Memoirs of a Closet Conservative

REVIEW: 'The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center' by Martin Peretz

September 3, 2023

I suppose some readers will have a hard time getting past the cover of The Controversialist, the new memoir by Martin Peretz, longtime editor of the New Republic. First there's the cover photo. It shows the author recumbent and smiling and sprouting a wooly thatch of chest hair from the opening of a linen shirt. Martin Peretz is 84 years old.

This whole unpleasantness could have been avoided if Peretz had not persisted in his lifelong habit of leaving the second or even third button of his shirts unbuttoned. In the book itself, he says this look, which I guess is meant to be rakish, derives from French intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Lévy. More down-to-earth bookstore browsers will glance at the photo and instead recall long-gone, and very non-French, Vegas lounge lizards like Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Orlando, and give it a pass.

Beyond the photo, there's the problem of the title. The Controversialist would well fit a biography of Peretz by another writer, someone holding up Peretz's career of endless public bickering for objective inspection, admiring or not. But for a man to hold himself up in this third-person manner, declaring himself by implication a kind of archetype or icon, betrays a disconcerting self-regard. Imagine an ordinary Washington backbencher like, say, Ben Cardin writing an autobiography and giving it the title The Senator. It's unseemly. Muhammad Ali could write an autobiography called The Greatest and get away with it. Even discounting for religious differences, Peretz is no Muhammad Ali.

He is, however—and this will become clear to anyone who makes it 30 pages past the cover—a first-rate memoirist who has written a book of a very high rank. The Controversialist is candid, vivid, wise, self-aware, and funny, almost always intentionally so. As a portrait of '80s-era Washington, the days of High Reaganism and the New Republic's greatest moment, it is matched only by Peggy Noonan's heretofore matchless memoir What I Saw at the Revolution. The book tumbles along with expertly drawn word portraits of interesting people—some so deft they need only a single sentence. The investigative reporter Seymour Hersh: "His penetration leads him to the right places until his ideology steers him off course." Kennedy butt boy Richard Goodwin: "He was very smart, but he always looked like he was thinking about what he was going to say when he wasn't talking." Peretz is hell on the Kennedys, by the way, but he doesn't belabor the point.

He is equally deft with ideas. His earliest mentor as an undergraduate at Brandeis was the New Left demigod Herbert Marcuse, whose airy theorizing became a credo for every '60s radical student with intellectual pretensions. Peretz's capsule summary tells us more in two paragraphs about the old flimflammer's Marxist porridge than anything I've read, with a droll kicker revealing the true source of Marcuse's appeal: "This insight led Herbert to the solution that sex—real sex, exploratory sex, sex sundered from consumer corruption—was the key to political liberation. What twenty-year-old wouldn't like going to class and hearing that?"

He gives the same pithy (and accurate) explanatory treatment to Freud, the "free love" movement, the rise of racial politics, and much else, across a wide range. For 50 years Peretz taught at Harvard in a baggy discipline called "Social Studies," a variant on the history of ideas. I envy his students.

Like a lot of professors, Peretz's true interest was politics. He became an activist early on. His prominence and effectiveness were guaranteed by his marriage to an heiress named Anne Labouisse, whose family was "astoundingly, alienatingly rich." Their money, however, was not so alienating that he refused to spend it. Candidates and causes flocked to him as if he were a milch cow with a thousand teats. (Perhaps this explains the unbuttoned shirts.) Starting as a radical in the 1950s, he gradually worked his way rightward, almost to the center, and eventually, on most subjects, well beyond.

A watershed moment came in 1967 when he organized a left-wing lollapalooza called the National Conference for New Politics that could have been scripted by Tom Wolfe. The leaders met at Peretz's seaside mansion on Cape Cod (natch) and were instantly at each other's throats (also natch). Later, the conference keynoter, Martin Luther King, was heckled by the black caucus, whose leader took the stage and proclaimed himself "dictator." A rabbi announced that all white men should be "castrated" because of slavery. The conference dissolved in an acid bath of anti-Semitism, but not before Peretz had an instructive peek into the future of the left.

The most enduring expression of his political interest was his editorship of the New Republic, a worthy, boring Democratic weekly that he decided to buy in 1974—"Anne, sweetie, where's the checkbook?"—and he built it rather quickly into an indispensable element of the country's political and intellectual life. The magazine's success over the decades was owing to his gift for recruiting clever, word-savvy liberals who, under his loose-reined oversight, became very good journalists, as editors and writers. Michael Kinsley, Leon Wieseltier, Charles Krauthammer, Emily Yoffe, Andrew Sullivan, Hendrik Hertzberg, Charles Lane, Ann Hulbert, Adam Kirsch… it's a long list. On every issue but one—the defense and survival of Israel is his consuming passion—he was happy to let everyone disagree. He describes his guiding editorial principle like so: "My bullshit goes in, so does yours." The magazine was often ferociously contentious and soon became beloved of a journalistic class that pretends to value contentiousness.

In the new century it all ended badly, of course, as so many things have. He and Anne divorced, for reasons he only hints at, though his run-amok adultery with other men and his sulfurous rages were much discussed in political and journalistic circles. By the sound of it he became a therapy addict. His residual wealth wasn't great enough to maintain the magazine's independence from kibitzing moneymen, and he had to sell. (After a brief revival under the hand of the veteran editor Chris Lehmann it has entered permanent decline.) Finally, his anti-Islamic views, coarsely expressed, got him canceled at Harvard.

Many more things could be said about The Controversialist, but I'll limit myself to two, one appealing, the other not. The reader won't help but be surprised by the warm, wholesome patriotism that suffuses the book. Few accounts of the lives lived at the highest levels of American politics and journalism take full account of the miraculous country that has made them possible. Peretz loves his country, and he writes movingly about the exceptionalism that often embarrasses its more progressive beneficiaries.

On the other hand, though the evidence of his right-wing beliefs mounts on every page, he insists on keeping a fanciful distance from the conservatives who believe the same things he does: not only about the bedrock goodness of his country but also about the virtues of capitalism, the corrosive effects of identity politics, the decline of the universities, the horrors of Utopianism, the intellectual and social disaster that these days goes under the polemical tag "wokism." He uses "right wing" as an insult, but Martin Peretz is a right-winger. He should fess up. His refusal to join the side he's on is more annoying than the chest hair.

The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center
by Martin Peretz
Wicked Son, 336 pp., $28

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