Farewell to 'The Public Interest'
From the April 25, 2005 issue: America's finest political quarterly closes its doors.
Apr 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 30 • By DAVID SKINNER
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."