I count many friends at the New Republic and no enemies—well, one enemy —so when I wish it and its incoming editor, Franklin Foer, thousands and thousands of happy pages in the coming years, I’m being sincere.
The magazine needn’t depend on anybody’s good wishes, of course, benefiting as it does from its deep-pocketed, committed owners, its well-established franchise, and its staff of hard-nosed, clever writers. Yet the central place in the political and cultural debate that the New Republic once occupied no longer exists, so Foer can’t possibly reclaim it, no matter how briskly he steers the magazine.
It’s not just that the sheer volume of argument, reportage, and conversation produced by cable, the airwaves, and the Internet have swamped the old order in which the New Republic, the National Review, and The Nation once reigned. It’s that under outgoing editor Peter Beinart, the magazine invested inordinate energy to navigate to an island inhabited by only the couple of dozen Democrats who were as devoted as it was to the defense of Israel and a pro-Iraq war policy that was also anti-Bush. Unable to move left and having shifted as far right on foreign policy as physically possible, Beinart’s magazine became in its final months a sort of Joe Lieberman Weekly: daring in its audacity but of more interest to Republicans than Democrats, the magazine’s traditional constituency.
It’s not Beinart’s fault that he was editor during the interval when long-time owner and editor-in-chief Martin Peretz winnowed his three obsessions—Israel, race, and Al Gore—to one: Israel. Had Beinart piloted the New Republic in an earlier era, when Michael Kinsley, Hendrik Hertzberg, Andrew Sullivan, and Michael Kelly thrived, his magazine might not have sounded so one-note. Had Peretz still been working through three obsessions instead of one, Beinart might have found the breathing room to put a more interesting brand of unorthodox into his unorthodoxy. It doesn’t make much sense for a neoliberal publication to savage Democrats repeatedly, as Beinart’s magazine has, when Republicans run all three branches of government.
Foer, with whom I worked at Slate in its early years, is that rare intellectual who finds his exhilaration while reporting a story. His sensibility, which combines the mischievousness of Michael Kelly with the sobriety of Charles Lane, could lead the front of the book out of its current malaise. (The back of the book, commanded by Leon Wieseltier for decades, remains unchanged with each new administration.) The staff Foer inherits produces, on average, sounder journalism than I read in The Nation, the American Prospect, the Weekly Standard,the National Review, and Mother Jones. But I don’t visit the New Republic as often as I do, say, the Weekly Standard, because too many of its pieces taste of medicine that’s supposed to be good for me. (See John Powers’ brilliant LA Weekly piece about how the right-wingers swiped fun from liberals.) The New Republic’s young staff, for some perverse reason, has been encouraged to write like old farts when they’re completely capable of having fun while saving the world if their editor will only let them.
The New Republic needs revival, but Foer can’t hope to revive it by pleasing Peretz. I don’t have a prescription for him, nor do I think he should worry too much about the Internet wave that will ultimately scuttle his print publication and others in its genre. But I do have some advice. Don’t try to bring back the “Kinsley era.” Make the magazine about ideas, but don’t break icons for the sake of being iconoclastic, which is another way of saying, “Don’t think anybody is going to be impressed because they’re encountering a Weekly Standard idea in your pages.”
As Bob Woodward once put it, all great work is done in defiance of authority, and the best New Republics have been edited by strong-minded journalists who gladly quit or braved the chances of getting fired when Peretzism ran rampant. Foer shouldn’t let Peretz honeymoon him, and he shouldn’t honeymoon Peretz. My prayer for Foer is that he edit the New Republic as if he’s going to be fired tomorrow, because tomorrow always comes sooner than you think.
Fun Frankie Foer Fact: He knows more about Russell Kirk and Albert Jay Nock than the combined Weekly Standard and National Review mastheads. Send your Fun Frankie Foer Fact to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)