The Boston Phoenix
September 11 - 18, 1997

[Don't Quote Me]

An unseemly divorce

In firing Clinton-Gore-bashing editor Michael Kelly, New Republic owner Marty Peretz has raised serious questions about his magazine's credibility

by Dan Kennedy

"Martin Peretz's affection for Al Gore is not something that he makes a secret of. But there has never been a record here of editorial intrusion on this matter by Marty. I have the utmost confidence that it won't happen. Marty Peretz is a man of integrity, and he treats this magazine as a man of integrity would."
-- Michael Kelly in January, shortly after taking the helm as editor of the New Republic

"We had had in recent weeks a number of serious and somewhat confrontational discussions about his concern about overcoverage of Gore and my frequent writings about the Clinton-Gore scandals. I think Marty felt for a long time that my abiding interest in the soft-money scandal was not a problem because it didn't affect Gore."
-- Kelly on September 8, three days after being fired

After the blood had been mopped up last Friday, what stood out was not the unexpectedness of the execution, nor its swiftness. Rather, it was the inevitability -- most apparent in hindsight -- of New Republic owner/editor-in-chief Martin Peretz's realization that he could not abide the vituperative Clinton-Gore-bashing of editor Michael Kelly.

Nine months ago Peretz called Kelly the "best hire" he'd made in the 23 years since he'd bought TNR. That's mighty high praise considering that Kelly's predecessors include Michael Kinsley (currently the editor of Slate) and Hendrik Hertzberg (editorial director of the New Yorker).

Now Peretz sounds like a man who's seen the light: he realizes that Kelly -- who, after all, vaulted to prominence at the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker on the strength of his vicious takedowns of Bill and Hillary Clinton -- had become too obsessed with (surprise!) taking down the Clintons.

Of course, it's far clearer today than it was last fall, when Kelly took over TNR, that Al Gore was deeply involved in the Clinton fundraising scandals. Gore, a student of Peretz's at Harvard some three decades ago, remains a close enough friend to have summered with Peretz on Cape Cod.

This is an ugly divorce, and it's getting uglier by the day, with both Peretz and Kelly accusing each other of lying.

Kelly, for instance, says it's clear that he was fired because of Peretz's friendship with Gore. "That's complete nonsense," Peretz replies. "That's a sheer fabrication, and he's not beyond fabricating." His example: an unsigned squib on a voluntarism meeting in Boston several months ago that he says Kelly wrote up as an after-the-fact news item before it actually happened.

As for Kelly's observation that the end came just three days after he declined to run a Peretz item defending Gore, Peretz responds acidly: "I had already chosen my editor to succeed him before that happened."

Kelly, for his part, reacts with controlled anger when told of Peretz's comments.

The Boston item, he says, was a lampoon of a conference schedule TNR had obtained. "To say that represented an attempt to fabricate something, even given the way Marty's handled himself on this, is surprising to me," Kelly says.

Responding to Peretz's contention that he'd already decided to fire Kelly before the dispute over the Gore item, Kelly says, "If he made his decision before Friday morning, then what he told me is untrue."

Peretz insists that the real reason he fired Kelly was that a "mean-spirited" conservatism had pervaded the magazine, shutting out other views at what has historically been a liberal journal. "I'm not your quintessential liberal," admits Peretz, who is well-known for his stances against affirmative action and favoring tough welfare reform. "But I've always had what I would call a lover's quarrel with liberalism. I made the terrible mistake of hiring an editor who brings rancor and enmity to the liberal idea."

Yet Kelly considers himself an unorthodox liberal whose views are strikingly similar to Peretz's. And from outward appearances the magazine has contained roughly the same ideologically eclectic mix it had under Kelly's predecessor, Andrew Sullivan, though with a somewhat sharper edge and a more political bent. Kelly brought in a liberal executive editor, Jonathan Cohn, from the American Prospect. He says he tried to fill the still-vacant "White House Watch" slot with a liberal.

It seems apparent, then, that the real problem was not with Kelly's editing but with his writing. Under Kelly's authorship, the venerable "TRB" column has become a forum for nonstop Clinton-whacking, not just on the money scandals, but on Clinton's morality and consistency as well.

Now, with Gore moving to the center of the fundraising controversies, it was obvious that Kelly would turn his attention in that direction -- as he says he warned Peretz in a memo shortly before getting the ax.

Kelly's firing, not surprisingly, has divided the famously fractious staff. Legal-affairs correspondent Jeffrey Rosen had reportedly been grousing openly about Kelly in recent weeks. But others are said to be quite upset. Media critic William Powers, Kelly's first hire, resigned on Monday. More may follow.

To give Peretz his due, the "TRB" columns have been both over-the-top and repetitive -- the result, insiders say, of the workaholic Kelly's banging them out at the last minute. Yet that hardly seems like it should have been an insurmountable obstacle to Kelly's continued employment. Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant, a staunch Gore defender who strongly disagrees with Kelly's opinions, nevertheless warns that Peretz has seriously damaged TNR's credibility. "The guillotine's coming down on a writer because of his views is the unsettling aspect of this story," Oliphant says.

On the other hand, there's a reason that Peretz has retained the title of editor in chief: ultimately, the New Republic is his magazine. Rick Hertzberg goes so far as to call the editorship a matter of "title inflation," saying the position is really that of managing editor of the political section, with Peretz retaining full editorial control. (Hertzberg, who's hoping to lure Kelly back to the New Yorker, was the TNR editor who commissioned Kelly to cover the Gulf War. "He outreported the entire press pack. He kicked their ass, and he did it for 15 cents a word," he quips.)

Michael Kinsley, too, defends Peretz's editorial prerogatives. "They had a fundamental ideological disagreement, and it's an ideological magazine," Kinsley says of Peretz and Kelly. "It's Marty's magazine, and if it's going off in a direction he disagrees with, that doesn't make sense. It's not a question of independence. He's the editor in chief."

Still, it's safe to say that the political and media elites that ascribe malevolent motives to Peretz (the New York Times' William Safire wrote on Sunday that the "gutsily gifted" Kelly paid the price "for taking too strong a stand against Clinton-Gore campaign crimes") are looking for some show of independence from Kelly's successor, Charles Lane, previously a senior editor. A good place for Lane to start would be in providing honest, tough coverage of the Clinton scandals and what role Gore may have played in them.

Then again, that's what Kelly thought he was doing.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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