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Life After Lapham

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We are talking past each other. As much as he decries oligarchies, Lapham seems nostalgic for the old media oligarchy. Back when liberals were definitely in charge of the press, Lapham could abide publishing conservatives because they were safely powerless—and because they were horrified by the twilight of the American idea.

He says he’s been itching to step down for years in order to “leave at the top of the game,” but Lewis Lapham, Yale ’56, stuck around because George W. Bush, Yale ’68, was too appalling and thus too appealing a target. “I saw the worst elements of the Establishment and not the best elements rising to the surface. I felt I knew these people, my family having been in the oil business”—his great-grandfather helped start Texaco. “Bush is a figure I can recognize.”

Also, he stayed because he needed the job. No great family fortune has passed down to him. “I lived off this gig.”

Lewis Lapham’s Harper’s compensation
in 1997 : $246,000
In 2004: $315,000
Roger Hodge’s new annual compensation: < $315,000
Approximate square miles of Hodge family ranch: 156
Square miles of Queens and the Bronx combined: 151
Grants from the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation to Harper’s to commemorate its 150th anniversary: $540,000
Average annual grant from the foundation to cover Harper’s operating losses (since 1998) : $2,328,701

In 1980, Rick MacArthur, just two years out of Columbia, convinced his grandfather’s big, eponymous foundation to rescue Harper’s with a onetime gift of $3 million. A few years later, he got his father J. Roderick MacArthur’s tiny breakaway foundation (“Little Mac”) to keep underwriting the magazine, then quit his job as a UPI junior editor to take over Harper’s as publisher. Little Mac gets its money from the Bradford Group, a $500 million-a-year company that sells “collectible” kitsch and and owns Hammacher Schlemmer. With his sister, Rick MacArthur controls the Bradford Group and the foundation. As a self-taught publisher, he has done well by Harper’s. Today, the losses are running half what they were when he took over. I ask him the grand total of subsidies over the last two decades.

“Vastly less,” he says, “than [Mort] Zuckerman or [David] Bradley have invested in The Atlantic.” The Atlantic has lost money for all of living memory, and The New Yorker was unprofitable for most of the last two decades. So are all the little weeklies. Call it cultural philanthropy or call it vanity publishing, but without rich guys willing to take financial baths, magazines of literary and political journalism and belles lettres would scarcely exist in America.

And for a magazine of that kind, Harper’s seems to be chugging along okay. Newsstand sales are up, despite a startling $6.95 cover price. Subscribers renew at a high rate.

But Harper’s is too small (circulation 228,000) and gray and wonky and querulous to be very appealing to advertisers. As Lapham says, with winning candor, “It’s difficult to sell advertising because our readers tend to distrust the consumer economy—smart trout, not about to hit the flashy Rolex watch dangled over the four-color river.” Nor is MacArthur the kind of schmoozy salesman publisher who might overcome that intrinsic ad-unfriendliness.

MacArthur is quick to remind me that he’s “still a working, active journalist.” He spends a quarter of his time writing antiwar, anti-Bush newspaper columns and books. “That’s essential to my well-being and sense of myself.” In one recent column, he called the journalist George Packer—the author of The Assassins’ Gate, a thoughtful chronicle of his disillusioning as a pro-Iraq-war liberal—“insufferable,” a “useful idiot,” and a “hypnotized Trilby.”

And even on subjects other than Iraq, MacArthur is tetchy. When I praise a piece in The Atlantic by David Foster Wallace, he says of his former star, “I think we got the best of David Foster Wallace.”

I ask why he is so reflexively angry. “It’s my habit to talk like this. Vitriolic. I don’t see anyone else doing it.” What he means is anyone on the left. But unlike the right-wing nastoids, he says, he’s not partisan, since “I attack liberals”—the liberals, that is, who did not oppose the invasion of Iraq.

I ask MacArthur how his readers differ from those of The Atlantic and The New Yorker, expecting an answer involving geography, demography, psychography. “Harper’s readers are less interested in conventional wisdom.” Meaning? “[David] Remnick was pro-invasion, The Atlantic was very pro-war.” I ask how the magazine will change post-Lapham. “I’m more of an investigative reporter than Lewis. He’s more interested in turns of phrase and insight. There was a real bias against doing journalism. I’ve changed that mentality.”

“Rick has a lot of ideas,” Roger Hodge says of his editor-in-chiefly publisher. “But he’s not interested in trying to bully me into carrying his torches.” And Hodge agrees that the magazine needs to replace armchair essays with reported narratives. He expects to transgress liberal conventional wisdom more often. When I ask him to name a recent piece in Harper’s of the kind he has in mind, he mentions the Gorney article on abortion. Excellent piece, I tell him.


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