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The Punditry of Max Lerner

Mar 8, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 24 • By TEVI TROY
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A pundit who switches sides late in life risks losing the affection of one group without ever entering the good graces of the other. And that, in a nutshell, was the fate of newspaper columnist Max Lerner: His evolution from liberalism to something close to conservatism made him a heretic among liberals, but it came too late to make him a hero among conservatives.


Lerner was -- as Sanford Lakoff shows in his new biography, Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land -- a man of contradictions: a patriot who felt himself to be an outsider, an intellectual who wanted both the academic respectability of a professor and the broad audience of a pundit. His immense talents made him successful, but his conflicting desires never made it easy.


Born in Minsk, Russia, in 1902, Lerner came to America with his family in 1907 and spent most of his adolescence in New Haven, where he won a local scholarship to Yale. Majoring in literature, Lerner graduated in 1923, but by his own account he rarely interacted with Yale's non-Jewish undergraduates.


"He does not make a favorable impression at a first meeting," wrote Robert French, one of the professors who liked him best, in a letter of recommendation. "He is rather short and not in the least good-looking. He is a Jew, born in a family that has little means, and he came to college quite lacking in background."


After Yale, Lerner briefly tried law school, but he left to pursue a doctorate at the short-lived "Robert Brookings School of Economics and Government" at the Brookings Institution. The program, which trained graduates for government service, disbanded in 1929 -- largely because those who endured the struggle for a Ph.D. wanted to become tenured professors rather than well-trained bureaucrats.


Lerner too had little interest in government service. His first job after graduation was in New York, as managing editor of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. He later taught at Sarah Lawrence, the Wellesley Summer Institute, and finally Harvard -- which is where he was teaching in 1935 when Maurice Wertheim, publisher of the Nation, offered him the job of political editor. Lerner struggled with the offer until Harvard's president, James Bryant Conant, settled the question by sniffing that someone who would consider leaving Harvard should probably do so.


At the Nation, Lerner proved a committed New Dealer. He strongly supported the Supreme Court nomination of Hugo Black and endorsed Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing scheme. He also backed the Communists in the Spanish Civil War and was even reluctant to denounce the Moscow purge trials. Lerner later described this last questionable position as "condemning Stalin but not the Revolution itself -- a dubious distinction since Stalin was the evil flowering of the totalitarian party." Sidney Hook rightly accused Lerner of wishing "to distinguish himself from Stalinism and yet to escape slanderous vituperation."


Wertheim, who opposed both Black and court-packing, felt that Lerner had betrayed the Left by supporting Roosevelt. When Wertheim sold the Nation in 1938, it was on the condition that Lerner leave the magazine. But Lerner managed to land on his feet, quickly securing a position at Williams College. The ease with which he moved among top-level academic jobs seems surprising, but Lerner always managed to find posts, later teaching at Notre Dame and, for the largest stretch of his career, at Brandeis. He also satisfied his need for a broad audience with his journalism, writing over eight thousand newspaper pieces in his career. From 1943 to 1948, Lerner wrote a column for the influential liberal paper PM. (Although his column was generally liberal, Lerner raised eyebrows by pointedly refusing to back Henry Wallace's leftist third-party candidacy for president in 1948.) In 1949, he began a four-decade run at the New York Post, edited by the liberal ex-and anti-Communist James Wechsler.


Along the way, Lerner wrote fourteen books -- and still felt, at the end of his life, that he hadn't written enough. His best book is the 1957 America as a Civilization, a remarkable study in which he argued that American "dynamism" had created a culture that ranks among the world's great civilizations. This dynamism, which Lerner saw as unique, inspired Americans to make the most of the country's considerable natural advantages.