Crossing the Atlantic

Michael Kelly and William Whitworth talk about the changing of the guard at one of the nation's most respected magazines.

Published October 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Reactions varied last week to the sale of the Atlantic Monthly. In New York it was spun by some as part of the continuing drama of Mort Zuckerman. The Daily News remains embattled in its duel-to-the-death with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, and Zuckerman's rumored attempts to sell the successful business start-up Fast Company to Condi Nast had come to naught. Did Zuckerman's sale of the venerable 140-year-old Atlantic to Washington businessman David Bradley for upward of $10 million signal a significant diminution of the real-estate magnate's publishing concerns, or was the move a sound one aimed at saving what he had, including the solvent U.S. News & World Report?

Others were more concerned with what the magazine's first new editor in 20 years would do. Shortly after the sale Bradley announced that William Whitworth would be replaced by National Journal editor Michael Kelly, perhaps best known for his short, stormy tenure as editor of the New Republic and his Clinton-bashing editorials in the Washington Post. It wasn't exactly Tina Brown taking the reins at the New Yorker, but for the Atlantic's nearly 470,000 subscribers -- not to mention its loyal staff and contributors -- the effect was seismic.

"I wouldn't say that I was shocked," says Whitworth from the Atlantic's Boston offices. "There have been rumors over the years and it was often in
the back of my mind. I also assumed there would be a change of editor [if
the magazine was sold]. It happens when you buy a magazine or a football
team -- you put in your guy."

What Whitworth objected to (aside from finding himself out of work) was the way in which it happened. "I was a little cross at first," he allows. "I thought it was disrespectful." But he is quick to add that that Bradley and Kelly smoothed his feathers over several dinners last week saying they had always wanted to buy, or start, a cultural magazine like the New Yorker or the Atlantic and that the publisher Bradley and editor Kelly were "a package deal."

Bradley was an unknown quantity to Whitworth, but he knew Kelly for his politics. Was he worried they would alter the Atlantic beyond recognition,
making it topical in the most disposable way? "Obviously you don't want to
freeze the Atlantic, but you need to be aware of its traditions," he says.
"Not that I think it's perfect, but I think there is a continuing purpose
here. And the idea of a snappy political magazine would be a delusion."
Kelly and Bradley agreed, says Whitworth, who concludes, "I feel good about
both these guys."

At the same time, the abrupt change didn't cause a major outcry. It's unfair to judge Whitworth by the standards of the buzz meter, the deadly dish detector favored by those who chart the successes of Condi Nast, Hearst and Time-Warner more by what people are saying about them than the quality of the publications themselves. Still: When was the last time someone said, "Seen this month's Atlantic?"

"I don't share that perception," says Kelly from his Washington office. He is fighting a protracted cold, drinking ginger tea prescribed by his acupuncturist and speaking in a voice made hoarse in part by reassuring the Atlantic's staff in Boston that he does not represent the Antichrist. "I think [the Atlantic] is a remarkable magazine, and I mean now, in the present, not in some storied past. I think what Bill has built there is exceptional. The magazine does in fact -- in a more quiet fashion than, say, Talk magazine -- still generate a good deal of intellectual attention and even some ferment."

It is hard to imagine anyone getting agitated over the October issue. Peter Drucker's cover story attempts to put the "information revolution" in a historical context, Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky reflects on the role of poetry in America's search for cultural identity and managing editor Cullen Murphy weighs in with a dispatch on camel racing -- diverting, thoughtful stuff, perhaps, but nothing that's going to get them blowing white spittle on Chris Matthews. Which, says Kelly, is the point.

"There is a very real fatigue with the endless bombardment of the now, of the moment," says Kelly. "I think people are tired of that. I myself find it exhausting. I picked up one magazine on Sunday and there was another piece on the Edmund Morris biography of Reagan and another piece on the ["Sensation" show at the] Brooklyn Art Museum. Well, I've read 15 pieces on each -- haven't you? And I'm not sure I need a 16th. And if I do need a 16th, I would like it to be one that somebody had actually put a little time into thinking about, maybe reporting and writing, so that it stands apart."

As for political coverage, Kelly insists that, too, will be done the old-fashioned way. "The magazine has a tradition, a 140-year-old tradition, of [discussing] politics and policy in the broad and deep sense. The discussion of slavery and abolition, the discussion of the women's suffrage movement from its early days, and the discussion of secular humanism in its founding days -- that discussion continues to this day, particularly in cover stories in the works of people like Robert Kaplan."

As a writer, Kelly has fricasseed the president for so long now that it's easy to look at him as Elmer Fudd to Clinton's now lame Daffy Duck, always focusing on questions of character rather than the scandal of the moment. As early as 1994 he wrote, "The president's essential character flaw isn't dishonesty so much as it is honesty. It isn't that Clinton means to say things that are not true, or that he cannot make true, but that everything is true for him when he says it, because he says it."

When he was fired from the New Republic by publisher Marty Peretz in 1997 it was, Kelly said, for bringing Peretz's pal Al Gore too close to the flame as well, editorializing about the veep's role in the pre-Monica campaign-contribution scandals among other things. (Peretz maintained it was for bringing the centrist magazine too far to the right.) In an election year, with a national publication as a pulpit, how will Kelly resist the temptation to take shots at the presumed Democratic nominee and his checkered past?

"To try to contort the magazine into a narrowly political or ideological or polemical creature would be a gross mistake and a gross wrong," Kelly says solemnly. "The magazine has its identity and a new editor starts by respecting that identity. You would not do that to the Atlantic any more than you would try to turn the New Republic into the New Yorker."

Besides, he says, "It's not as if I have some overwhelming temptation to [editorialize] that I have to resist. I wandered into political writing -- purely op-ed writing -- by accident [by way] of the TRB column at the New Republic. People tend to know you as a writer by your current incarnation but the fact is that's not how I spent most of my career writing. I spent most of it as a generalist, sometimes writing about presidential campaigns but sometimes writing about wars, sometimes feature stories and sometimes profiles, and sometimes about food." (Corby Kummer, look out!) "I am actually delighted to edit a magazine that does allow me to publish stories across the whole canvass. It's a liberating notion for me and one I am greatly eager to take advantage of."

Whitworth, whom Kelly calls "a genuinely great editor in the school of [fabled New Yorker editor William] Shawn," will edit the next several issues while Kelly learns the ropes, commuting back and forth between Washington and Boston. The National Journal, an inside-the-Beltway Congress-watching publication with fewer than 7,000 subscribers, will be edited by Charles Green and overseen by Kelly.

"There's a pretty long pipeline" at the Atlantic, says Kelly, with plenty of inventory; he's been calling contributors and reassuring them of his intentions, too. He speaks enthusiastically about a coming cover story, an excerpt from a book about an Indian reservation by Atlantic contributor Ian Frazier ("Great Plains," "Dating Your Mom"), and cites Stephen Budiansky's July article on deceptive dog behavior ("The Truth About Dogs") as the kind of thing he'd like to see more of. (Within a week of its issue, Kelly points out, four book publishers contacted Budiansky -- a testament to the Atlantic's continued position as a showcase for writers.)

And as far as the Sturm und Drang of Washington life goes, Kelly is still contracted to write his column for the Washington Post, should he feel the need to throw a few bricks the White House's way. That is separate from his editor's role; one of his first tasks as editor of the National Journal was to fire himself as a writer. "I do not write as the editor of anything," he insists. "They are my own opinions and that is all, for what they're worth. There are many who would say they are worth very little."

The latest firing at the New Republic (Peretz replaced Charles Lane with senior editor Peter Beinart in unceremonious fashion last week) was surprising, perhaps, only to Lane. Kelly speaks highly of Beinart, who worked under him as executive editor at TNR. "Which is not taking anything away from Chuck, but change is a constant in the world of Peretz. If there must be change most people there would say they're pretty lucky."

He feels lucky himself to be working for Bradley, who has allowed him to improve the quality of the editorial at the National Journal over the last 14 months. "He believes you can make money in magazines with very high standards for a very discerning readership by spending a lot of energy and effort and money on improving or maintaining those standards," he says -- sounding a bit like one of those ancient Atlantic editors, William Howells perhaps. "And if you do this, eventually you will be rewarded by the gods."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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