Triumph of a Limousine Liberal

REVIEW: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ by Jann Wenner

October 9, 2022

As founder and editor of Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner was chief publicist and mythmaker for the social revolution of the 1960s. So if you choose to read his new memoir Like a Rolling Stone—a question on which I refuse to take sides, you have your own life to live—you might be surprised to discover that there were moments back in those early days when young Jann thought he didn’t really fit in.

He tried to be a rock musician, for example, but he gave it up. The "lifestyle" was too uncertain, too disorderly, he felt. "I liked structure, organization, and leadership."

Then there was the time Wenner crashed at the pad of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and founder of the troupe of tripping hippies known as the Merry Pranksters. But Kesey’s place was a mess—he had an "open-door policy" for guests and you never knew who the cat might drag in. "My feeling was that I didn’t belong there." Too yucky.

As a sophomore at UC Berkeley, at the dawn of the Free Speech Movement, Wenner joined a group of radical students that called itself SLATE. But the membership! "A lot of beards, thrift-shop wardrobes, work boots, and bad breath." Make no mistake: For Jann Wenner bad breath is a deal-breaker, even when the proletariat is trying to wrest control of the means of production. "You are so bourgeois," his fellow revolutionaries told him.

And the revolutionaries were right (about him being bourgeois, not about the means of production). It’s a fine line Wenner walked, all through the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, as a loud advocate for the more enjoyable parts of the ’60s revolution. He was strongly in favor of sexual libertinism, drug legalization, anti-militarism, and the redistribution of everyone’s wealth but his own. He was also in favor of building up a successful publishing business, crushing the competition, acquiring private aircraft, buying many, many houses, filling a warehouse with fancy cars, and amassing a personal fortune in the low-to-mid eight figures.

Before long, Jann Wenner had leapfrogged the bourgeois altogether and become not a radical but a limousine liberal.

The phrase has a quaint feel today, perhaps because the type became so unavoidable. "Limousine liberal" was a term coined back in the ’60s to distinguish a new kind of leftish figure. A limousine liberal wasn’t a committed ideologue like Dorothy Day or Saul Alinsky; nor was he descended from the rank and file of the Democratic Party, those horny handed sons of toil: prairie farmers, union members, ethnic partisans of big city political machines, the sorts of people you might suspect of having bad breath.

Indeed it was a Democratic machine hack from New York who first invented the term as pejorative. His target was John Lindsay, the leftwing mayor of New York City in the late ’60s (and a Republican!). As the father of limousine liberalism, Lindsay counted as his most loyal constituency the wealthy residents of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. They were vocally committed to racial solidarity, economic justice, heavy government regulation, all that jazz—so long as nobody gave their chauffeurs and cooks any fancy ideas.

Over the last 50 years, roughly the lifespan of Rolling Stone, the defection of the white (and now, increasingly, the Hispanic) working class from the Democratic Party left limousine liberals a lot of room for redecoration. They turned the party into a kind of performance space, a stage for striking moral poses and issuing political mandates that always seem to require more from their fellow citizens than from themselves. The well-to-do activists of the Democratic Party, lucky them, get to have their Ben and Jerry’s Groovy Tie Dye Ice Cream Cake and eat it too. The meat-and-potatoes liberalism that shaped the party of Wenner’s youth seems a distant dream. It’s hard to imagine Eleanor Roosevelt posing in a backless number at the Met Gala or George Meany canvassing Martha’s Vineyard for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, as Wenner and his pal Larry David did in 2004.

Politics is not the central theme of Wenner’s memoir, but the evolution of his political identity is one of the things that makes the book interesting. From those early days, when he was made uneasy by the radicals who lived and breathed (ugh) their causes, he has grown into an exemplar of his class and his party. On the very first page of the book he writes: "It was clear that my own story, the saga of Rolling Stone, and the breadth and depth of its horizon could be a great read, and a historically authentic way of telling the story of my generation, our times, and my own mission." This sentence is an excellent example of the book’s tone: the banal informality ("a great read") snug against the grandiose ("historically authentic"), wrapped up in preening self-regard ("my own mission").

It has the additional virtue of being true.

For no one should underestimate the largeness of Jann Wenner’s achievement. Few American magazine editors of the 20th century can match it. Like Harold Ross of the New Yorker, Henry Luce of Time, Life, and Fortune, Clay Felker of New York, and pretty much nobody else, he conceived a hugely successful magazine ex nihilo, to satisfy a public appetite whose potential he alone saw and monetized.

When the first issue of Rolling Stone spun from the presses, in late 1967, popular music was attaining a significance it had never enjoyed before. Thanks to the postwar boom, its teenage audience was flush with cash. The music industry grew in wealth and capacity as the money poured in. Doting on the kids, a small army of eggheads were eager to escape the rigors of traditional liberal arts and treat the kids’ music as a serious artistic and sociological endeavor, regardless of merit.

The most important figure among them was the jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason. Tweedy, elbow-patched, and wreathed in pipe smoke, Gleason saw the potential in the young genius’s idea: Untethered brain power + free-floating cash had to equal something lucrative. Wenner’s plan was to combine gossip, investigative reporting, music criticism, spot news, and narrative features of seemingly infinite length, packaged in a neoclassical graphic design (he banned san serif typefaces from his pages) and touched throughout with knowing humor. The magazine’s self-mocking motto was clipped from the banner of the New York Times: "All the news that fits." Gleason, a generation older, introduced such un-hippy like conventions as deadlines and budgets to discipline Wenner’s wild inspiration and ferocious energy.

As Wenner tells the story, his success seems a matter of destiny, and I’m willing to believe it. He had a Forrest Gump-like ability to be at the right place at the right time. He was there for the Grateful Dead’s first gig and Kesey’s legendary "acid tests." He stayed up all night while the Who’s Pete Townshend sketched out his rock opera Tommy for the first time. He sat next to Mick Jagger as Jagger made the final mix of Beggar’s Banquet, perhaps the Rolling Stones’ greatest album. Less than a year after the Beatles’ break-up he got John Lennon to trash his former bandmates in print.

He also had an eye for superior talent and a nose for news. From the start, Rolling Stone owned the most important news stories of the counterculture: the financial fraud of the Monterey Pop Festival, the nightmarish Stones concert at the Altamont raceway, Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders, the kidnapping of the heiress Patty Hearst, and many more.

A lot of the country’s best journalists were set free to do their finest work for him: P.J. O’Rourke, the travel writer Jan Morris, the critic Lester Bangs, Jon Krakauer, and Hunter S. Thompson, self-appointed founder of "gonzo journalism." Tom Wolfe was the most celebrated nonfiction writer of the day when Wenner lured him away from Felker’s New York to write a history of the Mercury astronauts. The result was The Right Stuff, which remains a monument to the possibilities of reported prose. Later he let Wolfe move to fiction by serializing his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. He took a flyer on the unproved photographer Annie Leibovitz and capped the equally celebrated career of Richard Avedon.

A great editor requires many qualities—an intuitive understanding of his audience, an ability to spot small stirrings before they become big trends, a taste for good writing, money—but self awareness is not one of them. In a memoir as gossipy as Wenner’s this is less of a handicap than you might think. The reader will figure out what’s going on even if the memoirist doesn’t. Wenner seldom lets more than a few pages go by without a reference to his soul-deep friendship with some rock star or other. Bob Dylan drops by when he’s in town. Bruce Springsteen invites him to his horse farm. Jagger jets in for a sail around the Caribbean. Why, a court order couldn’t keep Paul McCartney or Bono or Jackson Browne away from the radiant pleasure of hanging with their pal Jann.

That their pal Jann also just happened to be the editor of their industry’s most important trade magazine—the cover of which generated enough publicity to almost guarantee the success of a new record or tour—is, as Jann himself sees it, an item of no importance in maintaining the spiritual communion he enjoys with these busy, ambitious, calculating, and relentlessly transactional show biz figures. He must be a hoot to be with! His charm, his humor! The sparkle of his conversation! Why else would Bob or Paul or Bruce be so eager for his company? Of course, he usually goes ahead and obliges them with a cover story. What else are friends for?

The same obliviousness holds true in his political excursions. Manmade climate change is evidently unaffected by the long flights on his personal jet. He is, who would’ve guessed, a passionate advocate of gun control and the confiscation of private firearms; one chapter is even titled "Fuck the NRA." But—boy!—was he ever glad his guide on a cross country motorcycle trip was packing heat to protect him from the rednecks that infest the land between the coasts. (In fairness, I should add that the guide didn’t have to shoot any of them.) He bravely condemned the "greed" unleashed by Ronald Reagan and other Republicans. Yet even as he tends an ever rising pile of money, fighting for every inch of market advantage, squeezing the best financing rates he can from Wall Street, and slashing payroll to juice profits, he never succumbs to greed himself. Greed is one of those terrible character flaws that only afflicts other people. Most of them, thank God, do not have summer compounds in Montauk.

Like most great magazines, Rolling Stone not only fed off its readers’ enthusiasms but in time began to shape them too. In the early days, as the magazine’s and Wenner’s success grew, a debate stirred among the hippies about "whether making money, or more than you needed, was wrong." Could there be such a thing as "hip capitalism"?

In nearly 600 pages of memoir, Wenner doesn’t answer the question directly—he was never good at making arguments, as he proved in the many pompous, moralizing editorials he wrote for the magazine and insists on quoting here.

His life was his answer—a resounding "Hell yes!" The same market economy he disdained in theory could be squeezed in practice for unlimited financial gain. The radicalism that Wenner flirted with in his youth and quickly rejected requires a kind of self-denial, even asceticism, that couldn’t withstand the constant allurements to which he happily submitted. By contrast, he writes, "I believed in a revolution of culture and consciousness." Good choice! That kind of revolution is a much lighter lift than a revolution in economic arrangements, and much more fun.

The president that Wenner admires above all others is Bill Clinton, one year Wenner’s junior. Their similarities go beyond their fondness for sexual excess and a tendency to go to pudge if they’re not careful. Like Wenner, Clinton fancied himself a man of the left, with roots in radicalism, but a realist too. Both made a career of taking blistering criticism as sell-outs from leftwing critics whom they inevitably disappointed. Clinton had to disappoint the left because he valued his political success in a center-right nation; Wenner had to disappoint the left because he valued his private plane.

The contradictions and hypocrisies of limousine liberalism could always be obscured in flights of rhetoric. Wenner quotes several of his editorial hymns to Clinton and his vice president Al Gore: "Clinton and Gore are men who came of age in the sixties and whose sensibilities and value systems were formed then. They have … rock and roll in their blood. [Their] election will give our generation the chance to renew our politics and to reconcile our deeply held values with the realities of government."

Thirty years on Wenner reprints his praise without a trace of irony, much less regret. He fails to mention that Clinton’s administration was notable most of all for passing welfare reform, coddling the bond market, globalizing free trade, hollowing out domestic manufacturing, expanding the inner city drug war, and using mass incarceration as a crime-fighting tactic. All those "deeply held values" made Clinton's administration easily the most reactionary Democratic government since Grover Cleveland's. But who’s counting? The limousine rolls on.

Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir
by Jann Wenner
Little, Brown, 592 pp., $35

Andrew Ferguson is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published under: Book reviews , Media