Sep 1 2004

Not Even the New Republic

The New Republic: Liberalism and American PowerFor decades, journalists and pundits have invoked the New Republic magazine to prove that a conservative idea has support across the spectrum. Drawing on the magazine’s historical association with the American left, the phrase “even the New Republic,” as in “even the New Republic supports the Contras,” has become journalistic shorthand for “even liberal opinion leaders.”

Thus media writer Howard Kurtz (Washington Post , 6/19/04) began a recent “Media Notes” column: “Ever since the New Republic broke with liberal orthodoxy by strongly supporting President Bush’s war with Iraq….” He went on to describe the magazine as a “left-leaning weekly.”

Once TNR , along with The Nation , was indeed a leading journal of left opinion. But when Martin Peretz, a Harvard instructor best known for his outspoken pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian views, purchased it in 1974 with money from his wife’s inheritance, the magazine’s politics swung unmistakably rightward (Extra!, 7-8/90). TNR ‘s decisive departure from the left is old news, perhaps best illustrated by its editorial support for every major U.S. military intervention in the last two decades: the 1983 Grenada invasion, the 1986 bombing of Libya and the 1989 Panama invasion, as well as both wars against Iraq. The magazine also repeatedly editorialized in support of the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, who deliberately killed thousands of civilians.

A survey of the magazine’s weekly unsigned editorials reveals a commitment to middle-of-the-road domestic and trade politics. In 1995, conservative TNR editor Andrew Sullivan (Washington Post , 4/8/95) asserted that his magazine could not be faulted for hypocrisy over its lack of diversity because “we’ve taken an editorial position against affirmative action.” The magazine also supported the roll-back of welfare in 1996 and continues to judge policy-makers based on their record of support or opposition to it (11/24/03).

More recently, TNR (1/19/04) endorsed the presidential candidacy of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the most conservative of the 2004 Democratic presidential hopefuls, saying that “for over a decade, few Democrats have better embodied the principles we hoped would one day define the party as a whole.” TNR has championed Lieberman’s centrism throughout much of his career, faltering in its support of him only rarely, as when he changed his position to support affirmative action in 2000 (TNR , 11/13/00).

After the 2002 mid-term elections, the magazine had this advice for the defeated Democrats (11/18/02): “The party needs centrist leaders willing to give the country not merely a Democratic alternative but an attractive one.” Consistent with that recommendation, over the past four years TNR has endorsed fast-track trade authorization (12/24/01), criticized Bush’s Israel policy from the right (4/5/04) and urged the Democrats to endorse drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as part of a deal with congressional Republicans (5/6/02). Soon after the September 11 attacks, owner Martin Peretz (10/15/01) opined in favor of racial profiling.

TNR ‘s long-term support for issues close to conservative hearts and its consistent calls for the Democratic party to move to the right make it difficult to imagine what Kurtz and his fellows have in mind when they associate the magazine with “liberal orthodoxy.” True, TNR has sometimes supported liberal and progressive causes such as gay marriage (12/01/03) and strong gun control laws (e.g., 4/3/00). And the magazine has over the years provided a home for liberal thinkers such as Hendrik Hertzberg, John Judis and Sidney Blumenthal.

But along with its liberals, the magazine has also cultivated a host of prominent conservative pundits, including Andrew Sullivan, the late Michael Kelly and Lawrence F. Kaplan. A 1990 TNR house ad touted the television prominence (“Air Power”) of three TNR big shots: staunch conservatives Fred Barnes and Charles Krauthammer, and center-right pundit Morton Kondracke. The three TNR alums are currently Fox News All-Stars, appearing on the right-dominated panel at the end of each edition of Fox’s Special Report with Brit Hume.

Hertzberg, a former TNR editor, balks at the characterization of TNR as a progressive journal. In February 2003 he told the New York Observer (2/24/03): “The old ‘even The New Republic …’ scam was getting a little old in the 1980s; now it’s a quarter of a century old.” And as far back as 1990, former TNR editor Michael Kinsley admitted that the magazine was basically “centrist” (Extra! , 5-6/90).

Even Kurtz himself once seemed to know this; more than a year ago (Washington Post , 2/24/03), he commented that under current editor Peter Beinart the magazine sees “the Democratic Party these days as an assortment of duplicitous, racially hypersensitive war wimps.” In a conversation with Extra! , Beinart explained that he sees the magazine as pursuing “liberal values as opposed to conservative values,” but suggested that “one of the reasons the magazine exists is to contest the definition of liberal.” As Abraham Lincoln liked to say, calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.