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Sixth Time's the Charm

My Journalistic Life in (Nasty) Letters

In 1979, I received a letter that I can still recite by heart, because it was very short, and it was taped on the wall next to my desk for many years, reminding me of the first time I came back to The New Republic. I had quit as editor in an ethical dispute with the editor-in-chief.

Ted Kennedy was challenging President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. At this point, before he remarried, Kennedy's dual reputation for girth and senatorial statesmanship had not yet overcome his reputation as a party boy. My position was that Kennedy's attitude toward women was a legitimate issue; the editor-in-chief's position was that even Ted Kennedy had a right to privacy. I sulked for a couple of weeks, reflected on the nature of capitalism, and slunk back to work.

The letter arrived a few days later. I don't remember who from. It made up in pith what it lacked in colorful details. It read:

Dear Mr. Kinsley:

I didn't know that you had gone, but I'm sorry to see that you're back.

That reader has suffered a lifetime of disappointment, because this week marks—depending on how you count—the fifth or sixth time I have knocked on The New Republic's door. And each time, they have let me back in. My reasons for leaving have varied: greater glory (or so I thought), bigger audience, more money, disputes with the management, an opportunity (one of two that, according to Gore Vidal, you should never turn down) to appear regularly on television. But I always came back eventually.

It's 36 years since I first worked for The New Republic, 23 years since the last time I wielded the editor's scythe, and 17 years since I have written for the magazine regularly. The last time I resigned as editor, the current editor-in-chief and owner was five years old. Needless to say, he is wise beyond his years.

This time, I return not as the editor (please direct your complaints and article submissions elsewhere) but as "editor-at-large." I see this as a sort of avuncular role, in which my primary duty will be cornering the young people in the office and forcing them to listen to tedious anecdotes about the old days. I also plan to write self-indulgent, lachrymose memoirs of journalistic colleagues and friends as they, one by one, drop off their perches.

Project Bore the Interns will be immeasurably aided by my recent discovery of several boxes of letters hidden in a corner of my garage.

Here is Irving Howe, the famous democratic socialist polemicist and literary critic. Don't call him a social democrat! Very different beast. Howe is asking to be reimbursed for $19 he spent sending an interview with a Jewish scholar from New York to The New Republic in Washington via Federal Express.

You see, children, as recently as the late '70s (well, they seem recent to me) the only way to get a manuscript from a distant location—even New York—to Washington immediately was to dictate it over the phone. Our White House correspondent, a well-marinated Southerner named John Osborne (no relation to the playwright), was very comfortable with this arrangement and kept doing it long after it ceased to be necessary. Even as the editor, I often had to take down John's last-minute copy. As taught by the Associated Press, he would spell out certain words he thought might be difficult. He'd say, "…President Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, that's A-D-V-I-S-O-R…"

If a piece was too long to be dictated by phone, we would order the author to LaGuardia looking, like Diogenes, for an honest man or woman in the Eastern Shuttle boarding area. The author would beg this person to take our precious cargo of words to National Airport (not yet Reagan National) where someone from The New Republic would try to spot him or her and retrieve the manuscript.

FedEx, which would pick up a manuscript at a New York intellectual's apartment and reliably deliver it to our offices in Washington the next day, was a tremendous innovation. Fax machines, which arrived a couple years later, were heaven, although at first they were so expensive that we used to cadge faxes from a law firm in the building, a privilege we had to be careful about abusing. Even a successful fax would come out printed on long rolls of oily paper that will be immediately remembered by anyone who had to work with it and is impossible to describe to anyone who never did.

(Hey! I saw that yawn, young lady! Haven't you heard? If you don't learn history, you're doomed to repeat it.)

E-mail, which arrived shortly thereafter, more or less solved the problem of getting your hands on articles that you want. But the burden of an editor's job is at least equally avoiding articles you don't want.

John Osborne did not make this any easier. He would forward—unread—some article or article proposal he had received from a journalistic colleague or even a total stranger. Attached would be a carbon copy (Remember those? No, of course you don't. What was I thinking?) of Osborne's letter back to the author: "I have forwarded your fascinating manuscript to the editor, Mr. Kinsley, with the strong recommendation that it be published immediately."

Every editor has a set of stock excuses for turning down articles with minimal damage to an author's feelings. I usually went with a vague, "Doesn't meet our needs right now." It always amazed me when a disappointed author would cross-examine an editor, pointing out the logical flaws in the reason offered for not publishing his or her masterpiece. "What do you mean, you just ran a piece on a similar topic? That one was about tourism in Bolivia. This one is about Trotskyism in Bulgaria. You're not making any sense!" I used to think, "Well of course I'm not making any sense. I'm lying to avoid saying, 'Your piece is unpublishable crap.'" What I usually said was a cowardly, "Let me have another look."

My treasured letter from Irving Howe, after dealing with the $19 question, goes on:

Tell Marty [the editor-in-chief] that a magazine which Hilton K. won't have in his house can't be ALL bad. What a horse's ass of a letter−the sheer pomposity of it!

Hilton K. was Hilton Kramer, a neoconservative New York Times culture critic who founded a journal called The New Criterion. Kramer was an intellectual in the grand style—a fop who wore big, floppy bow ties and thrived on feuds. He was said to have been a great roue in his day, which is hard to believe. A critic of the next generation, James Wolcott, used to say that, if Hilton's parents had named him Milton Kramer, he would have turned out entirely different. He died last year. Apparently Kramer had written that he would not allow copies of The New Republic to sully his study because of something we published.

Speaking of feuds, here is a letter from a theater critic in 1980 who complains that a second theater critic had used our pages to falsely imply that a third theater critic had been critical of the first theater critic, when the real target of the third theater critic had been a fourth theater critic.

Here is a scrap of paper that says, "Goldmuntz. Sort of a high assertion-to-fact ratio." I have no idea what that's about.

And here is a note, around 1978, from Christopher Hitchens—not the pope of unbelief he became before his death 14 months ago, but already writing in high style. Notice that he positions his refusal to write for me as a favor to me:

Dear Michael,

Thank you for lunch. You had such a hunted look when you asked if there was any business I wanted to discuss—doesn't anybody like you for yourself anymore? I will in the fullness of time propose things to you. But I feel you need a breather at the moment.  

And here is a letter from Rexford G. Tugwell. Does that name ring a bell? It's just a short cover note on an article submission, but it's thrilling because Tugwell was an agricultural economist and member of Franklin Roosevelt's so-called "Brains Trust" before the 1932 election! That is, he was one of the designers of the New Deal. And yet he was still alive and harassing magazine editors when I first arrived at The New Republic in 1976. So there's just one degree of separation between the new, high-tech, social-media conscious New Republic and the New Deal. And I'm it. It makes me feel old. But it also makes me feel right at home. And if things don't work out this time at The New Republic, I can always go back to my high school newspaper.