My lunch with Lewis Lapham

"President Clinton is a godsend because he's like a piqata. Every conceivable kind of story comes out of him."

Published July 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Lewis Lapham has the plushest job in all magazinedom, though as editor
in chief of Harper's since 1976 (with a two-year hiatus when he was
fired in 1981), he may not get the limos-and-lunches luxury
treatment afforded to Condi Nast's finest. Indeed, a friend who
worked at the magazine's New York headquarters described them as
dilapidated. But Lapham does wield a great deal of control over the
content and feel of one of America's oldest and best monthly
periodicals. For a man who takes a dim view of gratuitous displays of
wealth, the job itself may be ample reward.

Lapham's influence is felt throughout Harper's mix of original
essays, fiction and "Readings" procured from zines, corporate memos,
books and elsewhere. Lapham is the creator of the ever popular and widely mimicked Harper's
Index and author of the magazine's National Magazine Award-winning
"Notebook" column, where he takes to task the hypocrisy and corruption
of our world leaders and social systems in crisp, lengthy prose. For the
magazine's 150-year anniversary, he has been reprinting articles by
former contributors such as Mark Twain and Leon Trotsky.

Like the magazine he edits, Lapham is simultaneously old-fashioned and
current. His columns reflect a sharp understanding of contemporary
politics and social mores -- yet, he explains, "I write in longhand, then
I dictate it into a tape recorder. My secretary transcribes it on the
computer. When I want it changed, she does all the editing moves." He added that if a computer is produced that he can "dictate to,"
he'll modernize his methods immediately.

His latest book, "Lapham's Rules of Influence," is a dark rendering of
"Chicken Soup for the Soul"-type advice for success-minded college
graduates on how to achieve wealth and fame. "A generation ago the
graduates of the country's well-to-do universities might have mentioned the name of a dead poet, or said something about truth and its untimely
betrayals. Not now," he writes in his introduction. "The philosophical questions have gone missing in action, rendered futile by the prices
paid for New York apartments ... They don't talk about changing the
system, only about the means of improving their access to it," he continues.

Underlying every snarky sentence is an indictment of "the widening chasm
between rich and poor, or the increasingly obvious disparities between
the civic-minded theory taught in school and the profit-making facts posted on the walls of the news and entertainment media."

As we sit down in the Redwood Room of the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, I suggest that his vision of the American Republic seems to be a
plutocracy of the rich. "The plutocratic instinct has been with us since
day one," he replies. "There were some people that came to 17th century
New England to find God and then there were others who came to find
fame, fortune, wealth and so on. And of course there was the ascendant
plutocracy at the end of the 19th century, the Gilded Age, railroad
barons and so on. And so what we see now is not particularly new in spirit.

"What's new is the scale. In the last 20 years or the last 30, the
generation of wealth is more than mankind has generated in its entire
history," he says, illustrating his point with descriptions of stock
market wealth, people who only travel on their own planes, "the miracle
of compound interest."

"A system like this can't sustain itself very long without collapsing," I say.

"I've thought that for the last 10 years and I've been consistently
wrong," Lapham replies. "But I am like you. Historically, it doesn't
last -- if history teaches us anything. Maybe history has been declared
superfluous, or maybe history has been overruled."

An art deco lounge with Gustav Klimt reproductions and Italian marble,
the Redwood Room is itself a display of opulence. An empty grand piano
is set atop a stage in the center of the vast, dim room. It's 3 p.m. I
suggest cocktails. "Too early for drinks," Lapham says. It's too late
for lunch as well. He orders coffee and I ask for a 7-Up from the
waitress, who later asks me if I was interviewing him "for school." Ouch.

I'm not quite that young, but I am admittedly close in age to the
ambitious interns, editorial assistants and coffee boys he addresses in
his book. Lapham, 64, fits the caricature of a salty New York editor. A
pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses rests uneasily on his nose. His white
hair is mussed, his tie knotted loosely around his collar. He stops to
rub his temples every now and then. He flew in this morning, and heads to L.A. tonight.

"When I first came to New York in the '60s, I could afford to, even on a
newspaper reporter's salary, live on the Upper East Side," Lapham
recalls. "But the kids that are now working for Harper's magazine
cannot. They have to live in Brooklyn or they have to live in Hoboken."

Hoboken. Horrors. It worries me that the literary and journalism
professions may soon be overrun by wealthy children, I tell him. "Entry-level publishing jobs -- working for Random House, for example -- pay
$24,000 a year," I say. "What young person can afford to go into that?"

"You have to be a fairly hard-bitten idealist, or you have to have an
indulgent parent, or you have to have a trust fund. And there are some hard-bitten idealists. We have several of them working for Harper's
magazine -- kids that are making $24,000 and have no other visible means
of support. But it's a small number."

Why would anyone want to go to New York under such brutal
conditions? Lapham's answer is simple: access. "People at restaurants and walking around, they're all in this same racket. So you can meet
with somebody at lunch and you can say, 'Well why don't we see if we can start this.'"

Before becoming a journalist and writer, Lapham wanted to be a history
professor. "I didn't have the fortitude to get all the way through
graduate school. And I didn't have enough patience for the footnotes and
the whole elaborate apparatus a scholar should."

A San Francisco native, his first job was reporting the police and City
Hall beat in Oakland, Calif., for the San Francisco Examiner. Lapham recalls his first story: a feature on a garden show. "I wrote 4,000
words, what I thought was deathless prose," he laughs. "The bureau chief
there said, 'It's brilliant, Lewis, brilliant.' But he said, 'I want you
to try something for me. See if you can cut it in half.' And with a great gnashing of teeth and numerous crimes against literature, I did
cut it in half. And then he said, 'Well, see if you can cut it in half again.' Well I did that until -- when the piece finally ran in that
paper, it was one paragraph. But I learned in the newspaper business to be direct. You also learn to write. It's a discipline."

Lapham says he switched to magazines to "try to write at longer length." Harper's appealed to him because "I assume I'm talking to an intelligent reader. I feel free to make references to dead politicians or living poets without having to explain who that person is."

But smarter audiences are smaller audiences. With a circulation of
216,630, the readership of Harper's is approximately that of a mid-size
newspaper. While the publication isn't a money-sink like the New Yorker, it's not even close to being a profitable venture. When Lapham assumed the editorship in 1976, the magazine was in severe
financial straits. Its then-owner, the Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co., folded it. A young reporter named John MacArthur, whose father,
Roderick, was on the board of the MacArthur Foundation, convinced his
father to have the foundation rescue Harper's. For a time, the foundation was willing to foot the bills, but in 1981, it established a
board to run things. The board quickly sized up Lapham and decided he
had to go. Six months later he was fired. Two years after that, however, he was brought back by the young MacArthur, who'd grabbed a seat on the board.
Lapham agreed to return, but only if the board was dissolved and Lapham could redesign the magazine.

"They were glad to walk away from a dying whale," Lapham recalls. "I got a chance to improve it, redesign it, which doesn't happen very often. I
was delighted with the prospect."

I ask him what he thinks of upcoming elections.

Bill Bradley's campaign? "Superfluous ... I'm sure he pleases David Geffen and
Dustin Hoffman and Michael Ovitz and Michael Eisner. But those kind of
people used to keep pet parrots."

Hillary? "It's her own vanity we're talking about here. It's like Zsa Zsa Gabor in her later years. Perfectly willing to pose for Shopping News -- anything to keep her name or picture in the paper."

"Bush, I don't know about. I have no idea what Bush is about," he says, rubbing his temples, shaking his head. "He's clearly got brand name
recognition. We assume he's a great product -- but they treat them like products. You saw the thing in the paper where the man who rescued Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks is now going to revive the name of Steve Forbes, right? They actually speak of [the candidates] as the product -- and how they're going to market them."

Lapham returns to the subjects of American aristocracy and a leisure
class that once frittered away its fortune on croquet tournaments and parrots.

"If you could afford to fill a fish pond with champagne, you were
clearly a man in close and constant touch with providence. If you can
afford to bankroll Bill Bradley, the same. So it appears that, by and
large, the electorate is willing to understand presidential elections as
a form of amusement. It's like reading the papers about what the swells
were up to in Newport in 1895, right? ... The declining rates of
attendance at voting booths suggest that large numbers of people regard
our presidential politics as superfluous entertainment -- as long as the
country is not in trouble, as long as the stock market is on the way up."

And President Clinton? "A godsend, because he's like a piqata. I mean every conceivable kind of story comes out of him -- heartwarming flood-victim stories; Monica Lewinsky stories; bankrupt, seething corruption
stories; the failed marriage, the rescued marriage, the lovely dog. It's
almost as if he was hired to be the paid entertainment."

We talk some more about Al Gore and George W. Bush, their inherited political legacies and the prominence of brand-name recognition in
politics, then Lapham jumps in with an interesting factoid: "Speaking of
anti-Republicanism: Last year, at the World Series, in New York -- the stadium holds 55,000 seats -- only 5,000 were offered to the general
public. The other 50,000 were set aside."

It's a staggering statistic. "We don't talk about changing the system," he continues. "We talk about improving our own access to it, which is
what 'Rules of Influence' is about."

Our time is up. Lapham is off to another meeting, or perhaps to rest up
before his flight. The check is sitting on the table. In the section of his book titled "In the Presence of the Check," Lapham advises that when
the bill arrives it's "the proper moment for an inspirational anecdote
or a funny story. Saying good-bye to money is never easy, and the awful silence that descends on the table when the waiter brings the check is
like the silence that accompanies the news of a death in the family. Express your sympathy by diverting the host's attention to the memory of
a successful golf score or the life of a long-suffering saint."

I ignore Lapham's advice and hand the waitress eight bucks on my way out the door.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

MORE FROM Jenn Shreve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton San Francisco