The New Republic’s Super Buzzy, Lefty Upgrade
In December 2014, one of Washington D.C.’s seminal figures was reported dead across all major newspapers, websites, and cable. The old dowager had just made it past her 100th birthday before she collapsed, right after returning from an A-list party hosted by Bill Clinton, who’d been one of her biggest beneficiaries.
Except, it turns out, the rumors of The New Republic’s “death” were greatly exaggerated. Yet, while the venerable magazine remains alive, the TNR that most Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, and early Millennials knew and remembered did die that day, when newish owner Chris Hughes ankled its editorial linchpins, Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier. This was followed by a completely predictable rebellion and spate of resignations from established writer-editors, most of whom had been hired by the magazine’s previous owner, the iconoclastic Beltway icon, Marty Peretz.
Two months later, the “new” New Republic resurrected itself, with eminent Canadian leftist Jeet Heer in the driver’s seat and a buzzy cover story stolidly titled “Whitewash”—a sizzling takedown of the magazine’s complicated racial and social-class history under Peretz’s nearly four-decade tenure. Then the magazine went full-throttle in favor of the Sanders cult, with sometimes frankly Marxist cultural analyses, attacks on Hillary Clinton (from the left), calls for single payer, the $15 minimum wage, resistance to Trump, and opposition to military interventionism.
Hughes’ move was not merely a rebooting or rebranding—it was a repudiation of the magazine’s past. When Peretz acquired the publication in 1974 from its previous owner, historian and author Gil Harrison (who had run it since 1953), Peretz was a youngish Harvard instructor married to the svelte Singer heiress Anne Farnsworth. Marty and Anne had once defined “radical chic,” lavishly funding Eugene McCarthy’s anti-Vietnam War campaign in 1968 and initially romancing the Black Panthers. But by the time of his New Republic purchase Peretz personified the old joke about the definition of a conservative—“a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.” He supported Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984. “I bought The New Republic to take back the Democratic Party from the McGovernites,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2012.
Ironically, Peretz cleaned house as ruthlessly as Chris Hughes did decades later. He threw Gil Harrison and his prized artwork out of the offices in January of 1975, then unceremoniously fired award-winning writers such as Stanley Karnow, Walter Pincus, and Doris Grumbach. He replaced them with young Boomers (and a few pre-Boomers) such as Mort Kondracke, Roger Rosenblatt, Fred Barnes, Steve Wasserman, Charles Krauthammer, Hendrik Hertzberg, Nicholas Lemann, Sidney Blumenthal, Leon Wieseltier, and his most important find, 25-year-old Harvard lawyer Michael Kinsley, whom he “installed” in charge in December of 1976. If William F. Buckley Jr. sought to reform and update the conservative movement with National Review in the 1950s, Peretz was just as redoubtable in his goal to remake Democratic liberalism in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Not until Roger Ailes joined Fox would an editor exert the kind of ideological tone-policing that Peretz proudly did at TNR.
During the 1980s and ’90s, The New Republic’s rise mirrored that of neoliberalism (a philosophy for which it became the definitive journalistic exponent), alongside yuppie New Democrats such as Gary Hart, Joe Klein, Larry Summers, Al From, Al Gore, and an Ivy-educated Arkansas power couple named Bill and Hillary Clinton. As our own Scott McConnell pointed out at the time of the Hughes purge, The New Republic was the liberal funhouse-mirror reflection of an even bigger exodus that took place in the Democratic Party after New Left figures such as George McGovern and Jesse Jackson began ruling the roost.
Many of the older “neoconservatives” of the Reagan and both Bush administrations had been Truman/JFK Cold War liberals (some of whom had flirted with Marxism-Leninism in their youth). Once the Vietnam War (and the Pinochet takeover of Chile) ended virtually all support on the left for “imperialist” U.S. interventions, these foreign policy hawks (with which Peretz, Charles Krauthammer, and Leon Wieseltier were very much in accord) left for Team Republican. As part of these foreign policy views, Peretz and his colleagues pressed a strong pro-Israel sentiment.
Indeed, writers such as Eric Alterman, David Ehrenstein, and Thomas Frank were livid that Peretz presumed to issue the final word not just on liberalism but on Judaism as well.
Jacob Heilbrunn, in his excellent Politico set piece, “The Myth of the Liberal New Republic,” points out that Peretz and Wieseltier had an “aesthetic revulsion” to the Republican Party. It was so white-bread, so veiledly anti-Semitic in its past, so airheaded, the kind of party whose idea of zesty ideological ferment was Rose Nylund and June Cleaver bringing their famous potato salads to the country club picnic. The Republicans were even more unpalatable to TNR’s two signal editors—a wisecracking Jewish atheist who attacked supply-siders from the right (Kinsley never believed that tax cuts for the rich, or anyone else, paid for themselves), and an openly gay British reform Catholic working at the height of the Religious Right and the AIDS crisis.
The magazine was openly pro-choice and ran articles on gay marriage as far back as 1989, making TNR seem not just liberal but radical, and utterly unacceptable to the Assembly of God and Southern Baptist sets. Just as the neoconservatives felt forced out by the Democrats as anti-war sentiments and affirmative action took hold, the neoliberals became determined to remake the Democratic Party by insisting on ditching “outdated” New Deal assumptions and going full-bore for socially liberal, highly educated, high-income professionals in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Wall Street.
While all this was going on, African-Americans and Latinos were incensed that—while it was the era of The Cosby Show and The Jeffersons in the wider world—at the “liberal” New Republic you could count the regular contributors of color most weeks and have five fingers left over. And the atmosphere was so overwhelmingly and unashamedly (young white) male, Hendrik Hertzberg used to jokingly call the TNR newsroom “The Gymnasium.” Harvard lecturer Peretz was a stickler for snob college and/or prep school credentials and played a central role in the “professionalization” of journalism from its grubby front-page roots (and its Midwestern mid-century Walter Cronkite-ism) into a playpen of wisecracking “coastal elites.” University of Kansas grad Thomas Frank ruthlessly satirized The New Republic in Salon as a place where sheltered young Ivy know-it-alls would “exercise the prerogatives of their class” by sliding into “ready-made” positions of power where they would “pantomime seriousness” while “trolling” the real left.
Indeed, Peretz and Kinsley transformed the stodgy Washington insider into a brash, impudent, ironic, and irreverent voice that no other “serious” journal dared to match in those pre-cable/pre-Twitter days. Kinsley held “Boring Headline Contests,” wrote SCTV-style sketches spoofing pompous public affairs television shows (with “Agronsky & Company” renamed “Jerkofsky & Company”), and encouraged op-ed writers to use the flip, cheeky style of Harvard Lampoon, “Weekend Update,” the Smothers Brothers, and David Letterman.
But beneath Kinsley’s velvet glove was an iron fist. He seemed to regard factory workers and cops as backward-thinking Archie Bunkers and despised public employee/teachers’ unions as much as any writer at National Review. He supported free trade (and later NAFTA) as a “moral issue,” according to Wieseltier, and he believed that Social Security, Medicare, and municipal and union pensions needed to be brought to heel. Most importantly, Kinsley agreed utterly with Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan, and Margaret Thatcher—three of his all-time favorites—that the stagflation of the late 1970s and early ‘80s was directly due to greedy labor unions and “beat the price increase!” panic buying, and needed to be clamped down on remorselessly, notwithstanding the impact on working families, people of color, and small businesses.
Kinsley took such a hard line against old Democratic shibboleths that William Buckley invited him to be a sometime sidekick on Firing Line, while Reagan and Bush figures called the magazine “indispensable.” Kinsley joked that the magazine should change its name to “even the liberal New Republic,” reflecting the many times conservatives cheered its Third Way policy prescriptions. When TNR celebrated its 70th anniversary in 1984, the VIP guests included Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Pat Buchanan, while future public-option foes and pro-Iraq War Democrats such as Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman would become fixtures on TNR’s social circuit.
That year Sidney Blumenthal positively gloated over Walter Mondale’s blowout, famously branding it as “The Passing of the Passe.” Four years later, Ben Wattenberg would write an even more blistering takedown of Michael Dukakis’s landslide loss, calling it “The Curse of Jesse [Jackson].” And when Andrew Sullivan, openly gay, Catholic, Thatcher Tory, took the helm in 1991, TNR doubled down on “trolling the Left,” with cover stories that today seem worthy of a champagne-sipping Pepe the Frog meme. There was 1991’s “The REAL Face of Rap” (the “real face” being that of a blond, preppy teen outside of what appeared to be a golf course). Then came the attacks by conservative writer Betsy McCaughey against Hillarycare in 1993-94, followed by the controversy over Charles Murray’s 1994 bestseller, The Bell Curve. Finally came the piece d’resistance: 1996’s “DAY OF RECKONING” cover—bordered in blood red with a cigarette-smoking “Precious and Mary” black welfare queen—where the editors demanded that President Clinton sign Newt Gingrich’s welfare reform bill.
None of this would have been particularly remarkable in the pages of National Review or The American Spectator. But what made The New Republic sui generis was that it took these positions while proudly, even aggressively, touting itself as the arbiter of acceptable liberal Democratic dialogue. TNR was a living rebuke to other opinion-meisters such as The Nation, Mother Jones, In These Times, and NPR’s Democracy Now!, which more-or-less stayed with New Deal liberalism and 1960s-style idealism.
But pride goeth before a fall. After Andrew Sullivan left (on very unpleasant terms), TNR began breaking down like a once-great athlete confronted with the unexpected onset of old age. Star writers Ruth Shalit and Stephen “Shattered” Glass were revealed to have committed plagiarism and made up stories. Peretz’s best friend and former student Al Gore was humiliated in his 2000 run for the Presidency—denied victory because of Ralph Nader’s Bernie Sanders-like attack from the left. Monica, OJ, JonBenet, and the rising phenomenon of reality TV erased the line between tabloidism and “serious” news, while the Internet began destroying the print-magazine business model. And when TNR offered full-throated support for Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan interventions after 9/11—while capital-L liberals stood in opposition—whatever credibility the magazine had as The Voice of Liberalism finally collapsed. As far as left-wing voices were concerned, TNR’s neoliberalism and George W. Bush-style neoconservatism had now become practically one and the same.
By 2007, Ezra Klein and David Brooks were writing about “The Vanishing Neoliberal,” and TNR’s circulation fell to almost half of what it had been during its Reagan and Clinton heyday. After taking a bath with the economic meltdown, Peretz sold the magazine (after off-and-on limited partnerships from 2007-11) to Chris Hughes, and retired for good in 2012. Little more than two years after that, Facebook cofounder Hughes and his fellow Millennial-savvy editor Gabriel Snyder finally hit the reboot button. (The magazine was sold to Win McCormack last year.)
Indeed, one might say that there was simply no room left on the Left anymore for “even the liberal” New Republic. The death of the Peretz TNR and the rise of Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Black Lives Matter, the Democratic Socialists of America, Jeremy Corbyn, Chapo Trap House, The Young Turks, Mr. Robot, and Jacobin magazine were all but simultaneous. And the very concept of today’s Hamilton Fish V/Jeet Heer-edited TNR publishing someone like Sidney Blumenthal, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Kinsley, or Charles Murray is almost as unimaginable as Stephen Bannon and Rush Limbaugh hosting a happy homecoming for Hillary.
No one knows this better than proud TNR alum Jonathan Chait, who has emerged as perhaps the top (white male) tone-policeman of (neo) liberals versus The Left, as he illustrated in his recent New York magazine piece, “How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult.”
It’s tempting to say that as much as the magazine has changed over the past few years, things have stayed the same. No matter the era, just as it has done for the last full century, TNR is still carving itself out a spot at the center of the Democratic action. During and after World War I and in the 1920s and ’30s The New Republic lived up to its title, that early era of Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and Edmund “Bunny” Wilson, as it charted the course for what became “the American Century.” During the magazine’s darkest days when Communist sympathizers and straight-up subversives like Malcolm Cowley and Michael Whitney Straight were in the driver’s seat, the magazine pushed past the edge of liberalism into sometimes-destructive radicalism. And during Gil Harrison’s long heyday from 1953 to 1975, the magazine told who, where, what, and why JFK’s youthful, optimistic New Frontier faded into the dark, grainy black of race riots, Vietnam, and Watergate. It was appropriate that Gil Harrison’s two decades at TNR went off the air at the exact same time that the long-running celebrity game show What’s My Line? ended its quarter-century run—during Harrison’s heyday, The New Republic was the What’s My Line? of opinion journals—contrasting high-minded stories about the bread-and-butter concerns of everyday people, muckraking investigations into scandals and foreign policy, all while basking in mid-century “society” glamour.
Some might say that post-Peretz, the magazine simply reverted to type. Once again (as it did under Harrison), the magazine is more often following rather than leading the trends in Democratic and liberal thought. Meanwhile, its love letters to the Bernie Bro and Millennial Marxist movements and its attacks on Hillary and the Democratic establishment from the left, instead of from the right, bring back memories of its decidedly radical days in the ’30s and ’40s. But Peretz, Kinsley, and Sullivan so totally defined and redefined The New Republic—and an entire generation of journalists and politicians influenced by it—that it is their legacy that still remains the definitive one for the magazine. From 1975 to 2014 (not coincidentally the era that historians Sean Wilentz and Gil Troy christened the twin “Ages” of Reagan and the Clintons), The New Republic was as indispensable an idea factory for “New Democrats” as the Heritage Foundation and Fox News were for Republicans. And as science itself teaches us, for every action, there will always be an equal, and opposite, reaction.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War. He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series Pioneers of Television.