The Nation, 9 February 2009

9febnationAlexander Cockburn quotes an interesting-sounding new book, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, by Dana Nelson.  Unfortunately, Nelson does not recommend abolishing the presidency.  She does have as set of proposals to reduce its power, and she exhorts her readers to find ways of participating in political life that do not involve voting or require fixing national attention on one man. 

This issue includes part one of “Adventures in Editing,” Ted Solotaroff’s recollections of his time as an associate editor of Commentary in the early 60s.  Anyone interested in writing will enjoy Solotaroff’s description of how he learned to do that job.  Anyone interested in narcissists will enjoy his description of how Norman Podhoretz behaved as the editor-in-chief of the magazine in those days.  One bit that sticks in my mind is near the end of the piece:

Shortly after I’d come to Commentary, I’d had a conversation with Norman about recruiting writers for the magazine. It didn’t seem to me such a big deal; I said I knew of four or five people at the University of Chicago alone who could write for Commentary.

“You think you do, but you don’t,” said Norman. “You don’t realize how unusual you were for an academic.”

I said I wasn’t that unusual: I’d lucked into an opportunity my friends hadn’t had. “I’ll bet you a dinner that I can bring five writers you’ve never heard of into the magazine in the next year.”

“I don’t want to take your money,” he said. “I’ll bet you won’t bring three.”

We turned out to both be right. With one exception, the novelist Thomas Rogers, none of the former colleagues I had in mind sent in a review or piece that was lively enough to be accepted. A former fellow graduate student, Elizabeth Tornquist, who was turning to political journalism, also managed to crack the barrier. The others had fallen into one or another mode of scholarly dullness or pedagogical authority and, despite my suggestions, had trouble climbing out to address the common reader. My efforts to point their prose and sense of subject in a broader direction brought little joy to either party. “How dare you revise my formulation of an intellectual problem” was a fairly typical reaction.

Which may explain why so few “little magazines” really make it. It certainly explains why someone Podhoretz was needed to make Commentary into the magazine it was.  Only someone who didn’t mind losing friends could edit their work as mercilessly as was necessary to make a periodical worth reading and talking about; only someone who didn’t mind sucking up to the rich and famous could raise the money and generate the publicity necessary to keep it afloat.

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