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How Marty Peretz Ran the New Republic
Why even have political allies if you don’t attack them once in a while?
WRITING RECENTLY IN HIS New York magazine column, Jonathan Chait looked back with longing to a time before lefty journalists came to accept a “general, widespread, and (from what I can tell) growing taboo against criticizing fellow progressives—unless, of course, the criticism is for their lack of ideological or political ardor.” His nostalgia is not surprising, given that Chait began his career in 1995 at the New Republic, then owned and edited by Martin Peretz.
During the period Marty (as everyone calls him) was editor-in-chief of the magazine—from 1974, when he bought it, until 2011—it was known as the only major, independent liberal publication that regularly took editorial positions and published articles attacking liberal shibboleths. Between the Reagan presidency and that of Bill Clinton, the publication reached new heights of influence; it enjoyed a substantial general readership among those attuned to American politics as well as among thinkers, activists, and those working in the White House. During the Clinton years it was dubbed, in a phrase that began as mockery but was later used in New Republic ads, as “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One.”
In this scintillating memoir, Peretz writes candidly about the life that took a middle-class Jewish kid from the Bronx to decades in the editor’s chair at a national magazine, and how along the way he became a major player in intellectual life, politics, and business. He became known for taking positions that the Democratic party sought to ignore—for instance, making the case for the dangers of communism; the value of American intervention abroad; and the specific need for the United States to intervene on behalf of populations threatened with destruction, whether in the Kurdish territories, Bosnia, or Kosovo.
Peretz also used his pulpit to argue on behalf of those threatened or oppressed by left-wing totalitarianism, especially in Cuba and Nicaragua, and later in El Salvador and other countries in the region similarly gripped by revolutionary war. Most controversial of all was his decision to make his magazine an unabashed defender of Israel, even when it moved in directions that many liberals began to criticize, and that led some of them to eventually become sharp critics of some Israeli policies or even abandon their support of Israel’s very existence and endorse the BDS movement.
This spring, Peretz joined Paul Berman, Michael Walzer, and Leon Wieseltier—“liberal American Zionists” all—in publishing an open letter in the Washington Post opposing the Netanyahu government’s anti-democratic, Orbán-like policies. They noted their “maximum political support for the Israeli protesters in the streets” who were marching for Israel to remain the “decent and liberal Jewish state that the world needs.” In the care and precision with which it delineated its proper target, the group’s letter offered a reminder of Peretz’s editorship at TNR, where such nuanced and carefully phrased editorial positions were a hallmark.
ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION to politics as recently as the early 2000s will remember the phrase “even the liberal New Republic” trotted out when people were shocked to read something in the magazine that offended their sensibilities, especially when the editorial view coincided with that of some conservatives. One such instance was the magazine’s opposition to Hillary Clinton’s proposed health care plan while her husband was president. Another was the controversial editorial decision made by Peretz and the young, British-born editor Andrew Sullivan to publish an excerpt of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book, The Bell Curve. As Peretz writes, Murray and Herrnstein “made the case that biology and culture were better predictors of success than socioeconomic factors.” They contended that the data revealed that different racial groups have traits that are passed on from one generation to the next, that among them are differences reflected in performance on tests of cognitive ability like IQ tests, that on average whites attained higher scores than African Americans, and that the differences cannot be explained by cultural or socioeconomic causes.
The publication of the Bell Curve excerpt inflamed not only readers but the New Republic’s own editors and staff, who demanded and were granted the right to attack the thesis in the magazine’s later issues. As Peretz admits, “the staff was aghast,” including the magazine’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier (whom Peretz paraphrases as saying “We don’t run Marxists here; we shouldn’t run social Darwinists”) and Wieseltier’s deputy (who had apparently rejected Murray and Herrnstein’s book manuscript when working in a previous job at a major publishing house). Looking back from today’s vantage, Peretz acknowledges perhaps he might have handled it differently, but he still affirms the correctness of his goal, which was to “open a discussion.” That he certainly did. He is correct in noting that while TNR under his stewardship usually prodded the Left, it stayed clear of “embracing the shibboleths of the Right.”
His magazine was also a pioneer in the advocacy of gay rights, famously running a cover story making the case for gay marriage—written by Sullivan, himself gay—in 1989, long before any other influential magazine dared to do so and long before the idea was accepted by most liberal political leaders let alone most Americans. Revealing in his memoir what those who knew him personally already knew, Marty thought of himself as gay, although for decades he had a loving marriage to Anne Devereux Labouisse, heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, who used her wealth to fund liberal social and political causes, as well as to create a unique and respected family psychology center in Somerville, Massachusetts.
PERETZ, AS HE TELLS US, STARTED as a young man of the Left, involved in both the anti-Vietnam War movement and the struggle for civil rights led by Martin Luther King Jr. One of his earliest efforts was to create and fund an event called the National Conference for New Politics, held in Chicago in late August 1967. An attempt to bring together the emerging New Left with the civil rights and anti-war movements, it descended into chaos and extremism as black and white self-proclaimed revolutionaries took it over, destroying the group before it really even got underway. “It was the worst thing I’d ever done,” Peretz writes, and was “the ultimate example of me being too vulnerable to people and causes on the Left.”
Such early examples became a guide for Peretz’s future endeavors, and the lessons he learned in his mid-twenties he was able to use when he bought the old liberal magazine, the New Republic, and began to build it up.
I must note that I am hardly impartial when it comes to Peretz’s accomplishments and important role. When I considered myself a man of the Left, he read something I wrote for the Nation magazine, phoned me about it, and asked me to consider writing for him next time I came up with an idea. Over the years, more of my articles, book reviews, and reporting appeared in TNR than in any other publication. Peretz boldly decided to publish the article on the Rosenberg case that I wrote with Sol Stern in 1979 that the New York Times spiked, making TNR the first publication to question the orthodoxy that the couple were innocent of being spies for the Soviet Union. During the Reagan administration, when I became involved in the controversies over the Central American wars of the 1980s, Peretz twice sent me to report on the situation in Nicaragua, early in the Sandinistas’ rule and then again when they had established full power and were moving in a totalitarian direction.
Peretz also had the knack to appoint to editorial positions many who went on to become major public figures and writers, including Sullivan, Mort Kondracke, Fred Barnes, Charles Lane, Charles Krauthammer, Rick Hertzberg, Jamie Kirchick—and perhaps most important of all, Wieseltier, who today carries on the literary tradition he established at TNR with his own journal of culture and politics, Liberties.
Peretz and TNR were first in the important attempt to try and stop the Democratic party from veering too far to the left and to try and keep it square in the center, sometimes on the left of center and other times to the right. That fight is now carried on in other publications, including here in The Bulwark as well as in the columns by Ruy Teixeira for the Liberal Patriot substack, especially in a recent column in which Teixeira argues for the necessity of Democrats to move away from “cultural leftism” and to stand in the political center where most Americans are. Those who take on this task are, whether they know it or not, standing on Peretz’s shoulders.
His memoir is an engaging read, not only because of the political and personal episodes he relates and the prominent figures who appear but because of its candid spirit of self-reflection and the gossip he dishes out. And anyone curious about Peretz’s thoughts on the turmoil the New Republic went through after his departure will find their questions answered. Here he is on the young billionaire who bought the magazine in 2012 and then crashed it:
Chris Hughes [was] one of the Facebook founders . . . who’d been roommates with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard. They were an odd group, these kids who captured the internet: they didn’t come from very specific traditions or histories. . . . Hughes was the one in the group who knew how to socialize and had managed their public relations. This meant, when we met, that I didn’t dislike him and that he said all the right things about the importance of argument and debate. He was a pleasant man—and I don’t really mean that as a compliment. Shallow, I guess, is the word. . . . I . . . had a small instinct that he wasn’t up to the task intellectually.
It seems, Peretz later adds, “like ‘break shit’ wasn’t a strategy that applied to the world of ideas or those who trafficked in those ideas.”
This section of the book—about TNR under its new ownership and editorial direction, as it became a rather predictable left-liberal magazine—is grim. But it gives us reason to more deeply appreciate what Peretz managed to accomplish during his years at the helm. It is no small thing, running a magazine, sustaining it as staff turns over and political trends shift, and keeping its intellectual spirit open and lively. Marty Peretz managed to do this, and do it at the very highest levels, in the long years he ran TNR.
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