Martin Peretz in the early 70s, just before he bought The New Republic with his wive’s millions
Back in late 1987 I got a Bard College alumni newsletter informing me that Leon Botstein had added Martin Peretz to the board of trustees. Up until that point I had been a Botstein supporter but this announcement left me feeling betrayed. I wrote Leon a letter calling attention to the New Republic’s support for contra funding. As president of the board of Tecnica, a solidarity organization that recruited volunteers to work in Nicaragua, I pointed out that his editorials had led to the destruction of Nicaraguan schools.
Of course, Botstein made a shrewd decision in recruiting Peretz. His deep pockets would not only help keep the New Republic afloat; they would also help facilitate Botstein’s empire-building ambitions. As is the norm in American society, everything has a price tag—including liberal magazines and colleges. Peretz’s millions allowed him to turn the New Republic into a neoconservative outlet on foreign policy and a neoliberal one on domestic policy. They also gave Botstein the power he needed to help Bard College shake its reputation as “the little Red whorehouse on the Hudson”, as red-baiting gossip columnist Walter Winchell once put it—the very reason I am grateful for the education I received there in the early 60s.
For most of the twentieth century, The New Republic (TNR) and The Nation magazines were the lodestones of American liberalism. I have written about The Nation in the past but virtually nothing about TNR, mostly as a function of so few people having illusions that it spoke for American liberalism after Peretz’s takeover in 1974.
For all those upset with Chris Hughes buying the magazine and turning it into his personal toy, they obviously are not aware that this exactly what happened in 1974 when Peretz fired a bunch of people who were deemed obstacles to his rightwing turn.
When Peretz took over, the editor was Gilbert Harrison, whose politics were much more like those of The Nation. In 1968, Harrison ran editorials backing Eugene McCarthy for president rather than the warmongering Hubert H. Humphrey and even called for the creation of a new political party to be headed by McCarthy. In the early 1970s, there were people like Walter Pincus writing about Watergate and Stanley Karnow on foreign policy. That outlook resonated with an American public fed up with the status quo, so much so that the magazine’s circulation rose to about 100,000. It was a weekly at the time. Now that it is a biweekly, the circulation is only about a half.
That obviously reflects the public’s distaste for a magazine that promotes imperialist war abroad and austerity at home. In order for Peretz to force such an agenda on the magazine, heads had to roll—starting with the illustrious Gilbert Harrison who had refused to publish the articles that Peretz had submitted. He was the first to go. As the wretched Eric Alterman wrote, this caused the same kind of rebellion that Chris Hughes now faces:
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.
The New Republic’s new editor became notorious after announcing that he intended to “break stuff”. I doubt that he will do anything much different than what Peretz did after taking over. After all, as A.J. Liebling once said, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.
Out of curiosity, I decided to browse through back issues of TNR, courtesy of my Columbia University paywall privileges, to see the route it has taken since being founded in 1914 by Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl and Walter Lippmann. Lippmann, a principled liberal at the time, projected the magazine as an alternative to the NY Times, which he would view three years hence as writing biased attacks on the USSR. Like Lippmann, Weyl and Croly were public intellectuals associated with the Progressive movement. In order to put their ideas into practice, they needed someone with deep pockets to help launch the new magazine. That came from Willard Straight, the husband of Dorothy Whitney who inherited a fortune from her father William, a scion of the Whitney clan whose wealth came from steel, banking and steamships. This was pretty much how the Nation got started as well, from generous contributions from Henry Villard, a railroad robber baron.
In the very first issue, published on November 7, 2014, there’s a lengthy editorial defining the orientation and goals of TNR. In a sign that not much has changed in the last century, it includes a pitch for the minimum wage:
Skipping ahead a few years to 1920, we discover a critique of NY Times coverage of the civil war in Russia that was very likely written by Walter Lippmann, given his unhappiness with the newspaper’s bias. In terms of things not changing much over a hundred years, this is the same complaint aired today in places like CounterPunch or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
To its credit, TNR published a number of articles by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. While the magazine was home to Stalin apologists like Walter Duranty and Malcolm Cowley, it was even-handed enough to publish Trotsky, who was persona non grata in New Deal circles.
I suppose that when one hand giveth, the other taketh away. On March 23, 1938 Heywood Broun wrote an attack on Trotsky that was about as slippery and mendacious as they come. Broun, by the way, was a member of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1930s and close friends with the Marx brothers. Maybe his article was a Roland Boer type joke. Who knows?
Finally, moving ahead to the 1960s, we end on a high note. Among those writing for TNR was Andrew Kopkind, a reporter that Alexander Cockburn once described as “the greatest journalist of his time”. The author of dozens of articles, Kopkind was a sharp critic of American society and a brilliant writer.
I shared that excerpt from Kopkind’s article on the first antiwar demonstration back in 1965 not so much because I agree with his analysis but because it reflects an outlook widespread on the left, namely that the SWP was not entirely open and transparent about its intervention in a movement that shook America to its foundations. I’d like to think that if someone more amenable to Kopkind’s approach were now in charge of TNR, it would be worth a subscription as Greg Grandin advised Nation magazine readers. Maybe so, I’ll just have to wait and see.