The publisher's putsch

The exit of a British editor from the helm of an American political weekly had little to do with his having HIV, says Christopher Hitchens
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The Independent Online
Not very many moons ago, Andrew Sullivan called Dominic Lawson at the Spectator. It was a thumbs-up call. Mr Lawson's celebrated article on the birth of his Down's Syndrome daughter would be running in The New Republic. Normally, an editor's say-so in these matters will suffice. But not in this instance and not at this magazine.

Martin Peretz, the proprietor, and Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor, had an icy word with Mr Sullivan. Did he suppose, they inquired, that The New Republic would be running an article, on any subject, by the man who had published William Cash's little effort on the domination of Hollywood by the Jews? If he did, he was most gravely mistaken.

This illuminates both the immediate question of Sullivan's departure and what might be termed the sub-text of office politics. Nobody really edits The New Republic except Martin Peretz, who does so by the grace of his wife's large fortune. (Ann Peretz is the heiress to the Singer sewing machine empire). And Andrew Sullivan is not the first lucum tenens to have made this discovery. This week's "resignation" is the culmination of a long series of disputes and misfortunes. But it is also the latest illustration of an old tension.

Lawson apart, Sullivan did not endear himself to his superiors by letting the magazine in for two very exhausting lawsuits. Libel suits are not as common, or as easy to bring, in the United States as they are in England. But if you call an innocent man a convicted felon, or a powerful politician a mobster, you can still expect trouble. The New Republic is being sued by a senior member of Mayor Marion Barry's entourage and by the leading Cuban-American Jorge Mas Canosa. In both instances, the libellous allegation resulted from editorial carelessness. The word "mobster" was not in the original article, but was put on the cover without the knowledge of the author. The allegation of felony conviction was made by Ms Ruth Shalit who, due to accusations of plagiarism for a different article, was given a temporary "leave of absence" a short while ago, after being protected by Mr Sullivan for longer than some thought prudent.

Behind this is what I think of as a quarrel between the Old and New Testaments. Peretz and especially Wieseltier are committed Zionists, committed conservative Democrats and given to taking a stern moral tone which their detractors find pompous and absurd. (Their ideal politician is their mutual friend Albert Gore, who might be described as Andrew Sullivan's polar opposite in point of temperament.) Sullivan, despite his allegedly Oakeshottian Toryism, is a playful and ironic type of no fixed abode, more inclined to stress compassion and forgiveness than to call down a Jeremiad. He is of the flighty Catholic reactionary generation of what I call "Brideshead Regurgitated".

Sullivan made the magazine a sort of style section for the light of heart and light of mind and when he went "serious" (as when he decided to publish Charles Murray's lucubrations on the IQ deficit of black Americans), he offended a lot of people. His departure was supposed to indicate a return to seriousness, so that when he finessed the announcement by wedding it to his revelation about being HIV positive, he robbed his enemies on the magazine of their clarifying moment. Only this, I think, can explain the extraordinary sourness of Leon Wieseltier's riposte.

"I wish Andrew a long and fruitful life," he said. "But he's changing the subject. The problems around this office were not medical problems. He was responsible for an extraordinary amount of professional and personal unhappiness. In his little farewell address, he said he feels unburdened. Well, he's not alone."

Now, I'm very much against people speaking pieties on occasions such as this. But Sullivan has actually won some admiration around town for his fortitude in the face of Aids (other people's, as well as his own) and the most often-heard view as I write is that Wieseltier missed a perfectly good chance of keeping his mouth shut.

Does this episode have any implications beyond itself? A couple of years ago, Sullivan showed every promise of being a star. He had an attractive personality, youth on his side and though he had sub-Chestertonian politics, he had shown that he could write with wit as well as conviction. Are we witnessing a backlash against pretty Brit journalists with flair and dash? I can think of a number of aspiring scribblers who were pondering this question with no little anxiety as they perused their newspapers over the weekend, but I don't believe the fall-out will be that tremendous.

For one thing, I don't believe that it will lead to Sullivan's eclipse. He says he shouted "free at last" to himself as he exited the office and, though it's true that he was pushed, he was also going anyway. He will continue to be in demand, and will spend the next few days fending off all sorts of offers. He's also got himself a decent book contract. In time, his editorial gaffes will fade. (It may not have been all that smart to run Camille Paglia - Sullivan's favourite essayist on almost all matters - as a cover-writer on Hillary Clinton with the title "Ice Queen/Drag Queen". At the opening of the Clinton campaign, The New Republic was much too un-critical of the Little Rockers. Now it's critical, but in too flippant a fashion).

I should declare my interest and say that for the past 14 years I have been a columnist for The Nation, which has been The New Republic's long- time rival. These same years have roughly co-existed with the Peretz epoch. A magazine once associated with the names of Edmund Wilson and Walter Lippman - high priests of American sourness and exalted liberalism - has become the victim of the fluctuating caprice of a man with a bonnet full of bees. Finding a new editor and favourite, Peretz swings between being at his feet and at his throat. Who will be bold enough to work as the next front man for such a proprietor?

Even five years ago, such a storm at The New Republic would have been big stuff all over Washington. The big story now is that there is no big story. The magazine has lost its standing and has started looking for a "formula". Its internal disputes are no longer ideological but emotional. Its office gossip is tawdry. Its better writers, such as Michael Kinsley, have gone elsewhere and I know of more than one senior contributor who contemplates doing the same. Last week was a milestone in the decline of a magazine, not of the health of an editor.

The author writes the `Fin de Siecle' column for `Vanity Fair'.

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