Jewish World Review June 26, 2002/ 16 Tamuz 5762


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A stand-up New Yorker | David Remnick is the best editor The New Yorker's employed in decades.

The weekly's June 17 & June 24 "double" issue dedicated to fiction and "family histories" was an achievement unparalleled by any other magazine this year-Vanity Fair, for example, is in nosedive mode-with the lone exception of every month's Atlantic. Jonathan Lethem's heartbreaking "Alone at the Movies," Donald Antrim's beautifully written if depressing "I Bought a Bed" and Jeanette Winterson's "Mother from Heaven" would all lift the quality of lesser publications such as New York, Esquire or GQ. But the standout in this New Yorker was actor/writer Steve Martin's "The Death of My Father."

I've never been a fan of Martin's: His introduction of the grating phrase "wild and crazy guy" was criminal enough, and his films (with the exception of Parenthood) have left me cold. But just the beginning and conclusion of Martin's memoir gives the reader an entirely new perspective on the man. (In addition, as reported in the Daily News, Martin made a pretty funny quip in a recent tribute to Tom Hanks: "When you look at [Hanks], you wouldn't think this is one of the greatest actors of our generation. You'd think more, 'Excuse me, what are today's specials?'")

He begins: "In his death, my father, Glenn Vernon Martin, did something he could not do in life. He brought our family together. After he died, at the age of eighty-three, many of his friends told me how much they loved him-how generous he was, how outgoing, how funny, how caring. I was surprised at these descriptions. I remember him as angry. There was little said to me, that I recall, that was not criticism. During my teen-age years, we hardly spoke except in one-way arguments-from him to me."

Glenn Martin's "honesty" with Steve is detailed throughout the piece, including a bad review of his son's first appearance on Saturday Night Live in a local newsletter and the comment, at a dinner party after the younger Martin's first movie The Jerk was released, that Steve was "no Charlie Chaplin."

In 1997, as his father was dying, Martin recalls: "I stood at the end of the bed, and we looked into each other's eyes for a long, unbroken time. At last he said, 'You did everything I wanted to do.' I said, 'I did it because of you.' It was the truth. Looking back, I'm sure that we both had different interpretations of what I meant. I sat on the edge of the bed. Another silence fell over us. Then he said 'I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry.'


"At first, I took this as a comment on his plight but am forever thankful that I pushed on. 'What do you want to cry about?' I finally said. 'For all the love I received and couldn't return.' He had kept this secret, his desire to love his family, from me and from my mother his whole life. It was as though an early misstep had kept us forever out of stride. Now, two days from his death, our pace was aligning, and we were able to speak."

"The Death of My Father" is a dazzling article and a credit to Remnick's editorial acumen.

On the other hand, The New Yorker's chief (who himself is an excellent writer, particularly on the subjects of sports and the Middle East) has glaring blind spots. His lead "Comment" author Hendrik Hertzberg is a premature anachronism whose obsessions about Republicans diminish the magazine. Joe Klein (apparently on loan to Slate these days) has lost his juice in covering politics, either re-hashing the tired "conventional wisdom" of daily op-ed columnists or ginning up the electoral prospects of a "character" like South Carolina's Alex Sanders, who almost certainly will be defeated by Lindsey Graham in this November's U.S. Senate contest.

And the less said about Adam Gopnik the better.


But nothing compared to the publication of media-insider Ken Auletta's fawning profile of New York Times executive editor Howell Raines in the June 10 New Yorker. Auletta litters his lengthy article with telltale reminders that he and Howell are friendly, a red flag that should've made Remnick cringe. At the piece's end-and this is not a one-session read, especially since so much of the material isn't new, much of it already reported in The New York Observer-Auletta writes: "'Change always takes people out of their comfort zone,' Raines said one evening, over a glass of bourbon and water in his small back room."

Swell. Fine by me if Auletta and Raines are chums and enjoy a cocktail together, but it ought to disqualify the former from writing the most exhaustive piece on the editorial general of (regrettably) America's most influential newspaper.

Eighteen months ago, before Raines, then editorial-page editor, was named to his new post, it would take a most imaginative person to conjure a scenario in which the Times would descend even further into a de facto newsletter for the Democratic Party. After all, it's not as if Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Gail Collins, Paul Krugman, Richard Berke, Elisabeth Bumiller and Katherine Seelye (and that's just a sampling from the "A" section) hadn't already cemented the paper's standing as the last word on political correctness and unbridled arrogance.

But in Auletta's portrait, Raines is revealed as a repulsive newspaperman.

He writes, after a long opening segment on the Times' coverage of Sept. 11: "In a September 12th e-mail to the newsroom, Raines wrote, 'Thank you one and all for a magnificent effort in putting out, in the midst of a heartbreaking day, a paper of which we can be proud for years to come... In a different context of violence, Yeats wrote that "a terrible beauty is born."'"

No doubt that Raines, like so many New Yorkers, knew people who perished that day, lost businesses, or were displaced from their homes, but instead he focused on the extraordinary beginning of his editorship. Except for this power-hungry boss, who reveled in his staff's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of a national disaster, who else could find any "beauty" in the devastation of Sept. 11? And to quote Yeats, whose poem "Easter 1916" was indeed a different "context of violence," is so offensive that it reduces Raines to the level of a self-promoting hypocrite like Michael Moore.

I've the fortitude to cite just one more example of Raines' madness. When the Enron business scandal broke, it was like Christmas Day for the man who fancies himself, though unelected, as a national and international policymaker.

Auletta writes: "[Raines] wanted editors 'to forget turf lines,' the assistant managing editor Carolyn Lee says. 'Howell wants speed.' He wanted the Washington and the Houston bureaus, the national desk, and legal correspondents to get involved, as he asked for separate stories and also for long narratives that would give readers what Raines calls 'one-stop-shopping pieces.' He told his business editors, 'The Enron story is going to be your World Trade Center story.'"

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2002, Russ Smith