This Journalistic Lightning Rod Has a Few Regrets

From a New York Times book review by Dwight Garner headlined “A Lightning Rod Defends His Legacy (and Has a Few Regrets)”:

“When you talk about politics,” the critic Irving Howe said, “you should stand.” Martin Peretz quotes this line early in “The Controversialist,” his new memoir, as a style of moralizing he was never crazy about. But the observation suits him. Peretz writes as if he were pacing around a dining-room table, ego and self-loathing fighting it out in his head.

For nearly four decades, Peretz (everyone calls him Marty) was the kibitzing, buttinsky publisher and editor in chief of The New Republic, which was the most vital opinion magazine in America for stretches of the 1980s and ’90s. He taught for five decades at Harvard, which he treated like his magazine’s farm team.

He knew nearly everyone who mattered in the intertwined worlds of journalism, academia and government. Martin Luther King Jr. came to his house for dinner; he was Al Gore’s first phone call after Gore, his protégé, officially lost the 2000 election; Yo-Yo Ma played at his birthday parties; Norman Mailer punched him in a Provincetown restaurant. This is scratching the surface of the surface.

Peretz married Anne Devereux Labouisse, an heir to the Singer sewing machine company fortune. When he wasn’t invited to the best arguments, he bought his way in. He liked open letters and fiery petitions. He wore his controversial brand of Zionism as if it were a beret. He was the kind of guy who, if everyone at a memorial service was asked to keep it to five minutes, would go on for 20.

I find myself slipping into the past tense. Peretz is, circa right now, at least 64 percent canceled. The official end came in 2010, when he was blogging (“a mistake,” he writes). He made several expedient comments, in the context of a larger argument, including that Muslims may not be worthy of First Amendment protections and that “Muslim life is cheap.” The indignation did not let up for a long time. He writes about the aftermath:

The invasion of Iraq, which I backed, is a disaster; the financial system that my friends helped build has crashed; my wife and I are divorced; The New Republic is sold after I feared going bust — and here I am in my white suit walking across Harvard Yard, surrounded by students: “Harvard, Harvard, shame on you, honoring a racist fool.” The racist fool is, apparently, me. It’s a sodden coda, one I don’t quite grasp, or believe.

More was to come. His iteration of The New Republic did not fare well, in the rearview mirror, under the inquisitive searchlights of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. The magazine’s longtime literary editor, the lion-maned Leon Wieseltier, who left in 2014, was accused three years later of sexual harassment during his time at The New Republic. The magazine’s decision to publish an excerpt from Charles Murray’s third-rail-gripping 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” in part about racial differences in I.Q., continues to elicit reproof. Add to this the fabrications and plagiarism of the writers Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit, and The New Republic of the Peretz era can in retrospect begin to resemble, to many, a leaky, disreputable ghost barge.

Peretz is sorry about some of these things. He quickly apologized, he notes here, for his “wild and wounding” language about Muslims. He regrets “not recognizing the plight of the Black underclass in the pages of The New Republic.” He regrets (“regret is not a big enough word”) supporting the invasion of Iraq. But he defends the decision to publish Murray (“Murray is a person who matters”) alongside dissenting opinions, and he stands by Wieseltier, “an intellectual who is also a man of the senses.” He writes: “The truth is that Leon may have been disrespectful to women, but he has also respected them and their work.” He notes that Wieseltier’s new magazine, Liberties, publishes Martha Nussbaum, Helen Vendler and Louise Glück.

He’d much rather talk about his magazine’s high points, such as Andrew Sullivan’s landmark cover story making the conservative case for gay marriage in 1989. They also include publishing the reporting that led to Samantha Powers’s book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

He’s proud too, of gathering a group of some of the era’s liveliest thinkers, writers and editors, including Michael Kinsley, Hendrik Hertzberg and Charles Krauthammer. Kinsley was the reason I adored the magazine. He had a nearly Martian intelligence, and the dryness of his wit turned his opponents into pillars of salt. Office high jinks are recounted, such as the time Krauthammer had the password of a master hard drive permanently changed to “Kemp,” after the conservative congressman Jack Kemp, whom Hertzberg loathed.

The punch from Mailer arrived in Peretz’s solar plexus after The New Republic reviewed Mailer’s novel “The Gospel According to the Son” (1997), which reworked the life of Jesus Christ. It was a brutal review, by James Wood. The cover of the issue depicted Mailer on a cross, with the headline “He Is Finished.”

“The Controversialist” is well-written, chewy with anecdote and often very funny. It is hard to sound like yourself when you are writing, but Peretz manages to do so. He grew up in the Bronx, at a time when New York “was not really a melting pot: It was more like a TV dinner.” His father owned a pocketbook factory and was a landlord.

Peretz got into Princeton but backed out after he realized that, as a Jew, he’d never be admitted into the college’s elite eating clubs. He attended Brandeis instead, where his classmates included Abbie Hoffman and Louise Lasser. His professors included C. Wright Mills and Philip Rieff. He loved the ferment of the place. He writes about his dawning awareness that he was sexually attracted to men.

Peretz grew a beard and got a job teaching at Harvard. He was in Mailer’s apartment (long before the magazine crucified him) on the night Mailer stabbed his second wife. He married Labouisse, who was “astoundingly, alienatingly rich.” They became famous for their dinner parties in Cambridge. They had a long, skinny table, so everyone was right in one another’s faces. Talk had to be general, a single conversation. No peeling off.

William F. Buckley Jr. edited The National Review, if his memoir “Overdrive” can be believed, from a never-ending series of planes, trains, automobiles and sailboats. Peretz traveled more serenely, but he was “where you should be all the time,” to quote the Carly Simon lyric. There are a lot of sentences in this book such as, “Anne and I were having a party in Truro the next night, and first to arrive were Diana and Lionel Trilling,” and “Al called me in Italy, at the villa of I Tatti.”

Some scores are settled. He refers to the political theorist Judith Shklar as someone “who knew Yiddish but was still no fun to talk to.” The sociologist Barrington Moore Jr. is “an adherent of the working class whose most troubled times were when the motor on his yacht was not working.” Susan Sontag never thanked him for helping pay for her medical expenses when she was ill with cancer, Peretz complains, and worse, Sontag put his wife down by telling her, “You are a very good homemaker.” And so on.

Peretz has a sense of humor about himself. When Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel in October 1973, he was on the Cape. He immediately called Simcha Dinitz, Israel’s ambassador to America, and asked, “What’s going on?” Dinitz replied: “What’s going on is too important for me to be talking to you now.”

Peretz misses his power perches. He misses the arena. He doesn’t like what’s happening to America’s politics and media. But he has his memories. About his life and times, he comments, “They were thick eras, and I was in the thick of them.”

THE CONTROVERSIALIST: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center | By Martin Peretz | 351 pp. | Wicked Son | $28

Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008. His new book, “The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading,” is out this fall.

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