Richard Reeves

Happy Journalism: Some Magazines Are Better Than Ever

NEW YORK -- "The New Yorker right now is the best it's ever been, maybe the best magazine there ever was," said Walter Isaacson, who should know. The president of the Aspen Institute and author of best-selling biographies -- Benjamin Franklin in 2003, Albert Einstein next year -- was the editor of Time magazine when it still mattered.

Isaacson, who sometimes speaks in the soft flattery of old New Orleans, his hometown, may be right about that. David Remnick, one of the best newspaper reporters of his generation, has done an amazing job directing the magazine. He has certainly made it required reading among the chattering classes and, to his own surprise, a profit center for its owners, the Newhouse family.

This is a golden age for magazines. Well, maybe silver. As television news sinks slowly into the East and most newspapers are downsizing on the vine, or the 'Net, several magazines are doing God's work in opening the minds of people to, dare I say it, ideas. The Economist and the National Journal are as good as it gets for those who need more information and insight than fits neatly on a laptop screen. Vanity Fair, another Newhouse bauble, is dazzling at what it does, paying writers a living wage, aiming at younger readers because older ones aren't strong enough to lift it or appreciate the photos of bodies of the month.

I often tell people that I don't read magazines anymore because they take up the time I would like to put into books. A small lie. But I do try to avoid curling up with glossy paper and glossier ads. And, lately, The Atlantic, which has slept through more than a few decades of its 150-year history, has become a fount of hard thinking and good writing. The October issue caught me with a cover line: "How Bad Is Bush?"

"Unwinding Bush: How long will it take to fix his mistakes?" was the headline over a short piece by Jonathan Rauch in a 14-page up-front section called The Agenda. In that same section, Chuck Todd had a provocative piece titled: "The Fight to Lose Congress: Some political strategists are hoping for defeat in November."

Good stuff, right or wrong. Makes you think. Some political strategists must be pretty dumb, and Bush is worse than bad. The Todd piece considers the argument that the two years before the 2008 presidential election are likely to be unhappy and unproductive, so it may be better not to be in charge of anything; then you can blame the other side for everything that goes wrong. (The same argument has been made by conservative writers in National Review and was made last week in The Financial Times by Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, the first and best of the online magazines.)

Part of that argument is that if the Democrats win the House, Republicans can all run against the new speaker, most probably Nancy Pelosi of California. But Pelosi, who is actually from the old D'Alesandro dynasty in Baltimore, may be underrated. "Aren't you just a San Francisco liberal?" Jim Lehrer asked her last week on public television. No, she said, she was a mother of five and grandmother of five more who worries about the country they will inherit. More important, America is a present-obsessed nation that responds to the world of now -- and 2008 will be a whole new now.

Writing about Bush, Rauch also argues that the president would be better off with a Democratic Congress to blame for his mistakes. He tries to divine whether Bush is as bad as Richard Nixon or only as bad as Jimmy Carter, arguing that Carter's mistakes were quickly undone, but Nixon's cynical economic pump-priming and destruction of confidence in government were "gifts that keep on giving." I would say this Bush is worse than either. Like Nixon, he has polluted the high moral ground of American ideas and ideals. Like Carter, he is incompetent.

Having said that, the Rauch article suggested something I've not heard often said: that President George H.W. Bush, the father, was a far better president than most of us, including his son, George W., seem to think these days. "Bush (the elder) broke the back of the deficit and closed out the Cold War peacefully," Rauch writes. He could add that the old man was wise enough not to try to take all of Iraq in the first Gulf War because he understood there would be no way out.

Good stuff. As these critical elections come our way, I'm reading more magazines and learning more in the process.

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