In short order, Hughes fired Just and asked Foer to return. “I was kind of instantly charmed by him,” Foer says on Hughes’s leather sofa. There are plastic-bagged stacks of very old New Republics on the side table and hardcovers piled about—the Steve Jobs biography, Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth. “I think the biggest thing that was clear was that here’s a guy who was eager to move fast,” says Foer. “He wanted to make an imprint and wanted to leave it quickly. Which I loved. For 98 years, we existed within this very honorable genre of opinion magazines, and we often chafed at being classified alongside those magazines, and longed to be compared to the new New Yorker and The Atlantic. But I think we were deluding ourselves.” Hughes promised the resources to end that era of delusion once and for all.
In return, Foer promised to make the magazine worthy of the new owner’s ambitions. “Over time, you’ve had self-inflicted wounds, austerity, which was aching, and a lot of instability,” Foer says. “And also kind of perpetual alienation of the magazine’s base of readers.” In the nineties, they printed an excerpt of The Bell Curve and helped defeat “Hillarycare” with a denigrating cover story. More recently, The New Republic had been very much in favor of the Iraq War and a steadfast defender of Israel. “I think the magazine always reveled in the fact that its readers would sometimes throw it across the room in anger when they read it, but sometimes they weren’t picking it up again afterwards.” The days when JFK toted it around or the Carter White House had twenty copies messengered over hot off the presses are long gone.
Hughes’s unsigned editorials took such unremarkable stands as a qualified thumbs-up on the Obama administration’s position on the “open nature of the Internet.” And after he hired Foer, for the first time in the history of the magazine, the editorials disappeared. “Chris does not want to be a magazine that lectures its readers,” Foer says.
So what does Hughes want? It can be hard to say, even for those who know him well or work with him, most of whom seem to believe that he believes what they believe. “He shares our general orientation, which is we’re liberal, in the sense that we believe in civil liberties, meritocracy, capitalism, but not the religion of the market,” says Wieseltier, sounding hopeful down in the corner office.
Given that Hughes’s interests are at least as literary as they are political (a Hughes tweet last week: “So many books, so little time … The NY Times Names 100 Notable Books of 2012”), I found that many of the people I spoke with suspected the real changes at the magazine would come at the expense of Wieseltier—who had his own charmed life as the oldest young man in the room. As the editors came and went at Peretz’s favor, Wieseltier ruled a sort of archipelago of learnedness in the magazine’s back pages—haunted by its own testy thoroughgoing-ness, dense with type and argument, and deliberately off-putting. “In the old days, I used to get shit from certain people about difficult words or references,” Wieseltier says. “The irony now is that I just smile and say, ‘Google it.’ I have no conscience about that anymore.” His culture section, which often made up nearly half of each issue, was supposed to have nothing to do with the rest of the magazine at all.
But Hughes wants a single, readable magazine—with photographs!—not two stapled together, and this will entail treating Wieseltier, as one person familiar with the magazine put it, as an employee for the first time. This brewing tension was presumably why, when I was being regaled, quite pleasantly, by Wieseltier, we were interrupted twice by the magazine’s publicist, encouraging us to “wrap it up” by order of the “powers that be.”
Before I left, Wieseltier told me how disgusted he was when David Remnick, new at his job at The New Yorker, told Charlie Rose that his job was to produce “entertainment” for the intelligent reader. That’s not what Wieseltier thinks The New Republic’s job is. Yet despite Hughes’s esteem for high-minded, long-form journalism, it is what Hughes thinks its job is: “The New Republic is the brand that you go to to engage in intellectual discourse,” he tells me. “And be entertained in the process.” To this end, there is now a creative director, who came over from Newsweek a couple of months before it was set to fold. He used to be at Maxim, Hughes confides like it’s a naughty joke.