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Flatiron Hot! News | October 24, 2017

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New Republic Editors Foer, Hertzberg and Publisher Hughes Discuss 100 Years at NY Public Library Panel Discussion

New Republic Editors Foer, Hertzberg and Publisher Hughes Discuss 100 Years at NY Public Library Panel Discussion
Tod Shapiro

By Tod Shapiro, with reporting and research by Eric Shapiro.  Copy edited by the Flatiron Hot! News Editorial Staff

The New Republic, one of the leading progressive opinion journals of this age, or any other, celebrated its long and storied history with an engaging panel discussion at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwartzman Building last Monday evening, October 20th. Current Publisher (and Facebook co-founder) Chris Hughes moderated a lively discussion commemorating the last 100 years of the journal’s history with two former editors who represented the best of two formative eras in the magazine’s illustrious history.

Foerr's Collection of the Best from TNR Archives ...

Foer’s Collection of the Best from TNR Archives …

Fittingly, the only two men to serve two terms each as Editor headlined the evening — no simple trick at TNR, which was famous for its feuds and political backbiting in all of its various eras and incarnations and was notable for the quick turnover of its editors. Hendrick Hertzberg, who served as Editor for two terms under the tempestous ownership of Publisher Martin Peretz in the magazine’s heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, was there to give his take on the times. He was joined by Franklin Foer, also a two-time (and current) Editor whose relationship with the opinion journal spans both the Peretz era, and that of the tech-savvy Chris Hughes, the man who apparently saved the magazine by stepping in and buying the money-losing journal from Peretz a few years back.

Chris Hughes, whose perspective on elite opinion as Facebook co-creator, where anybody can immediately say anything without regard to rank or position and have millions see it, might seem an odd choice to carry on the TNR tradition.  As he said at one point during the evening, ” … the Idea of having to go to an institution to write and have to get the stamp of TNR is not the world I grew up in. You can just go and say something on blog or social media!”

Nevertheless, Chris was emphatic on the point that as a high school student, he was impressed by the high tone of ideas and depth of debate that he sometimes came across, and he was familiar even then with The New Republic as a fountain of liberal ideas and opinion.  He felt it had something to say to the Internet generation, with their tendency to shoot from the hip. He sees it as his task to integrate the TNR tradition with the internet and the power of social media and expand exponentially its reach and its ideas to an extent beyond the imagination of its founders.

Foer reviewed for the audience the role of TNR and the concept of a journal of ideas  by elite writers and thinkers helping to lead and add direction to the nation’s course.  He related its mission since the beginning: The magazine would be centered around high-minded politics, with the need for an affirmative and effective government to stand up to corporations and moneyed interests,  but at the same time, to maintain high cultural standards and promote worthy discussion about  about arts, philosophy and big ideas.

As he gamely told the audience,  ” … Elitism is ‘baked into the cake’ of The New Republic’s history and overall approach … the country overall often seemed to lack a disinterested elite … who were not just politically cultivated but had a grasp of the culture more generally. [TNR] … was in a sense a priesthood where they were attempting to elevate standards for their readers who would in turn elevate standards of the nation as a whole. That seems bizarrely antique! Even though we’ve come so far from it, there is still something in that idea that is worth clinging to .. ”

Hertzberg agreed on this point, and added:  ” … TNR had an aesthetic integrity that The Nation and other liberal publications lacked … TNR was elitist in fact but populist in pretension … The New Republic never claimed to speak for the common man …”  Hertzberg went on to describe the The New Republic, as many have through the years, as employing  “Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends” and at times pursuing progressive goals through a more sophisticated, even elitist lens. TNR, as compared to other Journals of its time, deviated from the faux-populist approach of its contemporaries such as the Nation and its ilk by paying close attention to politics and political institutions. So, The New Republic did not focus on organized labor and left-wing ideologies at the expense of the two-party system and Washington politics, which it continued to see as relevant even when other opinion journals were dismissive.

Foer went on to state that,  “Even today, that distinctive ‘TNR identity DNA’ has not collapsed …  Our goal is to lead conversation …  when we publish pieces now;  it’s still my hope that we can carve out space at the vanguard of opinion and that it will ricochet through NY Times op-ed pages, through TV conversation, through social media channels …”

Foer, naturally, was there to discuss not only his impressions of  his experiences at TNR with his colleagues, but also as part of the commemoration of the magazine’s 100 years, his latest opus, an anthology carefully culled from the TNR’s archives of the best, most trend-setting, and most distinctive of the magazine’s writing dating back to its inception–the appropriately titled “The New Republic:  Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America.”

Foer started out as an intern and associate editor, and felt that fate and posterity had left it to him to tackle the formidable task and publish a TNR anthology for the ages.  Foer reviewed for the audience the immense challenge of sitting in The New Republic offices in their library, with hundreds of bound issues dating back 100 years, filled with the assembled works of intellectual and political heavyweights on all manner of topics – Rebecca West, Walter Lippman, Teddy White, Michael Kinsley, Charles Krauthhammer, Morton Kondracke, Fred Barnes, Stanley Kauffman, Mike Kelly, Sidney Blumenthal, John Judis and the many other illustrious stars in the TNR firmament   – international affairs, literature, music, theater, literary criticism – and winnowing down and selecting a suitable series of pieces that would somehow distill the magazine to its liberal essence – a challenge, indeed!

As Foer told the audience in tones of reverence, ” It is a junkie’s project …  So much of my life had been pointing in the direction of putting this thing together. In my early days [on the project] … I would go through a thousand volumes and pull down and start to read them … the editorial process was a painful exercise because you ended up tossing Faulkner, or Ralph Elison because it’s a limited space that you can work with … ”

In the evening’s discussion, Foer and Hertzberg, at the urging of Hughes, traced the prior history of the magazine and its political outlook from the very beginning, drawing inspiration from the muscular progressivism advocated by Teddy Roosevelt and the journalists that surrounded him.   Foer reviewed for the younger people new to TNR in the audience the magazine’s long history as an outpost of progressive and liberal ideas.

After all, according to Foer, as far back as 1919, TNR, on account of its writers and their perceived progressive reputation, had the  ear of the Wilson administration.  People would look to it to know where the Administration was going.  In fact, the magazine under Peretz and his stable of editors was perceived to be influential with Democratic (and some Republican) administrations in the same way in the 80’s and 90”s.  Peretz in his time found listeners in the conservative and centrist wing of the Democratic Party on issues such as Israel and the Middle East, East-West Relations, and the Third World, often to the chagrin of his young liberal editors and staff writers.

Foer related for the audience some amusing tales and pillow talk of the young Whitney heiress who started the magazine at the tail end of the progressive era, with the help of her fiance and JP Morgan agent Willard Straight, both of whom looked to the progressive theorist Herbert Croly as a guiding light. Croly was a proponent of a strong role for the government  in helping manage America, such that it would serve to help enable society and to apply scientific methods to run it efficiently – a stark challenge to the laissez-faire credo so prevalent at the time.  Not surprisingly. Teddy Roosevelt was a big fan.  The young Dorothy Whitman, having inherited her wealth from her financier father, may well have considered her wealth ill-gotten, and owing to her high ideals, wanted to make up for it by doing good, as Croly suggested.  As a financially independent and attractive young woman of that time, she was a great catch for the right gentleman.

According to Foer, Dorothy lived a bohemian life, unusual for an heiress at that time, and breathed in the ideas and high-minded concepts of the progressive era, perhaps in reaction to her father’s background. She ultimately met a kindred spirit in the young Willard Straight, who came from a modest backgound in upstate New York, and made a name for himself covering the Sino-Japanese War as a reporter, and went on to become an agent for JP Morgan in the Far East. The two intellectuals were a great match, and, of all things, on their honeymoon bonded over the dense progressive policy tome of Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life.  Thus was born The New Republic!

Hertzberg and Foer did not pull punches in their history, being upfront with the magazine’s penchant in the 50’s for being apologists for Communists during and after World War II and the ensuing Cold War era — both had some interesting tales to tell about Henry Wallace and his supporters at the Magazine, as reflected in their articles and positions taken in print at the time, and their utter failure to face up to the realities of the Stalinist past in their analysis of current and future events.

Hertzberg did not try to avoid the long-time criticism of the magazine being an elite, white person’s domain, and that it lacked diversity and outreach to the broader American public.  Hertzberg had this to say:  “The most stinging comment I heard about TNR in my era and which reflects something shameful  …  TNR always had the right liberal opinions about Jim Crow and race, but when we ran a piece critical of The Washington Post’s affirmative action program, it incited Don Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, to retort: “TNR … looking for a qualified black since 1914!’

Hertzberg and Foer went on to comment on the distinctive style and approach that TNR contributed to the genre of opinion journalism starting in the 70s and 80s, as the magazine entered its Golden Age under owner and publisher, Martin Peretz.

Hertzberg and Foer had this to say: ” … The magazine at that time cultivated a deliberately different style than Fleet Street, NY Times writers. or even other opinion journals of that era … there was something  a little amateurish about it; it reflected almost a “school paper” spirit … A little more professionalized in response to democratization of opinion;  more reporting and greater drive to make its op ed essays more intellectually ambitious because we know that there’s so much out there that does what we used to do pretty well.”

Says Hertzberg: “the Blogosphere [today] looks a lot like a variation on the New Republic’s theme … It has partly to do with the fact that Kinsley started Slate which was a new way of being on the web … The best blogs tend to be written in “New Republic” style … the  Blogosphere is in effect a training ground today for The New Republic; so many bloggers have come here …”

Hertzberg had some colorful comments about his two terms in the 70s and 80s, and the internal dissent between the very liberal young editorial staffers, the ever-more-conservative Marty Peretz, and the conflicts between the famous “unsigned” lead editorials of the day and the long articles appearing right after by the liberal staff that took issue with the supposed “party line” of the journal.  As Hertzberg pointed out: “Discerning readers could tell … More controversial editorials were attacked unrelentingly later in the same issue!”  Hertzberg recalled some particularly trenchant battles over Iran-Contra, the Sandinistas, and the Middle East conflict as being emblematic for the times.

The magazine of the 70s and 80s, in the pre-internet age, was notable for its staid, unadorned, conservative layout, but at the same time was alive with sparkling, trenchant and expansive political writing on every topic imaginable.  Particularly with the input and influence of the irrepressible Michael Kinsley and his successors, it wasn’t just a serious magazine, but was witty and mischievous, to say the least.

Hertzberg recalled how the inevitable tension between the unsigned lead editorials and the inside pieces by the more liberal staff pushed everybody to always be on the top of their game and to be ever more persuasive, if not provocative.   According to Herzberg, Peretz had this inevitable tendency to pick as editor somebody that would generate conflict among the luminaries, between himself and the young staff.  According to Hertzberg, you had to defend your ideas, as no matter what piece was assigned and written, somebody was going to not like it.

Hertzberg had this to say about Peretz’ approach :  ” … Marty strove for a certain internal political tension. Marty, who moved steadily to the right, understood that TNR had no meaning or purpose unless it was a voice of liberalism… he took care to have an editor to his left … it made for some stress for those involved but made for a lot of value for the readers … you had to defend your ideas … That upped the quality; one had to make arguments sharply;  be cleverer, be wittier;  Charles Krauthammer was the anti-me, the anti-Kinsley. Politics were about politics … not office politics!  If one recalls the TNR movie “Shattered Glass” as being about crass careerism and empty egotism, nothing was further from the truth … !”

By all accounts, Chris Hughes has every intention (as well as the deep pockets from his Facebook days) to keep the magazine going in the modern era.  Hughes, in a personal discussion with yours truly after the event concluded, was adamant about using the power of social media and the Internet to expand the reach of the magazine beyond its print subscriber base, and he seems to feel that even the elusive “holy grail” of profitability, if not influence, may be within the reach of The New Republic if he can successfully apply modern techniques of internet marketing and exposure.

As Hughes told the audience, in an attempt to show his own effort to carry on the tradition of TNR, but at the same time move it into the Internet age and exponentially expand its reach and influence:  “How do we hold on to values of intellectual, fiery, impassioned debate that no, 300 millions of Americans are not going to read, but say we’re absolutely dissatisfied with having 50,000 print readers or even frankly 3 million digital readers. I can guarantee there are 10 million Americans who would be very interested in the content we’re creating. The way to do this is with social media. We have to tell our stories differently so that people are excited to click on them on Facebook. We need to tell them much faster so we’re in the Twitter stream at a moment when people are curious about a particular topic. And we need to think about things that The New Republic didn’t have to think about decades ago,  like photo-ournalism, Pinterest, and multimedia …  We’ve tried to chart a path to be as cutting edge as possible without losing our brain and what makes us special …”

Hughes and Foer had something to say about their goals and approach with the current Internet and socially enabled variant of TNR that they now preside over:  ” … Digital technology poses a good challenge for magazines like ours. As long as we remain committed to certain animating ideas and ambitions and we are able to maintain … a set of readers devoted to the same vision as we are.   We don’t necessarily want only an attachment to magazines between covers, but to a website and a group of writers  …  We know that when we write something good that has great reporting and great storytelling and an idea that is a breakthrough idea, that idea has unprecedented ability to spread and reinforce our good name in a broader public … It’s a real rush, and the ability to exert influence is unprecedented.”

Nevertheless, Hertzberg, an old-timer and traditionalist, feels that the print version and dead-tree version of the journal, whatever the internet-savvy Hughes says, may well endure: “The great thing about a printed publication is that it’s a private space; you can’t click through. Not part of gigantic web of opinion. It encourages a kind of contemplation. I think there will always be a place for that experience … ”

I think all of the people present on this very informative evening would hope so!  All in all, it was an illuminating and fun evening for the 80-plus people in attendance, and the enthusiasm of the audience and the high level of the discussion during the panel session and the follow-up Q&A with the audience, many of them members of Hughes “Internet” generation, augurs well for a continuation of the TNR mission!