Sullivan’s Travels

I am gamely casting about for someone to compare Andrew Sullivan to.

“Orwell,” he offers, as his pancakes, eggs, and a milkshake are set on the table. We’re having breakfast at the Diner – a place he describes as “un-Washington” – near his house in Adams-Morgan.

Now, it isn’t that Orwell is completely out of context. Sullivan’s public airing and working out of his conservatism, Catholicism, and homosexuality (although not necessarily in that order) seems to me in the tradition of a generation of English journalists who used the personal essay as social criticism – Malcolm Muggeridge, Cyril Connolly, and Arthur Koestler, for instance. It’s just that Orwell is the greatest of all such essayists – few writers have ever become so much the conscience of their time.

“Not that I would compare myself to Orwell,” Sullivan adds, sensing that I might be nonplussed.

Not that he shouldn’t, I reassure him; Sullivan is certainly trying to be the conscience of his generation; and in a way, you could argue that Sullivan is often at odds with the official gay community the way Orwell was at odds with the Stalinist-leaning left (Sullivan treats the official gay community as well as a portion of liberal Democrats as the moral equivalent of Stalinists).

But to get a glimpse of how ambitious someone is, to get a sneak peek at how large he sees himself, to have a person come right out with his fantasy (and not as fantasy) is always a surprise.

Ambition itself is in fact one of Sullivan’s personal dilemmas. On the one hand, there is the “fame thing” – which for him includes regretting the Gap ad he did and his ambivalence about notoriety and its value in the gay community. (“We’re the one subculture where fame reduces your ability to get laid – if someone comes up to me in a bar and says I saw you on television, that’s it, I have no interest in having sex with that person.”) On the other hand, there’s his overwhelming desire not just to succeed but to represent, to epitomize, to suffer for his generation.

He’s forced out of his job to await his imminent death. Then, when he grows healthy again, he becomes the voice of a new and chastened world.

Certainly, he sees himself as an important entity; he believes that he is the most significant gay public intellectual in America today – and he may well be. He sees himself, too, as among the most important conservative thinkers and Catholic thinkers as well, and, to the extent that he is publicly wrestling with the meaning of these things – while so many other people are not – he may well be.

At the same time, the legions of people whom he has antagonized, or who are jealous of him, or who have unhappily worked with him, would hurry to point out that he doesn’t really represent any of these philosophies or identities. It’s a canard, a media put-up job, that he has become the spokesperson for gay life, or the new conservatism (if such a thing even exists), or contemporary Catholicism; in each instance, instead, he’s an extreme anomaly.

In fact, that he should have become such a representative figure drives a lot of people crazy. America is filled with openly gay writers, and yet the stand-out one is beset with conflicted positions that, other gay advocates believe, render his gayness, at best, a little perverse (he is most often accused of expressing “self-loathing” instead of a requisite gay pride). You can only imagine how the conservatives and Catholics feel about him.

Of course, this is another of his contradictions and dilemmas: He wants to represent, but he doesn’t want to represent (if he had a sense of humor, which he doesn’t, he might well see himself more as Philip Roth than as George Orwell).

He believes so much in his own virtue that it makes absolute sense to him that he should be the representative man, the model – the world would be a better place if all gays were conservative and all Catholics were gay and all liberals Catholic. But he knows too the value of his own uniqueness. Sullivan has become famous by not being representative at all. He gets airtime for being an oxymoron. We love this stuff: a gay Catholic, a black conservative, a pregnant lesbian, etc.

There are, naturally, those who believe that what Sullivan is doing is largely shtick. Conflict is drama. Sullivan, it sometimes seems, gets into the straitjacket just to fight it – as a gay person in Washington, as a conservative at The New Republic, as a Catholic in a leather bar.

For instance, living and making his career in Washington seems like an especially stubborn and contrary thing to do. Why would a writer deeply concerned with personal issues, with the expression of emotional conflicts, live in the one place in America that eschews anything personal? Why would a gay writer consciously choose a closeted community? (“My social and professional lives,” he says fatefully, “are hermetically sealed.” Conversely, he says, “If I wasn’t gay, I’d suffocate in this town,” meaning, I take it, that being gay is a way to escape dull, ungay Washington.)

One answer might be that he is a throwback. The modern media sexual culture has moved forward, and Andrew Sullivan is trying to move himself backward, to re-create some kind of fifties life for himself, some restraints to chafe under, some moral imperative to defend, when it was possible not to cut your conscience to fit today’s fashions. (His book Virtually Normal argues that homosexuality is the paramount battleground in the culture of our time.)

Another answer is that he saw a great career opportunity. While it would be hard to get traction as a gay writer in New York, a gay writer in Washington can break the bonds of Puritanism and convention all over again. (While he is tight with polite society in Washington, he is also well known, he says, in every bar in town.)

The third answer is that there are quite clearly multiple countries, or parallel countries, in America, and while you or I might comfortably live in one or the other, only Andrew Sullivan is struggling to live in them all.

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.


Sullivan’s Travels