The Rebirth of the NYRB
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.