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Book Review: ‘The Controversialist: Arguments With Everyone, Left, Right and Center,’ by Martin Peretz

Presidential historian Tevi Troy writes about the impact that ‘The New Republic’ had on American politics — and his own career

Tevi Troy

I have only met Marty Peretz a handful of times. But after reading his fascinating new memoir, The Controversialist, I wish I knew him better. That’s not to say that the author and former editor-in-chief of The New Republic hasn’t had an influence on me. In fact, looking back, his memoir and my own experiences show how far-reaching his impact has been on politics, culture, and the lives of many in Washington.

It is almost a cliché to note that The New Republic of the 1980s – universally referred to as TNR by the cognoscenti – was a must-read magazine. It provided news, insights, humor and, in many cases, made you gnash your teeth. Simply put, to be in the smart set you had to read it. And if you could write for it, well, that elevated you above the rest of the smart set who hadn’t. 

I first encountered The New Republic as a college student while studying in London in the late 1980s. I wanted to keep up on what was happening in America, and I heard a lot of people talking about TNR. I got my first copy and read an article by a man named Charles Krauthammer, of whom I had never heard of at the time, citing someone named Irving Kristol, of whom I’d also never heard of at the time, observing that the Organization of American States was just like the U.N., except the U.S. only gets denounced in three languages, thereby saving translator fees. At that moment, I resolved to read this magazine regularly, and to learn more about Krauthammer and Kristol.

TNR – and Peretz himself – didn’t mind infuriating readers either. And that fact helped shape my career. I recall an editorial penned by Peretz in 1988 in which he railed against the feckless liberalism of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis for multiple pages, but ultimately decided to endorse him, dismissing George H.W. Bush with only one line: “Morally, I have no truck with him.” The editorial, and the obvious point that Peretz had severe reservations about Dukakis yet was unwilling to give Bush even a look, inspired me to write a letter to the editor making that point, my first item ever published in a national publication. A year or so later, I brought the letter to a job interview I had with the American Enterprise Institute’s Ben Wattenberg, a disaffected Democrat and TNR reader. Wattenberg liked my letter and offered me a job as his research assistant. Back when people looked at classified ads, The New York Times coined the slogan, “I got my job from The New York Times.” I got my job from TNR. 

Over a decade later, TNR would again play a role in my career. I was working for Sen. John Ashcroft (R-MO), who was nominated to be attorney general by the president-elect, George W. Bush. The nomination came under fire from Jewish groups. Many thought that an evangelical Christian could not be an impartial attorney general. Peter Beinart, TNR’s editor at the time, about whom Peretz has lots to say in his memoir, asked me to write about working for Ashcroft from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. 

I wrote the piece, noting that “[A]s a devout person,” Ashcroft “feels an affinity to other believers.” Another TNR reader, John DiIulio, saw it. He was Bush’s director of faith-based initiatives and soon brought me into the White House orbit. Once again, TNR’s reach helped open doors for me. 

After reading The Controversialist, it is abundantly clear that I was far from the only one influenced, challenged and enraged by the magazine. Peretz shows us what was happening behind the scenes in Washington’s hottest magazine. From his initial purchase of the magazine, with the help of his wife, a Singer sewing machine heiress, to the collection of the ideologically eclectic and talented staff and the fights they engaged in, Peretz gives TNR lovers the backstory they would have craved during the magazine’s heyday. 

Peretz also tells us about his decades in Cambridge, Mass., where he long served as a lecturer – but never a professor – at Harvard. While there, Peretz seems to have met nearly everyone of importance in the liberal intellectual and political establishments, and feuded with most of them. E.J. Dionne, Jamie Gorelick, Al Gore, Chuck Schumer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Kinsley, Hendrik Herzberg, Walter Isaacson, Pat Moynihan, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blinken all make appearances, among many more. 

Peretz knew many famous people, but the magazine did not mind alienating them. He describes being introduced to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton at a time when the magazine had written some hard-hitting pieces criticizing her health care plan. According to Peretz, “She looked me straight in the eye, said, ‘Oh, I know,’ turned her back, and walked away.” On another occasion, the 73-year-old Norman Mailer didn’t like a TNR review of one of his books and sucker-punched Peretz in the stomach. Peretz does not seem too bothered by either of these incidents, which indicates how often TNR was offending people in those days.

In that vein, the most enjoyable part of the book is Peretz’s sharp pen. He holds little back throughout, offering many funny observations. Of the late political scientist Judith Shklar, Peretz notes that she spoke Yiddish, but she was still no fun. Regarding Edward Said, Peretz observes, “He was a Palestinian Christian, but he even had several versions of where he was born. Maybe his mother didn’t tell him.” Of Kennedy and Johnson speechwriter Richard Goodwin, Peretz writes, “He was full of resentments. Like me, he hadn’t been admitted to Harvard for college, but unlike me he never shut up about it.”

Peretz clearly had his grudges as well. He still seems upset that his candidate in the 1968 presidential race, Eugene McCarthy, did not win the Democratic nomination. He also notes that the fact that Bobby Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was a Palestinian angry that Kennedy supported Israel did not get much attention. His explanation for the oversight: “Probably to avoid inflaming things more, the media didn’t look seriously into the Palestinian angle, and the Zionists didn’t protest because they were embarrassed by it themselves. As a result, an important event was rinsed of a central part of its meaning.” And he is definitely still bitter that his friend and former student Al Gore lost a close election to George W. Bush.

The Gore campaign is a good point to highlight the decline of TNR’s influence. The magazine had always speared sacred cows, but its pro-Gore focus undermined that reputation. The rise of the internet also had an adverse impact. It meant a weekly magazine was no longer fresh when it came out, and our increasingly partisan society could no longer stomach a publication that presented multiple, contrasting perspectives in each issue.

It’s hard to find a modern-day analog to the TNR of the 1980s and 1990s, but Peretz thinks that Tablet comes close. As he writes, “Tablet, which Alana Newhouse founded in 2009 … has become more political in recent years and has maintained many of The New Republic’s values.” Tablet is indeed terrific, but TNR of the 1980s and 1990s was sui generis. Peretz’s memoir is a great look back at how that special magazine came to be.

Presidential historian Tevi Troy is a senior scholar at the Straus Center at Yeshiva University and a former senior White House aide.

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