Peter Beinart, a self-effacing, 28-year-old former intern at The New Republic , is set to become the sixth editor of the magazine in the last decade. He replaces the demoted Charles Lane, who replaced the fired Michael Kelly, who replaced Andrew Sullivan, who quit. Mr. Beinart will begin his new job just as the Presidential race is heating up, which puts him in a tricky position: He’s a young editor with not much clout working at a left-leaning weekly under an owner, Martin Peretz, who is very much an Al Gore man.
“I think Peter’s a very sweet kid,” said a former New Republic editor. “He’s a smart, sweet kid who’s going to get his ass handed to him.”
Mr. Peretz, an independently wealthy lecturer at Harvard University who once had Mr. Gore as a prize pupil, described Mr. Beinart as “an exceptionally brilliant person who had both a very secure grasp of the politics present, how it is rooted in history, and how it can affect the future.” They met when Mr. Beinart was a Yale undergraduate running the Liberal Party, which was a division of the university’s Political Union debating society. Mr. Beinart had been reading The New Republic since he was a high school student in the late 80′s, and he invited Mr. Peretz to come give a talk in New Haven. Later on, Mr. Beinart co-founded a magazine at Yale called The Review of Politics , a collegiate New Republic knockoff. Now he gets to run the real one.
The question is whether he’s strong enough to stand up to the demands of Mr. Peretz in an election year. A second question is whether he can keep from tussling with the magazine’s powerful and intelligent literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, who, together with his Byronic hairdo, runs the back of the magazine as a separate, inviolable fiefdom.
While perhaps having to cede control of the magazine’s arts and cultural coverage to Mr. Wieseltier and its political coverage to the owner, Mr. Beinart must somehow do something about the Washington, D.C.-based magazine’s circulation, which, in these complacent times, has fallen over the last five years, from 99,500 to 91,800.
Mr. Beinart is one in a long line of New Republic wonder boys–one of many Mr. Peretz has found over the years, from Michael Kinsley, who was 26 when he took over the magazine, to Mr. Sullivan, who was 28. One Wunderkind the magazine wants to forget is the onetime star writer Stephen Glass, who at 25 wrote colorful feature articles for the magazine that should have struck an editor as perhaps too colorful, given that they were fictitious. Ruth Shalit, another hotshot writer who made her name at the magazine, got in trouble for plagiarism.
For now, Mr. Beinart has yet to leave Manhattan, to which he moved last April. He lives just off Amsterdam Avenue. Asked to describe himself in a phone call prior to meeting for drinks, he said, “I look like pretty much everyone else on the Upper West Side, in jeans and a plaid shirt.” He proposed going to a place on West 77th Street and Amsterdam Avenue called Vermouth, where “some of the people looked a bit hipper than I am. But maybe this would give me chance to try to fit in.”
Despite being the same age when he was anointed, Mr. Beinart is hardly the hipster that Mr. Sullivan attempted to be, with his Camille Paglia contributions and famous piece on sofa fabric and an appearance in a Gap advertisement. “I don’t think it has a hell of a lot to do with why I was hired,” he said.
“It would be damning with faint praise to say that he’s not one of Marty’s smart young men,” said Time columnist Margaret Carlson. (Mr. Beinart has also written for Time .) “But he is, in the tradition of Michael Kinsley.” Ms. Carlson isn’t his only grown-up fan: National Journal media critic (and ex- New Republic writer) William Powers said: “He’s just a pleasure to be around. He doesn’t have that arrogance that some people associate with The New Republic –rightly.”
Mr. Peretz, who married into the Singer sewing machine fortune, is upfront about his strong hand in the magazine. After all, he’s not only the owner–on the masthead, he lists himself as both “editor in chief” and “chairman.” Mr. Beinart, like those who have gone before him in Mr. Peretz’s revolving door, gets the title of “editor.” But what exactly do the young men who have worn this title have in common?
“It has to be someone Marty respects, it has to be a guy, and he has to come from a good university,” said Hanna Rosin, a 29-year-old Washington Post reporter who interned with Mr. Beinart at The New Republic and is friends with him. “Given all the requirements, he’s the best choice.”
Mr. Peretz seemed to have had his eye on Mr. Beinart for some time: “There was a sense that Peter has what the Chinese call the mandate of heaven,” he said.
There are those who think that Mr. Peretz was just looking for someone he can control. As one former editor at the magazine put it, “There isn’t a fucking person in the world who would take that job.” Another person who saw him in action at The New Republic said, “The best thing he’s got going for him is his attendance record.”
Jonathan Chait, who is 27 and left The New Republic on a writing grant from the New America Foundation, said that there was a “conventional view” of The New Republic that writers and editors employed there “move up too fast, and they become plagiarists and their whole life is a lie. But what people don’t remember is that during the golden age, people like Michael Kinsley and Mickey Kaus, they were young, undiscovered talents; they’re in their 40′s now.” He added: “To have something interesting to say about housing policy, you don’t have to have spent five years writing police beat at a local newspaper.”
At the bar, Mr. Beinart sipped white wine. “The people being, I don’t know, annoyed that I’m 28, is the flip side of people getting hyped for being in their 20′s,” he said. “And both sides of that don’t interest me. I’ve never had the slightest interest in Gen-X stuff. I’ve always thought it was a big myth, and the allegiances I have, have had a lot more to do with other demographic characteristics than anyone who was just in my age group.”
Mr. Beinart’s parents are both South African, very liberal and Jewish, he said. They fled the “life-or-death politics” of their homeland while his mother was pregnant with him. His father is a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “One of the sad ironies of South Africa was that the more liberal, better-educated people left because they could,” he said. His parents found themselves in a quandary. “They couldn’t live with themselves being politically apathetic in South Africa. And couldn’t give their whole lives to ‘the Struggle’–that’s what it was called.”
His mother, Doreen Beinart, is today a Cambridge real estate agent who married American Repertory Theater artistic director Robert Brustein in 1996. The Cambridge-based Mr. Brustein is also The New Republic ‘s longtime drama critic. (“But there were no ties through that,” said Mr. Peretz.) Mr. Beinart said he found becoming editor of the magazine that employs his mother’s husband “weird,” but noted that he had no control over the back of the book.
His father remains more political. “Nowhere but South Africa did Marxism retain its prestige,” said Mr. Beinart. So he was a “knee-jerk lefty kid” in his politics until well into college, he said.
The New Republic started to change the views he had inherited.
“I was in a kind of strange subgroup of adolescent. I found The New Republic very exciting,” he said. “I think I started reading the magazine when I had no idea how fragile that liberal orthodoxy was. The New Republic was kind of frantically but intelligently throwing that orthodoxy overboard, parts of the left liberal project that were making it completely alien to most Americans and made it impossible for them to win another election.”
Mr. Beinart graduated in 1989 from Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, a private day school in Cambridge, with a 3.5 G.P.A. and SATs of 1,450. He went on to Yale, where he had a double major in history and political science. He was chair of the Liberal Party and a columnist for the Yale Herald , specializing in Africa. Friends remember him as becoming increasingly mainstream in his politics while he was there. After graduation, he was a Rhodes Scholar and studied international relations at Oxford. “I spent a lot of time discussing the causes of World War I and World War II,” he said. In the summer of 1993, he pulled off an internship at The New Republic .
Mr. Beinart ended up as the 25-year-old managing editor of the magazine in the spring of 1996 when Mr. Sullivan quit. That summer, he co-edited the magazine with David Greenberg until Michael Kelly came in.
Mr. Beinart doesn’t write a lot. When he does, he goes into high essay mode. In an Oct. 11 New Republic analysis of Bill Bradley, he argued that the fact the candidate once played basketball in the N.B.A. does not make him more sensitive to the needs of African-Americans. The ending of the piece is pseudo-rousing: “And that is why the argument for human equality must be waged at the level of moral principle, as a commitment that holds irrespective of, or even counter to, personal experience.”
“I don’t like hit pieces, I don’t like puff pieces,” said Mr. Beinart. “I don’t like pieces that don’t have an idea behind it.” Of the publishing commodity called buzz, he said he wants “only the right kind of buzz.” The Bell Curve , a treatise on race and intelligence which was excerpted in The New Republic under Mr. Sullivan’s editorship, certainly generated a lot of buzz. Mr. Beinart said he wouldn’t have touched it. “No,” he said. “I’m a big fan of Andrew’s and an admirer and a friend. I wasn’t there. But I suppose I–um–probably wouldn’t have.”
Mr. Beinart was also careful in addressing the topic of the sometimes cozy relationship between the magazine he will edit and candidate Al Gore. “The magazine is not The New York Times ,” said Mr. Beinart. “It’s a magazine of affiliations, people we love and people we hate, crusades and obsessions. And that in itself is fine. Not only fine, certainly necessary. But within that, things you believe in, and things and people you don’t believe in, do you still do valuable, critical, intellectually honest reporting? We’re going to endorse the Democratic nominee. You know, we’d prefer it be Al Gore than Bill Bradley, but we’d endorse Bill Bradley if he becomes the Democratic nominee.”
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