The idea that I buy The New Republic was first broached to me at adinner party hosted by Senator Eugene McCarthy (in whose 1968presidential campaign I had worked) and his wife, Abigail, at theirhouse across the street from the National Cathedral. It was therethat I met Gilbert Harrison, the deed- holder of the magazine andalso its editor. It was he who did the broaching. I do not recallthe specific date of this encounter. But I am sure that it was atleast three, maybe even four years before the actual transfer ofthe publication. During that time, Harrison and I conducted adecorous inquest of each other's political histories, presentopinions, even social and intellectual prejudices. In Washington,New York, Martha's Vineyard. Over and over again.
I finally acquired tnr in March 1974 and, like two proprietorsbefore me, without so much as a search or a single other applicant,appointed myself editor-in-chief after almost a year of arduousself-restraint. By the time the change took place, the DemocraticParty and American liberals had slipped into a deep and disturbingtrauma, of which George McGovern's campaign was itself less a causethan a reflection--a pathetic reflection, to be sure. That thedemos should have chosen someone as demonized as Richard Nixon inthe midst of a hated war and after Watergate had begun unravelingtold us something stark. And it was not just the colossal margin ofhis victory that was doing the telling. There was a serious breachin the populace. One evident truth was that the American peoplewere offended by haughty elitists, self-styled revolutionaries, andtribunes of the pretty soul.
The modern usage of the term liberalism--synonymous with Hamiltonianstatism rather than laissez-faire--originated in these pages. AndI've viewed my historic mission as the safeguarding of this sacredlegacy from moral decrepitude. Unfortunately, this magazine has notalways been a good steward to the ideology that it helped invent.
The most curious figure in the magazine's history was MichaelStraight, the son of tnr founder Willard, a Morgan banker, andDorothy, herself a Whitney and an heiress to Standard Oil. Thefather had made himself a tool in the opposition to the SupremeCourt nomination of Louis D. Brandeis, an intellectual godfather tothe editors of tnr, simply by forbidding them to publish adevastating critique, accompanied by a more devastating chart,linking 34 of the nominee's antagonists to particular financialinterests and clubs. For the president of Harvard and Henry Adams,it didn't help that Brandeis was a Jew--and a Zionist, no less.
But let's come quickly to the case of Michael Straight. He was aSoviet agent, not exactly a principal, but not a cipher, either, inthe espionage network identified with Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean,Kim Philby, and Anthony Blunt. He was, as his biographer, RolandPerry, puts it, "to the manor born." He did not go to Harvard orYale, but to Cambridge, where he was called to "the Apostles," anelite society of both culture and communism--a link not quitepermitted in the Soviet Union.
In a certain way, The New Republic was part of Straight's disguise.It's not absolutely certain that he did chores for Moscow when hewas truly the editor. But he had flitted about the magazine, evenfrom Cambridge. And, as everybody knows, one is never quitedemobilized from a spying operation. It was many years beforeStraight realized the Soviet Union was a tyranny--a monstroustyranny.
I have before me a collection of tnr pieces, The Faces of FiveDecades, with an introduction for each of those decades by ArthurM. Schlesinger Jr., who died within the past fortnight. In hisnotably evocative prose style, AMS sketches tnr's philosophicalcommitments and its (certainly in retrospect) silly dalliances.Among these were collectivism, isolationism, and, for a few verylong moments, an idiot infatuation with, yes, Stalinism.
Why do I dwell on this tawdry part of the honorable and actuallyfastidious life of The New Republic? Because it highlights, perhapseven to the point of exaggeration, the precariousness of theliberal idea and of liberal institutions and liberal men and womenwhen faced with regimes, movements, and systems of belief (howevercruel or crude) that mobilize with words and arms against theUnited States and its lessons. Forgive me: The United States hassomething to learn from a few other countries. But many countrieshave much to learn from us.
What we have to learn from others is how to flee greed, and how toflee greed in a way that does not sabotage the expansiveness ofpeoples' lives. Imagine a family of four living on $20,000 a year.The United States could do with a new immersion in egalitarianism.This is still said to be an animating idea of contemporaryliberalism. But it's not at all clear to me how much this ideareally does animate liberalism's high priests and priestesses,especially those from Hollywood.
What is dogma to many of them is simply the historical andpsychological assault on the United States. In the cold war, manyAmericans did not want the Soviet Union to lose. And that Francehas now become a heroic nation simply for resisting the invasion ofSaddam Hussein's Iraq is preposterous. After all, France is aclosed-minded, prissy, rigidly class-bound, economically retarded,and nostalgic country. Nostalgic for its martial glory that goesback a century plus, and jealous of it, too, in resisting thereality that military might no longer belongs to the motherland.During my time at tnr, we've tried to guide liberalism away fromsuch intellectual mush. To my regret, we haven't always prevailed.
On other fights, we've fared much better--and these could benarrated through the editors I have hired. Neoliberalism was thedoctrine on domestic affairs that Michael Kinsley shaped when hecame to edit the magazine shortly after I took over. There was moreliberalism than neo in the idea. On the other hand, tnr showed thatthere were unnecessary controls on the economy. We believed andargued for a people's capitalism. Mike also helped me shape anintellectual ethos, too--an ethos that reveled in conflictingopinions and ideological diversity. Trust me, there have been manytimes when I've hurled my own magazine against the wall in anger.
Other editors following Mike expended much of their analyticalfervor on U.S. foreign policy. Rick Hertzberg was a social democratof the old and freedom- loving school. Andrew Sullivan brought abig dose of cultural originality to the journal. All of theseeditors were master prose stylists and real intellectuals,besides.
I disagreed with Michael Kelly on pretty much everything domestic,and my disagreements came from the left. There was other discord,best left obscure. Soon he was gone from the magazine ... and,tragically, gone too from the world. Charles Lane put the ship backon its course, for which I am immensely grateful. Peter Beinartbrought a certain methodical discipline to tnr, crystallizing theforeign policy that the editors with whom I worked for more than aquarter-century had been painstakingly shaping.
That foreign policy is still relevant today. Its guiding principleis that democratic societies are of philosophical and practicalinterest to our country, and those who are struggling againsttyranny deserve our aid and fraternity. People who live under theheel of dictatorship and are fighting to get out from under are ourfriends, like the Contras were. We were probably the mostconsistent American voice for intervention in Bosnia. Genocide isan unmitigated evil, which is why we favored intervention in Rwandaand now believe that, without military intervention, including U.S.force and forces, Darfur is doomed. Simply doomed.
Which brings us to the United Nations--a failing, bloated, corrupt,and unprincipled institution whose very foundations compel it notto act justly. It is functionally the captive of three cynicalpermanent members of the Security Council and the wild mob ofillegitimate states in the General Assembly. The next decade willfind us preoccupied with the issue of how democratic societiessucceed in this overstructured and overdetermined world disorder.
For my part, I believe that Israel, which was a gleam in the eyes ofthe earliest editors of tnr, is a test case that the United Nationsis failing. The rightful state of the Jews has been underunrelenting attack for decades, now explicitly threatened by asoon-to-be nuclear regime. And we're in the midst of a current boutof anti-Jewish hysteria directly tied to the malevolent andmendacious proposition put forward by the U.N., the European Union,and some Americans that the Palestinians, warring with one another,are ready to make peace with Zion. There is a place fordiplomacy--but only if its foundations are honest. Talking oftenmisleads.
You have known my colleague and friend Leon Wieseltier, our literaryeditor, for more than two decades. He has been my teacher, too.Frank Foer has been the editor of tnr for slightly more than ayear, after writing for us for almost half a decade. What anincandescent spirit. I want to confess that these two are instancesof a pledge I made to myself. "Try, try very hard not to hireanybody who isn't smarter than you, and wiser." In this, Isucceeded.
Deep into its ninth decade, The New Republic is still embarked onits original mission: to shape a just and prosperous society and tobuild a tolerable world. Wanting more will lead us astray.
By Martin Peretz