Monday, November 17, 2014

The New Republic and Modern American Liberalism

Liberalism wagers that a state . . . can be strong but constrained – strong because constrained. Rights to education and other requirements for human development and security aim to advance equal opportunity and personal dignity and to promote a creative and productive society. To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported a wider social and economic role for the state, counterbalanced by more robust guarantees of civil liberties and a wider social system of checks and balances anchored in an independent press and pluralistic society. – Paul Starr, The New Republic, March 5, 2007.
The New Republic is 100 years old this month. For a bi-weekly journal of opinion and the arts with an intellectual flare and a small subscription base, this is quite an accomplishment. Founded in 1914 by Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly and inspired by the reform impulses of Theodore Roosevelt then vibrating through American society, for the past century The New Republic has engaged in a vibrant debate over the essence of a good society and what makes life worth living. Although distinctly liberal in origin, it has in its philosophical leanings evolved, shifted, varied and, at times, contradicted itself in a manner to be expected of a journal that takes ideas and democracy seriously.

I first discovered The New Republic in the summer of 1981 when I was 22 years old. Only a month earlier I had graduated from Wittenberg University and been baptized into the “real world” of full-time employment, living in Houston and working as a financial accountant for a Texas-based oilfield services company. The job was dull and uninspiring, but one afternoon I wandered into the lobby of the 29th floor and noticed on a glass coffee table a magazine that looked unlike any other I had previously seen. The cover story immediately caught my attention. It concerned the rise of the New Right and the perils of Christian fundamentalism, matters of particular relevance to life in Texas and which explained, in part, America’s rightward tilt during the Reagan years. As I began reading, I was impressed immediately by the journal’s clear and eloquent prose, its understanding of history, and its pragmatic liberalism. It was beautifully written and filled with high-quality essays and articles on politics, society, religion, literature, and the arts. It was refreshingly liberal, but not ideological, and I soon learned that its editors despised dogmatism and were as critical of the far left as of the far right.

Each week that summer I searched out a new issue and read it cover to cover. I devoured every editorial, every article, every word. The writing was intelligent and accessible, offering commentary on everything from the continued relevance of John Maynard Keynes to the origins of the Enlightenment. It was lively and stimulating and introduced me to issues of which I had previously paid little attention – Israel and Zionism, the plight of Soviet Jewry, the historic struggle against South African apartheid. It explained and placed in context the internal debates within the Democratic Party over foreign policy and America’s proper role in the world, and the ideological divides within the Republican Party. The editors and contributors wrote sensibly on civil rights, civil liberties, education and the environment. And in the “back of the book” as it was called, one found intellectually engaging book reviews and essays on art, film, music, history and literature. I was hooked.

By the time I started law school at George Washington University in the fall of 1982, I was a loyal reader and subscriber. One day, hidden away in a quiet cubicle on the third floor of the Gelman Library, I wandered into the periodical section and discovered bound volumes of every past issue of The New Republic. Here I escaped into slices of history. I read essays by Walter Lippmann, Edmund Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Alfred Kazin, and James MacGregor Burns; editorials that addressed what were then contemporary issues of urgency – the two world wars, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, the later struggle for civil rights at home and, eventually, the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. I would return to this cubicle and venture into the periodicals time and again over the next three years, taking needed breaks from my legal studies.

For much of the past 33 years, I have continued to read and subscribe to this journal. It has inspired, educated and infuriated me – sometimes all at once. But it has always made me think. For more left-leaning liberals, The New Republic is a difficult partner, for it deviates too far and too often from what some might consider traditional liberal orthodoxy. On foreign affairs, military policy, and America’s response to perceived Soviet aggression (in the 1980’s) or Islamic extremism and international terrorism (since 9/11), the magazine’s editorial and published voices have sometimes drifted towards the neo-conservative camp. I have on occasion disagreed with the editorial proclamations of the magazine on these issues and have at times been perplexed by its choice of authors, but intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas is the very essence of liberal debate, a concept sometimes lost nowadays in elite intellectual circles on the left and the right (college campuses included).

Since its founding a century ago, The New Republic has been at the forefront of helping to define, mold, and influence American liberalism. As Editor Franklin Foer explained to The New York Times in 2011, The New Republic “invented the modern usage of the term ‘liberal.’ And it’s one of our historical legacies and obligations to be involved in the ongoing debate over what exactly liberalism means and stands for.” For me, it has been an essential resource in formulating and refining my own philosophical and political leanings.

As Princeton University professor Paul Starr, a contributor to The New Republic and the co-founder of The American Prospect has noted, liberalism is notoriously difficult to define, for it is not an ideology so much as a practical assessment of how to build a free, fair, and prosperous society. The liberalism espoused by The New Republic in the early 20th century was based partly on the belief that, as the country evolved from an agrarian based economy to one dominated by the modern corporation, and as American life became increasingly complex and dependent on the technological and industrial revolutions of the modern era, less relevant became Jeffersonian notions of libertarianism and individualism. The reforms and protections needed required a more Hamiltonian vision of American government, stronger and more centralized to properly and effectively address the many areas of neglect and exploitation that had resulted from unfettered capitalism and rising inequality.

At the turn of the 20th century, when Teddy Roosevelt was President, the United States enacted a series of progressive reforms intended to counter the excesses of the industrial age. Laws were enacted that restricted the use of child labor and exploitative working conditions, improved workplace safety, opposed monopolistic and unfair trade practices, and protected and preserved millions of acres of national parks and forests. Twenty-five years later, during the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt helped bring about much needed reforms to the banking and securities industries, created jobs through public works programs, and established social security insurance. The building of roads, bridges, tunnels, and, in the 1950’s, the interstate highway system, mobilized the nation’s commerce and connected every region and segment of the country. The War on Poverty and the civil rights laws in the 1960’s ended Jim Crow, created medical insurance for children and the poor, provided public housing and expanded the reach of education. Laws governing clean air, clean water, and food safety; laws against discrimination in the workplace; expansion of health care insurance, safe air traffic control  – these are just a few practical examples of how liberal reforms have made American life safer, fairer, and more secure.

Liberals believe that government can be used for good, to harness expert knowledge to solve problems in a way that will allow American prosperity to spread and grow fairly and equitably. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy said in a speech before the New York Liberal Party that, if by the term “liberal” one means “someone who cares about the welfare of the people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, their civil liberties . . . then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.” To Kennedy, a liberal was also one who believes “in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. . . . For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.”

Kennedy understood that, while “the fight to eliminate poverty and human exploitation is a fight that goes on in our day,” liberals accept the fundamental tenets of the free enterprise system and a certain degree of inequality. They understand that government is a human endeavor, and thus imperfect. It does not always get things right, or properly balance competing interests. Kennedy, as a practical liberal, remained open to further reforms and modifications and sought to allocate resources to the areas of greatest need. He was a liberal in the way I am a liberal and The New Republic is a “liberal” magazine. Liberals wish to address imperfections and injustices, but we are reformers, not revolutionaries. We do not endorse the concept of the superstate. “I abhor the waste and incompetence of large-scale federal bureaucracies,” said Kennedy in a 1960 speech cited favorably by The New Republic. “I do not favor state compulsion when voluntary individual effort can do the job and do it well. But I believe in a government which acts, which exercises its full powers and responsibilities. Government is an art and a precious obligation; and when it has a job to do, I believe it should do it.”

Authentic liberalism – not socialism, not left-wing radicalism – but the liberalism as generally articulated in The New Republic has developed with an understanding of how policies work in light of political, social, and economic realities. Experience shows that some government programs are more effective than others at achieving intended goals. The debate over the direction of modern liberalism must therefore be premised on how public policy works in practice not theory. As Paul Starr wrote in an April 2007 issue of The American Prospect:
Modern liberalism has never been ruled by a theory in the way that free-market conservatism and Marxian socialism have been. A pragmatic emphasis on experience and evidence – on how things work in practice – has been critical in making liberalism work. . . . Liberalism regards the well-being of the least well-off as a central criterion for a just society, and it seeks to provide individuals with some degree of protection against risks beyond their control; but it accepts inequalities insofar as they are to everyone’s long-run advantage, and therefore aims for sustainable growth with widely shared gains.
The struggle to define liberalism will continue to be fought on the pages of The New Republic for years to come. The arguments will undoubtedly shift from left to center and back, and labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” will not always apply. But it is an important debate because modern liberalism has brought about more forward progress in American society than any other political movement. And as we advance into the 21st century, the debate is one that will influence how we choose to allocate limited resources for the benefit of all of our citizens; remain true to our immigrant history as a light among the nations and still protect our national security and economic interests; address the stark environmental threats posed by climate change; remain united among an increasingly divided electorate; decide when to exert American military force; and define our proper role in the world.

There are no easy answers to these issues and no simple solutions. But I will remain engaged in the debate for as long as I am able to learn, think, listen, and question. And I have The New Republic to thank for helping me stay informed and engaged with the world for most of my adult life.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Quintessential Editor: Ben Bradlee (1921 - 2014)

When I read last week of the death of Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post from 1965 to 1991, I felt like I had lost a friend. I did not know Ben Bradlee and was never so much as in the same room as him. But he is among a very small group of men whom I have admired and respected from a distance, and perhaps even envied, if just a little. “Nobody’s had that kind of fun,” Bradlee once said about his own life. “It’s illegal.”

Bradlee engendered enthusiasm and a zest for life. He was style and substance. He possessed the gruff street smarts of an international jewel thief and the elegance of an upper crust Harvard man. He combined grace and sincerity, intelligence and unpretentiousness. He was, as Douglass Cater of The Reporter once said, “Humphrey Bogart in a button-down shirt.” He swore like the ex-sailor he was, and especially disliked pompous asses, liars and phonies. And I always liked that about him.

He inspired a generation of young reporters, men and women who entered journalism because of the Pentagon Papers, or Watergate, or after watching All the President’s Men. Bradlee epitomized what it means to be a news reporter – tough but fair, willing to take risks but careful with the facts, never willing to sacrifice the truth for a political or social agenda. He was all about getting the story and getting it right. “There’s nothing like a good story,” he once said. “If it’s true, and if you’ve got it, and you can get some more, you’re in business.”

In The Powers that Be (Laurel, 1979), David Halberstam wrote of Bradlee that, “if someone were looking for a dashing, somewhat rakish journalist, then Bradlee was perfect for the part.” Perhaps “more than anyone else in contemporary journalism, [Bradlee] was good at the theater of his profession, the style, the timing, the sense of his audience, whether it was the larger audience outside or his peers inside.” He was not interested in politics in the classic sense and prided himself on his political neutrality. He was interested in the tactics of politics, but deeply suspicious of journalists committed to political causes. He loved a good story, one filled with human frailty and imperfection, drama and sex appeal. And he believed, like Walter Lippmann, that journalism must not only provide the facts and breaking news, but must also explain things, embrace ideas, and place the news in context.

Bradlee became famous in 1971 when he presided over The Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000-page study commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The historical import of the documents was explosive, for they proved that many of the government’s official pronouncements about American involvement in the war were, in fact, incomplete and untrue. The Post was caught by surprise when The New York Times published the first three installments of the classified material secretly obtained from the Harvard educated defense analyst and anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg. But after the Nixon administration took The Times to court and convinced a federal judge to enjoin future publication of the Pentagon Papers on the grounds of national security, Ellsberg released the documents into Bradlee’s possession.

The decision to publish the Pentagon Papers put the Washington Post Company at great risk. The company was days from a public stock offering and its lucrative television licenses were vulnerable if the paper committed a felony, which many of its lawyers claimed it would be doing. Publishing the papers after a federal judge had already ruled that their release potentially violated the Espionage Act of 1917 would make The Post’s decision to publish all the more egregious. Bradlee nevertheless insisted that they had no choice but to defy the government and publish documents that were of great historical significance and which most certainly did not undermine national security (a determination later vindicated by virtually everyone who has examined them since, including the Nixon administration’s lawyer who argued the case before the Supreme Court). To not publish was safe, but it would leave The Times out to dry and strengthen the government’s hand. Katherine Graham sided with Bradlee.

So, the day after The New York Times became the first newspaper in U.S. history censored by the federal government, The Washington Post picked up where The Times had left off. Two weeks later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for The Times and against the Justice Department (The Post won its own legal battles in the federal district and appellate courts in Washington, DC). The First Amendment, freedom of the press, and the United States were the winners, thanks in part to Bradlee’s determined and unbending grit and devotion to principle.

Watergate, of course, is what really made Bradlee famous, although to this day, many picture Jason Robards in All the President’s Men whenever Bradlee’s name is invoked. The Watergate story, like the Pentagon Papers, was about exposing government cover-ups and concealment of the truth. It concerned the arrogance and abuse of power, matters of far greater interest to Bradlee than the political and moral dimensions of what started out as a third-rate burglary at a luxury condominium. “It was a helluva story,” said Bradlee, “that’s what it was. And it was waiting for somebody to turn the key – and Bob and Carl did that.”

For me, however, it was Bradlee’s role as the hard-nosed editor and skeptic that made The Post such an important player in that drama. Bradlee insisted on fact checking and double checking, and he pushed Woodward and Bernstein to make certain they had reliable sources, corroboration, and unassailable facts. It is an ethical standard honored more in the breach in today’s world of internet "gotcha" journalism, which seems interested only in publishing first and confirming later. As flawed as the mainstream press is, and there is no question they make their share of mistakes, there is a reason I put far more trust into what is written in The New York Times and The Washington Post and similar bastions of professional journalism than I do in the many varieties of advocacy, caused-based journalism on the internet. Those sources have their place in a vibrant democracy, but it is the loss of standards that has hurt us the most, and Bradlee did not stand for it.

Although he was a far more skilled editor than writer, over the years I have read and enjoyed two books by Bradlee. Conversations with Kennedy (W.W. Norton and Company, 1975), based on Bradlee’s personal notes and reflections of his off-the-record talks and friendship with John Kennedy, is a rare and candid window into the relationship between two fascinating men who played important, if highly different roles in modern American history. And A Good Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995), Bradlee’s memoirs about his life and times in the world of journalism, is a penetrating behind-the-scenes look into the seminal events of the twentieth century and the workings of a modern American newspaper. Bradlee was not an eloquent writer. He avoided flowery prose and did not expound on political theory or journalistic principles. He wrote much as he spoke, with clarity, intelligence, and bluntness. But you could not help but like him. And he sure did live an interesting life.

Bradlee recognized that he “had been dealt an awfully good hand by the powers that be. A hand that gave me a ringside seat at some of the century’s most vital moments.” His life was not always easy; he survived polio as a teenager and more than three years on a destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II. But so much of his life after that benefited from good luck and good fortune. He landed a job at The Washington Post only after he skipped an interview with The Baltimore Sun simply because it was raining so hard when the train stopped in Baltimore that he decided to head straight to Washington instead. It was pure fortuity that he and his first wife, Tony, bought a house in Georgetown a few months before Senator and Mrs. John F. Kennedy purchased a townhome a few doors away. He was in the right place at the right time when Katherine Graham was looking for an editor to help transition The Post from a good paper to a great one. “I have thought hard about the role of luck in my life,” reflected Bradlee, “and come to the simple conclusion that I have been wonderfully lucky.” And I like that he recognized that fact.

In reading about Bradlee since his death, I have developed an even greater appreciation for the man and his journalistic instincts, his charm and humor. He could be a tough taskmaster as editor, but according to Martha Sherrill, who spent a decade writing for The Post’s Style section, Bradlee “despised overstepping and sensationalizing. He hated the cheap move that covered up a lack of legwork. And when an ordinary citizen – not an elected official or public person – was being written about, he insisted on sensitivity and compassion.” Sherrill wrote about how once, at an annual retreat for The Post management team, Bradlee introduced the father of a young woman who had been the subject of a negative news story. Bradlee wanted the paper’s top editors to understand how a Washington Post story affects, in real life, the people who are the subjects of its stories. “Tell me again why we’re running this?” Bradlee would ask whenever someone’s job or reputation was at stake. “Tell me again why we need to ruin this person’s life?”

When I moved to Washington in 1982 to attend law school, I began reading The Washington Post nearly every day. It was a great all-around paper, with crisp writing, a strong core of journalists who comprehensively covered U.S. and world news and national politics. It also had decent local coverage and a good sports section, and by then had mastered the Style section, which under Bradlee’s leadership encouraged more creativity than was typical of a daily newspaper. He allowed his reporters to write freely and originally about culture and society and how people conducted their lives. “We wanted to look at the culture of America as it was changing in front of our eyes,” Bradlee explained in A Good Life. “The sexual revolution, the drug culture, the women’s movement. And we wanted it to be interesting, exciting, different.” And it was.

My New York friends often disparaged The Post, as if it was a second cousin to The Times, but they were wrong. Sure, The Times was a more somber paper, its international coverage second to none, but it was not a hometown paper and its writing was often dry and uninteresting. The Post could do almost everything The Times did without sacrificing a sense of style and service to the local metropolitan area. Bradlee’s touch was all over it. And I loved it. When in 1995 I moved to the Philadelphia area, I missed the newspaper as much as anything else about Washington.

Being a newspaper reporter or an editor is often a mundane, exhausting job. To the people who worked for him, Bradlee made it seem fun. At Bradlee’s funeral service on Wednesday at the National Cathedral, long-time reporter Walter Pincus told the story of how he once walked into Bradlee’s office to ask for a raise. Bradlee had his feet on his desk, paper and pen in hand as he leaned back in his chair, his face intently focused on his work. When Pincus was through making his case, Bradlee never looked up, but simply replied, “You should pay me for all the fun you’re having.” As Pincus said at the funeral, “He was right.”

I cannot but help sense that the death of Ben Bradlee is an end of an era in American journalism. Like Bradlee, I also appreciate a good story, one that captures the human dimensions behind the larger political and social events. But his insistence on good journalism, on fact checking and objectivity, his commitment to transparency and the search for truth, raised the bar for all of us. And it made us more careful with accusations and allegations. He improved our standards and added style to our lives. He is gone now, and the world is a little smaller. I will miss him.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Left to Face the Fall Alone

The crowd and its team had finally understood that in games, as in many things, the ending, the final score, is only part of what matters. The process, the pleasure, the grain of the game counts too. – Thomas Boswell, Why Time Begins on Opening Day
Summer ended abruptly this year, on a long fly ball into the dark of night. The World Series has yet to be played, but for me, the baseball season ended when Travis Ishikawa drove a stake into the heart of Cardinal Nation, on a walk-off home run into the right field stands of AT&T Park in Game Five of the National League Championship Series. It is the second time in three years that the Giants have defeated the Cardinals in the postseason, the final moments played out in the windy confines by the San Francisco Bay. As the Giants celebrated on the field and mobbed each other to the delight of 42,000 wildly screaming fans, the Cardinals players disappeared quietly into the visitors’ clubhouse, packed their gear and headed home. The sun has set on another season of baseball. Winter has unofficially begun. It is time to rake the leaves once again.

For the third consecutive year, the Cardinals ended the season with World Series glory just beyond the horizon, the sun beckoning in the near distance, only to be spoiled by the dark clouds of defeat. They were an underachieving assortment of aging veterans and untested rookies, at times displaying brilliant play, and seemingly blessed with unlimited talent. And then, as if to curse destiny, they would commit inexcusable running mistakes, fielding errors, and managerial blunders. The Cardinals limped into the postseason with their ace starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, fighting tendinitis in his elbow; and Yadier Molina, the best catcher in the game, recovering from a severe thumb sprain. When Molina keeled over in pain in Game Two of the NLCS with an oblique injury, unable to leave the batter’s box, I knew then that the Baseball Gods were unfavorably disposed. This year was not to be.

This is not to make excuses, for the Cardinals had their chances. The Giants simply made fewer mistakes. As former manager Bob Lemon said, “The two most important things in life are good friends and a good bullpen.” The Giants’ bullpen was flawless during the final three games in San Francisco, shutting down the Cardinals’ bats and stifling rallies and run opportunities with apparent ease. The St. Louis relief corps seemed always in disarray, uncertain of their roles and unsure of when or if they would be needed to carry the torch to victory.

When manager Mike Matheny put young Michael Wacha into a tied 3-3 game in the bottom of the ninth inning with the season on the line in Game Five, my every instinct felt ill at ease. Wacha is a great young talent, but he is a starting pitcher, not a reliever, and he had not thrown a single pitch for 20 days. He, too, had been injured earlier in the year, and he had struggled to find his groove in late summer. How precise could his command really have been under such circumstances? Why would you not put Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, or Trevor Rosenthal, experienced relievers who are used to pressure-filled, game-on-the-line situations, to keep the season alive and give your team one more chance at sending the series back to the warmer, friendlier confines of hometown St. Louis? Sure enough, Wacha immediately yielded a single and a walk. The drumbeat of gloom sounded ever so near.

“You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock,” said former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver about the game of baseball. “You’ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.” When Wacha, struggling with his control, finally threw the ball over the goddamn plate, Ishikawa swung and connected. There was no need to look. The ball disappeared into the darkness. The season was over. As if in unison, Wacha and his teammates looked to the ground, catching a final glimpse of grass and dirt before walking silently into winter.

I should be used to these feelings by now, for baseball is more about failure and lost dreams than the spoils of victory. “It breaks your heart,” wrote A. Bartlett Giamatti. “It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Life will go on, of course. It always does. But the pain and disappointment in knowing that the season has ended on a soul-crushing blow to the 12 year-old residing inside my head, never really fades. For six months, I count on baseball to serve as a respite from war, violence, hatred and disease – all of the bad news that fills the daily papers and nightly cable shows. I rely on baseball as, writes Giamatti, a “buffer to the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive.” And then quickly, almost unexpectedly, it is over; “just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

As I write and look out my window on a cool October morning, the sun shines brightly as the leaves sway in the gentle breeze of fall. The trees are full of promise and color on this day, their leaves falling effortlessly to the ground and covering the smooth green grass below. The birds are singing from the higher branches as the squirrels run and jump and search for nuts, seemingly oblivious to my sorrow. It is then I understand something I often forget during the season – that baseball is only a game, a glorious game, full of history and memories, moments of bliss and boredom and frustration, feelings of joy and anguish, setbacks and heartache. It is life in nine inning segments. Regardless of the outcome of any game or season, there will be another game, another season, with fresh faces and familiar struts adorning the diamond-shaped fields of this, our national pastime.

“Baseball,” wrote Saul Steinberg, “is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex, and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self-esteem.” This all may be true. But for today, there is no joy in Mudville. The Cardinals have lost. The season is over. The cold chills and dark nights of winter have begun.

So, until next year, when a warm breeze in early March awakens my senses and lifts my spirits, beckoning the start of a new season, I will develop perspective and lead a normal life. I will attempt to live in the present, appreciate the wonders of the universe, and make the most of life. But this, too, will pass. For a fresh start to a new season awaits the first hint of spring. Such is the life of a baseball fan.