Archive: “Farewell to The Public Interest”

(From the April 25, 2005, Weekly Standard)
AN OLD WOODEN DESK SITS in my basement, on which I write and edit, with the washing machine on one side and the hot-water heater on the other. It’s too square and bulky for a cubicle, a little too large to be carried straight through a doorway. It’s also missing a couple of pulls–the screw-holes don’t conform to today’s sizes–and a few other parts cry out for minor repairs. But this piece of furniture was never destined for the showroom, though it did become a distinguished prop on history’s stage–for on its surface Irving Kristol scribbled away as he, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and assorted friends and colleagues launched and steered the most important political quarterly of the last half-century, The Public Interest.

The PI, as we alumni call it, closes this month after 40 years of excellence. By the time I went to work there in 1996, most of its major battles had been fought and many of them won. Yet serious intellectual work was still under way. I remember entering the PI offices for my job interview and taking the place in like a farm boy seeing Paris for the first time. To my right, past several tall bookcases of back issues, sat a couple of pale young men, executive editor Adam Wolfson and managing editor Jason Bertsch, half-hidden in the piles of books, newspapers, and magazines. Straight ahead was my favorite living American intellectual, Irving Kristol, probably smoking a cigarette and talking to his broker on the phone. (These he did so regularly that he continues to do them in my mental picture of him.)

This place–the offices of the definitive anti-utopian policy journal–looked to me then like Paradise. My job interview, with the entire four-person staff, took place over lunch. Irving prodded with questions, clipped and staccato. “What are you reading?” I mentioned Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses, which started us talking about Rudy Giuliani and New York. “Where in Queens do you live?” “Douglaston,” I said, which is a suburban neighborhood just inside the city line. “Farm country,” said Irving.

Still, the conversation went well enough that I became convinced he was going to make me an offer on the spot. But as he paid for lunch, Irving grew suddenly restrained. “We’ll let you know in seven to ten days.” I was dismissed, like some petitioner at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

It turns out I had gotten off easy. After Adam Wolfson called and offered me the job, I learned that Irving usually asked applicants a two-parter. “What was your GPA?” he’d wonder. The applicant, inevitably the star of his Ivy League political science department, would just as inevitably be a hair shy of straight A’s. Irving would then inquire, “Why not a 4.0?” I’m glad he didn’t ask me, because I would have had to confess to a string of B’s and, as to why, could only have pleaded laziness, perhaps a certain lack of aptitude, romantic distractions. On all these fronts, I was about to get an education.

My first task as assistant editor was to proofread Leon Kass’s “The End of Courtship,” a 9,000-word requiem for the practice of “wooing” and other traditional forms of gentlemanly conduct toward the fair sex. Not to diminish the many merits of this essay, but to me it was like taking a long car ride with a brilliant man who’s definitely got my number (child of divorce, serial monogamist) and spends the whole trip imploring me to change.

Pop music critics nowadays like to praise “songs that changed your life” (in the words of Morrissey of The Smiths, an expert in his way, though not often cited in The Public Interest). I know the feeling, but in my case the songs were essays like Kass’s, demanding that the reader face up to man’s “shame at our needy incompleteness, unruly self-division, and finitude” and feel “awe before the eternal” and “hope in the self-transcending possibilities of children and a relationship to the divine.” This really put a crimp in my plans for an extended and lively bachelorhood. “For a human being to treat sex as a desire like hunger–not to mention as sport–is then to live a deception.” Even now that I am a husband and a father, when I reread this essay, I find myself thinking very hard about my responsibilities as a man. At the time, however, my reaction was quite different. I said to the managing editor, “After this, we should go out, find a bar, and meet some liberated chicks.”

IN MOURNING FOR The Public Interest, I have been hanging around its offices (now in downtown Washington, after a 1988 move from New York) and rereading early issues, trying to tease out the journal’s editorial secret. Although its reputation rests largely on essays by social scientists exploring why the War on Poverty and other ambitious federal programs of the 1960s did not produce their intended results, the contents were always livelier than the sober, all-type covers suggested. The contributors were overwhelmingly academic, but the writing wasn’t. It was direct, usually informal, sometimes journalistic, sometimes even literary.

This, perhaps, should not be surprising. Before starting The Public Interest, Irving Kristol coedited Encounter magazine with the English poet and critic Stephen Spender, creating (unwittingly with the help of CIA financing) one of the great intellectual journals of modern times. Kristol’s bound volumes of Encounter are still in the PI offices. Leafing through the early issues, you can see America’s most important postwar political essayists cohabiting on the table of contents with England’s most illustrious novelists and poets. Next to Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol sit the bylines of W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, P.G. Wodehouse, and Evelyn Waugh. Like Encounter, the early issues of The Public Interest suggest that one secret to being a great editor is remaining on friendly terms with great writers. The obviousness of this point, I hope, does not detract from its truthfulness.

The original coeditor of The Public Interest, Daniel Bell, was by the early ’60s also an intellectual of some stature thanks to his 1959 collection of essays, The End of Ideology, which showed many of the qualities that would distinguish The Public Interest–and not merely the book’s famous jettisoning of Marxism. Bell, a veteran of Fortune magazine, took a journalistic interest in the major news stories, to which he brought a highly analytic approach rarely seen outside the academy. In the 25-page “Crime as an American Way of Life,” he debunked the myth of an organized crime syndicate controlling the vice trade nationwide (the Mafia) by closely examining the Kefauver Commission report and delving into the unique features of Italian immigration that contributed to the mythologizing of Italian-American criminality. A book review in issue ten of The Public Interest referred to postwar “academic sociology and its vulgate tongue, middle-brow journalism.” Bell spoke both eloquently.

Kristol and Bell established an editorial system that, above all, let intellectuals be intellectuals: showy, disputatious, charming, brilliant. Daniel Patrick Moynihan could indulge in the first person, wax poetic here, wonkish there, then insert a long passage quoting himself, and get away with it. Never restrained, always winning, his essays in the early issues, like most everything else he penned, still read well.

But the true signature of the journal’s tolerance for loose, complicated writing was in the authors’ use of quotations. I do not mean the many lines of Machiavelli and Aristotle and Lord Salisbury that graced Irving Kristol’s essays (and many others, too); rather, the generous use of documentary evidence, excerpts so long that in another publication they’d be mistaken for articles. The entire first page of an exceptional 1971 essay on the literature of women’s lib by the English journalist Henry Fairlie is given over to a passage from one of Rilke’s letters to a young poet, and almost the entire fourth page is occupied by two longish passages from first-person accounts of the women’s struggle. The exceedingly sympathetic Fairlie concluded that women’s liberation had already been granted (in the writings of Rousseau and elsewhere), while “the movement” actually denied what was truly feminine in women by demanding equality in all things.

Which brings up another distinguishing characteristic of the early Public Interest: a tolerance for eccentricity, especially in writers’ choice of subjects. If Daniel Bell’s interest in the Mafia was a little surprising, consider that the PI, while Bell was coeditor, published two additional essays on the subject, one an exceptional high-wire performance by Gordon Hawkins, the Australian criminologist, comparing arguments for the existence of God to arguments for the existence of the Mafia. “In the end it is difficult to resist the conclusion,” wrote Hawkins, “that one is not dealing with an empirical phenomenon at all, but with an article of faith, transcending the contingent particularity of everyday experience and logically unassailable.”

A 1966 essay on journalism by Kristol looked into how the legacy of muckraking and a devotion to amateurism undermined “the greatest newspaper ever,” the New York Times. Reporters tended to have little expertise in the subjects they covered, while careers were made by splashy but ultimately trifling stories about public officials’ minor or even nonexistent conflicts of interest. Editorials functioned as royal pronouncements, rarely condescending to bother with evidence or reasoning. More than its findings, many of which still ring true, the triumph of the essay lies in Kristol’s amused and urbane tone: A copy should be sent to every right-wing crank who has ever used the acronyms MSM (mainstream media) or LMB (liberal media bias) to show how a sophisticated understanding of the media can coexist with trenchant criticism of their shortcomings.

The flip side of the journal’s confidence in its contributors was a willingness to admit what they didn’t know. This could take the form of plainspokenness about the poor state of knowledge; it could also take a pleasantly controversial form, as when an essay showed what others thought they knew but didn’t. One of the greatest of this kind was a 1971 essay by Max Singer, “The Vitality of Mythical Numbers,” which debunked an oft-repeated statistic exaggerating, by several times over, the dollar value of property stolen in New York City by heroin-users to fund their addiction. The author had no inside information, only a dollop of skepticism. He looked at what was known about the overall amount of property theft in the city, the size of the addict population, and several other factors, which made clear that the oft-repeated statistic was at least 10 times too large.

If big names are your thing, the early issues had enough to gild twice or thrice as many magazines. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert Nisbet, Jacques Barzun, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer all appeared in the first issue. Perhaps my favorite essay in the debut issue is “Art-by-Act-of-Congress” by Jacques Barzun, which opens without any song-and-dance concerning its subject: “Three unrelated causes–the Cold War, the hunger of the mass media, and the temperament of the presidential Kennedys, husband and wife–have made art and culture in the United States for the first time a political concern.”

A very high-minded and patriotic development this, says Barzun, except that “the arts in the West have been for over a hundred years antisocial and irreligious; they have incited to immorality, revolution, and nihilism; they seethe with hatred of the bourgeoisie, business, normal appetites, and machine civilization. They war against everything that under the name of education the government already pays for: settled habits, decent thoughts, respect for the family, obedience to the law, and adherence to grammar, syntax, and democratic ideals.” Much of Barzun’s authority, of course, derived from the fact that he could not be accused of philistinism; would that it were so with many later critics of federal funding for the arts.

The magazine’s instant flourishing was partly the result of a misplaced confidence in the eventual success of LBJ’s Great Society, but this temporarily held together an unusually provocative assortment of thinkers. (And by flourishing, what I mean is influence and renown; “with a circulation of a few hundred, you could change the world,” Kristol once said.) An article on the new meaning of property rights was authored by a then little-known Yale law professor named Charles A. Reich, who would go on to write The Greening of America a few years later. An early review by Robert Solow, who in 1987 would win the Nobel prize for economics, deprecated one of John Kenneth Galbraith’s bestsellers as “a book for the dinner table, not for the desk.” Galbraith returned fire with his own “review of a review,” after which two subsequent and increasingly quirky counter-pieces followed.

Once the early results of the Great Society legislation arrived, however, the ship started to turn. A special 1972 issue noted “the growing disillusionment and despair of many of the social architects of these intervention programs and of the constituencies for which they spoke.” Another major factor in the darkening mood among the editors and writers of The Public Interest was the student movement, coddled by an increasingly radical professoriate whose destructive powers were gravely noted in a special 1968 issue devoted to the universities.

Around this time, The Public Interest, fruitfully if not harmoniously, became a more philosophical journal, taking up issues of morality and religion that had been outside its purview at the start but would increasingly dominate its pages in the following decades. In a 1970 special issue on the state of capitalism, as Nathan Glazer notes in the final issue, both Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol, writing separately, worried that what remained of the moral capital accumulated over centuries of religious, traditional, and bourgeois living was not finally being frittered away by a proudly decadent younger generation and an adversarial intellectual culture. Shortly afterwards, Leon Kass contributed his first essay to the journal–“Making Babies,” on the moral perils of laboratory-assisted reproduction–and Walter Berns his memorable (both for its own sake and because it appeared in a journal still understood to be run by thoughtful liberals) “Pornography vs. Democracy: The Case for Censorship.” Wrote Berns:

To live together requires rules and a governing of the passions, and those who are without shame will be unruly and unrulable; having lost the ability to restrain themselves by observing the rules they collectively give themselves, they will have to be ruled by others. . . . Such, indeed, was the argument made by political philosophers prior to the 20th century, when it was generally understood that democracy, more than any other form of government, required self-restraint, which it would inculcate through moral education and impose on itself through laws, including laws governing the manner of public amusements. It was the tyrant who could usually allow the people to indulge themselves.

Not coincidentally, the term neoconservative made its decisive entrance into the American political lexicon around this time, as an epithet coined by socialist writer Michael Harrington of The Other America fame to decry the political turn to the right taken by Kristol and many (though far from all) Public Interest contributors, among others. Daniel Bell, who would always call himself a democratic socialist, was succeeded by Nathan Glazer as coeditor in 1973. Kristol was the only one of his crowd to fully embrace the new label, though he was not the only one to support the reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972.

SO WENT The Public Interest, and so went the country. But that is not quite the end of the story. When the magazine was launched in 1965, its editors joked to the New York Times that they were starting “a middle-aged magazine for middle-aged readers.” They also ended up providing a halfway house for dozens and dozens of young assistants, who typically arrived fresh out of college and stayed a year or at most two before leaving for grad school, or government, or other jobs in journalism. In a 1985 issue marking the journal’s 20th anniversary, Mark Lilla, then the 29-year-old associate editor, contributed an ambivalent essay chronicling the journal’s shift from an eclectic public affairs quarterly in its first few years to become “the bible in matters of public policy” in the early ’70s. Lilla, now a professor at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, noted that the journal’s early consensus on ameliorative liberalism had slowly come apart, a process that reached its logical endpoint with “Charles Murray’s 1982 article . . . arguing that the economic and social conditions of the poor had deteriorated badly because of the Great Society programs.” That article became the basis for Murray’s influential book Losing Ground, which made him for a while the nemesis of PI grandee Daniel Patrick Moynihan–whose later career in the Senate was spent fighting a rear-guard action against the Murray-inspired welfare reforms of the mid-’90s. This was shortly after Murray joined Moynihan and a dozen other eminences on the journal’s board.

It was heady stuff for a 29-year-old to be explaining to sophisticated readers who had been there to see the whole thing for themselves, but Irving Kristol was always happy to throw his young charges into the deep end. Lilla jokingly calls it “scandalous” that he, a frustrated young writer, was empowered to edit so many distinguished contributors. He recalls the first piece he had his way with, an essay by a well-known political theorist that he tore into, rearranging its parts, rewriting some paragraphs. The political theorist called and asked for Kristol, who, after he put down the phone, told Lilla simply to restore every last comma. In my experience, too, the kids had free rein, but once a fight broke out, the author always won–so long as he was willing to go to the mat for his overwritten, pompous, out-of-date . . . oh, where was I?

When a reader becomes an editor, he assumes new powers and responsibilities. Instead of quietly complaining to himself that a piece provides too little information on this point or lacks clarity on that one, he must gather up his nerve and confront the author, even if the author is a towering eminence. Craig Turk, managing editor from 1994-95, was shocked when Irving told him–a guy whose only editing experience was marking up articles by Harvard undergraduates–to call George F. Will and put to him directly the questions Craig had after reading over Will’s manuscript. Craig also remembers a film crew coming to the offices, working on Arguing the World–a 1998 PBS documentary chronicling the political formation of Kristol, Bell, Glazer, and Irving Howe at New York’s City College in the late 1930s. The crew wanted to obtain footage of a typical day at the magazine, and wondered if they could shoot an editorial meeting. Only one problem: The PI didn’t have editorial meetings. Since everyone sat in a single room within 10 feet of everyone else, if you had something to say, you just raised your voice.

The best that could be done under the circumstances was for Irving to ask Craig about some article “our friend” was writing about “you know.” Irving didn’t want to speak about any of his authors on camera. So Craig nodded and said something equally banal. None of which kept Arguing the World from becoming an “excellent doc,” says Craig, who now makes his living writing for television. “I venture to guess that Irving never had an editorial meeting.”

WHAT EVERYONE WHO’S WORKED at The Public Interest talks about is what a privilege it was to hang around Irving Kristol. The job amounted to a kind of graduate school in life as a public intellectual. Irving would recommend books and offer career advice, often unsolicited and almost invariably sound. (“You want to go to law school? Why? Do you want to be a lawyer? No? Then don’t go to law school.”) The unpartitioned one-room office–which former executive editor Ben Wildavsky, now education editor of U.S. News and World Report, suggests was set up to look like the Commentary offices circa 1952 (the last year Kristol worked there)–allowed the young editors to eavesdrop on Irving’s phone calls and talk with him about any number of issues. One former editor remembers the days when Irving would dictate letters to his longtime assistant Rita Lazzaro, which allowed the younger assistants to listen in as he debated various correspondents by mail. One of the big lessons offered was in “how to behave,” says Wildavsky. I myself carry around in my head a sort of Irving Kristol tutorial on the proper conduct of an editor, whose main lessons are how to be modest without being meek, frank without being vulgar, and direct without being hostile–standards I’ve fallen short of only about a thousand times.

With all that the journal did for its apprentices, what did the apprentices do for it, besides occasionally annoy important contributors? I don’t think it’s too much to say they helped keep The Public Interest young. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they kept it middle-aged, at a golden mean between the editors and their assistants. Even as low man on the totem pole, you were always welcome to suggest stories and in many cases to contribute yourself. The assistants also functioned as a peanut gallery, grumbling when something obvious or boring in their view was under consideration or being published. And they kept a number of writers on their toes.

In 2002, one of the young guys became one of the old guys when Adam Wolfson, after several years of loyal service as executive editor, succeeded Irving and Nat as editor when they retired. If the journal’s great historic moment was over, someone forgot to tell the guys at the office. Solid, and in several cases important, essays continued to be published, with an emphasis on culture and technology that had begun in the 1990s. One acquaintance, after reading a particularly fine recent issue, said, “Sheesh, I guess I don’t need to worry about this magazine.” Sadly, of course, he was wrong.

What I find most difficult about saying goodbye to a great intellectual journal whose offices I was fortunate enough to pass through is the feeling that I’ll never be able to return the favor. The best one can do is to write and think well enough to brighten the little footnote one occupies in its great history. That, and provide a proper home for Irving Kristol’s old desk.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s