Washington Post magazine-beat writer Peter Carlson writes an admiring profile of Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham in the Style section today, headlined "Lewis Lapham Lights Up," as Lapham prepares to step down as Harper's editor. The man is a raving leftist, and while Carlson notes his cover story in the March issue is "The Case for Impeachment," he never quite locates Lapham on the far left. He merely lets friend Tom Wolfe call him "left-leaning."
Carlson also claims Lapham is an equal-opportunity offender, that he has "skewered every president since Nixon. He is a world-class curmudgeon." But Lapham has predictably hated conservatives more. Lapham's biggest media moment may have been his 1989 PBS series "America's Century," in which he sulfurously condemned Ronald Reagan as someone who could be relied on to "defend the sanctity of myth against the heresy of fact."
As reported in the December 1989 MediaWatch, the language crackled with contempt: "Oliver North presented himself as the immortal boy in the heroic green uniform of Peter Pan. Although wishing to be seen as a humble patriot, the Colonel's testimony showed him to be a treacherous and lying agent of the national security state, willing to do anything asked of him by a President to whom he granted the powers of an Oriental despot."
Lapham offered an amusing contrast of Presidents Carter and Reagan. "At a time when America doubted its faith in its own virtue," Lapham proclaimed, "Carter offered himself as the candidate chosen by Providence to lead the country back into the paths of righteousness." David Rieff (identified only as a "writer") added, "The malaise speech...was of course as close as any senior public figure has ever come in the last 35 years or so to tell the American people the truth about anything."
This is not to say that Carlson fails to explain how Lapham's taste for unleashing literary bombshells can lead to embarrassment. Carlson begins the article with Lapham braying about how he interviewed with the CIA in 1957, and all the questions were aristocratic inquiries about golf, sailing, and loose women. Carlson confesses his own doubts about the story's veracity:
It's a great story, so great that it sounds . . . just a tad too good to be true. Which calls to mind Lapham's "Tentacles of Rage" fiasco. That essay, a spirited attack on "the Republican propaganda mill," ran in the September 2004 issue of Harper's. In it, Lapham wrote of watching the 2004 Republican convention and "listening to the hollow rattle of rhetorical brass and tin." Alas, the magazine arrived at the homes of subscribers before the Republicans had actually convened. Bloggers had a blast carving Lapham new orifices.
But he swears his CIA story is really, truly true. And he apologizes for faking his convention coverage. Well, sort of.
"It was a mistake, but to my mind a very minor one," he says. "I put it in to meet the September deadline, to give it timeliness. . . . I wasn't putting words in anybody's mouth or remarking on something that didn't happen."