The Magazine

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
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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."