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A Place for Ideas That Won't Fit on a Bumper Sticker

December 30, 1987|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

When the winter issue of New Perspectives Quarterly comes out next month, the young publication will mark a significant milestone--its merger with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara.

The event, however, will pass unnoticed in most of America, as has the emergence of the quarterly itself four years ago, and each edition issued thereafter. But the people at New Perspectives don't much care. Becoming a household word is not on the agenda. They are much more ambitious than that.

Its publisher, wealthy liberal Stanley Sheinbaum, and editor Nathan Gardels say the Los Angeles-based journal of social and political thought is not slated to become a regional or national magazine but a world-class act with the major thinkers, politicians and activists as its readers and contributors.

"Our readers range from the Soviet Central Committee, to members of the CIA, Oliver Stone, Mario Cuomo, to journalists like Tom Wicker on the left and David Gergen on the right, Francois Mitterrand," Gardels said recently in his West Los Angeles office. "They're thoughtful people in positions of influence. We don't want more than 50,000 subscribers."

Definitions for the Future

What they have thus far is a circulation of 7,500. With the acquisition of the Center, they pick up another 8,000 former subscribers to the Center magazine.

But, as one reader and admirer, Sidney Blumenthal, a writer for the Washington Post and author of "The Rise of the Counter-Establishment," said recently, "The power of ideas begins usually with a very small group of people. . . . (NPQ) is engaging new realities. It's providing definitions for the emerging future. We'll see what happens. It's beginning."

They are putting out a journal that consciously avoids being aridly academic or tritely popular ("Today you have to reduce it to fit on a bumper sticker," Sheinbaum says of the latter tendency). Their method is to focus on one theme per edition and present what amounts to a dialogue on it. Whenever possible they go to "first sources," as Gardels says, or "key actors in the debate" as Sheinbaum calls them, rather than journalists or other secondary sources. It presents essays, one-on-one interviews, adaptations of discussions, and some analysis of its own material.

As it so happened, the fall issue was devoted to "the four debts of the apocalypse," the four debts being the federal deficit, the nation's trade and balance of payments deficit, private debt and the Latin American debt. Warning about the "mythological thrall of postwar preeminence," and offering no quick fixes, Gardels introduced the debate on the four debts and a way out of them with the prediction that "the day of reckoning must inevitably come."

The magazine came out in late September. The apocalypse came to pass just three weeks later on Oct. 19, when the stock market came crashing down.

Coincidence or prescience, it was an attention-getter. Newspapers and magazines reprinted articles offered by NPQ's syndication service; a special subscription solicitation went out over Sheinbaum's signature drawing attention to it. And, in his In the Nation column in the New York Times, Tom Wicker quoted extensively from two of the pieces, those of Japanese economist Masahiro Sakamoto and American Walter Russell Mead. Wicker and Mead both report numerous calls from people wanting to know about the magazine, and Mead said Harper's is reprinting his piece in the January issue.

"With any West Coast publication, I apologize to say, it's difficult to move back East," Wicker said. "It takes a while to get around, but if the quality remains as good as that fall issue, I imagine it will happen soon."

When New Perspectives started in 1983, it was a thin newsletter put out by the Institute for National Strategy, a think tank founded by former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. and directed by Gardels.

For the most part, Gardels, 34, said recently, the institute concentrated on foreign policy, with Brown and Gardels "traveling the world meeting leaders of the next generation."

The newsletter that grew out of it, he said, was a response to the fact "the debate was so dominated by the right wing. The liberal agenda had such difficulties. Our aim was to stop spouting old stuff and that required joining the debate with those who were dominating it."

Period of Transition

Thus, for example, a 1985 issue on politics and culture had an extensive interview with liberal Mario Cuomo running side by side an equally extensive interview with conservative Jack Kemp. The institute and newsletter went through a prolonged period of transition, Gardels said, with Brown "drifting off to do other things," Bill Meis, recently on board and now managing editor, pushing for a real magazine, and Sheinbaum expressing mild interest.

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