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
A 1966 essay on journalism by Kristol looked into how the legacy of muckraking and a devotion to amateurism undermined "the greatest newspaper ever," the New York Times. Reporters tended to have little expertise in the subjects they covered, while careers were made by splashy but ultimately trifling stories about public officials' minor or even nonexistent conflicts of interest. Editorials functioned as royal pronouncements, rarely condescending to bother with evidence or reasoning. More than its findings, many of which still ring true, the triumph of the essay lies in Kristol's amused and urbane tone: A copy should be sent to every right-wing crank who has ever used the acronyms MSM (mainstream media) or LMB (liberal media bias) to show how a sophisticated understanding of the media can coexist with trenchant criticism of their shortcomings.
The flip side of the journal's confidence in its contributors was a willingness to admit what they didn't know. This could take the form of plainspokenness about the poor state of knowledge; it could also take a pleasantly controversial form, as when an essay showed what others thought they knew but didn't. One of the greatest of this kind was a 1971 essay by Max Singer, "The Vitality of Mythical Numbers," which debunked an oft-repeated statistic exaggerating, by several times over, the dollar value of property stolen in New York City by heroin-users to fund their addiction. The author had no inside information, only a dollop of skepticism. He looked at what was known about the overall amount of property theft in the city, the size of the addict population, and several other factors, which made clear that the oft-repeated statistic was at least 10 times too large.
If big names are your thing, the early issues had enough to gild twice or thrice as many magazines. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert Nisbet, Jacques Barzun, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer all appeared in the first issue. Perhaps my favorite essay in the debut issue is "Art-by-Act-of-Congress" by Jacques Barzun, which opens without any song-and-dance concerning its subject: "Three unrelated causes--the Cold War, the hunger of the mass media, and the temperament of the presidential Kennedys, husband and wife--have made art and culture in the United States for the first time a political concern."
A very high-minded and patriotic development this, says Barzun, except that "the arts in the West have been for over a hundred years antisocial and irreligious; they have incited to immorality, revolution, and nihilism; they seethe with hatred of the bourgeoisie, business, normal appetites, and machine civilization. They war against everything that under the name of education the government already pays for: settled habits, decent thoughts, respect for the family, obedience to the law, and adherence to grammar, syntax, and democratic ideals." Much of Barzun's authority, of course, derived from the fact that he could not be accused of philistinism; would that it were so with many later critics of federal funding for the arts.
The magazine's instant flourishing was partly the result of a misplaced confidence in the eventual success of LBJ's Great Society, but this temporarily held together an unusually provocative assortment of thinkers. (And by flourishing, what I mean is influence and renown; "with a circulation of a few hundred, you could change the world," Kristol once said.) An article on the new meaning of property rights was authored by a then little-known Yale law professor named Charles A. Reich, who would go on to write The Greening of America a few years later. An early review by Robert Solow, who in 1987 would win the Nobel prize for economics, deprecated one of John Kenneth Galbraith's bestsellers as "a book for the dinner table, not for the desk." Galbraith returned fire with his own "review of a review," after which two subsequent and increasingly quirky counter-pieces followed.
Once the early results of the Great Society legislation arrived, however, the ship started to turn. A special 1972 issue noted "the growing disillusionment and despair of many of the social architects of these intervention programs and of the constituencies for which they spoke." Another major factor in the darkening mood among the editors and writers of The Public Interest was the student movement, coddled by an increasingly radical professoriate whose destructive powers were gravely noted in a special 1968 issue devoted to the universities.
Around this time, The Public Interest, fruitfully if not harmoniously, became a more philosophical journal, taking up issues of morality and religion that had been outside its purview at the start but would increasingly dominate its pages in the following decades. In a 1970 special issue on the state of capitalism, as Nathan Glazer notes in the final issue, both Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol, writing separately, worried that what remained of the moral capital accumulated over centuries of religious, traditional, and bourgeois living was not finally being frittered away by a proudly decadent younger generation and an adversarial intellectual culture. Shortly afterwards, Leon Kass contributed his first essay to the journal--"Making Babies," on the moral perils of laboratory-assisted reproduction--and Walter Berns his memorable (both for its own sake and because it appeared in a journal still understood to be run by thoughtful liberals) "Pornography vs. Democracy: The Case for Censorship." Wrote Berns:
Not coincidentally, the term neoconservative made its decisive entrance into the American political lexicon around this time, as an epithet coined by socialist writer Michael Harrington of The Other America fame to decry the political turn to the right taken by Kristol and many (though far from all) Public Interest contributors, among others. Daniel Bell, who would always call himself a democratic socialist, was succeeded by Nathan Glazer as coeditor in 1973. Kristol was the only one of his crowd to fully embrace the new label, though he was not the only one to support the reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972.
SO WENT The Public Interest, and so went the country. But that is not quite the end of the story. When the magazine was launched in 1965, its editors joked to the New York Times that they were starting "a middle-aged magazine for middle-aged readers." They also ended up providing a halfway house for dozens and dozens of young assistants, who typically arrived fresh out of college and stayed a year or at most two before leaving for grad school, or government, or other jobs in journalism. In a 1985 issue marking the journal's 20th anniversary, Mark Lilla, then the 29-year-old associate editor, contributed an ambivalent essay chronicling the journal's shift from an eclectic public affairs quarterly in its first few years to become "the bible in matters of public policy" in the early '70s. Lilla, now a professor at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, noted that the journal's early consensus on ameliorative liberalism had slowly come apart, a process that reached its logical endpoint with "Charles Murray's 1982 article . . . arguing that the economic and social conditions of the poor had deteriorated badly because of the Great Society programs." That article became the basis for Murray's influential book Losing Ground, which made him for a while the nemesis of PI grandee Daniel Patrick Moynihan--whose later career in the Senate was spent fighting a rear-guard action against the Murray-inspired welfare reforms of the mid-'90s. This was shortly after Murray joined Moynihan and a dozen other eminences on the journal's board.
It was heady stuff for a 29-year-old to be explaining to sophisticated readers who had been there to see the whole thing for themselves, but Irving Kristol was always happy to throw his young charges into the deep end. Lilla jokingly calls it "scandalous" that he, a frustrated young writer, was empowered to edit so many distinguished contributors. He recalls the first piece he had his way with, an essay by a well-known political theorist that he tore into, rearranging its parts, rewriting some paragraphs. The political theorist called and asked for Kristol, who, after he put down the phone, told Lilla simply to restore every last comma. In my experience, too, the kids had free rein, but once a fight broke out, the author always won--so long as he was willing to go to the mat for his overwritten, pompous, out-of-date . . . oh, where was I?
When a reader becomes an editor, he assumes new powers and responsibilities. Instead of quietly complaining to himself that a piece provides too little information on this point or lacks clarity on that one, he must gather up his nerve and confront the author, even if the author is a towering eminence. Craig Turk, managing editor from 1994-95, was shocked when Irving told him--a guy whose only editing experience was marking up articles by Harvard undergraduates--to call George F. Will and put to him directly the questions Craig had after reading over Will's manuscript. Craig also remembers a film crew coming to the offices, working on Arguing the World--a 1998 PBS documentary chronicling the political formation of Kristol, Bell, Glazer, and Irving Howe at New York's City College in the late 1930s. The crew wanted to obtain footage of a typical day at the magazine, and wondered if they could shoot an editorial meeting. Only one problem: The PI didn't have editorial meetings. Since everyone sat in a single room within 10 feet of everyone else, if you had something to say, you just raised your voice.
The best that could be done under the circumstances was for Irving to ask Craig about some article "our friend" was writing about "you know." Irving didn't want to speak about any of his authors on camera. So Craig nodded and said something equally banal. None of which kept Arguing the World from becoming an "excellent doc," says Craig, who now makes his living writing for television. "I venture to guess that Irving never had an editorial meeting."
WHAT EVERYONE WHO'S WORKED at The Public Interest talks about is what a privilege it was to hang around Irving Kristol. The job amounted to a kind of graduate school in life as a public intellectual. Irving would recommend books and offer career advice, often unsolicited and almost invariably sound. ("You want to go to law school? Why? Do you want to be a lawyer? No? Then don't go to law school.") The unpartitioned one-room office--which former executive editor Ben Wildavsky, now education editor of U.S. News and World Report, suggests was set up to look like the Commentary offices circa 1952 (the last year Kristol worked there)--allowed the young editors to eavesdrop on Irving's phone calls and talk with him about any number of issues. One former editor remembers the days when Irving would dictate letters to his longtime assistant Rita Lazzaro, which allowed the younger assistants to listen in as he debated various correspondents by mail. One of the big lessons offered was in "how to behave," says Wildavsky. I myself carry around in my head a sort of Irving Kristol tutorial on the proper conduct of an editor, whose main lessons are how to be modest without being meek, frank without being vulgar, and direct without being hostile--standards I've fallen short of only about a thousand times.
With all that the journal did for its apprentices, what did the apprentices do for it, besides occasionally annoy important contributors? I don't think it's too much to say they helped keep The Public Interest young. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that they kept it middle-aged, at a golden mean between the editors and their assistants. Even as low man on the totem pole, you were always welcome to suggest stories and in many cases to contribute yourself. The assistants also functioned as a peanut gallery, grumbling when something obvious or boring in their view was under consideration or being published. And they kept a number of writers on their toes.
In 2002, one of the young guys became one of the old guys when Adam Wolfson, after several years of loyal service as executive editor, succeeded Irving and Nat as editor when they retired. If the journal's great historic moment was over, someone forgot to tell the guys at the office. Solid, and in several cases important, essays continued to be published, with an emphasis on culture and technology that had begun in the 1990s. One acquaintance, after reading a particularly fine recent issue, said, "Sheesh, I guess I don't need to worry about this magazine." Sadly, of course, he was wrong.
What I find most difficult about saying goodbye to a great intellectual journal whose offices I was fortunate enough to pass through is the feeling that I'll never be able to return the favor. The best one can do is to write and think well enough to brighten the little footnote one occupies in its great history. That, and provide a proper home for Irving Kristol's old desk.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.