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You’re Wrong, You’re Wrong, You’re Definitely Wrong, and I’m Probably Wrong, Too

What it was like to edit The New Republic at its most contentious

Annie Jen

When I was a teenager in the late 1950s, growing up in a hundred-year-old exurban farmhouse north of New York City, the butcher-paper weeklies floated down and piled up like autumn leaves. Butcher-paper weeklies: that’s what my parents called them, though most of them weren’t weeklies and the paper they used wasn’t really the waxy stuff butchers prefer. Usually, it was newsprint, which is more absorbent. And, in these cases, more absorbing.

The BPWs that filled our Rural Free Delivery mailbox were heavy on print, seriousness, and politics, light on pictures, froth, and circulation. All were passionately opinionated. The opinions they expressed were those of the reformist left, spanning its spectrum from social-gospel Christian democracy and straight-up New Deal/Fair Deal/Great Society liberalism to democratic socialism and amiable, vaguely anarchism-tinged “radicalism.” Onward they came:

Dissent. Partisan Review. Commentary, as reliable a voice of anti-communist liberalism (back then) as (back then) the New York Post. The Progressive, out of Madison, Wisconsin, founded by Robert M. LaFollette, for whose 1924 presidential campaign my father, at 14 a precocious Socialist Party militant, had passed out leaflets in the Bronx. The Christian Century (Niebuhrian Protestant, liberal), Commonweal (lay Catholic, liberal), and America (Jesuit, liberalish). The Reporter, edited by Max Ascoli. I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which my folks respected despite Stone’s not-fully-repented Stalinoid past. Democratic Digest, a surprisingly literate monthly published by the Democratic National Committee under its Stevensonian chairman, Paul Butler. Dwight Macdonald’s politics—it had folded in 1949, but there was a pile on the shelf. From England, The New Statesman and Nation. Back home, the true BPWs: in ascending order of funness-to-read, The Nation, The New Leader (actually a biweekly), and The New Republic.

I’d be lying if I said I read all of all of these, but I did read some of all of them and all, or almost all, of some. They were a salve to the loneliness of an anti-football, anti-crew-cut, anti-school-spirit adolescent in an Eisenhower-voting backwater. They took sides—kindness against cruelty, hope against cynicism, tolerance against bigotry, intelligence against stupidity. These magazines treated their readers with respect—as equal members of a select and engaged community, not as passive consumers of a product, a mere audience, a flock.

The New Republic, for me, was the one, and it was only The New Republic that I faithfully kept up with when I went off to college. At The Harvard Crimson, where I spent my undergraduate years instead of in class, we were aware that The New Republic was a favorite of the dashing young alumnus in the White House. But John F. Kennedy ’40 (as the Crimson always styled him) was beside the point. My love of TNR was about TNR, not JFK. Compared with the other BPWs, it felt more sophisticated and knowledgeable about American politics, especially electoral politics—more inclined to take its struggles seriously, on their own terms, not just understanding or dismissing them as emanations of underlying social and economic forces. I liked—no, loved—The New Republic. I even fantasized about someday being “on” The New Republic, though I had a hard time imagining how such a grand thing could actually come to pass.

In one’s sophomore year, one had to choose a “field of concentration” (Harvard-speak for major), for which one was assigned a “tutor.” I chose history, but I couldn’t stand the tutor they gave me. The only way to get a new one was to change fields, so I switched to “government,” Harvard’s version of poli-sci. My new tutor was Martin Peretz, a grad student and very junior instructor.

Marty was in his mid-twenties, full of beans and charisma and pugnacious opinions. Our tutorials were long, lively conversations that began over coffee at the grungy Hayes-Bickford cafeteria and sometimes extended till past sundown: Nothing was more important than clarifying the point. He was a terrific teacher, the best I found at Harvard (not that I gave any others much of a chance), and he became a friend, not always agreeable but loyal and lifelong.

Marty’s temperament was fierce and radical, mine gentle and moderate. In those days his politics were to the left of mine. He had no real sympathy for the Soviet Union, but that didn’t keep me from half-seriously taxing him with being soft on communism, based on a conversation we had about whether Russia would be better off if the revolution hadn’t happened. I said yes, he said no—at least that’s how I remember it.

The 1962 Massachusetts Senate race pitted three dynastic scions against one another—four if you count the nephew of House Speaker John McCormack, Eddie McCormack, who lost the Democratic nomination to the president’s kid brother, Ted Kennedy. Teddy was all very well, but I preferred the Republican: the dreamy, earnest, and quite liberal George Cabot Lodge, great-grandson and son, respectively, of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Marty campaigned for the independent “peace” candidate, H. Stuart Hughes, a Harvard intellectual historian and a grandson of Chief Justice (and 1916 GOP presidential nominee) Charles Evans Hughes. I enjoyed needling Marty about the fact that in 1948 (no further in the past then as Bush v. Gore is now) H. Stuart Hughes had been a supporter of Henry Wallace, the third-party “Progressive” candidate (and, briefly but not briefly enough, editor of The New Republic!), whose campaign against President Truman had been manipulated by American communists.

Over the next decade, which I spent in the Navy (until 1969) and then at The New Yorker, I occasionally saw my old tutor on trips to Cambridge or Cape Cod. Marty was a high muck-a-muck in Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, which he and his wife, Anne, a descendant of Edward Clark, business partner of Isaac Singer (of sewing machine fame and fortune), partly financed. McCarthy had been urged to run against LBJ and his Vietnamese war by Allard Lowenstein, who persuaded McCarthy to enter the race after Robert Kennedy turned him down. Lowenstein and Peretz knew each other, and it was obvious that they had a lot in common: leftish politics, New York Jewishness, volubility, gregariousness, mercurialness, ample personal funds, and a talent for mentoring young men, including, in both cases, me. But that didn’t make them soul mates. When I remarked to Marty, apropos of I forget what, that sometimes Al could be his own worst enemy, he replied, grinning, “Not while I’m alive!”

In 1974, with Anne’s help, Marty bought The New Republic. That summer, at a lobster roast on the beach in Truro, I greeted him with a jovial, “Congratulations on your new toy!” He didn’t much like the joke, but he laughed gamely. Two and a half years later, in early 1977, I moved to Washington to write speeches for President Jimmy Carter. By then Marty was firmly ensconced. The New Republic hadn’t cost the Peretzes all that much, apparently; the Victorian mansion that housed the magazine had been included in the purchase, and the word was that Marty had recouped the price of the latter by selling the former. The new headquarters, next door to the old, was the fourth floor of one of those anonymous glass-and-steel office buildings that make Washington look like it was emptied out of an ice-cube tray. Marty threw an undergraduate-style party there, marking both Carter’s inauguration and that of The New Republic’s incredibly young managing editor, Michael Kinsley.

At that point Marty’s views on economics and such were still solidly liberal (and remain so to this day, as far as I know). But the 1967 Six-Day War (which taught him, he liked to say, that “dovishness stops at the delicatessen door”), the 1967 New Politics convention in Chicago (which he and Anne had financed and which degenerated into a horror show of black nationalist intimidation and white New Left obsequiousness), and the 1972 McGovern fiasco (which convinced him that liberalism was making itself foolish and unelectable) had given him a shove in a different direction, and his was a body in motion that tended to stay in motion.

All this is by way of saying that when, to my surprise, Marty sounded me out about being “editor” of The New Republic after Carter’s defeat in the 1980 election, it was a given that we were going to disagree on a lot more than the tsar. Which was OK, basically. Before we closed the deal, we had a very long, very lively discussion about the Middle East. I was for Palestinian statehood, mildly. He was against it, strongly. But he owned the place. I thought he was entitled to have the magazine say what he wanted it to say about the thing in the world he most cared about. About everything else, we’d have to duke it out.

Why the irony quotes around “editor”? Well, early on, Marty had taken that title for himself. In 1979, though, he and Mike Kinsley had a serious quarrel over a piece Mike had accepted and Marty wanted killed. Mike resigned and started entertaining other job offers. As part of the Camp David–like treaty that brought him back, which, Carterishly, I helped broker from my White House perch, Marty kicked himself upstairs to “editor- in-chief and publisher” and Mike got to drop the “managing” and keep the “editor.” But the job—managing the front section of the magazine—was pretty much the same. (Then as now, the back of the book was a semiautonomous province, a literary Kurdistan.) Decisions about hiring and firing were the prerogative of the editor-in-chief. The “editor” set the look of the magazine and the stylistic tone of the front section. And he could sometimes muscle in a piece that the editor-in-chief hated, but that was the exception. The other way round was the rule.

As editor or “editor,” I felt little pressure to worry about status, my own or anybody else’s. Ego-driven maneuvering was not a prominent feature of 1980s life at The New Republic. Day to day, there was a singular lack of office politics. What we had instead was politics politics. Our arguments were about the nation and the world, including one that ended as follows. MARTY: “Fuck you, Rick!” (slams door). ME: “Fuck you, Marty!” (slams door). Marty, reappearing a few minutes later: “Mmm, I feel much better now.”

One setting for such arguments was the office hallways. Another was the weekly staff meeting, where the discussion included the upcoming “lede,” the main unsigned editorial that fronted each issue. Things could get heated, as they did—to take a paradigmatic example—when we debated what to say about how the United States should treat Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime. The subsequent lede, titled “The Case for the Contras,” was published in the issue of March 24, 1986. It was an unqualified endorsement of the Reagan administration’s policy of trying to overthrow the Sandinistas by any means necessary, starting with military aid to the Contra guerrillas. The motives it attributed to critics of the Reagan policy were limited to isolationism, defeatism, willful blindness, and selective “scrupulousness” about the sovereignty of “states ruled by pro-Soviet Leninists.”

Considering that those critics included a substantial majority of the staff, one may justly infer that The New Republic’s form of government, like Nicaragua’s, was less than perfectly democratic. But it certainly wasn’t the kind of non-democracy that stifles dissent.

As editor, Michael Kinsley pioneered a smarty-pants style that was irresistible. His winning wit was such an implacable part of his being that it even permeated his intra-office memos.
Houghton Library, Harvard University

In the very same issue that featured “The Case for the Contras,” the weekly “TRB from Washington” column disdained its arguments as “preposterous,” “fatuous,” and shot through with “deception.” Although the TRB column, like the editorial, was by tradition unsigned, its author at the time, as every alert reader knew, was Michael Kinsley. In other words, the first person to attack the editorial position of The New Republic was the editor of The New Republic, in The New Republic.

But not the last. The following issue (March 31, 1986) carried another strong dissent, by associate editor Jefferson Morley. The issue after that (April 7) contained, along with a second, more nuanced pro-Contra editorial, a second Kinsley TRB column, this one arguing that people like Norman Podhoretz, who had accused Reagan’s critics of being “objectively” pro-Soviet, were guilty of McCarthyism. It also contained a back-page “Diarist” by Martin Peretz, in which Marty rejected the McCarthyism parallel—and acknowledged ruefully that “our view” (i.e., the view expressed in “The Case for the Contras”) “is something my wife and at least one of my children have been disclaiming quite vigorously whenever the topic of Nicaragua has come up lately—certainly when it has come up in my presence.”

The issue after that—dated April 14, 1986—carried several letters to the editors attacking the editorial. One of them, drafted and circulated by me, was a letter from the editors—specifically, from 13 of the then 18 contributing editors: Abraham Brumberg, Robert Coles, Henry Fairlie, Vint Lawrence, R.W.B. Lewis, Mark Crispin Miller, Robert B. Reich, Ronald Steel, Richard L. Strout, Anne Tyler, Michael Walzer, C. Vann Woodward, and, at the time, me. I’m not sure that the letter would have been printed at all, though, if it hadn’t had the blessing of Walzer, whom Marty revered as deeply as he did anyone on Earth.

The author of “The Case for the Contras” was Charles Krauthammer, the future Irving Kristol Award–winning, Bradley Prize–winning, William F. Buckley Award–winning (and, to be fair, Pulitzer Prize–winning) hero of conservative intellectuals and Fox News dittoheads alike. None of that could have been predicted when Charles joined The New Republic, which he did the same day I did, in January of 1981. We had both been rendered jobless by the same event: the defeat of the Carter-Mondale ticket at the hands of Reagan and Bush. Charles had been a speechwriter for Vice President Mondale, a bigger liberal than Carter ever thought of being. Furthermore, Charles, who was educated at McGill, in Montreal, was an admirer of Canada’s gentle welfare state. I remember him telling me that, if he still lived there, he might vote for Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Party, or even the New Democrats, the Canadian affiliate of the Socialist International. (Though, he added, “That’s because it doesn’t matter what Canada’s foreign policy is.”)

Editorials like Charles’s hymn to the Contras helped birth the “even the liberal New Republic" meme, but it wasn’t as if Marty, back then, had set out to stack the staff with right-wingers. He hired Charles because (in addition to his talents as a writer) Charles was both a liberal and a come-what-may supporter of Israel. Charles took years to make the full transition to foreign policy neoconservatism, and years more to buy most of the rest of the Republican program. (He still believes in evolution, though, bless his soul.) Similarly, Marty hired Fred Barnes to be a straight political reporter, a job in which he had distinguished himself at The Washington Star and The Baltimore Sun. Fred was rumored to hold vaguely Republican sympathies, but few of us could have imagined that he might morph into a Fox News stalwart and a founding editor of The Weekly Standard.

For most of Marty’s tenure as the magazine’s bossman, which ended up encompassing a third of its century of existence so far, he took care to maintain just enough liberal ballast to keep the ship from capsizing to starboard. Of the eight editors he appointed, six were indisputably, sometimes loudly, to his left. During the twelve years that Kinsley and I alternated in the high chair (Mike 1979–1981, me 1981–1985, him again 1985–1989, me again 1989–1991), Marty played two roles—and, day to day, hour to hour, you could never be sure which he might adopt. He was the chief, and he was one of the Indians. He was the owner, with the power to overrule you or get rid of you altogether, and he was a colleague—one among many, throwing out ideas for pieces, writing his own, and not always getting (well, not always choosing to get) his way. One of his tirades—a Peretzism of rage—could ruin your day. He could be a bully, but disagreement was something he could brook. Chaos was something he could tolerate. (A lucky thing, too, since he was so good at creating it.)

Houghton Library, Harvard University
Houghton Library, Harvard University

One of the little tweaks I made the first time I got the job was to change the slogan on the table of contents from “A Journal of Politics and the Arts” back to the original: “A Weekly Journal of Opinion.” All the fine reporting notwithstanding, what The New Republic did best, had always done best, was opinion. Its politics were polemical, its art was the art of argument. The divided staff became, in effect, a kind of murder board. Passionate disagreements among the editors and contributors made not only for lively reading but also for better writing. Almost every important piece was bound to rub one or another faction the wrong way. On the whole, this prodded contributors to make their arguments tighter, their points more carefully honed. It was a disincentive to sloppy thinking, imprecise writing, and reliance on questionable factoids, unexamined preconceptions, and lazy reasoning.

The New Republic of the ’80s and early ’90s was endlessly said to be invigoratingly “unpredictable.” It would be truer to say that we were publicly at odds with ourselves in ways that eventually became quite predictable indeed. Incredibly, The New Republic won a National Magazine Award for Elizabeth McCaughey’s disgraceful February 7, 1994, attack on President Clinton’s health care proposal. That piece was serially denounced—in The New Republic, naturally—by Theodore R. Marmor and Jerry L. Mashaw (“fiction,” “outlandish,” “crude”), Mickey Kaus (“wrong,” “misleading,” “completely distorted”), and, yet again, Kinsley (“celebrated, influential, inaccurate and unfair”). The McCaughey moment was one of the magazine’s lowest points, just as the present editor’s apology for it in his first issue was one of the highest. Awards aren’t always about quality. Sometimes they’re just about buzz, of which we had plenty.

All that excitement had its costs, of course, and not only to the magazine’s hard-won identity as the confident voice of American liberalism. Throughout the Peretz era, editors’ tenures typically lasted for around three years, never more than six and a half. The endless trench warfare over politics amplified the built-in stresses of any job that carries more responsibility than authority. No wonder front-of-the-book editors came and went like so many Italian prime ministers. (By contrast, Leon Wieseltier, who has cooly ruled the literary section for 32 years, displays the staying power of a justice of the Supreme Court.)

Hertzberg (left) with his boss, friend, and occasional tormentor, Martin Peretz, in 1984.
Cynthia Johnson/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

There comes a time when you truly can’t stand the heat and you have to get out of the kitchen, even if you still relish the food. Looking back over the 23 years since I left The New Republic for the last time, I have to admit, with something between grudgingness and affection, that everything of any value I may have done or written since has been a consequence of what I learned and experienced there. To have been a part of it—and to have read it, before, during, and after, which has been a way to be part of it, too—was as satisfying as it was exasperating. The New Republic crackled. There was method in the madness, technique in the tension.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the New Politics Convention was held in Chicago in 1969. It was 1967.