My Marty Peretz Problem -- And Ours

"A magazine," a friend once observed to me over too many glasses of wine, "is by definition a problem." But like Tolstoy's unhappy families, each magazine is its own peculiar problem. And for the past 34 years, the name of The New Republic's problem has been "Martin H. Peretz."

My Marty Peretz problem -- and ours, if you happen to care about the respective fates of American liberalism, Judaism, or journalism -- is nothing if not complicated. When, in early 2007, Peretz finished what he had begun five years earlier, selling off what had long been America's most influential independent liberal weekly magazine, TNR was no longer any of these things. Now owned by the Canadian CanWest corporation, the magazine was obviously no longer independent -- in fact, it was the first time in the magazine's history it was not owned by someone married to a wealthy heiress (or his widow or descendants). Nor, with the sale to CanWest, was it any longer weekly, the frequency it had maintained since its founding in 1914. As for TNR's influence, such a thing is not easy to measure. But circulation is. TNR's 60,000 or so readers today are barely more than half of what the magazine enjoyed in its heyday. Hence the sale.

And whether TNR can still sensibly be called liberal -- well, that's another long and complicated story, one that I intend to address in the pages that follow.

What's more, during his reign, Peretz has also done lasting damage to the cause of American liberalism. By turning TNR into a kind of ideological police dog, Peretz enjoyed the ability -- at least for a while -- to play a key role in defining the borders of "responsible" liberal discourse, thereby tarring anyone who disagreed as irresponsible or untrustworthy. But he did so on the basis of a politics simultaneously so narrow and idiosyncratic -- in thrall almost entirely to an Israel-centric neoconservatism -- that it's difficult to understand how the magazine's politics might be considered liberal anymore. Ironically Peretz's stance ultimately turned out to be not only out of step with most liberals but also most American Jews, who consistently cling to views far more dovish, both on Israel and on U.S. foreign policy generally, than those espoused in TNR.

It is a sad but true fact of American political life that liberals rarely exercise so much influence as when they happen to be endorsing conservative causes, and this temptation has proven consistently irresistible to Peretz and his magazine. TNR under Peretz has been a vehicle that proved extremely helpful to Ronald Reagan's wars in Central America and George Bush's war in Iraq. It provided seminal service to Newt Gingrich's and William Kristol's efforts to kill the Clinton plan for universal health care and offered intellectual legitimacy to Charles Murray's efforts to portray black people as intellectually inferior to whites. As for liberal causes, however … well, not so much.

But the final irony that must also be mentioned when discussing the legacy of Peretz's control of the magazine is the fact of the magazine itself. And I think any honest reader would be forced to admit that for many if not most of these years, The New Republic was, despite everything, a truly terrific little magazine. Frank Mankiewicz once famously quipped that Peretz had turned TNR into "a Jewish Commentary." This was funny but also unfair. Unlike Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, Peretz believed that his magazine should include the views of people with whom he disagrees. And for longer than one could have imagined -- due in large measure to the editorial talents of Michael Kinsley and Hendrik Hertzberg at the front of the magazine and Leon Wieseltier in the back, coupled with the writing talents of more youngish and underpaid liberal journalists than one can comfortably name in one sentence -- this gave TNR a political frisson entirely absent from more monochromatic political magazines of both the left and right. It was alive with passion for politics and literature and peopled by some of the most talented writers and thinkers to grace any masthead, anytime, anywhere. While Wieseltier alone has remained, steadily steering the back of the ship as the front veers from war to war, controversy to controversy, many of the rest of TNR's alumni have gone on to shape American journalism for better and worse from more remunerative perches at The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The Atlantic, and many of the nation's (remaining) great newspapers.

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Founded in 1914 by Willard Straight, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and others, The New Republic was quietly coasting along when Marty Peretz bought the magazine in 1974 from Gilbert Harrison with $380,000 garnered from the wealth of his wife, Anne Labouisse Farnsworth, heir to one of the great fortunes created by the Singer Sewing Machine company. Peretz was raised in a lower middle-class, Yiddishist household in the Bronx and attended the Bronx High School of Science before going on to Brandeis in its Jewish intellectual glory years. It was a heady time, when the likes of Max Lerner, Irving Howe, and Abe Maslow, were taking the arguments that had typically been conducted inside the brittle pages of Partisan Review, Commentary, and The New Leader into the academy and the wider world. After college Peretz completed his doctorate at Harvard, where he developed a reputation for staging "celebrity parties." (Todd Gitlin says he remembers one for Shelley Winters.)

Peretz and Farnsworth married in June 1967 -- coincidentally, the same month that the Six Day War transformed not only the Middle East but also American liberalism and American Jewry. For the left, the war's legacy became a point of painful contention -- as many liberals and leftists increasingly viewed Israel as having traded its David status for a new role as an oppressive, occupying Goliath. For many American Jews, however, most of whom previously kept their emotional distance from Israel, the emotional commitment to Israel became so central that it came to define their ethnic, even religious, identities. For Marty Peretz, who had been supporting various New Left causes, these two competing phenomena came to a head in September of that year when a "New Politics" convention that he largely funded collapsed amid a storm of acrimonious accusation, much of it inspired by arguments over Israel. The Black Caucus rammed though a resolution condemning the "imperialistic Zionist war," though its members later rescinded the resolution. (What's more, they charged their Palmer House steaks and liquor bills to one Marty Peretz.)

The next major Peretz-Farnsworth investment would be in the 1968 Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, to which the couple was the single largest contributor, with at least $350,000 in donations. Personally and politically devastated by the campaign's collapse, and increasingly alienated from the mushrooming anti-Zionism of much of the new left, Peretz needed something new for him -- and his money -- to do; something in which he could express both his leftist politics and his love of Israel. Enter Gilbert Harrison.

By the late 1960s, TNR had long since lost its cachet as the voice of re-invigorated liberalism -- a cachet that was perhaps best illustrated when the dashing, young President Kennedy had been photographed boarding Air Force One holding a copy. When he sold the magazine to Peretz, Harrison believed he had secured Peretz's promise to let him continue to run the magazine for three years. This plan quickly foundered, however, when Peretz got tired of reading rejection notices for articles he hoped to publish in the magazine at the same time he was covering its losses. Soon Harrison's Queen Anne desk and his John Marin paintings were moved out of the editor's office. Much of the staff, which then included Walter Pincus, Stanley Karnow, and Doris Grumbach, was either fired or chose to resign. The staffers were largely replaced by young men fresh out of Harvard, with plenty of talent but few journalistic credentials and little sense of the magazine's place in the history of liberalism.

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Let's start off with the plus column: "Try, try very hard not to hire anybody who isn't smarter than you, and wiser," Peretz says he promised himself. In this, he notes, he succeeded. He might have added "and more liberal." For in the days when the neoliberal Kinsley and old-fashioned social democrat Hertzberg traded off the magazine's editorship, literary and political giants did indeed walk the TNR hallways. Just 28 and still in law school when he initially took over the magazine, Kinsley's contrarian nature and inimitable example would prod not only The New Republic but an entire generation of pundits in the direction of Mickey Kaus/Jacob Weisberg–style smart-ass neoliberalism.

With Hertzberg's eloquently bleeding heart offsetting Kinsley's merciless head, the magazine prose often sparkled, and the back-and-forth proved genuinely exciting. The magazine unarguably set the terms of debate for insider political elites during the Reagan era -- with Charles Krauthammer charging from the right, backed up by right-wing pooper-scooper (then as now) Fred Barnes attacking liberals; and clueless Morton Kondracke offering up conventional wisdom from every direction at once; responded to by the politically no less polymorphous but intellectually far more engaging Mickey Kaus firing in all directions from the middle; and with Kinsley and Hertzberg, bolstered by a revolving crew of heavy-hitters like Sidney Blumenthal, Robert Kuttner, Ronald Steel, Michael Walzer, and Irving Howe answering from the liberal left. What's more, Leon Wieseltier -- whom Peretz discovered laboring in the vines of Harvard's Society of Fellows -- created a book review section so simultaneously erudite and zestful it probably stands as Peretz's single most significant positive achievement. Amazingly, a full generation later, it still sings.

But for all of the literary pyrotechnics that proved so attractive and influential to so many young writers, it was its purposeful political shift that made The New Republic important again in the real world of power politics. This was the period in which Vanity Fair instructed its readers not to be without "the smartest, most impudent weekly in the country," and the "most entertaining and intellectually agile magazine in the country." Perhaps for the first time in its etymological evolution, the word "schizophrenic" became a term of admiration -- even adoration -- for The New Republic of the 1980s.

Conservatives were particularly enamored of hearing their views in what had, just recently, been their adversary's mouth. Norman Podhoretz termed TNR "indispensable." George Will referred to it as "currently the nation's most interesting and most important political journal." National Review thought it "one of the most interesting magazines in the United States." The Reagan White House had 20 copies messengered every Thursday afternoon. And no wonder. Nothing gave conservatives more pleasure than to begin an argument, or a speech, or, oftentimes, a joke with the words, "Even The New Republic agrees …" For those liberals who refused to come along for the ride -- who continued to pay heed to old-fashioned ideas like the primacy of diplomacy, human rights, and fair elections -- well, history, according to Krauthammer-authored editorials, would prove that they had made "Central America safe for Communism." They could whine in The Nation or hold candlelight vigils with Central American nuns, whatever. History, argued the TNR neocons, had left them behind, and that was that. But by insisting on its liberal bonafides while endorsing conservative causes, TNR offered the Reaganites badly needed intellectual cachet, as then-editor Hertzberg regretfully admitted in the early '90s.

This formula continued to work through much of the '80s, even as the magazine's editors attacked its editorial policies. But when Kinsley left to found Slate and Hertzberg settled back into his earlier home at The New Yorker, the formula began to flounder. The first failed experience came in the form of then–28-year-old "gay Catholic Tory and GAP model" (as his magazine profiles characteristically termed him) Andrew Sullivan, whom Peretz chose in 1991. Under Sullivan the magazine continued to make news, just not in a good way.

The way Peretz describes it, "Andrew Sullivan brought a big dose of cultural originality to the journal." Unfortunately for the magazine during this period, TNR became better known for the scandals it created rather than those upon which it reported. There was young Ruth Shalit's serial plagiarism problem. Upon discovering her transgressions, Sullivan compounded that problem by placing a young man named Stephen Glass -- later to be unmasked as a compulsive fabulist -- in charge of fact-checking. Ideologically Sullivan tossed aside what remained of the magazine's commitment to liberalism -- its domestic policy. Most egregiously, he invited Charles Murray to offer his mixture of racist fear-mongering and pseudoscience in a cover story of more than 10,000 words that argued that blacks were just plain dumber than whites. Sullivan's signature writer turned out to be Camille Paglia, who termed the then-First Lady, "Hillary the man-woman and bitch goddess." And in what would turn out to be the single most influential article published in the magazine during the entire Clinton presidency, Sullivan published a dishonest, misinformed takedown of the president's proposed health care plan by a formerly obscure right-wing think-tank denizen named Elizabeth McCaughey.

In 1996 Peretz chose as Sullivan's replacement the reporter Michael Kelly, who brought to the job of editing what was still considered America's most influential liberal magazine an unequaled animus toward liberals of all stripes, and an obsessive hatred of Bill Clinton in particular. In his inaugural "TRB" column, written shortly after that year's presidential election, the editor of America's most important liberal magazine declared that liberalism had become an "ideology of self-styled saints; a philosophy of determined perversity. Its animating impulse is to marginalize itself and then to enjoy its own company. And to make it as unattractive to as many as possible: if it were a person, it would pierce its tongue." Each week Kelly found something in Clinton's character even more revolting than he'd found the week past. This was naturally a problem for a magazine perceived to be liberal but even more of a problem for Peretz, given the damage it was doing to the presidential ambitions of Al Gore, his onetime Harvard student to whom he remained devoted. Eventually it all became too much, and Kelly -- who was later killed reporting on the American invasion of Iraq -- had to go, too.

Peretz then promoted editor Chuck Lane to replace Kelly and deal with the explosion of anger and derision caused by the exposure of Stephen Glass' defamatory lies. Peretz writes that Lane "put the ship back on its course," for which he was "immensely grateful." Back then, however, he showed his gratitude by firing Lane without bothering to tell him. The 28-year-old Peter Beinart was given the keys to the editor's office, and Lane got the news from a Washington Post reporter who called to inquire about his future plans.

Beinart, though lacking Peretz's obsessiveness with regard to critics of Israel, asserted, with his patron, that the only true liberals were those who embraced the neoconservatives' Middle East policies, most especially their relentless drumbeat for the invasion of Iraq. Those who disagreed were naive at best, and anti-American in effect if not in intent. As the magazine's signal foreign policy voice, TNR editors chose Lawrence Kaplan, who echoed almost entirely the views espoused by his sometime-writing partner, William Kristol at The Weekly Standard. Their point was not merely to make the neoconservative case, but also to undercut the legitimacy of the liberal opposition. Never mind that some of the best arguments against Bush's war could be found in the reporting of TNR's own John Judis and Spencer Ackerman. The magazine's editorial voice treated those who took these arguments to their logical conclusions as dupes, naifs, and, in the words of TNR senior editor (now "TRB" columnist) Jonathan Chait, "deluded by the hope that they can have multilateralism and disarmament without the risk of war."

Later, when the war had plainly become a debacle, Chait would admit his mistake, and, with almost poetic beauty, Beinart would write an apology for his wrong-headedness about the war. But as former American Prospect editor Mike Tomasky pointed out in a TAP piece, Beinart's words of regret read, "as if he'd spent [the run-up to and the first years of the war] on a mountaintop in Tibet instead of editing an influential magazine and cheering on the administration virtually every step of the way -- and accusing war critics, not all of whom (news flash: not even a majority of whom) are anti-imperialist Chomskyites, of ‘intellectual incoherence' and ‘abject pacifism.'"

TNR was not simply wrong about Iraq, it was viciously, nastily wrong. Take a look, for instance, at its treatment of Colin Powell, whom its editors deemed to be insufficiently excited about Donald Rumsfeld's invasion plans. When Powell spoke of the need to find a solution so that Israelis and Palestinians could live in peace, the magazine's editors treated the former general as if he were an underprepared affirmative-action student in a cutthroat Harvard seminar. The editors found "the banality of Colin Powell's address on American foreign policy" to be "breathtaking." The magazine went so far as to accuse Powell of providing "a kind of bizarre ratification of Osama bin Laden's view of the problem." Why? "There is bin Laden attempting to persuade the Muslim world that what he wants is justice for the Palestinians, and here is Powell attempting to persuade the Muslim world that what he wants is justice for the Palestinians." Even to appear to care about "justice for the Palestinians" in TNR World was to give aid and comfort to the terrorist bin Laden.

Beinart left the job last year, and his replacement, Franklin Foer, has made a point of trying to repair the magazine's reputation among liberals. His first editorial apologized for the magazine's role in helping to destroy the Clinton health care program. He told reporters: "We've become more liberal … We've been encouraging Democrats to dream big again on the environment and economics," and insists that the question mark that once addressed the question of "Were we wrong?" when it came to the magazine's support for Bush's Iraq invasion is now gone.

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Nothing has been as consistent about the past 34 years of TNR as the magazine's devotion to Peretz's own understanding of what is good for Israel. It would be theoretically possible, I imagine, to overstate the centrality of Peretz's obsession with the Arab-Israeli conflict to the magazine's politics and to its editorial voice. But take a look at some of the conservatives who've been welcomed into the magazine's pages over the years: Jeane Kirkpatrick, Joshua Muravchik, Eric Breindel, Jacob Heilbrunn, Charles Murray, Irving Kristol, Ed Luttwak, Michael Ledeen, Ronald Radosh, Robert Kagan, and, of course, Barnes, Krauthammer, and Kaplan. It would be odd for a liberal magazine to carry pieces by any of these writers, much less all of them. Could their inclusion possibly be related to the fact that each one of them is closely associated with support for the hawkish Peretzian position on Israel?

Liberals who don't share Peretz's hawkishness on matters Israeli, by contrast, are regularly -- indeed, obsessively -- the objects of Peretz's ire and contempt. Here is just a tiny snippet of his daily musings from his TNR blog, "The Spine":

  • "Zbigniew Brzezinski, an admirer of the Walt-Mearsheimer protocols of the Jewish Lobby … so marginalized that even the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies refused to give him a real professorship." [In fact, the SAIS Web site lists Brzezinski as a "professor of American foreign policy."]
  • "Anthony Lake who … had a curious soft-spot for the Khmer Rouge."
  • "Where are the olive branchers now? James Baker? Lee Hamilton? Jimmy Carter? What a stupid bunch!"
  • "The truth is that no one has ever really cared about the lives of Africans in Africa unless those lives are taken out by whites. No one has cared, not even African Americans like [Jesse] Jackson and [Susan] Rice [the Clinton administration's assistant secretary of state for African affairs]. Frankly -- I have not a scintilla of evidence for this but I do have my instincts and my grasp of his corruptibility -- I suspect that Jackson was let in on the diamond trade or some other smarmy commerce."

It is really not too much to say that almost all of Peretz's political beliefs are subordinate to his commitment to Israel's best interests, and these interests as Peretz defines them almost always involve more war. Ask yourself: Have you ever -- ever -- read an editorial in The New Republic that does not take the Israeli government's side in a dispute? Was Israel wrong to invade Lebanon in 1982? Did it use excessive force during the first or second intifadas? Was it really so smart to destroy Yassir Arafat's encampment while he was inside it? Was last year's invasion of Lebanon a mistake? Was the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas morally unimpeachable? Is it possible that Israel's leaders -- unlike every set of leaders that have ever ruled any nation -- are always right? And is it possible that for the first time in history, two nations -- one, a tiny, beleaguered state in the Middle East, surrounded by hostile countries, the other, a North American superpower, unmenaced on its borders and surrounded by friendly neighbors -- just happen to have interests that are identical in absolutely every situation?

Peretz insists that, yes, the interests of Israel and the United States are indeed identical. "Support for Israel," he claims, "is deep down, an expression of America's best view of itself." Which begs the question of just what "support" entails. For Peretz it has clearly meant support both for the Iraq war and, now, for yet another war against Iran. In a February 5, 2007, cover story entitled "Israel's Worst Nightmare," Israeli writers Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren failed even to mention America's interest in going to war against Iran; they made their case purely on the basis of an allegedly existential and unavoidable threat to Israel.

But regarding such U.S. adventurism, American Jews remain far more dovish than almost any other racial or ethnic group. According to a February 2007 Gallup Organization press release, "An analysis of Gallup Poll data collected since the beginning of 2005 finds that among the major religious groups in the United States, Jewish Americans are the most strongly opposed to the Iraq war." Similarly, a poll recently released by the American Jewish Committee found that only 38 percent of American Jews support American military action against Iran. TNR, meanwhile, has been consistently beating the drums of war.

I have gotten this far and not even gotten to the topic that usually comes up in discussions of Peretz of late, which is his obsessive and unapologetic hatred of Arabs, the evidence of which is visible nearly every day on Peretz's "The Spine." Here are just a few of the choice descriptions Peretz has had occasion to employ in his magazine about assorted Arabs, whether Palestinian, Iraqi, or of the generic variety: They are "violent, fratricidal, unreliable, primitive and crazed … barbarian"; they have created a "wretched society" and are "cruel, belligerent, intolerant, fearing"; they are "murderous and grotesque" and "can't even run a post office"; their societies "have gone bonkers over jihad" and they are "feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) atrocities"; they "behave like lemmings," and "are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all"; and to top it all off, their rugs are not as "subtle" and are more "glimmery" than those of the Berbers.

Trust me, I could go on. As the blogger Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, Peretz's blog is "basically a museum for every anti-Arab/Muslim stereotype and caricature that exists." Nevertheless, as the Prospect's Ezra Klein blogged, "Peretz is rarely held to account, largely because there's an odd, tacit understanding that he's a cartoonish character and everyone knows it."

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My Marty problem -- and ours -- is just this: By pretending to speak as a liberal but simultaneously endorsing the central crusades of the right, he has enlisted The New Republic in the service of a ruinous neoconservative doctrine, as the magazine sneered at those liberals who stood firm in the face of its insults. He has done so, moreover, in support of a blinkered and narrow view of Israeli security that, again, celebrates hawks and demonizes doves. Had the United States or even Israel followed the policies advocated by those genuine liberals whom TNR routinely slandered, much of the horror of the past four years would have been happily avoided -- as most of its editors (but not Peretz) now admit. At the same time, the hard work of coming up with a genuinely liberal alternative to the neoconservative foreign-policy nightmare, an alternative to which TNR might have usefully contributed, remains not merely undone but undermined in the pages of the magazine.

If the sale of TNR had meant liberating liberalism from the burden of Peretz's myriad obsessions and insinuations, TNR's loss of its independence might have been liberalism's gain. Alas, as Peretz himself has pointed out, the Asper family, which controls CanWest, happens to share these exact obsessions, right up to the point of censoring its newspapers' coverage of the Middle East conflict and replacing the word "Palestinian" with the word "terrorist" when it suits the owners' purposes. Peretz will no longer be incurring TNR's losses, but he will remain the Aspers' man at the helm. However much Frank Foer sincerely seeks to recapture the liberalism of the magazine's storied past, Peretz's continued presence will likely continue to push it in a rightward direction.

As a bi-weekly publication on politics and culture, with a lively Web site, The New Republic will remain a welcome presence in the mailbox and on the newsstand. As a political force, however, its influence will likely continue to wane. Unwelcomed by the netroots who distrust its editorial policy and see no reason why they should make special dispensations for Peretz's racism, it will never be as influential in the blogosphere as, say, Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo. And while Wieseltier's back of the book will remain a powerful force in the republic of letters, the work of the magazine's writers will simply rise and fall on their own merit rather than because they were published in a magazine that was once America's most influential independent liberal weekly.

Perhaps a commenter named "Petey" on Ezra Klein's Web site put the point most succinctly: "Peretz is batshit crazy. TNR produces a lot of good stuff. Such are the ironies of life."

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