Oh, Sam Tanenhaus: New Cerebral Boss Takes Book Review

“I’m very moderate by nature,” Sam Tanenhaus said by telephone from his home in Westchester, two days after The New York Times announced that he would be the next editor of its Book Review . “People with extreme views interest me, dramatically and narratively.”

The author of a very well-received 1997 biography of the journalist and eventual anti-communist Whittaker Chambers, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr. Tanenhaus has spent the past five years as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair , largely chronicling conservatives and neoconservatives in the orbit of the Bush administration. And so liberals seem to think-or, perhaps, to fear-that the man taking over one of the country’s premier literary institutions is a conservative, while conservatives find him, as he said, more middle-of-the-road.

Affable, energetic but easygoing, well-respected by a broad swath of the intellectual community, possessing a healthy understanding of the ideological debates of the day but with no apparent dog in the race, Mr. Tanenhaus appears to fit The Times ‘ bill perfectly as a successor to Charles (Chip) McGrath, who has been itching to return to writing after nearly a decade in one of New York’s most prestigious-and thankless-jobs. Mr. Tanenhaus also happens to come equipped with an M.A. in English literature from Yale and a background in book publishing.

Still, for all Mr. Tanenhaus’ well-roundedness, some see his appointment as another sign that The Times is devoting more attention to conservative developments. The paper recently assigned David Kirkpatrick to cover conservatives as a beat, and hired David Brooks as an Op-Ed columnist. Indeed, Mr. Tanenhaus himself said that The Times under executive editor Bill Keller had “remarkably and boldly” addressed “the conservative ascendancy” in America, and that he wanted his Book Review to address such developments as well. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to win all the time and are right, but if you look into the last half century of politics, the conservative presence was always stronger than intellectuals knew,” Mr. Tanenhaus said.

For his part, Mr. Keller said, “Sam’s politics, if he has any, had nothing to do with his selection. We hired him for his intelligence, his voracious curiosity, his passion for good books, his creative energy.”

Privately, some conservatives said they were taken aback when Mr. Tanenhaus went to work as an editor at The Times ‘ generally liberal Op-Ed page in 1997, after spending much of the early 90′s publishing Chambers-related work in conservative cultural journals, including The New Criterion , Commentary and National Review , as well as in non-conservative publications.

But Mr. Tanenhaus said that he never intended to align himself with the conservative cause. “Many [conservatives] were surprised that I didn’t plan to reside permanently in that world,” he said. Rather, he described his role as “an outsider who’s invited to participate or to observe.” Instead of a member of the family, Mr. Tanenhaus turned out to be a very skillful journalist. “I’m a political skeptic,” he said. “The people I’ve written about tend to be not political figures, but politically engaged intellectuals-people who live the life of ideas and also become political actors of a kind.”

“Sam is neither conservative nor neoconservative,” summed up his friend Terry Teachout, the critic and blogger, who contributes to The Times Book Review . “He is an old-fashioned anti-communist Jewish liberal intellectual who still gets excited about Saul Bellow.”

Nice Guy Finishes First

To take the Book Review job, Mr. Tanenhaus has put his planned biography of William F. Buckley Jr., due to Random House in 2005, on hold. “The understanding is very clear that there will be no conflicts of interest, but the book is being suspended,” Mr. Tanenhaus said. He added that he’d received a note from Mr. Buckley. “Bill Buckley is an extraordinarily generous man, and he understands that this is something I want to do, and this is the opportunity to do it,” Mr. Tanenhaus said. Mr. Buckley, who is 78 years old, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Tanenhaus, 48, lives in Tarrytown with his wife, Kathryn Bonomi, who arranges programming at the Jacob Burns Film Center, Westchester’s art-film house, and their 12-year-old daughter. While he claims that his wife has “more elevated tastes than I do,” his daughter appears to be keeping Mr. Tanenhaus connected to pop culture. “I’m a big American Idol fan and watch it religiously,” Mr. Tanenhaus said. “It’s got a good narrative-the classic story of the undiscovered talent.”

Mr. Tanenhaus grew up in New York and later Iowa, where his father taught political science at the University of Iowa. He majored in English at Grinnell College and left a Ph.D. program in English literature at Yale after one year and an M.A., when he realized he wanted to write, not be a literary scholar. “It was a very useful lesson to learn. I’m glad I learned it after one year rather than 10,” Mr. Tanenhaus said. He worked in publicity at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the early 80′s, then moved to Oxford University Press in 1986 to do “rewrite” on trade, academic and crossover books, later doing the same at Chelsea House, which specializes in children’s nonfiction library books, until 1989. As Mr. Tanenhaus described this period: “I spent many years in dead-end publishing jobs!”

Mr. Tanenhaus said he got the idea for the Chambers book in 1988 and debated whether to make it a novel or a nonfiction book. “Its rather amorphous initial topic was the year 1948, drawing on Orwell,” he said. “My idea was to go back to the origins of the Cold War, which now looked to be ending, and see how it all began, at least in the psycho-cultural terms that interested me.” At first Alger Hiss was the focus, but the book evolved into a biography of Chambers, a former Bolshevik who in 1948 testified against Hiss. Hiss’ guilt or innocence “didn’t make much difference, as I planned at first to write relatively little on the case itself. It still doesn’t matter much to me,” Mr. Tanenhaus said. “In one of Updike’s Maples stories, the wife is reading about Nixon and exclaims, ‘Alger Hiss was guilty,’ and the husband says, ‘Of course he is. We’re all guilty.’ This was my view when I began the book and still is today, which may explain some of the subsequent confusions about my politics.”

Robert Loomis at Random House bought the book in 1989. After it was published in 1997, Mr. Tanenhaus landed at the Op-Ed page of The Times with the help of Mitchell Levitas, who had edited the Book Review in the 1980′s. Mr. Tanenhaus moved to Vanity Fair in May 1999. “I discovered by accident that I was a journalist,” he said. “It’s like being in school without having to go to class.” Bruce Handy, Mr. Tanenhaus’ editor at Vanity Fair , said Mr. Tanenhaus was “a pleasure to work with-really the nicest guy, the easiest guy to work with.”

Indeed, Mr. Tanenhaus doesn’t appear to be someone who wants to be known by his enemies. He was effusive in his praise of a host of literary and journalistic figures, people who wouldn’t necessarily see eye to eye with each other. He called Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter “a great maestro, the Toscanini of the magazine.” Mr. Tanenhaus also had kind words for, among others: Hilton Kramer, The Observer ‘s art critic and the editor and publisher of The New Criterion ; Norman Podhoretz, the editor-at-large of Commentary , and its editor, Neal Kozodoy; Robert Silvers, the co-editor of The New York Review of Books ; Steve Wasserman, the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review , and Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic , about whom he published a profile in the Times Magazine in 1999. “These are my models-I’m going to try to see how they do it,” said Mr. Tanenhaus. He also said that he “hangs out” with Eric Alterman, the media columnist for The Nation , and Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker ‘s liberal political columnist.

Mr. Tanenhaus said he would re-examine the Book Review ‘s approach to fiction, which he said had long been “the great conundrum of the Book Review .” And while he has no plans to abandon fiction-contrary to the fears of many in the publishing world-his enthusiasms seem to lie more in nonfiction. “We’re living in really an exemplary age of nonfiction narrative, and to some extent nonfiction has taken over some of the earlier attributes of the novel, which is story-telling,” he said. “Nonfiction writers have inherited the classic technique of fiction. That’s what I tried to do in my biography, I tried to write it as if it were a novel.”

Still, “I grew up on that great generation of postwar American novelists, whom I admire enormously and still read and just learned a great deal from,” Mr. Tanenhaus said. “I read a lot professionally-politics, history-and I’m a fan of fiction, a frustrated novelist, so the writers I admire are novelists.” He said the critics he admires include Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Edmund Wilson. He’s currently re-reading a collection of Kenneth Tynan’s theater criticism.

What Do We Want? Slow Change! When Do We Want It? In Due Time!

In what’s emblematic of the high-anxiety world of publishing, publishers contacted for comment about Mr. Tanenhaus’ appointment would say only that they’re greeting it with cautious optimism. Publicly, they have already made at least one thing clear: They don’t consider it terribly worthwhile to take out ads in the Book Review . Some publishers said they’d sooner take out an ad in USA Today or the daily Arts section of The Times , just as some say a review by daily critic Michiko Kakutani has more weight than one in the Sunday Book Review .

Mr. Keller, for his part, said that he did hope to add more pages to the Book Review , but that it would depend “at least in part on our generating the kind of excitement that might sell some additional ads.”

Mr. Tanenhaus is somewhat untested as a manager and editor as he takes over the Book Review . He has never managed a staff or edited a publication before; for now, he is in, he said, “an immersion course.” But he said he had good help, including Mr. McGrath.

“It’s a great appointment-I couldn’t be more pleased,” Mr. McGrath said. “It’s going to make it that much easier for me to walk out of here with a light heart.” As for the challenges of being editor, “I don’t want to reveal them all, or he might not take the job,” Mr. McGrath added.

Mr. Tanenhaus said he was inheriting “an extremely knowledgeable staff” of editors “who are among the best-read people on the planet.” He singled out Dwight Garner, a preview editor for fiction, and Caroline Herron, who handles nonfiction, for having “a real talent” for bringing new critical voices to the Book Review .

But it seems that in hiring Mr. Tanenhaus, The Times is ready for change-change in its own due time, that is. “He’s here in part because everyone understands that it’s time now, that certain changes are overdue, and my assumption is that they will give him what he needs,” Mr. McGrath said. “He also comes at a fortuitous moment-a large cultural makeover-and the Book Review can benefit from that.” Said Mr. Keller, “Everyone we talked to for the job-and, by the way, Chip McGrath-was eager to give the section a rethink, redesign, reinvigoration.”

So readers won’t have to fasten their seatbelts just yet. “Jayson Blair was the one who burned down the house,” Mr. Tanenhaus said jokingly. “I’m not going to be able to burn down the house.”