Press Box

Lewis Lapham Phones It In

Figuring out what’s wrong with Harper’s magazine.

Harper’s Editor Lewis H. Lapham aims to raise a ruckus with “Tentacles of Rage,” his 7,700-word contribution to the magazine’s September issue. Pouring purple into every paragraph, Lapham writes in a controlled panic about the right-wing “self-mythologizing millionaires” who have turned this once-liberal country to the reactionary right over the past three decades. Donating $3 billion to various Republican “propaganda mills”—think tanks, foundations, research groups, magazines, authors, and academic programs—the millionaires have drowned the former liberal consensus with their “prolonged siege of words.”

Lapham got his ruckus, all right, but not the one he expected, as when Reason’s Hit and Run blog (Aug. 23) caught him describing events from this year’s Republican National Convention before it convened (Aug. 30). Lapham writes:

The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal—government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden’s prayer—and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that [Richard] Hofstadter didn’t stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?

Lapham responded to the press cackling with an explanation, written in the purest Clintonese, which he posted on the Harper’s Web site. He both apologized for the fictionalizing, calling it a “mistake … a serious one” and a “mix up,” and defended it as “rhetorical invention” and “poetic license.”

Every overtaxed journalist phones it in from time to time, but few dare make the call from a parallel universe, as Lapham did, and then step forward to rationalize it. This moxie runs through the whole essay and all too often informs whole issues of Harper’s, which has grown increasingly pompous and predictable in recent years.

Lapham concedes early in “Tentacles of Rage”—an agitprop headline that conjures Thomas Nastian plutocrats on PCP—that his essay is not based on original reporting. The inspiration came prefab in the form of a 38-deck PowerPoint presentation by Democratic Party operative Rob Stein titled “The Conservative Message Machine’s Money Matrix.” Stein has pitched his PowerPoint to party insiders, journalists, and others who will help recruit liberal millionaires to fund a Democratic propaganda mill to counter the Republican one. Lapham got his peek at the deck with a “small group of Democratic activists meeting in New York City in late February.”

Lapham acknowledges that Stein’s findings aren’t novel—anybody who has followed politics for the past 30 years knows about the cadre- and institution-building of the Bradley Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors), Richard Mellon Scaife’s foundations, the Koch family foundations, and the rest. As early as 1981, the Washington Post was on the right-wing money story with a Page One piece about the rise of the Heritage Foundation. Almost 10 years ago in Harper’s (March 1995), Lapham himself devoted part of an essay to “reactionary chic,” decrying the deleterious effect of the right-wing foundations and their media megaphones. People for the American Way shouted fire on the subject in 1996, with its “Buying a Movement” monograph.

Lapham promotes the tract because, he writes, it helps him “fully appreciate the nature and extent of the re-education program” of the right, words that elicit an image of American political prisoners force-fed the American Spectator, Heritage Foundation monographs, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Judith Regan’s books, right-wing talk radio, and the Fox News Channel until they surrender their political will.

All Power to the PowerPoint!

Having not viewed the PowerPoint presentation (which Stein has given only a few people), I can only guess at its slipperiness. Lapham makes it sound like a merger of the paranoid right tendencies ( None Dare Call It Conspiracy) and the reductionist thinking of the new left ( Trilateralism). Stein is one of those thinkers who would rather ape Foucault, breaking ideas down into structures of power—flow charts and interlocking directorates—than consider the ideas on their own merits.

The paranoid-reductionist formula goes like this: People connected by money, greed, and ideology are building institutions to foist their self-centered agendas—and corrupt ideas—on the easily hoodwinked masses. These people are so unscrupulous and cunning that they’re willing to present the most outrageous untruths as fact. The Republican message machine, Stein tells Lapham (and the New York Times Magazinein the same words), is “perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system.”

Stein and Lapham widen the scope of their argument from foundations to complain about non-foundation conservative media (the alleged “$300 Million Conservative Message Machine”). But the list contains more right-wing fleas—itching, biting pests—than liberal-devouring polar bears. Among the fleas listed are MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, Cal Thomas commentaries, Radio America, the Washington Times,, and The only polar bears in the “Message Machine” list are the Wall Street Journal (presumably Stein and Lapham mean the editorial page), Eagle (nee Regnery) Publishing, Rush Limbaugh, and the Fox News Channel. Potent, loud voices, but hardly dominating the policy debate.

Poor, Poor, Pitiful Liberals

Stein and Lapham would have you believe that conservative foundations both outweigh liberal foundations and suppress the liberal message with their big spending. But that’s not the case. Stein estimates assets of $2 billion for the eight major conservative family foundations in 2001, which sounds gargantuan. But that’s chump change compared to the holdings of liberal foundations. Writing in the American Prospectin 1998, Karen Paget notes that none of these conservative foundations rank in the top 10 American foundations measured by assets, and most don’t even break into the top 50.

What sort of media do liberal foundations fund? The liberal John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which reported assets of $4.2 billion in 2003, made grants of $7.5 million to various liberal media projects, including Public Radio International ($2.5 million), WNET documentary films ($800,000), WGBH documentary film ($400,000), and other TV, documentary, and radio initiatives, according to the foundation’s annual report.

The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy (assets of $60 million in 2002) gave money to liberal media organizations in 2003 at rates that would make a Scaife faint. The group’s federal Form 990 records it giving $4.3 million away to Florence Fund ($2 million), Sojourners magazine ($500,000), an investigative fund for ($277,785), the Nation Institute ($115,000), and various radio, film, and magazine projects (the Washington Monthly and the American Prospect got piddly amounts). It also paid Bill Moyers, host of PBS’s Now, $200,000 to serve as its president.

Paget argues persuasively that conservative foundations are more effective than liberal foundations because they’re better at giving money away, not because they give more of it away. Conservatives tend to 1) give general support, letting the grantee decide how to spend the money; and 2) they tend to renew those gifts year after year, letting the grantee take root as an institution and freeing it from running in circles on the fund-raising wheel. Conservative magazines such as Commentary, the American Spectator, the National Interest, the Public Interest, the New Criterion, and Policy Review have flourished because of steady funding by benefactors.

Liberal foundations, on the other hand, tend to limit their donations to specific projects and don’t make multiple deposits over the years. In other words, a liberal propaganda mill exists; it just operates under different philanthropic principles than the conservative one.

Archaic and Bizarre?

If Lapham finds right-wing ideas so uniformly bankrupt, “both archaic and bizarre,” as he writes, why did he spend so much intellectual energy advancing them during his first tenure (1975-1981) as editor of Harper’s? Lapham’s piece anticipates those charges by noting that back then, “the magazine” (not the editor?) published articles by “authors later to become well-known apologists for the conservative creed, among them George Gilder, Michael Novak, William Tucker, and Philip Terzian. …” This is a deceptively short list considering the number of cons, neocons, free-thinkers, gold-bugs, and libertarians who contributed to the magazine. Lapham conspicuously neglects to name his onetime Washington Editor Tom Bethell, a supply-side touter and big-government critic who contributed at least a dozen stories about the budget, congressional pensions, welfare, the arts and politics, energy, the press, and other topics. Other Harper’s writers who pitched right for Lapham the first include Ken Adelman, Paul Craig Roberts, Mark Lilla, Peter Brimelow, Lewis E. Lehrman (on bringing back the gold standard!), Michael Ledeen, Jude Wanniski, Norman Podhoretz (on appeasement!), Ben Wattenberg, and James Q. Wilson.

Harper’s popularized so many right-wing economic and environmental ideas that Rob Stein might want to add another slide to his PowerPoint presentation naming Lapham an emeritus member of the conservative message machine.

I joke. But barely. I imagine that what drew Lapham to these writers was his taste for heresy—he’s always loved starting fights on the playground and then bringing them back into the classroom. It’s difficult to convey how unkosher these writers were in the late ‘70s, a time when liberal Democrats ruled Washington and the liberal establishment ran the media. Publishing contrary pieces gave Harper’s an ecumenical edge because alongside the right-wing shit-stirrers, Lapham ran pieces by the brightest on the left—Richard J. Barnet, Edward Abbey, Andrew Hacker, George McGovern, Alexander Cockburn, Walter Karp, Michael Harrington, and William Shawcross, to name a few.

Lapham II may still tilt against power, but he rarely deviates from the liberal-to-left orthodoxy, stocking his pages with the likes of Mike Davis, Francine Prose, Eric Foner, Gene Lyons, Jonathan Schell, Bill McKibben, Greg Palast, John Berger, Naomi Klein, Tony Kushner, Tom Frank, and E.L. Doctorow. Now, I like these writers as much as the next guy—as long as the next guy isn’t a member of the Democratic Socialists of America—but if I want to read The Nation, I would read The Nation.

How did Lapham turn into such a one-note artist? It’s no accident, I think, that Lapham I’s salad days came when the magazine was a for-profit, money-losing enterprise that might expire any day. Perhaps editing on death row loosened Lapham’s intellectual inhibitions. As the magazine’s finances deteriorated in 1980, its capitalist owners declared it extinct. Rescuing the magazine as Lapham departed was a deep-pocketed liberal foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (“Big Mac,” as it’s known in philanthropy circles), and an oil company, Atlantic Richfield.

After Michael Kinsley had a brief run as editor, Lapham returned to the Harper’s helm in 1983. The magazine survives at its 210,000 circulation two decades later, thanks to a subsidy that now runs to more than $2 million annually from the liberal J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation (“Little Mac”).

(Add the $2,150,000 grant Little Mac gave Harper’s in 2003 to what Big Mac [$7.5 million] and the Schumann Center [$4.3 million] gave to liberal media in 2003, and you almost hit $14 million. Magazines supported by conservative foundations—the National Interest, the Public Interest, the New Criterion, Commentary, Policy Review, Reason—aren’t sucking up anywhere near that kind of money from their benefactors. Reason, which is representative of the bunch, received $1.4 million in subsidies from donors last year. In other words, if the three liberal foundations concentrated their philanthropy on magazines that lost only $1.4 million a year, they could support 10 like-sized publications.)

One subtext of Lapham’s essay is that right-wing foundations have corrupted intellectuals and journalists and tarnished the national debate by encouraging them to write what their fascist patrons want to hear. If true, it’s only fair to apply the equation to the beneficiaries of left-wing foundations, such as Harper’s. In lashing out at conservative moneybags, is Lapham carrying water for his liberal funder?

“I still think of the magazine as a centrist magazine,” he tells me, proudly pointing out that he was tough on Clinton, too. (But wasn’t Clinton a centrist? I’m confused.) It’s the country that’s shifted right, he believes, making him appear left-wing. If that’s so, that makes him Zell Miller in reverse.

Harper’s publishes fewer conservative writers today, he explains, because their submissions have become less speculative and more predictable. It’s a shame he hasn’t noticed the same about his lefty writers, many of whom compose their pieces in closed, Foucaultian boxes.

The $200,000 Question

The most entertaining passage in Lapham’s essay comes where he describes dancing with neoconservative éminence grise Irving Kristol, who is known for reaching out to tap promising journalists and enlist them in the neocon empire at good pay.

“I was flattered by his inclination to regard me as an editor-of-promise who might be recruited to the conservative cause, presumably as an agent in place behind enemy lines,” Lapham writes of Kristol.

Lapham declines the advances, but between Harper’s stints, he met with the executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation, Michael Joyce, at Kristol’s suggestion. Joyce was planning the magazine that would eventually become the New Criterion, a publication its backers hoped would “rebut and confound the ravings of the New York Review of Books,” Lapham writes.

Lapham writes that Joyce offered him $200,000 a year to edit the new publication, to be paid even if he quit or retired. In a telephone interview, Joyce says he discussed the startup with Lapham in early 1982 but denies having offered him such an extraordinary sum or the job itself. “I was hardly in a position to offer him anything,” Joyce says. The job went to Hilton Kramer in April 1982.

Lapham stands by his $200,000 story. “I reported the conversation the best that I remember it,” he insists in a telephone interview. “It was an astonishing offer. And I can remember being astonished.”

The story is made all the more astonishing when you run the numbers through an inflation calculator: $200,000 in 1982 dollars works out to $386,178 in 2003 dollars. Does any editor in foundation-financed journalism make that sort of money? Does anybody at the New Criterion make that sort of money today? The Form 990 filed for 2002 by the New Criterion’s Foundation for Cultural Review lists Editor and Publisher Hilton Kramer earning $107,000 and Managing Editor Roger Kimball earning $137,265—a far cry from the sum Lapham claims to have been offered.

Is Lapham guilty of phoning the New Criterion story in? Or is he just engaging in poetic license and rhetorical invention?

Reviewing a Lapham book for the Wall Street Journal in 1988, David Brooks described Lapham as he once was, a “freethinker, free to the point of formless and self-contradictory. Sometimes he sounds like Abbie Hoffman, and other times like Milton Friedman; sometimes like Allan Bloom, other times like the lead guitarist of Iron Maiden.”

Although Brooks is knocking Lapham, he inadvertently captures the multiple-personality disorder that made him an interesting editor. Lapham’s magazine once contained multitudes, and so did he. But not anymore.


Disclosures: 1) I worked for two and half years in the early ‘80s for Inquiry magazine, which was funded by the libertarian Koch brothers. 2) Michael Kinsley, who hired me before Slate’s launch, replaced Lapham as editor of Harper’s,and he was replaced in turn by Lapham. Kinsley and Lapham snipe and snarl at one another from time to time, but I have no dog in that fight. Send your disclosures to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)