Magazines and newspapers glitz you these days almost as readily as television does ("to glitz," a neotransitive verb meaning to jazz up in order to grab, sock, sell-it-to-you fast). Color on Page 1. Snappy writing. Splashy layout. Short takes for short attention spans. Even street-sale boxes that look like TV sets.
OK, it's one thing for newspaper life to imitate TV art at the upstart USA Today, but at the New Republic, home of the Old Liberals? Have you taken a look lately?
--June 22 cover: "Mrs. T." (also known as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), caricatured in Union Jack bikini flexing her Iron Lady muscles.
--Oct. 5 cover: "Paul Simon, your 15 minutes have arrived," and they don't mean singer Simon, but the Illinois presidential hopeful.
Behind these not-so-pretty faces is Michael Kinsley, editor, columnist and now book author, who believes that being serious and being lively are not incompatible. As the columnist who signs himself TRB for the New Republic, he's the liberals' answer to George Will, and he probably would hate being so labeled. Like Will, he lives in Chevy Chase, Washington's upscale but old-shoe Maryland suburb, although he points out that his neighborhood is two steps away and one step down from Will's.
Kinsley agrees with the general theory that TV has extraordinary influence on its times. "Quickness, the slickness, the photographs are a result of television. You certainly see it in USA Today. In terms of the New Republic, I would deny it. The New Republic is modeled after the great political literary weeklies of England, really, the Spectator, the New Statesman. All the great English essayists' stuff appeared there. They wrote things that are much shorter than the typical American magazine article. . . . There is no necessary correlation between wisdom and length."
In Los Angeles to promote his new book, Kinsley was quick to share the credit for the New Republic's new verve with other key staff people. But reading the new book--"Curse of the Giant Muffins and Other Washington Maladies" (Summit: $17.95)--heck, even making it through that title--gives you a clue to the source of some of the magazine's informing intelligence.
The title, for example, is Kinsley's way of showing the way departing Washington officials have of pleading poverty as they march off to cash in on their marketability in the private sector--they have their epiphany about needing more money when forced to choose between buying Thomas's English muffins and the local generic Giant Store brand. Thus, the curse of the giant muffins.
"First of all," Kinsley writes, "I don't want any grief about throwing together a bunch of old articles and calling it a book. If you think that's cheating, don't buy it. For myself, I like reading old magazine articles--my own of course, but even other people's. Among other things, it's a way to recapture the flavor of the recent past. If this collection has any lasting value, it's as a survey of the political moods and obsessions of the early and mid-1980s--the Reagan era."
In and Out of Power
One of the obsessions of this and any other era is being in power and being out of power. How hard should you push for your goals when you're in, because of the equal and opposite reaction that will occur when you're out? Another obsession is what kind of press you get, even if you're part of it. When you pair these, you have truly magnificent obsessions. And this is the backdrop against which Michael Kinsley operates as what the National Journal called one of the "150 who make a difference."
In such surroundings, no columnist is immune from taking as well as giving his lumps. This summer, for example, Kinsley wrote a column in which he called Reagan's fall from grace a laughing matter, as in "Ha, ha, ha," which were his last three words. "C'mon, everybody," said Kinsley's column, not in the new book, "admit it. We're on a high." Kinsley had said what some were thinking, but most had filtered it out of their work and their words.
Washington Post columnist David Broder worried in print that Kinsley's crowing about Reagan's ill fortunes in the Iran- contra affair would drive the President into the same bunker mentality that destroyed Richard Nixon. "Spare us these juveniles who won't learn or can't understand that the presidency is too damn important for their mock-war games," said Broder, normally slow to anger. He urged Reagan to listen to the grown-ups who were not dancing on his political grave but were urging him to repair the damage.
In the months since he wrote that column, Kinsley finds more people firing salvos at Reagan now that his second term is almost over. The pendulum may be swinging away from the conservative point of view as part of what Kinsley considers a normal "dialectical process of ideas."