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The Forgotten Masterpieces of Henry Fairlie

Washington never knew what to make of Henry Fairlie. When he arrived in this city in the 1960s, he was already famous in his native England for having coined the term "the Establishment" during a meteoric rise on Fleet Street. Here was a staunch Tory who ridiculed Republicans, a leading journalist who relished pointing out the sins of journalists (particularly the ones who employed him), and a foreigner who praised America as rapturously as any native son.

All of these qualities, which are really different expressions of a lively independent streak, would make Fairlie a vital and beloved contributor to The New Republic. Between the late 1970s and his death in 1990, Fairlie wrote dozens of essays about politics, culture, journalism, and American life for the magazine. He could be absolutely devastating (see his definitive critiques of George F. Will and Vanity Fair). A review of one of William F. Buckley's collections was so harsh that Buckley took out a full-page ad in the magazine to reprint an old fusillade he'd written against Fairlie. Yet he had a genuine literary touch as well, and enough life experience to make every piece vivid. When Marty Peretz and then-managing editor Michael Kinsley instituted the back-page Diarist in 1977, they made Fairlie its original and sole author.

For all that he contributed to the magazine's pages and its office life--his rebukes at weekly editorial meetings could be as fierce as his support for young writers was generous--Fairlie never joined the staff: He had been, and wanted to remain, a freelancer. But independence takes a toll. When Fairlie was turned out of his Washington apartment, his TNR office became his home. "I bet you don't know anyone who lives in such a high-rent district as I do," he would joke with friends.

This summer, Yale University Press and New Republic Books publishes Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations by Henry Fairlie, a revival of his timely arguments (both here and elsewhere) and his inimitable voice. His friends at this magazine know better than most what a brilliant and improbable figure he was--or, as they wrote when he died, "one of the last tribunes of a tougher, richer, grander time."

 "Why I Love America"

I had been in the country about eight years, and was living in Houston, when a Texas friend asked me one evening: “Why do you like living in America? I don’t mean why you find it interesting--why you want to write about it--but why you like living here so much.” After only a moment’s reflection, I replied, “It’s the first time I’ve felt free.” One spring day, shortly after my arrival in America, I was walking down the long, broad street of a suburb, with its sweeping front lawns (all that space), its tall trees (all that sky), and its clumps of azaleas (all that color). The only other person on the street was a small boy on a tricycle. As I passed him, he said, “Hi!”--just like that. No four-year-old boy had ever addressed me without an introduction before. Yet here was this one, with his cheerful “Hi!” Recovering from the  culture shock, I tried to look down stonily at his flaxen head, but instead, involuntarily, I found myself saying in return: “Well--hi!” He pedaled off, apparently satisfied. He had begun my Americanization.

“Hi!” As I often say--for Americans do not realize it--the word is a democracy. (I come from a country where one can tell someone’s class by how they say “Hallo!” or “Hello!” or “Hullo,” or whether they say it at all.) But anyone can say “Hi!” Anyone does. Shortly after my encounter with the boy, I called on the then Suffragan Bishop of Washington. Did he greet me as the Archbishop of Canterbury would have done? No. He said, “Hi, Henry!” I put it down to an aberration, an excess of Episcopalian latitudinarianism. But what about my first meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, the President of the United States, the Emperor of the Free World, before whom, like a Burgher of Calais, a halter round  my neck, I would have sunk to my knees, pleading for a loan for my country? He held out the largest hand in Christendom, and said, “Hi, Henry!”

--July 4, 1983


“Tory Days”

[George] Will begins with a mildly amusing quotation from Stephen Leacock about the writer’s craft: “Just get paper and pencil, sit down, and write as it occurs to you. The writing is easy--it’s the occurring that’s hard.” But not for Will. “Actually,” he at once says, the ‘occurring’ is not hard for someone blessed with a Tory temperament.”

The writer glides like a skater, and the reader can too easily glide with him. Will in his bow tie is an elegant Victorian skater on the pond, and the maiden on his arm feels blessed. “Ah!” she sighs, “a Tory temperament--you do like to sound oldfashioned, Mr. Will.” Mr. Will pats her muff and skates on: “ ... and sentenced to live in this stimulating era.” The maiden begins to flutter, “Oh, to be sentenced ... ,” but realizes too late that they have been skating on not even thin ice, and she goes under, as the reader will many times, with no hand held out to rescue her.

--November 10, 1986

“Merry FAXmas”

If TNR were to choose a Man or Woman of the Year for its cover, my nomination for 1988 would be the five nuns of the Discalced Carmelites of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel in Morris Township, New Jersey, who this fall barricaded themselves in their monastery in protest against the introduction of modern comforts to their cloistered life. The worldly distractions against which they revolted, all introduced by Mother Teresa Hewitt since she took over the monastery a year ago, include “television, newspapers, radio, snacks, and a high-tech lighting system in the chapel,” according to the Catholic journal Crisis. These nuns are the sanest people of whom I have read all year, joyful models for us in this season of universal gorging and gouging. They are simply saying that they do not wish to clutter  their lives. I never stroll through a shopping mall without observing that the display of goods includes almost none of the necessities of life. Shoes, we may think, are necessary; but then, of course, the Discalced Carmelites go unshod. The gross national product in America now feeds a gross national appetite for the conspicuous consumption of vanities. The “curse of plenty” against which Churchill warned is now a disease and daily distraction. The nuns are speaking to us. Perhaps it is the society as a whole that needs to take a vow of poverty.

--January 2, 1989

“Press Against Politics”

If one really feared democracy, if one really feared the people, one would not waste time discrediting a Democrat as against a Republican, a liberal as against a conservative; one would simply discredit them all, candidates and voters. One would impute base motives to the politicians, and mundane motives to the people. One would teach them to despise themselves; one would instruct them to have contempt for the political process; one would make something--anything--look superior to the political motive: art, movies, sports, pornography, nature. It does not matter what the distraction, as long as it distracts; and always the purpose is the same, to  leave the economic realm in command over all others, to explain all human impulse, as it is expressed in the political process, in terms of nothing more than the “acquisitive instinct.” ...

The moral information which has been lacking in the coverage of this year’s election is the conviction that the political world is inherently good. It is as if every journalist is afraid that he might be caught in believing in something or in somebody.

--November 13, 1976

“Citizen Kennedy”

On January 20 it will have been a quarter of a century since the young president stood bareheaded in the cold, and gave an inaugural address of such brilliance and power that Sam Rayburn pronounced it “better than anything Franklin Roosevelt said at his best--it was better than Lincoln.” Four of the presidents since then have given six inaugural addresses. We can remember not a word from any of them, nothing of the bearing of the men or the atmosphere of the ceremony. The inaugural address of John F. Kennedy can be quoted by those who were not even born at the time.

“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” There is no one who thinks that those words were said by Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, and all efforts to play on them have always failed. Despite their familiarity, they are not shopworn. They were--they still are--the key words of the inaugural. You could put aside everything else about standing on the walls of freedom round the world, and you would still be left with that remarkable summons to the citizens of the Republic.

Ideas in politics must sometimes go underground for a while; the time is not favorable to them. But underground they gather new energy and still work their way into the roots of the nation’s life, until the people again feel the need for them. One day some new president will find other words to summon the people from their private pursuits to remember their obligations to the Union, the Republic, the Res Publica--the state.

--February 3, 1986


Jeremy McCarter is a senior writer at Newsweek.

By Jeremy McCarter