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Sullivan's Travels


Then again, in some ways, his struggles are not especially American. To be a gay Brit is to fight battles fought here a generation ago; to be a British conservative -- a Thatcherite -- is about class rebellion; and to be Catholic in the U.K. involves age-old identity issues that no American could imagine or, likely, would want to bother trying to.

Still, it's an attractive package. As a young, gay, Reaganaut-Thatcherite-Catholic-pro-Israel Brit, president of the Oxford Union, would-be politician, he gets a Harvard fellowship, then applies for internships at The New Republic, The National Review, and the New York Times. He lands the New Republic job through the Marty Peretz-Harvard connection. Sullivan and Jacob Weisberg are the New Republic interns of the mid-eighties; Michael Kinsley is editor and mentor. All the ingredients mix: Kinsley is proto-British; the traditionally liberal New Republic is becoming more conservative; Sullivan and the magazine are rabidly pro-Israel; and Marty Peretz likes overly verbal, Harvard-educated, Israel-supporting young men. In 1991, following in The New Republic's tradition of appointing someone bright and inexperienced as editor, Sullivan gets the job.

His tenure is marked by three things. He is gay -- which instantly becomes Jackie Robinson sort of big news in Washington. He learns in 1993 that he is HIV-positive -- which turns the polemical to the potentially tragic. And he is a ghastly manager -- the magazine is riven by internecine warfare; during his tenure, he famously fights with Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's powerful literary editor, and even, grandly, tries to raise money to "relaunch" the 86-year-old magazine. (Although the magazine is, under his editorship, arguably the most interesting it has ever been -- Sullivan is for The New Republic what Tina Brown was for The New Yorker.)

He is forced out of the New Republic job in 1996 to await, he believes, his imminent death. Then, when he grows healthy again, he sets about becoming the media face of the remission era (although Sullivan, a mumbler in a plaid shirt, is not, despite his myriad appearances, very good on television). He fancies himself the voice of a new and chastened world -- a world that he believes should come to a certain moral attention. (The ultimate symbol for moral sloth is, for him, Bill Clinton.)

He is hired by The New York Times Magazine to write a column and a steady stream of features, provoking more fulmination -- Sullivan becomes another piece of evidence in the complex history of the Times and the gay community. In fact, the oddness, or out-of-placeness, or look-at-me emphasis of a voice like Sullivan's in The New York Times Magazine makes him seem like something of a house gay. A kind of Joyce Maynard for his generation. The gay nongays love. A show thing. But it is the solipsism of this voice from such a public platform that most angers many people. When he speaks of the nineties -- his generation -- as the great transforming epoch of the gay experience, it leaves many other less-self-involved people to point out that the seventies and eighties were hardly chopped liver, and that, in part, Sullivan's high profile stems from the fact that so many of his elders are dead.

And then there is the weirdness, the eccentricness of his myriad positions -- or it may be just the fact that he has so many opinions -- that makes people crazy. His beat encompasses, but is hardly limited to, animal welfare, gender research, an array of para-sciences (for instance, his famous piece in the Times on testosterone), a steady pummeling of one-two punches against Bill Clinton, and, more recently, a big embrace of George Bush ("He's kicking ass"). There may not be a day that goes by that Sullivan does not propound a contrary opinion -- in the Times; in his weekly column in the Sunday Times of London; in the TRB column, which he writes each week in The New Republic; through his pundit duties across the cable spectrum; and on his Website, a daily labor of love that he is sure advertisers will soon flock to. Indeed, it may be this media narcissism, this constant claim on everyone's attention, that most infuriates people.

In America, we tend to leave the social arguments to partisans and windbags like Bill Bennett. We invariably regard someone with relentless (or annoying) opinions as an agent of a cause or agenda. The argument as a form rather than a position is not, in this cryptic age, a popular notion.

Nobody likes a know-it-all. Talking for the sake of talking is not a virtue (and yet, why not?).

It is in this vacuum of everyone standing around, refusing to offer an opinion, mostly indifferent in their allegiances, trying to be politic and please all their future bosses, that you get Andrew Sullivan. The man likes to hear himself talk; he thrives on the conniptions of people listening to him; he revels in his provocations.

I think the critics who charge him with self-loathing have it all wrong.



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