Michael Kelly said all the right things upon being appointed to head the 142-year-old beacon of American letters, The Atlantic Monthly. “I have, I hope, a great appreciation and respect for what the magazine is,” Kelly announced. “I believe that when an editor comes in to a magazine that existed before his arrival, the first sacred job is to respect that which is there. So what I am not contemplating is anything that would do violence to the deep-rooted identity of this magazine.” New owner David Bradley sincerely but ungrammatically reassured the staff via public reports that despite his axing editor in chief William Whitworth, “none of them is at risk of their jobs.”
This, however, is an old story. Bradley’s intentions aside, whenever a mogul buys a new media property, he always professes his deep awe and admiration for the inspiring tradition of which he is a mere custodian. Six months later, he turns into Rupert Murdoch.
In the case of The Atlantic, a little awe is appropriate. From Ralph Waldo Emerson on President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Frederick Douglass on Reconstruction, to Garry Wills’s musings on the continuing relevance of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, in the September issue, the magazine has maintained a commitment to high-minded liberalism alongside a commitment to nurturing the life of the mind beyond the confines of academia. Although no one would accuse the outgoing Whitworth of editing an exciting magazine, he did edit a thoughtful one. With its unmatched patience and civility toward its readers, Whitworth’s Atlantic resembled William Shawn’s New Yorker in its willingness to cogitate on matters of literary interest and public import with a buzz factor of zero. Rarely in its distinguished history has the magazine been more useful than in our age of constant information overload and corporate suffocation of independent thought and ideas.
Now that legacy will be entrusted to the alarming Michael Kelly, a reporter and editor with no literary background, a volcanic temperament and history of colossal bad judgment. If Bradley looked under every proverbial bog and slush pile in every periodical from Raritan to Teen People, it is hard to imagine his coming up with anyone less suited to the stewardship of this cultural treasure.
Kelly was chosen by Marty Peretz to head The New Republic in 1996 at what then looked to be a new low in the magazine’s recent history. Gone were the days of the brilliantly schizophrenic editorships of Mike Kinsley and Rick Hertzberg. For the previous five years, its journalistic reputation and credibility as a “liberal” magazine had all but disappeared. Under the editorship of “Gaycatholictory” Andrew Sullivan, the magazine had become a literary and political laughingstock. Cover stories featured Camille Paglia on “Hillary, the man-woman and bitch goddess” and the pseudoscientific racism of Charles Murray.
Peretz conducted an extremely public interviewing process before settling on Kelly. While Peretz’s views on Israel, Al Gore and Arabs were already known, one candidate was shocked to hear Peretz voice some of Murray’s views as his own when discussing affirmative action.
Kelly was untested as an editor but known as a writer with strong views, particularly on race relations. Peretz must have liked the rumors that Kelly had threatened physical violence against Sid Blumenthal, a former acolyte who left the flock in a decidedly acrimonious fashion. But even the legendary fights and frequent liberal-bashing that emanated from the magazine’s offices during Peretz’s ownership did not prepare him for his new editor.
For the first time in its then-eighty-five-year history, TNR was edited by a man who hated liberalism. He termed it an “ideology of self-styled saints, a philosophy of determined perversity.” Kelly’s hatred for Bill Clinton was so intense, it frequently spilled into hysteria. But Kelly still felt free to heap abuse on those who supported the liberal alternative to Clinton, Ralph Nader. To Kelly, Nader voters were “pea-heads,” including, presumably, TNR‘s campaign correspondent, Michael Lewis, and political columnist Ronald Steel.
Finally, there was Kelly’s temperament, tellingly displayed in his handling of the Stephen Glass matter. In contrast to his eventual successor, Chuck Lane–who restored some dignity to the magazine by conducting a thorough investigation before firing the compulsive young liar–Kelly viciously and mindlessly attempted to murder the messenger. When one of Glass’s victims insisted that the reporter had published a “fictionalized account” of his work, Kelly fired back: “You have shown that you are willing to smear someone’s professional reputation without any concern for truth…I await your apology to Stephen Glass and to this magazine.” Kelly replied to another of Glass’s critics that his letter was “meritless: dishonest, wrongheaded and clearly motivated by devotion to ideology rather than by any concern for truth or accuracy.” The New Republic‘s own investigation later concluded that Glass had invented anonymous sources, inflammatory quotes and false witnesses in that very story. Asked whether the victim deserved an apology, Kelly told a reporter that he was still waiting for proof.
Kelly now says that during the past few years he has “had to learn that [he was] entirely capable of screwing up and judging people wrong and making the wrong decision.” He has since become “more aware of how hard it is to do it right.” Let’s hope so. Atlantic writers, no doubt fearful for their future, spoke to inquiring reporters only of their admiration for Whitworth. Not one was heard to complain that Kelly plans to treat the job as a kind of sideline as he commutes from Washington, where he will remain editor in chief of the Bradley-owned National Journal.
The venerable old war horse has survived countless panics, depressions, world wars and even Mort Zuckerman. Perhaps it will also survive Michael Kelly. But those of us who retain an affection for the magazine and its role in American history might be forgiven for feeling afraid–very, very afraid.