Mugger: One Nation, Under Vanden Heuvel

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Perhaps I’ve been snoozing, but when did The Nation morph into such a pleasantly quaint magazine? It’s not that the weekly, founded in 1865, has been left behind by the melding of print and web. Just as The National Review made itself relevant again several years ago by establishing a vigorous online presence, its left-wing counterpart is also energetic on that front. And in contrast to the fading New Republic, The Nation’s paid circulation has swelled during the Bush years. As a longtime subscriber, I scare myself upon retrieving the slim weekly from the mail slot on whatever day it arrives. I place it, along with The Weekly Standard and The New Yorker on top of a must-read (or, more accurately, must-look-at) pile.

Flush with almost unprecedented commercial success, it could be that The Nation has purposely dialed down the incendiary rhetoric (with the glaring exception of bon vivant columnist Eric Alterman, whose self-righteousness is exceeded in ugliness only by his spurious and continuing claim that The Times is not a liberal newspaper) as editor Katrina vanden Heuvel makes the rounds on cable talk shows with the near-ubiquity of a Howard Fineman or Pat Buchanan. And that’s fine with me, since the pages of The Nation are comfortably earnest, almost devoid of the obscene noblesse oblige hypocrisies of The Times.

Granted, a huge daily newspaper’s agenda is vastly different from a niche weekly’s. But it was striking last week, for example, that on the same day a pair of Times editorials laced into Bush over the events in Pakistan and Cuba a restaurant review of Dovetail by Frank Bruni exulted over the seared pork belly with poached egg and the gnocchi that’s “flavored-bombed” with veal short rib and foie gras butter. Apparently, The Times’ editorial and marketing departments have determined that its readers consider class inequality a theory, not a reality.

Now, for all I know, vanden Heuvel, a wealthy denizen of the Upper West Side, has a regular table at Dovetail; but if that’s so, she keeps it private. And if you dig into the fine print of The Nation’s website, looking at the demographic profile of it readers, it’s not all surprising that the bulk of subscribers, predominantly male, are well educated, borderline affluent and older. Although firmly committed to the “progressive” cause, it was curious that The Nation sat on the fence for so long in making an endorsement in the Democratic primaries.

Maybe the editors felt the choices were so excellent, an embarrassment of riches not unlike the menu at Dovetail, that internal debated precluded an earlier nod to a particular candidate. In any case, a February 25 editorial finally tapped Barack Obama, noting that his ability to expand the voting base and “wise approach to foreign policy” [is a Rose Garden sit-down with Raúl Castro already scheduled for early next year?] trumps “his closeness to Wall Street,” among other quibbles.

John Nichols, a fine writer whose articles give the impression that they’re posted from some union rally, was clearly in the John Edwards camp. It’s my guess that Katha Pollitt—whose non-political pieces in The New Yorker are delightful—was rooting for Hillary Clinton for most of the past eight months, given her sisterhood sympathies and devotion to the pro-choice single-issue faction. One could argue that there’s no turning back the clock on legalized abortion and that Pollitt’s wasting her allotted word count, but that’s not really proper behavior for a gentleman. After all, if I insist my boys make sure they hold doors open for senior citizens and mothers with strollers, it’d be a poor example to dump all over sweet Katha for her 1970s nostalgia.

One aspect of The Nation’s content I appreciate is that there’s no pretense of humor, satire or celebrity worship. It’s all work and no play, save for Alexander Cockburn’s biweekly column, which usually contains a belly laugh or two. In comparison, consider David Carr’s lead to a Feb. 11 Times story about the influence new owner Rupert Murdoch has already had on The Wall Street Journal. “You’ve been dating the same person for years,” Carr writes. “She’s not flashy, but she is steady and, to your mind, glorious. And then you begin to notice changes. A slimmer profile, a suddenly increased concern with appearances. You keep your suspicions to yourself, but it soon becomes obvious that everything is changing. And you finally just blurt it out. ‘Are you covering politics now?’”

This dopiness, fully in sync with the slop in The Times’ “Style” section (The Feb. 14 article “Parent Shock: Children Are Not Décor” is already a classic), was in the paper’s business pages, traditionally not a repository for stand-up comedian auditions.

I don’t generally care for The Nation’s stilted arts coverage, but critic Stuart Klawans’ review of There Will Be Blood was, hands-down, the best commentary I came across about a movie that was dissected in publications across the country. He begins, not even mentioning the film’s director, star actor or even the title, with a riveting passage: “By the time the boy lies moaning on the floor, spooned against a father who is helpless to soothe him, the earth has blasted open, fire has whooshed up through an oil derrick and a dozen roustabouts, dwarfed by their handiwork, have raced in all directions across the stony Central California hilltop, trying to contain the immense forces they’d set loose.” No mention of Oscars, no recitation of Daniel Day-Lewis’ previous performances, just an exquisite piece of writing.

It could be that in the left-wing jamboree that includes the excitable Kos, Atrios, American Prospect and Media Matters, The Nation has accepted its status as a more subdued senior citizen. It’s doubtful vanden Heuvel would approve of such a sentiment, but I wouldn’t have re-upped my sub otherwise.

There are lapses: Last week, on the night The Times released its sketchy expose of John McCain’s ties to lobbyist Vicki Iseman, The Nation’s 27-year-old Ari Melber excitedly tapped out a post for the magazine’s website claiming the “bombshell” article is “already roiling the presidential race.” He neglects to mention that The Times had been kicking the story around for months and, in fact, published an editorial endorsement of McCain in late January. And if the charges indeed constituted a “bombshell,” would it have been too much for Melber to question why the paper’s editors—obviously aware of the story—didn’t decline to choose a candidate in the run-up to the Feb. 5 primaries?

Melber, consumed by last Thursday’s maelstrom over The Times piece, went even further that afternoon, in contrast to most publications, saying “These right wing ‘critics’ don’t need caveats, let alone facts; they attack the messenger viciously whether it’s a newspaper or the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq.”  

That’s the kind of hyperbole that at one time defined The Nation’s editorial voice, but no more. I do wonder, in the event of an Obama presidency, if the weekly’s circulation will slide and the sabers sharpened in an effort to demonstrate its “progressive” bona fides. Right now, I’m enjoying the magazine’s quiet indignation.

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