FROM LEFT TO RIGHT
The Punditry of Max Lerner
Mar 8, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 24 • By TEVI TROY
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.
America as a Civilization, critical of the nation in many ways and yet generally positive about the American experiment, belongs squarely to the 1950s "consensus school" of liberal anti-communism typified by such academics as Richard Hofstadter and Louis Hartz. As the consensus school came under attack in the 1960s, however, Lerner's columns increasingly infuriated the Left. In 1965, for example, he championed Daniel Patrick Moynihan for mayor of New York -- even though Moynihan was persona non grata among the left for his much-maligned report for the Johnson administration which claimed that the climbing rate of illegitimate births in the black community was leading to increased dependence on welfare and serious social disruption.
In Moynihan, Lerner saw a kindred spirit: a man of liberal origins who was willing to slaughter the sacred cows of an intolerant and doctrinaire Left. And as the 1960s progressed, the Left's stronger and stronger criticisms of America offended Lerner more and more. It was this intense love for the nation to which his immigrant parents had brought him that determined Lerner's ideological development over the rest of his life. By the 1980s, he had embraced much of Reaganism: condemning the bitter campaign against Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, endorsing support for the contras, and denouncing prior concessions in negotiations with the Soviets.
In 1987, Lerner added a new conclusion to the thirtieth-anniversary edition of America as a Civilization. A survey of the previous three decades, it revealed a man who accepted almost nothing of his youthful liberalism. The new Lerner was sympathetic to the free market and -- despite his support for (and participation in) the sexual revolution -- critical of "a permissiveness so far-reaching that it struck the people at the base of the culture as narcissistic."
Lerner always resisted characterizing his late positions as conservative or even neoconservative, and in many ways he belonged to the same camp as Moynihan and Daniel Bell: frustrated with the Left but unable to accept the mantle of conservatism. Lakoff slights much of this ideological turmoil to focus instead on Lerner's tumultuous personal life: married in 1928, divorced in 1940, and remarried the following year, all the while carrying on numerous affairs, especially with attractive coeds.
Later in life, he befriended Hugh Hefner and attended parties at the Playboy mansion. One amusing tale Lerner enjoyed telling involved Art Buchwald's first visit to the mansion. Buchwald went down to the pool, which was covered in steam. He "hoped that when it would dissipate he would see this raving beauty coming toward him. And as the steam dissipated, whom did he see but Max Lerner."
Lerner also had a brief relation with Elizabeth Taylor, who affectionately called him "my little professor." According to Eddie Fisher's autobiography, while Lerner "fell in love with Elizabeth," the actress saw "the attention of a man like Lerner, a renowned intellectual, as proof that she had a brain." He considered proposing marriage, until she became involved with Richard Burton while filming Cleopatra.
Lakoff explores Lerner's affairs because of his belief that Lerner wanted an honest biography, detailing flaws along with accomplishments. But Lakoff's focus on Lerner's affairs proves misguided -- characteristic of our contemporary obsession with the personalities of thinkers instead of their ideas.
Despite his accomplishments and insights, Max Lerner remains mired in relative obscurity today -- largely because his move from left to right left him an ideological orphan. But the move stemmed from his patriotism and his rejection of liberalism's ideological orthodoxy, two core traits that made him the force that he was in American intellectual life.
Tevi Troy is policy director for Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO).