Happy 40th Birthday

by Conor Friedersdorf

One pleasure of The Atlantic's offices, where I once worked, was wandering into the room where the magazine's archives are housed, choosing an issue at random, and exploring whatever fine writing editors past published that month. It is impossible to do that for very long without marveling at the number of cover stories that James Fallows has written. In fact, it is hard for me to understand how he ever found time to write anywhere else, but the 40th anniversary of the Washington Monthly, celebrated by a collection of the best stories published in that magazine, remind us that he worked there too, along with so many other greats inside and outside The Atlantic family.

Another one to single out is Nicholas Lemann, who writes:

The Monthly, methodologically, was always reportorial, and it was never conservativebut, when I joined the magazine, the other editorial employee besides me and Charlie was Tom Bethell, an actual conservative, and it seemed as if the magazine devoted its main energies to attacking conventional liberal positions. When I first came to the magazine’s office for my job interview in the winter of 1976, I was amazed to see an issue just back from the printer’s with the cover line “CRIMINALS BELONG IN JAIL.” Charlie thought we would purify liberalism, the naturally dominant strain in American politics since his New Deal childhood in West Virginia, by relentlessly ridding it of tired, automatic bromides and by insisting that liberals see government’s performance as it actually was, not as liberals wished it to be. He wanted to understand and call attention to government’s failures so that in the future it would work properly, not so that people would stop believing government could solve problems. Nonetheless, issue by issue, this entailed criticizing liberals more often than conservatives.

The Monthly was always hard to classify. It investigated, but it wasn’t exactly investigative in the traditional sense, because its main interest was not in catching officials breaking the law but in understanding why, without being corrupt, government agencies didn’t get the job done. It was reformist, but it lacked the patrician hostility to democratic politics that has often characterized good-government reformers. It was not conventionally liberal, but it wasn’t centrist, moderate, or pro-business in the manner of the Democratic Leadership Council, which was founded in the 1980s. It wanted liberal politicians to hold the policymaking reins, but, at least in the early years, it almost never published articles proposing winning political strategies for its side. It was interested in policy, but it mainly eschewed traditional policy analysis. It was interested in ideas, butin contradistinction to the Public Interest crowd, as its views developedit was far more interested in facts on the ground.

It is still a first rate magazine -- may it last another 40 years.