Hubert Humphrey once characterized the wise Senator as "one who reads the New Republic frequently and takes its advice not at all." The "N.R." celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, and it seems a good time to ask why Humphrey's remark rings so true. Though carefully read, widely respected, and perhaps even Established, the New Republic has never really been influential. Why?
Perhaps, as Humphrey seems to suggest, the journal's leftism makes for interesting reading but risky following. While there is some truth in this, I suspect the real answer is much simpler: the New Republic's advice is rarely taken because it is rarely given. The magazine doesn't propagandize ideas; it considers them. It thinks. It is not, as has been postulated, the conscience of America's liberalism, but rather liberalism's intellect.
Accustomed to magazines that only entertain (Life) or sloganeer (Time), Americans have a difficult time classifying the "N.R." Neither "liberal" nor "radical" will do. The appropriate adjective is "civilized," a word alien to this country, used on this side of the Atlantic only as a term of condescension or ridicule. The New Republic is civilized in the French sense of the term: "rendu correct ou elegant." And, because it is civilized, it can civilize those who read it, by stimulating interest in new problems and by fostering perspective in regard to old ones.
At least two other American magazines fill, or try to fill, a similar role: Commentary and The Nation. Judging among alternatives of excellence always involve a little sophistry, but I feel relatively safe in giving the New Republic the edge in tone and universality of appeal. As a brilliant vanguard of Jewish intellectualism, Commentary seems to me a significant but almost thoroughly ethnic voice, with a tone more gloomy and academic than the problems of the sixties justify. As for The Nation, a vague nostalgia for the disputes and disillusionments of the thirties lends it a stridency which soon bores those who see more complexity than evil behind this country's woes. Characteristically, The Nation's cover is all black and white, while the New Republic usually adds a dash of mauve or olive.
If the "N.R." avoids the louder noises of militancy, it does not out of cowardice, but because it finds the civilizing process rather pleasant and the prospects at least faintly hopeful. The magazine's emblem catches this spirit, juxtaposing the momentous date, 1914, against an elaborate sketch of an unwieldly Spanish galleon. The message: We may face hell, but we'll have to make do with what we've got.
Considering the variety of talent it employs, the New Republic maintains a strikingly consistent and distinct writing style. Searching for a description of it brings to mind only contradictory accolades: authoritative and relaxed, facile and profound. The paradigm for the style is TRB's elegantly folksy column, which invariably eschews logic and statistics to come right to the point. Even when the point is a tired one, the freshness of TRB's verbal stream brings new clarity to the matter by rinsing away all the moss and scum of confusion: "Maybe it's unfortunate, but about the only counterweight the little man has to Big Business is Big Government; the record of the century is that business has grown big first, with government limping along behind."
The editors have given the 50th anniversary edition the pretentious title, "The Great Society--Creating America," and have arranged the contributing essays into officious sounding categories like Economy, Youth, Environment, etc. Aside from these formalities, however, the issue is as relaxed and discursive as any. TRB, for instance, rambles about as brilliantly as ever, finally declaring his "congenital optimism" in America's future.
The individual essays fall a little short of the magazine's standard of wit, pungency, and elegance. But several are valuable and most are interesting. Wolf Von Eckardt discusses suburban planning with a rare sense of political reality and social morality, dragging a crucial topic out of the sheltered enclaves of the architecture schools. In attacking institutionalized art and "Lincoln Center Culture" Robert Brustein covers familiar ground, but his courage and anger make the article both pointed and lively.
There are several clinkers. Louis Halle's "A Sense of History" rehashes the worn maxim that technology has undermined the nation-state; his writing is no more exciting than the topic. Robert Coles, a Harvard research psychiatrist, throws out several fascinating generalizations about "Today's Youth," but considering his proximity to college life, he should have provided more examples.
For those who haven't read the New Republic, the anniversary edition offers only a mediocre introduction. Far better to start with this week's regular issue, which contains, among other things, a fine TRB, an excellent piece by Murray Kempton, and several perceptive reviews.