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Vice President Al Gore was on the ropes all last week, his rise to presidential inevitability imperiled by revelations in the Washington Post about his alleged campaign finance transgressions. On Tuesday, Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief and owner of the New Republic, wrote an item for the Notebook section of the magazine arguing that Gore was being unfairly worked over. Michael Kellyhired as editor of the magazine with much fanfare less than a year agospiked the item, saying Peretz’s take flew in the face of widely reported realities. Three days later, Peretz fired Kelly in a quick phone call.
Any editor who takes a job at TNR should know that Peretz goes batshit on occasion and that certain issues are off limits. Writing about Arabs as human beings, for instance, has been an institutional taboo since Peretz bought the magazine in 1974. But working around Peretz’s Gore fetish when the vice president has moved to the center of the most important political story of the year proved too much for Kelly.
“He always knew he was going to get fired,” said one staffer. “He just thought it might take a couple of years.” It took all of nine months.
Peretz apparently couldn’t sit still and watch Gore, his friend for three decades, get roasted in campaign finance stories. In a signed column last March, he defended Gore against a “scandal hungry press,” calling the veep “bolder and more nuanced than any other person in public life.” Peretz’s ability to anthropomorphize, and even deify, the lifeless Gore has always been a source of wonder around the magazine. His decision to fire Kelly because he chose to Mau-Mau the Clinton-Gore administration in the “TRB” column week after week ensures that TNR will go back to being a pointy-headed brochure, narrowcasting to a thin bandwidth of Zion-worshiping, Gore-hugging former liberals looking for affirmation of their superior intellect.
Reached this week, Kelly still seemed stunned that he was out so quickly.
“I guess it isn’t that big of a deal in the broader scheme of things,” Kelly said in a phone interview. “People who own magazines hire and fire editors all of the time, [although] Marty hires and fires a little more than most. He didn’t give me a reason initially, but I pressed him and there were two strains. One was that I was not sufficiently bending to his will in operational matters, and the second was that I would not get off the subject of campaign finance scandals at the White House. Those two strains met in a confluence after Marty sent in a Notebook item about Gore that I didn’t think we should run.
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“It’s his magazine, so I guess he can do what he wants, but to fire somebody over the editorial content of a signed column is not the same as firing somebody for incompetence. I don’t think it reflects well on the integrity of the magazine,” Kelly said.
Some TNR staffers don’t think so, either. “Marty’s line was that Michael ‘violated the spirit of the magazine’ by what he wrote in TRB. I don’t think that people necessarily agree with that. Michael did this unhinged, obsessive thing in the front of the magazine and made sure that many of the other people here did great work in the rest of the magazine,” suggested one staffer.
Kelly’s “unhinged, obsessive thing” was something to behold. While many of his campaign finance columns were just clip-jobs that did little to advance the story, Kelly did manage to frame the Clinton presidency in newly devastating ways. In panning Clinton’s search for a place in history, he described a “hummingbird-in-chief” who flitted from issue to issue in search of something that might stick around after he left. And Kelly’s take on the Paula Jones affair was a work of seething brilliance, in which he managed to pose Clinton as a draft-dodger and a butt-pincher in a single sentence.
Peretz says Kelly isn’t the editor he thought he hired.
“If I were Michael Kelly, I would be devastated by the people who have leapt to his defense: Cal Thomas, Robert Novak, Hilton Kramer. The people who are up in arms about his firing are the ideologues from the far right who understood that Michael was their ally,” Peretz said in a phone interview.
Kelly clearly loved taking a baseball bat to the current administrationhe left the magazine’s White House Watch column vacant so he could have the field to himselfbut he also devoted himself to building a magazine, something he didn’t have the chance to do as a writer at the New York Times and the New Yorker. Kelly invigorated TNR not by bringing in a bunch of ringersPost staffer William Powers was his only major hirebut by squeezing great work out of the people who were already there. He got excellent, counterintuitive stories out of TNR staffers, including Peter Beinart, Hanna Rosin, and Stephen Glass. Even Ruth Shalit cranked out a couple of covers for Kelly, and the magazine was neither sued nor accused of plagiarism following publication. Kelly’s TNR was less thinky and more narrative-driven, with stories that had real live peopleof all thingsin the middle of them. With the talk value of an over-the-top TRB and cover stories that were actually being read, TNR was in danger of again becoming part of the conversation of common folk in Washington. Now it’s back to the Ivy tower.
“Michael was not one of the [Ivy League] boys here. Never was,” said a staffer. “Where did he got to school? The University of New Hampshire? He was a total breath of fresh air. He sparked the best in people. You wanted him to like your story.”
But Peretz, who reportedly had to hold back the tears when he introduced Kelly as “the best hire” he had made since he bought the magazine, fixed all that with a phone call.
“When we first talked, we talked about a magazine that was open to dissenting opinions, but he was intent on limiting the focus. Politically, he is on the fringe, and I was stupid not to recognize that,” Peretz said.
Charles Lane, who has had his eye on the job and his lips on Peretz’s ass since he had his first TNR byline, was named as Kelly’s successor. (Earlier this year, senior editor Lane wrote an article suggesting that Peru’s hellish prisons were “a drastic but defensible response” to the anti-government guerrillas, a point of view that any dissenting TNR staffers had best keep in mind.)
William Powers, the senior editor hired by Kelly, quit immediately.
“It seems like a huge, foolish mistake to me, but it’s not like it’s going to sink tomorrow. This magazine has been through many mistakes and it has a wonderful brand name, but for a media critic or a political writer of integrity I don’t think this is a magazine to be at anymore. It has been compromised, possibly irreparably,” Powers said.
“It’s sad, because Marty built the kind of magazine that could attract the likes of Michael Kelly, but there is another side to him that keeps undermining what he has built,” Powers said.
Some things won’t change now that Kelly is out. TNR survived Michael Kinsley’s coming and going (twice), Hendrik Hertzberg’s leaving, and Andrew Sullivan’s anguished goodbye. And Clinton’s most vitriolic critic should have little problem finding a prominent outlet for his columns.
When I tried to call Kelly at home, his phone was busy for two days solid, more than likely clogged with job offers. He will be heading off to the Jersey shore for a bit, but when he goes back to work, it will likely be as a writer, not an editor.
“There aren’t that many magazines out there to edit, and there aren’t that many that I would want to, anyway. I never wanted to become an editor just to be an editor. I was interested in the New Republic.”
Times’ Changing Barrington Salmon, a reporter for the Metro section of the Washington Times, has gone to work in the mayor’s Office of Communications as a public relations specialist. Salmon says fielding press calls won’t be a problemeven when his former competitors at the Post call looking for info. “I know what it’s like being on the other side, trying to get information, so I will do my best to help out whoever calls, regardless of where they work.”
Prairie Bureau? The Post may be franchising in the Midwest, if rumors swirling around the Minneapolis Star Tribune are to be believed. The paper, which has a daily circulation of 387,000 and a Sunday circulation of 673,000, is owned by Cowles Media Co. Some analysts put the paper’s value as high as $1 billion and regard the Post as the leading suitor because it already owns 28 percent of Cowles stock. Newspaper analyst John Morton told the Star Tribune that the Post’s stake gives the company a big leg up now that Cowles has announced its intention to sell. In essence, Morton told the paper, the Post “has 28 cents in its pocket for every dollar it puts up.” Back when the Post first bought a 17-percent stake in the paper in 1985, Katharine Graham said the firm was seeking only a slice because “the whole pie is not available.” Post spokesman Guyon Knight declined comment about any purchase plans, saying, “We never comment about potential acquisitions.”
Dancing Around It A few Sundays ago, the Post picked up part of a nifty piece about Robyn Astaire, Fred’s widow, from the Los Angeles Times. The Times dug into the controversy about Robyn’s control of Fred’s film clips in a piece that had the feathers flying. But the Post ran only the storybook-romance sidebar and ignored the uproar in the main story. What’s the value of picking up a meaty piece of arts journalism if you just end up leaving the guts out of it?David Carr
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