RIP: The New Republic

The New Republic is dead, or at least it is now brain dead. Yesterday, editor Frank Foer and literary editor Leon Wieseltier resigned as the changes undertaken by owner and Facebook zillionaire Chris Hughes became so oppressively obnoxious, Foer and Wieseltier could no longer stay. Even as I write those words this morning, it is difficult to believe. Needless to say, this is also personal for me. Frank is a friend and Leon is a very good friend.

My indebtedness to Leon is enormous. In 1993, he approached me about writing a book review for him. I did not hold an academic position: I was the manager of the café at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café. But, I had gotten to know Leon over the years, he liked the way my mind worked, and he asked me to review a biography of Jose Maria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. It was my first real foray into publishing. Leon was not an easy editor, which is one of the reasons he is a great editor. He re-worked my draft from top-to-bottom, demanded more analysis here, less verbosity there, and the end result, much improved from his editing, made it into his pages. It was, of course, a thrill to be published in the pages of the venerable TNR. Walter Lippmann had helped start TNR! All the great liberal icons of the twentieth century had been published in its pages. How many of the writers we all turn to – Chait, Hertzberg, Kinsley, Cohn, Berkowitz, Scheiber, Judis, Wolfe – had gotten their start at TNR or been introduced to a wider audience in its pages. But, the real thrill was not being associated with such luminaries. The real thrill was being published by Leon.

Leon is the smartest person in Washington, bar none. Since then-Father, now-Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P. went to Rome in 2003 to work at the CDF, there has not even been a close second for the designation. There is not a subject of cultural importance on which Leon does not have something, and something intelligent, to say. He knows more about contemporary jazz than most music critics. He knows more about medieval Jewish manuscripts than most rabbis. He is one of the funniest people I have ever met. And, of course, his capacity for friendship is as large as his mind.

And then, of course, there are the words, such words. Leon’s essays were always the most elegant, most significant, most incisive essays available in print anywhere. Rarely have passion and erudition and wisdom combined so happily. He can caress an argument or a metaphor with equal talent. For Leon, liberalism is not a political pose but a commitment to a cast of mind and a set of ideas. I do not always share his commitments, but I am always smarter for having encountered them. And, as someone who now makes my living as a wordsmith, I would always bow before the work of the master and wish I had his gifts.  

The idea that the new owners would not recognize all this, and chose a different path, this just makes no sense. This is much worse than Salomon Brothers firing Michael Bloomberg in 1998. This is much worse than the Red Sox trading Babe Ruth in 1919. You have to go back to 1711 and Queen Anne’s sacking of Marlborough to find a similar example of managerial stupidity.

I do not know Frank as well as Leon, but I know him well enough to know that he grasps that a magazine driven by format instead of ideas is a magazine headed towards irrelevance. Frank is very intelligent, very thoughtful and, unlike some past TNR editors, he is a really nice guy who led the magazine with charm and cajolery, not arrogance. The writers at TNR will tell you he is the best editor they have had in the past twenty years, able to bring out their own writing skills and make them better reporters and writers than they were before. His own writing was, I thought, ideally suited to this transitioning world of journalism today, fluent in the idioms of the moment but bringing a depth to his analysis that is not found in much of what passes for journalism these days. Unfortunately, while Foer may go on to write somewhere else, his gifts as an editor need to find a home. You can publish anywhere, but you can only spot and nurture talent, encourage solid reporting, and push a group of writers to excel from an editor’s chair.

Am I being histrionic about what happened at TNR yesterday? Consider these words from the new CEO, someone named Guy Vidra, announcing the departures of Foer and Wieseltier and the hiring of Gabriel Snyder as the new editor:

As we move forward under Gabriel’s leadership, we are re-imagining The New Republic as a vertically integrated digital media company. Gabriel is ideally suited to bridge traditional journalism and digital media. He is committed - as am I - to The New Republic’s mission of impact, influence and persuasion, but understands that fulfilling that mission in today’s media landscape requires new forms. He truly reflects the “straddle generation” of journalists and editors who remain deeply rooted in the qualities of traditional journalism - having worked with brands such as the New York Observer and The Atlantic - but also understands what it takes to create content that will travel across all platforms. We believe he is the right person to help us to maintain the core DNA of The New Republic, while propelling us forward to the 21st century….

As we restructure The New Republic, we will be making significant investments in creating a more effective and efficient newsroom as well as improved products across all platforms. This will require a recalibration of our resources in order to deliver the best product possible.  

Who talks like that? Note what words are missing: culture, ideas, politics, arts, literature. Instead we get “vertically integrated digital media company,” whatever that means. TNR is not a “product,” it is a magazine of ideas. It has existed to imagine and re-imagine the possibilities of liberalism. Now, it is handed over to philistines. Jesus wept.  

Mr. Hughes bears the responsibility for these changes. I wonder what he wants. Surely, he has made enough money already, does he really need to make more? Can he not function in the long tradition of TNR owners who use their wealth to support a magazine that is intellectually viable whether or not it is commercially viable? Must money govern everything?

Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote these words:

Whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed…then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of "knowledge," and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation – a world in which power and the profit margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated – a world in which art itself is forced to wear the make and features of technique.

It is difficult not to see in these changes at TNR the triumph of technology over ideas, of the desire for profit over the desire for truth, of technique over art. I will grant that the relationship between grace and nature is not a principal concern of liberalism, but it tells you something about the breadth of vision Leon brought to TNR that this above quote from Balthasar appeared in an essay I wrote for the magazine in 1999. Leon was not a student of Catholic theology, but he knew enough about it to know that Balthasar’s theology was the most interesting part of the intellectual milieu during the pontificate of John Paul II. How he knew that, I have no idea, just as I have no idea how he knew so much about so many things. He is one of those people who inhales ideas and then, on the page, beautifully exhales them too. This morning, there are no interesting questions about the future of TNR. The interesting question is what will Leon and Frank do now. Still, it hurts to think that a once great institution like TNR is now dead. It is like finding out that a beautiful building burned in the night. Whatever exciting and interesting and important rises from the ashes, it will not come from these hideously rich, plugged-in, cliché-ridden punks who have killed TNR. It will come from whatever these journalist giants, Foer and Wieseltier, turn their hands and heads to next. 

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