Having subscribed to the New Republic for about thirty years and appeared in it a few times when Marty Peretz ran it, I eagerly made my way through his autobiography The Controversialist a week or two ago. It was apparently much in demand in the west suburbs of Boston, and it took months for the library consortium to come up with a copy for me. The book has drawn numerous reviews on line, most of which seem to make the same points about him and his career, and I will not go into those at any length. Regarding his sexuality, as they note, Peretz declares himself gay in the book but says very little about that side of his life, never mentioning a single male sexual partner--and I don't care. Nobody owes the public a thorough account of their sex life. Peretz's book deals with his contributions to American public life, just as A Life in History dealt almost exclusively with my career in academia. Incidentally, I have no idea if Peretz has a google alert for his name active, but if he somehow happens to read this piece, I am sure he would enjoy A Life in History. Like his book, it has a great deal of information about the inner workings of Harvard, with which we were both so closely associated for so long. That common association eventually brought us together for a while, but I will leave that story for the end of this piece.
Peretz was born in 1939 in the Bronx to immigrant Jewish parents from Poland. His father was a successful small businessman and landlord. Peretz graduated from Bronx High School of Science, one of New York city 's competitive high schools, and probably in the 1950s the most difficult school in the country to get into. He got into Princeton but went to Brandeis instead--and this leads me to my first relatively original observation about this book.
Peretz in his heyday at the New Republic, particularly from the 1980s, despised the label "neoconservative," but he certainly was a center-right figure and as he admits, his foreign policy views generally accorded with those of recognized neoconservatives. Thus many have forgotten or do not know that until the mid-1970s he ranked as a leftist--and his leftism dated from before leftism once again became fashionable. He had, he tells us, two mentors at Brandeis. The first was Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist, founder of critical theory, and prophet of the New Left, to which Peretz clearly belonged at least until a fateful conference in Chicago in 1967. He evidently had more political influence upon the young Peretz than Max Lerner, his second mentor, and a devout believer in the American experiment. Yet at no time in the book does Peretz really tell us anything substantial about his leftist beliefs in that era. The Marcuse book that hand the most influence upon him, he says, was Eros and Civilization--because it encouraged young people to explore their sexuality. He describes some relatively early civil rights activism, and in 1962, he joined the quixotic Senate campaign of Harvard professor H. Stuart Hughes, whom I became friendly with in graduate school, an independent run against Teddy Kennedy that called for a more reserved Cold War foreign policy. He also mentions his sympathy for Fidel Castro. In the middle of the decade, he like so many others became a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, and in 1966 he took up the cause of Biafra, the secessionist Nigerian province that the Nigerian government brutally suppressed By 1967, he was helping to organize a Chicago conference of white and black leftists who were looking for a candidate to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination in 1968. By that time he had married a very wealthy heiress, Anne Deveraux Labouisse, who became his political partner and whose fortune made him a significant political contributor, at least by the more restrained standards of the 1960s. What is completely missing from this account of his youth is any indication of his views on economic questions--surely a remarkable omission from one who counted the leading Marxist of the mid-twentieth century as one of his mentors.
About twenty years ago, Judith Klinghoffer wrote an interesting book, Vietnam, Jews, and the Middle East, showing how the 1967 Six Day War had shifted the identities and the politics of many American Jews by awakening new feelings for Israel. Some of them, she showed, noticed that the United States emerged in that crisis as one of Israel's few friends, and therefore began to favor an aggressive US foreign policy around the world in the hope that it would make Israel more secure. Peretz makes clear in his book that his identification with Israel went back much further than 1967, but the war's aftermath changed his trajectory for another reason. At the Chicago conference of radicals, black militants took over, spurned any white input, and insisted on passing an anti-Zionist resolution. The black-Jewish alliance on civil rights was coming to an end. Peretz remained a dove on Vietnam, and indeed became a significant player (in his account at least) in the Eugene McCarthy campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1968. He also participated in the McGovern campaign in 1972--although he tells us that he wound up voting for Nixon, partly, he says, because he was sure McGovern "had [Israel] in his sights." I too supported both McCarthy and McGovern, and got to know McGovern slightly, and for what it is worth, I think he was a far superior public servant to McCarthy and a much friendlier human being.
Two years later The New Republic was up for sale, and Peretz bought it. He rapidly changed its personnel and its political line, from moderate left to center-right--although as he points out, some leftist material continued to appear in it on some topics for a long time. He went through a great many editors, a process he details without ever conceding that he was not an easy man to work for. He continued to teach at Harvard (more on that later), and he brought a number of former students into the magazine. He writes rather fulsomely about many of these subordinates, especially Leon Wieseltier, his long-time literary editor, whom he describes as a genius--a judgment in which I cannot concur. The New Republic became a very reliable supporter of Israel--although not always uncritical--and, in the 1980s, a supporter of Ronald Reagan's anti-Communist counteroffensive in the Third World. The left wing of the Democratic Party, it is fair to say, became its most common target. Yet I came away from the book feeling that Peretz's personal likes and dislikes had an extraordinary degree of influence on its political stances. Bill Clinton's policies, in retrospect, seem very similar to Peretz's preferences, and he also had elevated Peretz's former student and protégé, Al Gore, to the Vice Presidency. But Peretz clearly disliked the Clintons, and probably the worst piece ever to appear in The New Republic was Betsy McCaughey's scurrilous, utterly discredited attack on Clinton's health care plan--for which Peretz refuses to apologize. He did not much care for Barack Obama either, and I don't think there is any reference to Obamacare in the book at all.
What struck me more than anything else in the book, however, was Peretz's worldview--an unusual one in his youth that has become a mainstream one now, especially although not exclusively on the left which he now despises. He is an avowed, unalloyed tribalist. This is not merely with respect to his Zionism. It colors his whole world view and his reaction to numerous individuals. He is profoundly skeptical about our whole foreign policy establishment because it tries, in theory at least, to treat all the peoples of the world equally. He does not believe in an American melting pot. And his tribalism--like that of many others--emerges most strikingly in his views of other members of his own tribe--Jews whom he believes to be too little interested in their Jewishness. His list of such people includes Harvard colleagues like Adam Ulam and David Riesman, George Soros, and Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, whose Jewish forbears renounced their Judaism. (I did not know--or I had forgotten--that John Kerry's paternal grandparents were converted Jews.) This was perhaps his generational rebellion. His own father, he tells us, was a proud American, and the Jews of the GI generation (like my own father) believed for the most part in assimilation, which not a few of them changed their names to achieve. Peretz doesn't. He believed in Jewish power within the system, and that is what he was trying to achieve.
I had to laugh at one passage in the book about The New Republic and the personnel he brought in. It occurs at the end of a long discussion of his favorite subordinates there--Leon Wieseltier, Michael Kinsley, Rick Hertzberg, and Charles Krauthammer. Here it is.
"Together 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. We weren't like anything old Washington had ever seen We were not on anybody's invitation list in those days. What we had was their attention. And we used it.
"Those people thought they had me pegged as a smart-ass pushy Jew. But they didn't expect the heft, the sheer braininess. They didn't expect the intellectual commitment. We had in our hears the worst atrocity in recorded history, and it affected our thinking, our approach, on the issues of the day. We were something altogether new. There had never been such a widely read magazine of Jewish journalists before.
"Mike and Rick, who served as the actual editors, didn't care much about the Jewish stuff. But Charles and Leon, who identified, were the authoritative voices in the pages. So, though this was never my conscious plan, the New Republic was a break for identifying Jews and Zionists in Washington."
The phrase "this was never my conscious plan" reminds me of one of the funniest lines Woody Allen ever wrote, in Manhattan, when he is arguing with his ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep) over whether he actually tried to run her and her female lover over with his car. "What would Freud say?" she asks. "Freud would say I tried to run you over," he replies. "That's why he was a genius."
Oddly, Peretz, who prides himself on being different, was a pioneer of the trend towards tribalism that has transformed American life over the last half century. The leaders in that trend, I would suggest, were the Zionists like himself and the black radicals who took away the leadership of the left at the Chicago conference in 1967. It has now spread not only to every major ethnic group, but also to different genders and people of different sexual orientations, and it has destroyed, for the time being, the possibility of any broad consensus among Americans. Partly because I have never felt that I had a tribe, I have been immune from the trend myself. Tribalism, as Peretz seems to understand, is contrary to the lessons of the Enlightenment, which thought that reason could overcome tribal loyalty. In the middle the the last century that seemed to be happening in the United States. Now we have been on a different path, which Peretz, in his own small way, contributed to. This, I am now inclined to believe, is a natural human reaction--too much universalism breeds tribalism, and vice versa.
Ultimately, a newer tribalism struck a big blow to Peretz's reputation and self-esteem. The book ends very sadly. In 2010, he and Anne, his political and social partner for so long, divorced. In 2012 he had to sell The New Republic to Chris Hughes, a tech wunderkind who immediately transformed it. And in the midst of this, writing a blog, he ignited a firestorm by protesting that Muslims did not "raise their voices against . . .planned and random killings all over the Islamic world," and suggested the Muslims in America were "worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse." He apologized for that when it triggered a firestorm of criticism, but it turned a 50th anniversary event at Harvard in his honor as an opportunity for students and some faculty to blast him.
I think I have faithfully conveyed the gist of The Controversialist--Peretz's memoir--yet I also know that my portrait has been too negative--because of the one brief, revealing experience that I had with him myself from 1979, I believe, though 1983. This leads to his Harvard experience, and mine.
Peretz owed his career as a Harvard teacher (never a professor) to a loophole in the university's structure. He earned his Ph.D. in Government in the early 1960s, just when the new major Social Studies was developed by my future friend Stanley Hoffmann. Drawing on faculty from the Government, History, Economics and Social Relations departments, Social Studies became an elite major that annually attracted some of Harvard's best students. Its introductory sophomore tutorial revolved around Tocqueville, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Freud. (In recent decades, it has added Foucault and Habermas.) Peretz, along with Barrington Moore, Jr., because a permanent, although untenured, faculty member within that program, although I don't believe he ever published any scholarly work other than a few academic reviews. He also taught a full-year course, I believe, annually in the freshman seminar program, where Al Gore was his most famous student. He was evidently a very effective teacher and he kept his finger on the pulse of undergraduate life through his students.
In 1979, when I was an Assistant Professor of history at Harvard, I decided to approach Peretz to see if I could review a polemic, The Real War, which Richard Nixon had just published, for The New Republic. I simply telephoned him out of the view. "I know about you, I've heard of you," he said immediately, indicating that we had had students in common. He told me to go ahead, turning me over to his literary editor Jack Beatty(whom he later let go), and I wrote the review, which appeared. I wrote at least one more review, of Dangerous Relations by Adam Ulam, for them in the next year or two.
In 1983, The New Republic was preparing a twentieth anniversary issue devoted to John F. Kennedy. I talked to Beatty about writing a piece about how Kennedy had been misunderstood by many recent commentators, and he told me to go ahead. I wrote the piece, focusing on Kennedy's skill as a politician--but Beatty didn't like it. I appealed to Peretz, and got a call back a few days later. "Good piece!" he said, and it ran. The week that it appeared, George Higgins, a Boston Globe columnist, devoted part of a column to the whole issue, focusing on two of the articles in it. I quote:
"For Its Issue of November 21, The New Republic put together four extended assessments of John F. Kennedy. This Is the sort of duty which devolves upon opinionated journals about national affairs - one accedes helplessly to the argument that It Is expected of them, but still cringes slightly as the barn doors creak open once again and display the same old tired war horses snorting In their stalls.
"Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, is the wheelhorse of that stable, naturally. He held a valid White House pass during JFK's tenancy, and he Is a trained historian. He. Is also no mean hand with the English language, and that's all to the good, of course.
"The trouble Is that Arthur Schlesinger has been around this track more times than old Tom Fool. Years ago he got wind of the reports that his President may not always have been a gentle, perfect knight. He heard there were those who thought he showed more profile than he did courage. As any friend would, Schlesinger became Incensed. He sallied forth to smite the sacrilegists, and In the heat of battle made claims for the martyred leader which would have made the man himself dissolve In gales of laughter. Mildly rebuked for those excesses, Schlesinger took umbrage and not heed, and blustered out still more extravagances.
"Now he appears to think he's stuck with them. and so we have this treatise on "What the Thousand Days Wrought," which seeks to subsume Into JFK's short years In office most of the progressive trends of the current century. It's rather embarrassing. .
"More realistic, I thought, was David Kaiser's knowing portrait of the President as a gut bucket politician, ·cozening the scribblers and hornswoggling Drew Pearson. I don't think there's any need to flounder around madly seeking reasons to beatify a smart politician, whose achievements in part rest upon his skillful use of sham. John Kennedy did not wrest the nomination out of Lyndon Johnson's grasp by yanking some damned sword out of a stone: he got It by being smarter, craftier and mean, and I think he ought to get the credit for his well-honed wits. Kaiser gives it to him, and it's quite refreshing."
I appreciated Marty Peretz's decision to run the piece, obviously, and I appreciate it even more now, having found from The Controversialist that he personally disliked Kennedy intensely at the time that he ran for president in 1960 and apparently never changed his mind very much. This whole story shows a side of him that I can't help admiring. He evidently trusted his student's opinion of me, and he genuinely liked what I had written for him. Unfortunately I could not manage to establish a good relationship with Leon Wieseltier when he succeed Beatty as literary editor, and I stopped writing for TNR. And I am sorry to report that in 2014, when it published an anthology of articles from its one hundred years of existence, it included Schlesinger's article from the JFK anniversary issue but not mine, which you can read here.
Peretz and I were part of a particular Harvard, one where students loved the humanities and social sciences and the best faculty enjoyed bringing out the best that they had to offer. The reading lists of those years would be unheard of today--quantitatively and qualitatively. And as teachers, we both took advantage of the opportunities that that institution offered. That was why, really, those pieces of mine ever appeared in The New Republic, and for that I am still grateful.