Longer listens: Lewis Lapham

Published February 27, 2006 9:30PM (EST)

This past fall, Harper's magazine announced that, come April, Lewis Lapham will step down as editor in chief, to be replaced by 38-year-old Texas native Roger D. Hodge, who is currently deputy editor of the 155-year-old publication. Hodge, who began at Harper's as an intern in 1996, contributed a lengthy review essay on Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" to the most recent issue, but it is Lapham's voice that has dominated the magazine during his nearly 30-year tenure. Lapham introduced the famous "Harper's Index" and has used his column space (which he will retain) to challenge the architects of American imperialism and call attention to the decay of our democracy or, as he put it to Dick Gordon during this interview (47:50, Real Audio) on "The Connection," "to go against the conventions of bright-eyed optimism -- fatuousness -- that ... have marked our politics for the last twenty odd years." Lapham spoke with Gordon just a couple of months after Sept. 11, 2001, to address the twin questions: "With what secular faith do we match the zeal of militant Islam, and is there an American democracy worth fighting and dying for?"

Two years later, Lapham spoke at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, N.M., on many of the same themes. Lapham's speech (34:11, Real Audio) is full of the rhetorical flourishes and historical analogies that have made his columns a (somewhat predictable) pleasure. He recites this Winston Churchill description of the Tory Party from 1904, for instance, as appropriate to the current Bush administration: "A party of great vested interests banded together in a formidable configuration: corruption at home, aggression to cover it up abroad, sentiment by the bucket-full, patriotism by the imperial pint, the open hand at the public exchequer, the open door at the public house, dear food for the millions, cheap labor for the millionaire." Our corporate and government leaders, in Lapham's turn of phrase, are "a constituency of the frightened rich," whose project is to "protect the American oligarchy from the American democracy."

After his reading, Lapham speaks (34:20, Real Audio) with Amy Goodman of "Democracy Now!" about his family history, which is itself a story of bumbling oligarchy, including a "great-grandmother's grandfather" who in 1812 led an aborted U.S. attempt to "take Canada." Speaking a year before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Lapham wonders aloud whether the Democratic Party is "completely bankrupt."

And finally, in the last minutes of this broadcast (29:29, MP3) of "Fire on the Prairie," the radio companion to In These Times magazine, you can hear Lapham as he takes halfhearted cracks at softball questions such as "What's the role of Harper's magazine in a society that doesn't engage in real dialogue about things that matter?"

-- Ira Boudway

By Salon Staff

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