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A Skimmer, Not a Plumber

Martin Peretz’s memoirs are an exercise in shallowness.

Martin Peretz Gesturing in His Magazine Office
(Getty Images)

The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left, Right, and Center, by Martin Peretz, Wicked Son, 336 pages.

The first thing most people remember about Martin Peretz, the longtime owner and editor-in-chief of The New Republic, is a dust-up that almost seems quaint now. In 2011, Peretz wrote on his blog, The Spine, which he used mostly to bolster American support for Israel, that “Muslim life is cheap” and “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment.” 


I say quaint because, on the one hand, hardly anyone writes in such a blunt way anymore, and on the other, thinking in this manner is commonplace. Much public debate now is conducted like this: It assumes the same form of glib, thoughtless, and caustic generalizations. In any case, 2011 was a different country—most of us were caught up in Barack Obama’s heady first presidential term—and the incident marked the end of Peretz’s career as a public figure. A few weeks later, he was shouted down by Harvard students at a dinner in his honor (“Racist fool!”), and, the following year, he regretfully sold his magazine and essentially retired.

More than a decade later, Peretz is back to set the record straight with a memoir, The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left, Right, and Center, in which he settles old scores and makes a case for what he calls “humanized technocracy,” the idea that “smart people who came up through and eventually ran the institutions”—Harvard and The New Republic, in his case—“could make the country better, could save it from extremes.” 

The book is a fascinating document, and, in its way, the definitive history of one of the two great political magazines Washington, D.C., produced in the twentieth century. (The other magazine is The Weekly Standard.) But, as I am sure Peretz is well aware, his history makes a case against his own ideals; far from humanizing the Left, The New Republic and Harvard in the second half of the last century nurtured two whole generations of soulless, social-climbing, and ultimately disappointing technocrats, who, once they had learned all the tricks they could from the likes of Peretz, dispensed with him roughly.  

There is a fundamental bitterness underlying The Controversialist, and that is in large part its attraction. Peretz has lived a long, varied life, divided among Cambridge, New York, and Washington, D.C. (He also maintains a residence in Tel Aviv.) By his own admission, “one of my greatest flaws is I remember everything,” so he has a lot of gossip. Some of it is benign: he presents the ancient Martin Buber as casually flirting with Susan Sontag at Brandeis—“Young lady, come sit here next to me.” Some of it, in a petty way, is belligerent: he speculates that Hillary Clinton personally uninvited him from state dinners honoring Václav Havel and Ehud Barak. And some of it is just bizarre, as when he defends his old friend Leon Wieseltier from accusations of sexual impropriety: “When you’re as much of a genius as Leon, you get to live in a fantasy world, at least for a while.”

Wieseltier gets off easy because Peretz respects his work and intellect. He also lays off—and even praises—Andrew Sullivan, Michael Kinsley, Charles Krauthammer, and, weirdly, the fabulist Stephen Glass. Other friends and colleagues are not so lucky. Out of his deep memory, Peretz dredges up ugly reminiscences of pretty much every swamp creature who has swum through the national aquarium in the past fifty years. 


The worst of it is reserved for his former staffers. Michael Kelly, who was killed while covering the war in Iraq, was a “nut.” Peter Beinhart, who edited The New Republic during the early Aughts, was “the most self-absorbed person I’d ever met.” And Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder to whom Peretz sold the magazine in 2012, was “a pleasant man—and I don’t really mean that as a compliment.”

But looming over all the gossip is Peretz’s catalog of disappointments. There are many. His own father, of course, was the first, but Julius Peretz was little more than a brute terror. Walter Lippmann, one of the founders of The New Republic, practically on his deathbed urged Peretz to abandon Zionism, a fatal offense. Peretz’s professor at Brandeis, Herbert Marcuse, once a hero, turned out to be a communist sap. (The two had a falling out over the correspondence section of Ramparts.) Norman Mailer wasn’t much better. The great prophet of sexual liberation had become so diminished in Peretz’s eyes near the end of his life that when the two met in a coffee shop, Peretz smirked at him, and Mailer, sensing, rightly, a judgmental bearing, socked him in the gut. 

The most painful of Peretz’s disappointments, however, are those that came from people younger than him, the ones whom he had mentored and trained to carry on his project of humanized technocracy. Samantha Power is the prototypical example. In the late Nineties, Peretz had such high hopes for her: She was writing essays on foreign policy that were “brave, motivated, intellectual, dazzling, and idealistic but rooted in reality.” 

Power collected them in a book, and, after many publishers turned down the manuscript, Peretz used the magazine’s publishing arm to bring them out in 2002 as A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which won the Pulitzer and became a classic in its genre. But only a decade later, Power, as ambassador to the United Nations, shocked Peretz when she did not protest the Obama administration’s pussy-footing in Syria. “I was so disappointed in her,” Peretz writes. “She had written the book, and now she was fronting for an administration that had failed in exactly the ways she’d laid out.” But, Peretz sighs, that’s how it is now. Power kept her head down because she was one of “the achievers,” and ultimately, for that set, personal advancement is more important than civic duty.

Much to his dismay, Peretz finds this tendency abounding in the Boomers and Gen Xers he trained either at Harvard or The New Republic. The point of his classes and of the magazine had always been to host the debates that enliven a liberal society. “We thought totalisms were the worst thing there was,” he writes of the magazine. “And we thought maintaining a society of multiplicity meant taking a firm line against totalisms, wherever, whenever, and in whatever guise they existed.” 

But when the Clintons and the New Democrats came to power in 1992, many of Peretz’s former acolytes turned out to be the very thing he feared: absolutists, who, having realized that the liberalism of the Sixties was a dead end, embraced a new ideology of bland managerialism, cloaked in the language of popular culture. 

The worst offender, of course, was Bill Clinton himself, whom Peretz characterizes as a man who “didn’t care much for history,” and who was “shallow and needy; he thought in images, in photo-ops.” But his staffers and boosters were almost as bad too. John Podesta and Sidney Blumenthal, for instance, the latter of whom was a New Republic staffer, were little more than vain careerists, the representatives of everything tinsel surrounding the administration. “To call them disappointments was an understatement,” Peretz writes. The only one of the New Democrats for whom Peretz reserves praise is Al Gore, one of the few real humanist technocrats (and long Peretz’s favorite student), in his eyes, the tragic hero of the Nineties.   

When he looks back on his career in politics, Peretz, unlike many memoirists, is able to diagnose almost exactly what went wrong. It wasn’t a problem with liberalism or with his intentions. It was simply that he never sat down and seriously reflected on his decisions or their consequences. While he was engaging in free and open debate for its own sake, many of his students were discovering that speech, when used artfully, is more powerful as a weapon. (Hillary Clinton once famously claimed she would “crush” those who spoke out against the Clinton health care bill.) 

And the most clever soon discovered that speaking artfully doesn’t actually require all that much knowledge; all that is needed is glossy, magazine-grade confidence. And Peretz admits freely that he is to blame for imparting these sensibilities on his followers (and, I add, the readers of his magazine). Early on in college, his professor Frank Manuel told Peretz that he was “skimmer not a plumber”—a compelling, but shallow thinker. “I never forgot these words of his,” Peretz writes. “Alas, they were true.”

In the end, Peretz draws up a ledger dividing good and bad in what he sees as his legacy. On the good side, through Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic was the first and most eloquent voice in the fight for gay marriage (Peretz is gay himself). The publication of The Bell Curve was also a point of satisfaction, as was torpedoing Hillarycare (even if the actual article that did the deed was riddled with error). So was the publication of A Problem from Hell, even though Samantha Power turned out to be a flake. And then of course, there is everything the magazine said and did for Israel, which Peretz regards as his life’s major achievement.

On the bad side, the ledger is less filled out. Peretz regrets that the magazine didn’t publish more on racial issues. He also feels badly about supporting the war in Iraq, though he sees that blunder more as a matter of misplaced faith in the Bush administration than of principle. This is a short list of shortcomings. I feel duty-bound to lengthen it a bit. Peretz recalls that just nine days after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, he and Wieseltier signed an open letter to the president, urging greater American involvement in the Middle East. The letter was drafted by Bill Kristol. Peretz writes that it was published in the Washington Examiner, which anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of D.C. publications knows cannot be the case (the Examiner was founded in 2005). And anyone with a little understanding of internet caching knows how Peretz made that mistake (the Examiner now hosts The Weekly Standard’s archives). But why should we expect diligence from a dilettante? He was always a skimmer, not a plumber.