Correction: Sam Tanenhaus is not a long-time conservative

Sam Tanenhaus. (The Daily Beast)
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I made a mistake last week, and not an easily forgivable one.

I asserted that Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, an author who became really popular with his biography of Whittaker Chambers in 1997, and who entered the news cycle in his own right last week because of his cover story in The New Republic, was a "long-time conservative."

He isn't, as he was kind enough to tell me in a telephone interview on Sunday afternoon.

"Almost all the time I vote for Democrats," he told me. "So if you want to say 'unregistered,' because I'm not, I don't belong to any party, that's probably true. To me that doesn't seem very interesting but to those who fixate on the labels, sure. Will it be news that I didn't vote for Mitt Romney? I'm guessing not, but hey it's your story and not mine."

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It will be news to some, and not to others. Tanenhaus' politics are not a secret, but in a media environment in which personal knowledge of the people who give you your information, your facts, your ideas is treated almost as a precondition of accepting it, they have been a cipher, as he admits. It doesn't interest him, but it interests many of us, for better or for worse.

If all this makes Tanenhaus sound a bit precious to you, then I should correct myself again. In fact, he's such an affable, generous guy in conversation that we talked for an hour even after this was cleared up. And what we talked about, I thought, got close to identifying a problem in the way we're arguing these days.

The reason I wrote that Tanenhaus was a conservative was not a good one. But it was not the same bad one that motivated some other people to call him a conservative, and others to label him a liberal, over the last decade or so.

I'd never read a thing he wrote that suggested to me that he was or wasn't conservative. I've known too many writers to think that it's easy to divine a writer's politics from his or her writing when that writing doesn't reveal anything about it at all.

Rather, I made the mistake because New York media-world gossip had delivered that verdict to me somewhere along the line and I'd held on to it. I based my statement on things that have been said about Tanenhaus to me over the years by former coworkers and employees, and fellow writers who I had assumed knew him well enough to be authoritative. (Just last week, before I wrote, one of Tanenhaus' Times colleagues referred to him in a column as ... a life-long conservative.)

I was wrong, but it wasn't a matter of passing along a misinterpretation. It was a matter of passing along misinformation.

But I was confident writing it in the article last Friday, specifically in response to people who were writing that Tanenhaus was not a conservative.

They were saying it, really, for two reasons. One is that it affected the way they looked at his work. If Tanenhaus is a liberal, then his writing about the history of the conservative movement must be in some way calculated to help bring about its failure. Two, which is related, is that he wrote into his history of the conservative intellectual movement some assessments that are not congratulatory.

After the article came out, several people on Twitter called me out on it. One was the conservative columnist John Podhoretz. We had a civil if slightly maddening exchange.

Podhoretz was right: There was nothing to do but ask, something I should have done in the first place on Friday, before publishing. But I go to all this length not to modify my apology, but because over the course of the last few days it made me realize something.

Rightly much ink has been spilled on how digital media and communication is changing the way we think and argue. Much of that conversation has been devoted to the connection between anonymity on the internet and meanness, trickery and false identity. But little has been written about how a contravening trend, the trend of personal branding, of getting our information from the social web, from personalities both famous and public and not-famous and personal to us, is changing the way the information is processed and used to make arguments, and the way those arguments are assessed.

I can certainly see why Paul Krugman thought it useful to claim, as I had, that Tanenhaus was a conservative, as he did on Thursday: For a liberal who reads Tanenhaus' article in The New Republic, which argues the Republicans have reached the end of the intellectual branch that grew from the political thinking of John C. Calhoun, that the party was continuing to simply ignore minority voting blocs to its own destruction, that it is the "party of white people," Tanenhaus' putative conservatism is a footnote. If this is coming from a conservative, it must be credible, guys. Take a look.

I can also see why many who didn't know him were eager to emphasize that he is not a conservative (whether they actually knew it for a fact or not): If he's actually a liberal, then he's up to something nefarious, pretending to speak from the inner intellectual reaches of conservatism but really trying to tear it apart from within. This is the mistake that Marty Peretz seemed to make in an article in The Wall Street Journal, which was the subject of my article on Friday.

Tanenhaus is none of these things. He isn't eager to intervene in the conversation about him, but since I was eager to drag him in he agreed.

"I don't say that naively as though I'm shocked that they react," he said of those who suggest that his writing is either tainted or proven particularly credible by his own political ideologies. "It's just that I write these pieces in a different vein than the way they are often reacted to."

And in fact he practices a form of journalism that's increasingly rare nowadays, to our detriment.

"This is what happens a lot," Tanenhaus told me.

First of all, he said, many people in his regular walk of life, who don't know any better, seem to just think he's a conservative. Since he isn't eager to label his own political sympathies—indeed, is willing to suggest that his ideology is really a non ideology, that his politics are too pedestrian and inexpert for him to even foist them on a public—he just doesn't bother himself with it.

"It was [New Republic culture editor] Leon Wieseltier who first pointed this out to me, that people will assume that I'm a conservative not because of what I write but because of my topics," Tanenhaus said to me. "Who would bother to spend most of my 30s writing a bio of Whittaker Chambers? Who would do that but a conservative? And here is where I am grateful really to conservative elders. … When I began working on that book, which was in '89 I think it was, I think I got a contract in '90, but around the period that I had the idea to write about him, liberal magazines were not interested in hearing from me, or liberal publications; not that they banished me, because I had no presence at all, but it was actually conservative publications—New Criterion, Commentary, The American Scholar, also National Review—that were open to having me write things for them without even asking me what my politics were. They thought any serious-minded biography of Whittaker Chambers would be a good thing."

"I think its' partly because at that point they were the outnumbered group, so they were looking for young people," he said. "I was in my early 30s so someone who came along and actually was interested in a guy like Chambers, and had read up on the old cultural debates, it was kind of fun for them, and that's why they were so generous."

For Tanenhaus, writing intellectual history is writing about how ideologies and the wider culture react to and transform each other. But to write that history is not to transform it oneself. It's to try to figure out how the adjustments are made that propel American political thought and culture and ideas.

"The ideology in political elections each quadrennial doesn't fascinate me as much," Tanenhaus said. "I'm as bored as many are by the sort of complexities of policy differences, someone like David Brooks or Krugman or Frum really savor."

"My thought is to try to figure out what it is that all the different sides are saying, but that is as much from an interest in literature and the modern novel as politics. Tolstoy and Proust are novelists and they really get into someone's slin. One paragraph by Katharine Boo, because she's a maestro of empathy, and she can uncover hidden worlds in her subjects."

That is, understanding where these ideologies come from in the person is a way of telling stories about people. It's a factor in the manifest politics of elections and policy, of course. But it's a pursuit of a different kind of truth from "who's right" or "whom do I vote for." And for Tanenhaus, those latter things are significantly less interesting.

And though he stays quiet himself when the pitchforks come out for him after an article like his New Republic cover last week, he's seen it happen to others, and he admires their fortitude.

"My hero in all of this ... is Garry Wills, and Wills has a remarkable history because he was the wunderkind of National Review, and in their mind and in the minds of many was a traitor, who went over to the left; but in his own mind he still thinks of himself as conservative, and he's really a political observer."

And that process is different from any ideologically motivated project. He attempted to describe it:

"Here is the problem, here are the historical sources on it; how can I find an interesting way to say something about this that's new? It's journalism, it's not advocacy," he said.

I wonder if it's naive to think that such a distinction can continue to survive. It's complicated of course. The Times had a bout of soul searching last year when its public editor had to wonder out loud whether the Times' traditional approach to journalistic "objectivity" was out of date. A cousin to this issue might have been Anderson Cooper, who last year revealed to blogger Andrew Sullivan that he was gay, something many people inside the industry had known for years; he had feared that a too intimate knowledge of his personal life would distract people from his reporting.

But then he started a talk show that was premised on the Anderson Cooper personal brand—characterized by empathy, and seeing the news with the eyes of the audience in order to connect them to those events more intimately. When Anderson Cooper became a self-acknowledged brand, his personality and his facts of life inseparable from his message, the outstanding issue of his love life actually became the distraction. "We report, you decide" is all fine and well, but when people feel they must decide, in part, based on who the "we" is, things get complicated.

I ASKED TANENHAUS HOW HE BECAME INTERESTED IN THE HISTORY of conservative thought in the first place, and it really does seem like it was the Whittaker Chambers book that did it, before he was really quite in the journalism game, formally speaking.

"What I was interested in was the New York intellectuals and their cultural debates, which don't interest me very much right now but they did when I was a student, when I was in graduate school, which I did for only a year, I was fascinated by people like Lionel Trilling, who was a sort of a lodestar to me."

"It didn't occur to me that Trilling was really a journalist; I thought he was a scholar and an intellectual. In those days they called it 'literature and society,' and that kind of writing. [Historian Richard] Hofstadter, Irving Howe, that whole group were interesting to me.

"So when I read about the Hiss case, this seemed like something I could get interested in because it had become both a cultural battle and a political battle, and it was the confluence of the two that interested me. So that was what was behind the Chambers book."

And that confluence was at the center of conservatism in its heyday.

"The conservatives were really good at seeing how culture and politics are really inextricable, that one is the other, and [William F. Buckley, Jr.] was one of the very first to see this, in God and Man at Yale.

"They are able to take political questions and present them in cultural terms. I was watching 'Meet the Press' today and you could see that happening, it happens all the time now. ... Now that argument has turned against [the conservatives], and that is very interesting to me.

I asked Tanenhaus whether his study of the history of conservative ideas had rubbed off on him. Assuming you start out as a centrist who studies movement politics, how long can you stay one without either rejecting or finally relenting to the politics of the movement you study?

I used an example with him from my own college days. A professor once remarked to a class of mine that nobody who succeeds in truly understanding Hegel doesn't become a Hegelian, whether they're on the left or the right, because who can put all that effort in and be capable of believing at the end that it was for nothing?

"The great remark in Proust, he says 'anytime you argue with someone you're, by the very fact of arguing with him, you are absorbing some of what he says, and that its only when something is so far outside the realm of rational response that that doesn't happen to some degree," Tanenhaus said to me (sounding pretty Hegelian himself). "So, sure, one would likely even become smarter as a result of it. But I don't have rigid or even passionate ideological views about politics."

OK, so what are his politics?

"I actually like the consensus idea … My tendency is to kind of go toward the center where I see the attempt made to draw the most people in rather than to alienate or stigmatize," he said. "I think the Republicans  are doing that, and i don't think reading the many thousands of words I've just written could leave you in much doubt that I think that …. So no, my positions haven't changed as a result of the work I've done."

"But one reason I write about people and movements that make extreme arguments is because it's the opposite of myself and that's one of the things we get to do in a profession like this," he said. "The novelists are kings of this, and I can't do that. But you get to travel intellectually in to the minds of other people and see how they think and who grasps where the culture is."

"I do think that maybe that has changed a bit in the culture, and no one is given the pass to be generally interested in what they are writing about it."

That is, not without presenting your credentials first. Who's qualified to write the truth? It's a pointless question we keep asking about writers, when what we should be doing more of, probably, is just reading and thinking for ourselves.

But it's becoming less pointless every day, as, more and more, writers actually do consult the parameters of their personal brands to determine what they should think and say, what ideologies and what sets of facts to promote. From that point of view, Tanenhaus is a stalwart. And we'll just have to see if his way of doing things can continue to thrive.