Life After Lapham

Rick MacArthur, Roger Hodge, and Lewis Lapham.Photo: Illustration by Gluekit

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, is very old-school. He wears a beautiful dark suit and a necktie tight around his buttoned collar. He not only still smokes (Parliaments, the recherché brand of Bond girls), he smokes in his office. He was educated at Hotchkiss and Yale and Cambridge. His manner, personal as well as literary, is Gore Vidalian, a patrician alloy of faint amusement and grand disappointment. He runs a 155-year-old, self-consciously old-fashioned magazine that’s all about plain text, not packaging or pictures. The frothiest magazine he reads regularly is The New Yorker. He reads nothing at all online.

“I don’t have a computer. I may have to get one.”

Why now? Lapham turns 71 next month.

“Maybe I don’t,” he says, seeming suddenly relieved. “But there may be an interim period where I am without secretarial services.”

These days, a decade is a long time to be editor of one magazine, and Lapham has been editor-in-chief at Harper’s for 28 of the last 30 years. But now he is handing the job to his deputy, a man whose byline—Roger Hodge—I once assumed to be a twee Canterbury Tales pseudonym. It turns out Hodge is not only real but intelligent and thoughtful. He grew up on his family’s ranch in Texas and started at Harper’s as an intern at 29, in 1996. Hours before the succession was announced last week, Lapham left the country. He wanted to be in Amsterdam for the European premiere of The American Ruling Class, a satirical quasi-documentary he wrote and in which he stars (along with James Baker III, Walter Cronkite, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr.). The Europeans must like him, I remark. “They do. They call me le prince rouge.”

He says he “never intended to become an editor.” He’s been a pretty good one, though, sometimes great. He mentions a few writers he discovered—Fareed Zakaria, Annie Dillard—but neglects to brag about all the future editors-in-chief he trained or the pieces he’s run (by Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace, Barbara Ehrenreich) that became celebrated books.

“The Harper’s Index”—the wittily reductive stack of quantitative facts—was his great idea. “Readings,” the section of short excerpts and found texts, is consistently smart. And Harper’s still publishes excellent longer pieces, such as Cynthia Gorney’s well-reported, unusually clear-eyed deconstruction last year of the medicine and politics of late-term abortion. It’s often a good magazine; it just hasn’t been a “hot” magazine for a long time. Its bigger glossy-intellectual rivals, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, have managed to achieve moments of heat during the last decade, in part by getting youngish new editors-in-chief.

And also, maybe, because they’ve seemed less single-mindedly partisan and smug. In fact, most of Harper’s is not fusty and Euro-lefty, Lapham’s “Notebook” column notwithstanding. But because his 2,500-word essays lead each issue, they tend to color one’s sense of the whole magazine. And they all amount to pretty much the same contemptuous, Olympian jeremiad: The powers-that-be are craven and monstrous, American culture is vulgar and depraved, the U.S. is like imperial Rome, our democracy is dying or dead. All of which is arguably true. But, jeez, sometime tell me something I didn’t know, show a shred of uncertainty and maybe some struggle to suss out fresh truth. “Everything I’ve written,” he says, “is a chronicle of the twilight of the American idea.” He seems so committed to the decline-and-fall critique, and so supremely uninterested in the novelties and nuances of everyday life and culture, it’s hard to take his gloom altogether seriously.

Back in the seventies and eighties, as Jack Shafer has noted in Slate, Lapham did publish right-wingers like Norman Podhoretz and James Q. Wilson. But these days, his magazine almost never runs features with which liberals would disagree. If Harper’s has evolved, it has narrowed.

“That’s what’s happened to American journalism in general,” Lapham says. “In the seventies, I thought a lot of the right’s criticism of the doctrinaire liberal positions of the sixties was acute and witty. After they came to power in the middle eighties,” however, “they didn’t want to talk to anybody but themselves. The media broke up into audiences on whom they can rely.”

Exactly. Public discourse now takes place in echo chambers, each side preaching to its own choir. And that’s bad, isn’t it?

“Yeah, that is bad,” he says. “Most obviously so in the success of Fox News.” His answer suggests that he doesn’t really regret ideological balkanization as much as the associated rise of the right-wing media.

I ask if he’s heartened by the lifting of the post-9/11 chill on debate and dissent. “It’s heartening to me,” he says, “when I see Frank Rich or [Paul] Krugman write about this gang. The question is, will it lead to political change? We still have Time putting Ann Coulter on the cover.”

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.

“I assigned that,” he says, sounding excited, “and I hope to run many more like it.” He’ll continue running Lapham’s column as well, but otherwise, he says, a new era is dawning. “Lewis has his own perspective. The magazine is a plurality of perspectives. He’s just one voice in the mix.”

Life After Lapham