It had been just two weeks since Kristof’s column, and some of Peretz’s friends made passing reference to the controversy. But Peretz is famously generous—it is a quality as extreme as his partisanship. He has paid for medical treatments, found houses, coached careers. His close friend Michael Kinsley once told him, jokingly, that he should publish his collected letters of recommendation. Peretz has remained devoted to tarnished, even imprisoned friends, and he commands an outsize loyalty in return. Eleven years ago, at his 60th birthday, a blowout under the Brooklyn Bridge, the attendees included two guests who were submerged in separate arguments with Peretz so furious that neither had spoken to him in months, and each felt like just about killing him. And yet skipping the event seemed impossible. So they both came to New York, angrily nursing their respective grievances, prepared to sit amid the revelry for the party’s duration in furious silence, slowly realizing the terms of their allegiance.
But in Cambridge these loyalties were no longer enough to keep Peretz insulated; his long published record of provocations spoke for itself, and the social-studies alumni—many of them aging radicals—were angry. In the lecture hall that morning, Peretz found his old friend Michael Walzer, the left-wing political theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and longtime co-editor of Dissent. Something nasty seemed to be starting, Walzer said. His blog posts were being discussed from the stage. When it came time to go to lunch, Peretz and Walzer tried to leave via a side entrance, figuring they might escape the protesters outside a second time. No luck. There were 40 people now, and there were chants: “Harvard, Harvard, shame on you, honoring a racist fool!” Peretz looked waxy, distracted, unsure whether to laugh it off or attempt a sneer. He felt like a defendant leaving a courthouse; he worried he was embarrassing his friends. Peretz found himself wondering who these people were: not students, he thought, and not faculty. He settled on “the usual intellectual detritus that collects around the university.”
But some of them were students, and they held signs, each with a printed Peretz quote offering a sweeping ethnic generalization: “The stark fact is that the educated black middle- and upper-middle classes do not go to museums, and they do not go to concerts either.” “Terrorism … is about the sum total of what the Palestinians have bestowed on our civilization during the last five decades.” “Some of Marty’s friends were surprised that he would make those statements,” says Henry Rosovsky, a close friend of Peretz’s and the retired dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “I wasn’t, because I had been reading his blog.”
“I don’t know whether it was an instance of cruel justice or cruel injustice,” says Hendrik Hertzberg, a former New Republic editor. “It was certainly hugely sad.” Once Peretz had organized Vietnam War protests; now, says a friend, “he was McNamara.” He suffered through lunch, where he noticed a “murmuring all around” and listened to the keynote speaker implore the program not to take money from Peretz’s friends. He spoke only briefly and skipped the afternoon sessions altogether. As the child of immigrants, Peretz says, “Harvard was my Americanization. And so I got a little bit kicked in the groin.” The Harvard cops drove him home. Only later did he realize that he had left his car on campus, where it had collected a ticket.
When I met Peretz ten weeks later, he still seemed on edge. The bigotry charge was what lingered. “I mean, it hurts,” he said. We were in the dining room of the Loews Regency Hotel in midtown Manhattan, where the waiters greet him as “Dr. Peretz.” At a basic level, he said, he can’t be a bigot; he mentioned two close, personal black friends, one who is “so fucking smart,” and then a third, a black student whom he had plucked from Harvard and made the circulation director of The New Republic. “I hired Muslims—I hired Fareed Zakaria,” he added. The litany provoked a flash of self-consciousness. “I’m really demeaning myself here,” he said miserably, before continuing. Peretz is enough of a liberal to realize that any scene in which a man sits in the dining room of the Regency with a reporter, listing all of his friends and associates who are black or Muslim, is a scene in which that man is drowning. And yet here he was.
“What you have to understand about Marty,” says Roger Rosenblatt, the author and a friend of Peretz’s, “is that his nature came first, and the politics followed. Search the ruling passion. With Marty, the ruling passion is passion itself.”