The art critic Harold Rosenberg once referred to the New York intellectuals as a herd of independent minds. It’s not a verdict anyone would apply to Martin Peretz, the former publisher of The New Republic, which was founded in 1914. Peretz was the most influential intellectual impresario of the late twentieth century, a left-wing firebrand during the 1960s who ended up moving right but, unlike many of the neoconservatives, never abandoned the Democratic Party. Instead, he battled it from within.
After he acquired the venerable liberal publication for $380,000 in 1974, Peretz, an impassioned supporter of Israel and a foe of affirmative action, moved swiftly to reinvent it. He succeeded. By the early 1980s, TNR, as it was known to its staff and fans, became a hot number in Washington. It boasted some of the leading writers and editors in the business, including Michael Kinsley, Hendrik Hertzberg, and Leon Wieseltier, and attracted attention for its courageous—or, depending on your viewpoint, schizophrenic—stands, ranging from support for the Nicaraguan Contras to denunciations of Reagan administration domestic policy. Conservatives loved to hate it and liberals hated to love it. By the 1990s, the magazine could brag that it was required reading on Air Force One.
But as that decade wore on, the magazine began to attract attention for the wrong reasons—staff writer Stephen Glass, TNR’s chief fact-checker, was outed as a fabulist, and writer Ruth Shalit exposed as a plagiarist. Next, the editors, consistent with their penchant for a hawkish foreign policy, embraced the George W. Bush administration’s push for war in Iraq, while sneering at opposition to it. Readership plummeted. By 2010, when Harvard, where Peretz taught for decades, held a ceremony honoring a new research fund in his name, student protesters chased him through Harvard Yard, chanting that he was a racist. How did it all go wrong?
In his new memoir, The Controversialist, Peretz offers a gritty, propulsive, and fascinating account of his career. While Peretz may be known for his pugnacity, his memoir, it must be said, largely steers clear of cheap shots and tedious self-justifications. Instead, it carefully recounts his role in the rise of a Jewish intellectual movement that replaced an old and tired WASP establishment. What his memoir inadvertently makes clear, however, is that ultimately TNR became a victim of its own success.
Some of the most gripping portions of Peretz’s memoir center on his formative years growing up in the Bronx, the child of Jewish parents who had numerous relations in eastern Europe who were murdered by the Nazis. Peretz, who was born a month before Hitler invaded Poland, attended the Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul 45 in the afternoons to learn Yiddish. He had a turbulent relationship with his Old Testament father, but proudly recalls that “the one thing I had from my father, the thing I could always rely on: I was Jewish and American at all times, and there was no contradiction between those inheritances.”
After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, Peretz entered Brandeis University, where he became editor of the school newspaper, The Justice, and studied with Herbert Marcuse and Max Lerner. It was the larger-than-life Lerner—a Russian Jew, prominent journalist, educator, lover of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe—whom Peretz sought to emulate. According to Peretz,
He’d come from some shtetl in Russia and now he was teaching at great universities and writing for a big newspaper and fucking movie stars and fighting for America—and what a great country this was! He was a happy man, and the implicit promise of his life was that you and I could be happy in this country in this way, too.
At Harvard, where Peretz earned his PhD under the legendary Sovietologist Adam Ulam, he found a different atmosphere. Ulam, Peretz reports, had emigrated from Lodz but was “afraid of being thought a Jew” and pretended to be a Protestant. Another set of Jews at Harvard, Peretz writes, were the assimilated upper-class Germans who “weren’t afraid or aspirational but simply established.” With his own pronounced Yiddishkeit, Peretz may have stuck out among the genteel Brahmins, but Harvard’s intellectual traditions exerted a magnetic attraction on him. Too impatient to pursue the standard academic track for tenure, he instead became a permanent lecturer in the fledgling social studies program, whose most talented students he tapped to work at his mothership in Washington.
During his early years at TNR, Peretz was invigorated by the challenge of restoring the weekly to its previous prominence. “Together,” he writes, “we were upstarts—young and pluralist, Jewish and intellectual, not afraid to provoke. But we also came with the imprimatur of the best institutions: Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford.” In addition, Peretz tapped into his contacts abroad, including the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, to warn about the Soviet threat. His assessment of Lévy is characteristically unvarnished: “BHL was also a little bit of a showboat, you couldn’t deny that. He was easy for some people to hate. But he didn’t care. And I didn’t either.”
After savaging Jimmy Carter as an inept and feckless president, TNR was more than a little receptive to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, at least when it came to foreign affairs, much to the dismay of the Council on Foreign Relations crowd, which preached accommodation rather than confrontation with the Kremlin. Peretz himself was often accused of apostasy from liberalism. Not surprisingly, he has a different take. As he depicts it, TNR was struggling against three forces—the Reagan right wing, the left, and the neoconservatives. In some respects, this was true. When Peretz tapped Andrew Sullivan, a young British Tory, to become editor in 1991, it was a boldly unconventional choice. Sullivan, a supremely gifted stylist, recognized that the culture wars were central to American politics, and led a crusade for gay marriage that was as prescient as it was pivotal. But there can be no denying that, as the years went by, the magazine also became increasingly receptive to right-wing lunacy, whether it was Betsy McCaughey’s phantasmagoric cover story, “No Exit,” about Bill Clinton’s health care plan, or Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s unsavory meditations about a connection between race and IQ, both of which appeared during Sullivan’s tenure as editor.
The problem was pretty basic. Over the decades, Peretz had battled for a president who would more or less represent the credo of the Democratic Leadership Council. He thought, or at least hoped, that his protégé Al Gore would capture the Democratic nomination for president, but it was another southern politician, Bill Clinton, who did. In 1992, once Clinton became president, the magazine (where I worked from 1996 to 1999) remained on automatic pilot in its hostility to a mainstream Democratic president. It culminated in the brief tenure of Michael Kelly, who almost exhausted the vocabulary of abuse in the English language as he flayed Clinton each week for his various transgressions. Kelly was a brilliantly talented writer, but he became obsessed with denouncing Clinton. In a climactic showdown, Peretz ended up firing Kelly after he targeted Gore as well.
If TNR gradually became more predictable in its stands, it was also the case that on the issue of Israel it never deviated one iota. Here, more than anywhere else, was where Peretz overlapped with the neocons. Peretz himself observes that his detractors
thought it was my obsession, and they were right about that. Zionism was the one thing I absolutely would not compromise on, the one way I unilaterally exercised my ownership prerogative. When it came to Israel, I answered to no one but myself. I knew what I was talking about.
Maybe so, but was shielding Israel, as far as possible, from criticism really doing it any favors? The fact that Peretz, together with Wieseltier, Paul Berman, and Michael Walzer, felt compelled recently to write an op-ed in The Washington Post deploring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to suborn its judiciary suggests a different conclusion.
Peretz’s own difficulties began when he wrote a blog called “The Spine” that allowed him to ventilate his views about the Middle East as he pleased. In one entry in 2010, he declared that “Muslim life is cheap,” a statement that was widely denounced. The former 1960s radical had come full circle, denounced as a reactionary racist. The truth, as this memoir shows, is more complicated than that. A natural-born fighter with a proclivity for sweeping pronouncements, he acknowledges that he went off the rails. At bottom, Peretz, you could say, is more of a disillusioned liberal than a reactionary figure.
With his relationship to TNR severed, Peretz only wrote sporadically on politics and foreign affairs. Perhaps that had a liberating effect on him. His memoir is the great book he never wrote at Harvard, a profound accounting of the passions that for several decades propelled him to the center of intellectual disputes about liberalism, Judaism, and America. Anyone interested in those controversies would do well to read The Controversialist.