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100 Years Ago, 'New Republic' Helped Define Modern Liberalism


Franklin Foer has edited an anthology of articles from the century-old magazine that he edits - the New Republic, an influential magazine of politics and culture. The collection of articles was put together, he writes, in the spirit of the magazine it anthologizes. It is an argument about what matters. The book of New Republic essays from the past hundred years is called "Insurrections of the Mind." And Franklin Foer joins us from New York. Hi.


SIEGEL: In your introduction, you give a brief history of the magazine. And you write that the New Republic, when it began a hundred years ago, would help craft a new notion of American government; it's called liberalism. How central has the New Republic been to American liberalism?

FOER: Well, for starters it invented the name as we know it now. Before the 19-teens, liberalism meant laissez-faire. It meant freedom from the strictures of government and authority. It meant free markets. And that all changed in the 19-teens and the pages of the New Republic; where liberalism came to mean affirmative government, a stronger state, all the ways in which we now can note the term.

SIEGEL: It was born at a specific moment, a time in American history when Theodore Roosevelt had just failed to win the presidency, running as a progressive in 1912. And war was about to break out in Europe in 1914 and there would be a big debate over what role the U.S. would play in that. So it was a very, very active period in American politics.

FOER: The 19-teens were an incredible decade. They were born with this great sense of optimism, this great spirit of reform. And by the end of the decade, that optimism had completely collapsed into a sense of despair. We'd fought this tremendously bloody war. And there was really nothing to show for it. And that was the decade that formed the New Republic. It was created in 1914 on the eve of war and supported it the war. But by the end of the decade, it found itself wringing its hands and questioning itself and examining its first principles. And from that sense of self-examination came liberalism as we know it now; that combination of supporting a strong state that had a strong welfare state and social safety net, coupled with a real sense of the necessity of preserving civil liberties.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about some of the articles in the anthology. Among your favorites, I gather, is Hendrik Hertzberg's essay on Ronald Reagan that was occasioned by the publication of a Reagan memoir and a biography of him. And the essay is called "The Child Monarch." It came out after Reagan had left the White House. And it is both a scathing and very amusing read.

FOER: It's a comic masterpiece. Hertzberg had been the editor of the magazine in the 1980s. And he took turns editing the magazine with Michael Kinsley. And during that period of the magazine's history, there were these intense internal debates. And a lot of the intense internal debates in the 1980s revolved around the Cold War. You had Charles Krauthammer, who coined and supported the Reagan doctrine, which advocated on behalf of using proxies to battle the communists around the world. And you had a series of contributing editors who quit the magazine over its support for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

SIEGEL: In Central America, yeah.

FOER: In Central America. And Hertzberg wasn't entirely on board with this policy. And he wrote this magnificent essay that just redefines the Reagan era. And points out all the ways in which the Emperor truly had no clothes. The Child Monarch truly had no clothes. And it's just a masterpiece of comic argumentation. And he's having just an exuberant time trashing Reagan.

SIEGEL: In some essays, the New Republic took the risk of being a magazine written by and about intellectuals and broke some rules of disclosure in the process. My favorite is the essay from the first issue in November 1914. The English writer Rebecca West wrote a wonderful essay on the duty of harsh literary criticism; some of which she reserved for H.G. Wells. Tell us which she didn't disclose about H.G. Wells.

FOER: Well Rebecca West wrote that essay at the age of 22 - which is a humbling thing to consider. And she had begun her career with a scathing essay that she wrote about the novelist H.G. Wells, in which she pronounced him one of the old maids of English literature. And this review got the attention of H.G. Wells, who befriended her and then, went a little bit further than that and had an affair with her. And two months before this piece attacking Wells appeared in the magazine, she bore Wells a child. So the duty of harsh criticism is especially pointed when it comes to our ex-lover's.

SIEGEL: It exceeded the duty of disclosure, of conflict of interest, for sure in that case.

FOER: Right.

SIEGEL: Then, many decades later, there was Henry Fairlie's savaging of columnist George Will. The core of which - another very funny essay I might add - but the core of which seems to be you George Will say you're an Anglophile and a Tory. I, Henry Fairlie, am a real Englishman and an actual Tory, a conservative. And I call you out on both counts.

FOER: Well, one of the joys of a magazine like the New Republic, is not only do we publish these highfalutin writers but we make allowances and a little bit of room for quirkier figures. And Henry Fairlie, like Rebecca West, was an import from London. He was a classic fleet street writer. And he also became a bit of the furniture around the office. He - in fact he slept in the office. There was a couch that haunted the magazine and we only threw it out, much to my chagrin, last year. It was so disgusting, was it. But he was a bit of a drunk. He wrote from paycheck to paycheck. And that freelance spirit gave him a certain intellectual bravery. And when he went after targets he just tore them apart with his wit and with his style.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I used to love reading Henry Fairlie but in reading this hit job on George Will...

FOER: Hit job's fair.

SIEGEL: I have to say, I find myself saying cut the man some slack for hyperbole - when Will compares the advice columnist Miss Manners to Edmund Burke and the authors of the Federalist Papers - He's having fun with us. It's a joke.

FOER: Well, that's right. Harsh criticism is necessary. And it's wonderful. And it's a tradition that the New Republic has nurtured over the century. But some of the times, when we look back at this, we can see - we can see the heat of the moment. We can see how rhetoric flares in some of these joyous hatchet jobs. They don't entirely bring true word for word. But you can appreciate the spirit behind it - the idea that there are these sacred cows that are worthy of slaying and that there are times when figures arise in our culture who are venerated, and nobody is willing to say, hey look, this guy is full of hot air.

SIEGEL: Franklin Foer, thanks for talking with us about the book and the magazine.

FOER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Franklin Foer is the editor of the New Republic and of the anthology "Insurrections Of The Mind: 100 Years Of Politics And Culture In America." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.