal relationships are totems for the Great Debate, like Francis Fukuyama's break with the Republicans and his longtime friend Paul Wolfowitz stopped speaking to each other after a particularly strident conservative fund-raising dinner. Peretz is the kind of person who believes that fights with editors, politicians, writers and friends are the great turning points of civilization. He has not won very many of them.

Peretz, himself a product of the Harvard politics department and a professor in its Social Studies program, reminds us here that he and his wife at the time, the Singer heiress Anne Devereux (Labouisse) Farnsworth Peretz, bought the magazine first in 1974 and "installed a former student, Michael Kinsley, as its editor."

In a fever dream of recreating the era of The New Republic as the preeminent "journal of ideas," of "Felix Frankfurter, Virginia Woolf, Reinhold Niebuhr, Rebecca West, Jonn Maynard Keynes and Edmund Wilson," Peretz, while putting out what was at times a very good magazine, really didn't create any such writers. Part of the reason is that The New Republic didn't view itself as a home for writers so much as an editorial board that would decide its positions first and write or assign the pieces to fit them. It's not that the magazine suffered a lack of earnestness. But it was a brain trust, or a Borg, depending on how you want to look at it.

The best editors were up to the task (the best editors can turn any mission, however spurious, into great articles) and since they had a hand in helping to shape the New Republic's positions, it sometimes could seem like a very disciplined magazine, if you went issue by issue.

But there is a dark side. Efforts to broaden the range of writers beyond those willing to produce (often very good, sometimes stunningly so) reports and essays bolstering the positions the editors took were not met with enthusiasm by Peretz.

During the Clinton administration, Peretz fired Michael Kelly, acknowledging openly that the reason was that the magazine had been too critical of the president.

''More than half of his own pieces were on the Clinton scandals,'' Peretz told the Times' Robin Pogrebin. ''It seemed a little obsessive to me."

Kelly was replaced by Chuck Lane, whose time editing the magazine is recorded today mostly because he fired famous New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass. 

A year before the 2000 presidential election, in which the magazine had pretty much committed itself to Al Gore, Lane learned, it is said first from a Washington Post reporter who called him for comment, that he'd been demoted and that 28-year-old Peter Beinart would replace him.

Beinart, a Yalie who'd been an intern and worked his way up to managing editor, had been around during the Stephen Glass saga.

“I think Peter’s a very sweet kid,” an unnamed former New Republic editor told Carl Swanson of The New York Observer. “He’s a smart, sweet kid who’s going to get his ass handed to him.”

Beinart, interviewed by Swanson, had a careful but not too careful answer to questions about the openly acknowledged support of the magazine for Gore:

“It’s a magazine of affiliations, people we love and people we hate, crusades and obsessions. And that in itself is fine. Not only fine, certainly necessary. But within that, things you believe in, and things and people you don’t believe in, do you still do valuable, critical, intellectually honest reporting? We’re going to endorse the Democratic nominee. You know, we’d prefer it be Al Gore than Bill Bradley, but we’d endorse Bill Bradley if he becomes the Democratic nominee.”

Within weeks, reports said Beinart had fired a foreign policy-focused editor and "liberal hawk" at the behest of Peretz and the magazine's culture editor, Leon Wieseltier. The following month, he killed a piece by Jake Tapper about the Senate record of Gore's primary opponent, Bill Bradley.

"Clearly, a fair and unbiased analysis of Bill Bradley’s Senate career by someone who doesn’t have a preference in the Democratic Presidential race does not belong in Peter Beinart’s New Republic," Tapper told The Washington Post at the time.

Beinart told the Observer it was simply an organizational matter: Political writing was to be kept in-house at the magazine.

You can take either side. Either, or both, demonstrate the sort of discipline that characterized the old New Republic, because keeping political reporting in-house and having no place for a fair and unbiased analysis of Bill Bradley's Senate career were the same thing in a magazine run the way this was.

The part of Peretz's dispatch yesterday where he described the glory days of editing the magazine with Michael Kinsley, is a series of uses of the word "we," suggesting that from the beginning, it was important for The New Republic to stand for something. Not something as unglamorously unspecific as "great journalism" or "great writing" or "serious thought," but specific things:

We were for the Contras in Nicaragua; wary of affirmative action; for the military intervention in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur; alarmed about the decline of the family. The New Republic was also an early proponent of gay rights. We were neoliberals. We were also Zionists, and it was our defense of the Jewish state that put us outside the comfort zone of modern progressive politics.

MOST EDITORS KNOW THAT THE USEFUL lifespan of an opinion columnist is much shorter than his or her tenure. The feedback loop is too intense, the temptation to self-aggrandizement, to identifying oneself as the linchpin of a movement from the comfort of one's own keyboard, too strong. There are columnists who toe party lines, and become less and less essential as their work becomes predictable and naive-looking. There are columnists who over-correct, and, propelled by the need to shock or outdo expectations become stranger and stranger as time ticks away and they continue to click refresh on their inboxes and vanity Google searches. Most of them hang around long after they have exasperated their editors and sometimes long after they have exasperated their readers.

Peretz's notion of The New Republic is a little like an old columnist gone to seed. His almost anti-intellectual insistence on positioning the magazine in this idiosyncratic position is the reason The New Republic weathered long stretches by turns of being boring, irrelevant or weird, when the point of it was to keep the magazine fresh and give it a distinct voice in liberal politics. But how, after all, can Peretz know that the "right" positions will always leave the magazine a platform for criticizing liberals? Ironically, perhaps, Tanenhaus' resistance to self-declarations of the Peretzian sort are precisely what makes him so enervating to conservatives.

I remember a time in 2003 when publicists for the magazine were calling up journalists at other places to explain to them that the magazine was daring. Sridhar Pappu explained in an article when I was at the Observer that this is something that happened from time to time. From the Observer article:

This time around, TNR's disgusted with a post–Bill Clinton/Al Gore party it considers weak and wimpish. A recent press release touted “several daring political stances” by the magazine, among them, supporting war in Iraq, rejecting President Bush’s tax cut and calling on Democrats to “shun controversial presidential candidate Al Sharpton.”

But, I do understand what the magazine was after. Beinart tried to explain to Pappu, “‘Moderate’ suggests splitting the difference between conservative and liberals," whereas The New Republic could outflank the mainstream of the Democratic party on the left or right at any moment on any issue. "We’re one of the few [publications that] want to not only reject the Bush tax cut, but also want no tax cut," Beinart said. "On war, we’re arguing that we have to go to war even without the U.N.”

"The New Republic got mileage out of being unpredictable,” Peretz's first editor, Michael Kinsley, told Pappu at the time. “But in my mind, being unpredictable meant being unreliable and inconsistent and lacking a general plan. ... They see themselves as being critical from within. But that gets hard to pull off after about 30 years.”

Ten years later, Peretz finds himself being defended in the pages of The American Spectator and dismissing Tanenhaus' internal critique of conservatism as if it were just the same thing as an unabashed sales pitch for the mainline of the Democratic party.

The new New Republic is different from the old, though not as different, yet, as Peretz thinks. It just looks different because he's not running it anymore. The internal consensus isn't his to direct.

The new New Republic has a shot at being a factor in liberal thought now, because he's not running it anymore. And without it, Peretz's ongoing "internal critique" of the Democrats will have to take place in the pages of places like the Journal and the Observer, where the critique won't look, or be, internal at all.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article I asserted that Tanenhaus is a long-time conservative. Since this article was published I've interviewed Tanenhaus, who told me that was wrong. Tanenhaus and I discussed the matter at some length, actually, and you can read my piece based on that interview here.