The Magazine


The Punditry of Max Lerner

Mar 8, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 24 • By TEVI TROY
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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).