The Rebirth of the New York Review of Books

(The Nation, June 7, 2004)

"Dear Mr. Secretary: I am writing you to submit my resignation from the Foreign Service of the United States and from my position as political counselor in US Embassy Athens, effective March 7. I do so with a heavy heart." So wrote Brady Kiesling, a career US diplomat, in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell last year. The letter was candid and direct: "Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson.... Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."

Greek newspapers were quick to publish Kiesling's pithy and prescient statement, but it was virtually ignored in the US press until The New York Review of Books reprinted it at the onset of the Iraq war. Kiesling invoked a number of themes that had been percolating in the Review's pages since late 2001: the recklessness of George Bush and his Administration; the erosion of civil liberties and constitutional protections at home; the growing estrangement of the United States from the rest of the world; and--a decisive matter for the Review--the rupture with longtime allies France and Germany.

The manner in which Kiesling's letter arrived on these shores points to a significant new development in the higher echelons of American culture: the re-emergence of The New York Review of Books as a powerful and combative actor on the political scene. Born as a highbrow literary magazine in 1963, the Review took a vocal role in contesting the Vietnam War, and its pages were filled with essays by Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, I.F. Stone, Andrew Kopkind, Ellen Willis, Tom Hayden and other leading writers from the left. Around 1970, a sturdy liberalism began to supplant left-wing radicalism at the paper. As Philip Nobile observed in his 1974 book Intellectual Skywriting, the Review returned to its roots and became "a literary magazine on the British nineteenth-century model, which would mix politics and literature in a tough but gentlemanly fashion."

In the wake of the Vietnam War, the Review became a formidable--and, in some sense, unique--journalistic institution. Many of its readers reside in academia, but the paper has a devoted following in the upper reaches of media, politics and philanthropy, which gives it an influence vastly out of proportion to its circulation of 130,000. (One recent essay, Peter Galbraith's "How to Get Out of Iraq," even caused a stir among some military intellectuals.) That influence translates into dollars: In contrast to virtually all serious literary and political journals, which drain money from their owners, the Review has been profitable for decades. But the formula is not without its imperfections, which have grown more pronounced in recent years. The publication has always been erudite and authoritative--and because of its analytical rigor and seriousness, frequently essential--but it hasn't always been lively, pungent and readable. A musty odor, accompanied by a certain aversion to risk-taking, has pervaded its pages for a long time. "In recent years," says the historian Ronald Steel, who has contributed since 1965, "the paper has sometimes verged on being bland or predictable, always using the same people."

But the election of George W. Bush, combined with the furies of 9/11, jolted the editors. Since 2001, the Review's temperature has risen and its political outlook has sharpened. Old warhorses bolted from their armchairs. Prominent members of the Review "family"--a stable that includes veteran journalists (Thomas Powers, Frances FitzGerald, Ian Buruma), literary stars (Joan Didion, Norman Mailer) and academic heavyweights (Stanley Hoffmann, Ronald Dworkin, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.)--charged into battle not only against the White House but against the lethargic press corps and the "liberal hawk" intellectuals, some of whom are themselves prominent members of the Review's extended family. In stark contrast to The New Yorker, whose editor, David Remnick, endorsed the Iraq war in a signed essay in February 2003, asserting that "a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all"; or The New York Times Magazine, which gave ample space to Michael Ignatieff, Bill Keller, Paul Berman, George Packer and other prowar liberal hawks, the Review opposed the Iraq war in a voice that was remarkably consistent and unified.

The firepower it directed against the liberal hawks reveals much about the Review's political mood these days. Like many in the liberal hawk camp, the publication sanctioned US military intervention in the Balkans on humanitarian grounds. But when Ignatieff & Co. invoked the logic of humanitarian intervention as a basis for military action against Saddam Hussein, the Review (which has showcased Ignatieff's work for years) insisted that Bush's crusade against Iraq was something closer to old-fashioned imperialism. As Ian Buruma wrote in a quietly devastating assessment of Paul Berman's 2003 book Terror and Liberalism: "There is something in the tone of Berman's polemic that reminds me of the quiet American in Graham Greene's novel, the man of principle who causes mayhem, without quite realizing why."

What blew the dust off The New York Review? In no sense, really, has the paper returned to its New Left sensibility of the late 1960s: Chomsky, Hayden and Willis have not been reinstated; young lions like The Baffler's Tom Frank and The Village Voice's Rick Perlstein have not been invited to contribute; Eric Foner, Bruce Cumings, Richard Rorty, Chalmers Johnson, Stephen Holmes, Anatol Lieven, Elaine Showalter and Carol Brightman continue to publish much of their finest work not in The New York Review of Books but in the more radical, eccentric and sprightly pages of the London Review of Books. In short, the Review's liberal (and establishment) soul remains intact. What has changed significantly, in the age of Bush, is the Review's style of rhetoric and degree of political focus and commitment.

Longtime editor Robert Silvers is not eager to discuss the Review, but he does allow, "The pieces we have published by such writers as Brian Urquhart, Thomas Powers, Mark Danner and Ronald Dworkin have been reactions to a genuine crisis concerning American destructiveness, American relations with its allies, American protections of its traditions of liberties." He worries that critical voices are being silenced: "The aura of patriotic defiance cultivated by the Administration, in a fearful atmosphere, had the effect of muffling dissent."

The Review's response to that atmosphere is a most welcome return to form. By forcefully articulating what was essentially the European position on Iraq and the "war on terror," the Review has recovered much of the élan and urgency it possessed in the late 1960s. "They have been quite influential," notes Brady Kiesling, "in consolidating the gut feeling of a whole intellectual class that Bush is a frighteningly weak and ignorant President." "One didn't think of it in recent years as being particularly a political magazine," says Norman Mailer, who has contributed to the Review off and on since 1963, and who is a principal actor in the paper's current revival. "I think that The New York Review, which has been evolving for many years, has evolved one more time."

In 1959 Elizabeth Hardwick wrote an acerbic essay for Harper's titled "The Decline of Book Reviewing." "The book-review sections as a cultural enterprise are, like a pocket of unemployment, in a state of baneful depression insofar as liveliness and interest are concerned," she professed. Three years later, during the winter of 1962-63, a newspaper strike kept the New York dailies off the streets for several months, and Hardwick and her friends came to realize that a Sunday afternoon without the New York Times Book Review was bliss. In 1963 Hardwick, along with Robert Lowell and Jason Epstein, launched the Review and in the process assembled a stellar cast of writers. The editors who helped to create the Review--Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, both of whom are now 74--are still at the helm today.

In the mid-1960s political developments at home and abroad drove the paper to the left. I.F. Stone, Bernard Fall and Jean Lacouture were among the first to expose the folly of the Vietnam War, and they did so at length in the pages of the Review. In its most militant and pugnacious phase in the late 1960s, the Review published several of Noam Chomsky's most magisterial essays, alongside articles by writers like Hayden and Kopkind, whose 1967 essay on Martin Luther King Jr. was accompanied by a drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the cover, which drew a firestorm of outrage and became the centerpiece of the neoconservative campaign against the Review.

After Vietnam, the Review jettisoned its radical sensibility and moved closer to the center. To a considerable extent, a tight circle of New York intellectuals, Ivy League stars, Nobel laureates and Oxbridge luminaries replaced Chomsky and his cohort. The paper still printed the work of dissidents, but they now tended to be dissidents from within the establishment. If Chomsky did much to shape the Review's identity in the 1960s, it was Silvers's close friend, the Oxford political theorist Isaiah Berlin, who helped to define the Review after Vietnam with his emphasis on liberalism, pluralism, individual liberty and the dangers of political extremism. (Vaclav Havel, to some extent, played that role in the 1990s.) "There was a very drastic shift," says Chomsky, whose work stopped appearing in the Review in 1975, and who insists today that writers who had "any connection with activist sectors of the peace movement" were "virtually eliminated, except for token participation." (Silvers declines to discuss Chomsky or his allegations: "I don't feel it's right for me," he says, "to get into a personal account of my relationship with any writer.")

Some left-leaning members of the Review family evince frustration with the paper's trajectory. Says Gore Vidal, "It's essentially bien-pensant on most matters." He produces a familiar litany of complaints about the Review: stodginess, Anglophilia, nonchalance toward younger contributors. Vidal has a long history with the Review, whose editors have routinely published his literary criticism but have rejected some of his most brilliant and acerbic political essays--including "The Holy Family" and "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star," the latter of which appeared in The Nation. "I am forbidden politics" at the Review, he professed in a 1991 letter to a friend, portions of which appear in Fred Kaplan's Gore Vidal: A Biography. The Review, Vidal wrote, "grows not only duller and duller, the fate of most papers, but the writers do not question the status quo and the examined life is too dangerous for their pages."

Perhaps. But the Review's political virtues should not go unnoticed. The paper was always hostile to neoconservatism: Silvers and Epstein never followed Norman Podhoretz, Hilton Kramer and other New York intellectuals into the Republican camp. Indeed, one of the most piquant surveys of the neoconservative throng was undertaken by Alfred Kazin in 1983--and published in The New York Review of Books. Down through the years, the Review has maintained its commitment to New Deal/Great Society liberalism and to civil liberties, racial equality and human rights.

The Review responded to the election of George W. Bush with dismay, and was quick to assail the Administration's rejection of the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol and the ABM treaty. But the paper's reawakening really began with the events of September 11. A former State Department counterterrorism expert, Philip Wilcox Jr., crafted the Review's first response to the attacks. Responding to Bush's declared "war on terrorism," Wilcox wrote, "Armed force...while politically popular, is usually an ineffective and often counterproductive weapon against terror." The Administration, he insisted, should embrace a foreign policy that "moves away from unilateralism and toward closer engagement with other governments."

Wilcox's essay did much to define the Review's post-9/11 coverage. His principal arguments--that military power has stark limitations, and that multilateral diplomacy is essential--would be echoed (and expanded) in the weeks and months after September 11 by dozens of contributors, many of whom were skeptical of the US war in Afghanistan. "Accountants mulling over shady bank accounts and undercover agents bribing their way," Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit wrote a few months later, "will be more useful in the long-term struggle than special macho units blasting their way into the caves of Afghanistan." "Embarking on a full-scale war to rid oneself of terrorists is analogous to hunting a hornet with a Sherman tank," wrote Norman Mailer. "When the tank knocks down the house that shelters the hornet, the creature whips into the attic of the next house." In the wake of 9/11, the Review also published a barrage of essays documenting the perilous state of American civil liberties as a result of the "war on terror," alongside some remarkable reportage from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

But it was the Administration's obsession with Iraq that drove the Review to new heights of skepticism and indignation. In 1990 the paper supported the Gulf War on the grounds that it was a multilateral affair; but the editors came to realize that things would be different this time around. In September 2002 Frances FitzGerald published an essay titled "George Bush and the World," in which she contrasted the multilateral foreign policy of the first Bush Administration with the reckless, arrogant unilateralism of the second. Other Review writers were quick to take the full measure of Bush's foreign policy ambitions. "I find it increasingly hard to believe that Mr. Bush's objective is limited to seeing that Saddam Hussein has no weapons of mass destruction," Anthony Lewis wrote a few weeks later. "The history and the theology of the men whose advice now dominates Mr. Bush's thinking point to much larger purposes. I think this president wants to overthrow the rules that have governed international life for the last fifty years."

As war drew closer, and the press grew more accommodating and deferential, the Review's disgust increased, and the editors fired their heavy weaponry. Two months before the Iraq war, Joan Didion published "Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History," a melancholy account of her own journeys through the United States since 9/11 and a dark rumination on intellectual and political cowardice, the degradation of language, the machinations of faux patriots, the docility of our politicians and the closing of the American mind since the attacks on New York and Washington.

Shortly thereafter, Mailer surfaced with an essay titled "Only in America." Accompanied by David Levine's caricature of a swaggering George W. Bush outfitted in the costume of a Roman gladiator (with missiles protruding from his shield), Mailer's essay was a dazzling rumination on revenge, masculinity, sports, television, oil consumption, empire, the Bomb, and--most of all--the fate of American democracy:

Democracy, I would repeat, is the noblest form of government we have yet evolved, and we may as well begin to ask ourselves whether we are ready to suffer, even perish for it, rather than readying ourselves to live in the lower existence of a monumental banana republic with a government always eager to cater to mega-corporations as they do their best to appropriate our thwarted dreams with their elephantiastical conceits.

The fall of Baghdad only deepened the fury of the Review's contributors. Jason Epstein penned a scorching essay in which he compared President Bush to Captain Ahab, and wherein he invoked the specter of World War I with a quotation from Sigmund Freud: "Never has an event destroyed so much that was precious in the common property of mankind, confused so many of the most lucid minds, so thoroughly debased the elevated."

Last December, when many political observers were still giving the Administration the benefit of a doubt on Iraq's WMD potential, Thomas Powers insisted, in a much-read essay titled "The Vanishing Case for War," that anthrax, sarin, mustard gas, Scud missiles, biological warheads, etc. were nowhere to be found in Iraq. "There was no imminent danger--indeed there was no distant danger," Powers noted. "How is it possible then that the United States Congress allowed itself to be convinced to believe in this nonexistent danger, and to authorize in advance a war for which there was no justification?"

One notices a clear generational aspect to the Review's recent output: With certain exceptions, the finest writing has flowed from the pens of contributors over the age of 60. "It isn't a bunch of youngbloods doing the lively political coverage at the Review, it's the old pros who have been writing for them for years," says James Wolcott, a columnist for Vanity Fair. "To me it's similar to the situation that occurred before the war with Iraq, when it was the silver-haired brigade--Mailer, Vidal, John le Carré, Kurt Vonnegut, Jimmy Breslin--who were most vehemently opposed while so many baby boomer journalists and intellectuals, from Michael Kelly to Paul Berman to Andrew Sullivan, were on board with Bush. The silver foxes had enough history under their belt to recognize what a wrenching departure this optional pre-emptive war was from the past."

Some of the most astringent prose in the paper has come from a younger member of the family, Professor Tony Judt. A few weeks ago I called on Judt, 56, in his cluttered office at New York University's Remarque Institute. Bald, with glasses and a gray beard, Judt is wearing a stylish short-sleeve gray sweater and pressed black slacks. He is remarkably self-assured. He offers me a glass of scotch, while he sips mineral water.

Born in England, Judt has taught European history at Oxford, Cambridge and Berkeley, and his best-known book is Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-1956, a fierce assault on leading French thinkers for their obeisance to Stalinism. "I started writing for The New York Review in 1993," Judt explains. "You start writing when they ask you. You don't send stuff in. They ask you." He has since contributed essays on France, Austria, the Balkans, Belgium, Albert Camus, Primo Levi and various aspects of international affairs since 2001.

How did 9/11 influence him? "For the first time I felt alien, a little out of place, even in New York. And then I realized that, in some ways, it was especially in New York, and that was because of the Israel thing." For years Judt had privately lamented the passivity of the "American Jewish community, and indeed, the American Jewish intelligentsia, what used to be called 'the New York Intellectuals' and so on." Their silence on Israel--and their reluctance to accept, as he wrote in November 2001, that the "Israel-Palestine conflict and America's association with Israel are the greatest single source of contemporary anti-US sentiment"--bothered him. After 9/11, he says, "I started saying what I have for fifteen years been thinking, but had not written."

What he wrote, in a series of essays for the Review, was not unfamiliar to readers of Israeli or European newspapers but, in the American context, was rather startling. These essays, which were provocations as much as prescriptions, tackled a variety of themes: the political uses of the Holocaust, the Jewish psyche, Israeli assassination squads and Ariel Sharon's "shameless" manipulation of the US government. "Most Israelis are still trapped in the story of their own uniqueness," Judt wrote in May 2002. "The problem for the rest of the world is that since 1967, Israel has changed in ways that render its traditional self-description absurd. It is now a regional colonial power, by some accounts the world's fourth-largest military establishment." Three hundred letters, most of them abusive, greeted that essay.

In an even more incendiary essay, "Israel: The Alternative," published in October 2003, Judt argued that the very structure of the Israeli state is hopelessly--and dangerously--rooted in the past:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not--as is sometimes suggested--that it is a European "enclave" in the Arab world, but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a 'Jewish state'--a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded--is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

Judt finished with a thunderclap: "The behavior of a self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone else looks at Jews.... The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews." And he went on to propose a rather provocative solution to the current impasse: "A single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians." (The New York Review wasn't always friendly to the "binational state" concept. When Noam Chomsky proposed "socialist binationalism" in his 1974 book Peace in the Middle East?, Bernard Avishai, writing in the Review, dismissed the idea as "misleading and contradictory.")

Judt's essay drew 1,000 smoldering letters. "I got no direct death threats," Judt recalls, "except for a number of e-mails that said, 'You'd be better off dead.'" He has since implemented certain changes to his daily routine. "We do now very carefully check our mail. My wife and kids don't open the mail. It's awful." But the venom of his critics has only served to fortify his opinions. "To be a Jewish American--what does the identity comprise?" Judt pointedly inquires. "It now comprises one identity in space and one in time. Its space is Israel and its time is Auschwitz. This is something I find obscene, ultimately dangerous and abusive on multiple counts."

Judt is not the Review's only critical voice on Israel. Henry Siegman and Amos Elon have also written with great force and clarity, and in August 2001 Robert Malley and Hussein Agha produced the most nuanced insider account of the demise of the Camp David 2000 summit, one that shattered the mythology of "Ehud Barak's unprecedented offer and Yasser Arafat's uncompromising no." Gore Vidal affirms, with a trace of admiration and surprise in his voice, "They're getting very interesting on Israel, which they're taking a lot of flak for, obviously. For them, that's quite brave."

What accounts for the Review's post-9/11 revival? One word that continually tumbles from the lips of seasoned Review-watchers is "Vietnam." Says Mark Danner, who worked for Silvers after he graduated from Harvard in the early 1980s, and who has recently produced some searching essays in the Review about Iraq, "If you look back over the Review's history, you'll find that periods of crisis bring out the best editorial instincts of the leadership of The New York Review. It certainly happened with Vietnam and Iran/contra. It gets the juices flowing."

Some observers point to a circular continuity between the Review's coverage of Vietnam and Iraq. "The late 1960s, for the paper, were, to some extent, the age of Chomsky," says Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann. "The Review was a very strong critic of the Vietnam War. Gradually it became less militant, if you like. And indeed in the last year it has found some of its old vigor again, but it never lost what can be called a highly critical viewpoint about a number of aspects of international relations and foreign affairs."

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who got his start at the Review, takes the view that Bush's shenanigans on Iraq have "reawakened the youthful energies of some of these people." He's referring to Judt and Mailer, but the same sentiment may well apply to Silvers and Epstein. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Silvers phoned Judt in London--at 3 am--and begged him to draft the text of a full-page advertisement in the New York Times protesting the rush to war. "He thought this was an urgent matter," recalls Judt. The same urgency propelled Silvers to track down Brady Kiesling in Greece and obtain permission to reprint his resignation letter. These faint echoes of the late 1960s--late-night phone calls, antiwar petitions, diplomatic contretemps--must have provided Silvers with at least a fleeting sense of déjà vu.

In the case of Iraq, as with Vietnam, the Review saw what many other commentators missed or ignored. "In both instances," Hoffmann says, "Bob Silvers was, in effect, whether deliberately or not, compensating for the weaknesses of the more established media." Hoffmann recalls that Silvers and Epstein published some of the earliest criticisms of the Indochinese conflict--years before the mainstream press awoke from its slumber. "It was important," he says, in the case of Iraq, "that a journal which has the authority of the Review in a sense took up the slack and presented viewpoints which were extremely hard to get into the established media."

Indeed, a great many Review contributors have objected to the media's performance since 9/11, and few were as lucid as Norman Mailer. With war imminent, Mailer noted that support for a full-scale invasion of Iraq was prevalent within influential sectors of the "liberal" media. Dissecting a New York Times op-ed column by Bill Keller, in which Keller aired his ambivalent prowar sentiments, Mailer noted, with pitch-perfect accuracy, "It is as if these liberal voices have decided that Bush cannot be stopped and so he must be joined." How refreshing to see Norman Mailer aggressively confront the Bill Kellers of the world; and how refreshing, too, to see the Review once again engaged in pugilistic combat on the pressing issues of the day.

It's probably too much to infer, as Mailer does, that Silvers and Epstein were "radicalized" by Bush, since they are not radical people by background or temperament. One suspects they yearn for the day when they can return to their normal publishing routine--that gentlemanly pastiche of philosophy, art, classical music, photography, German and Russian history, East European politics, literary fiction--unencumbered by political duties of a confrontational or oppositional nature. That day has not yet arrived. If and when it does, let it be said that the editors met the challenges of the post-9/11 era in a way that most other leading American publications did not, and that The New York Review of Books--which turned forty last fall--was there when we needed it most.