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Friday, December 25, 2009


All of us, I imagine, have a soft spot in our hearts for Al Gore. Robbed of the presidency by a judicial coup worthy of a banana republic, he sucked it up and made himself the international voice of global warming, winning, along the way, a Nobel Prize, an Academy Award, and a Pulitzer Prize -- surely a feat never to be matched.

This morning,I was idly surfing the web [yes, yes, it is Christmas morning -- I must get a life], when my eye fell on a startling phrase: "Martin Peretz, Al Gore's mentor and one of his closest advisers...." "That can't be right," I said to myself, but a bit of googling confirmed that Peretz had been one of Gore's undergraduate Government instructors at Harvard, and had gone on to become a close advisor to the future Vice-President.

Let me tell you a story about Marty Peretz. This goes back a ways. It starts half a century ago in Cambridge, Mass, when I was a young Instructor in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard, and part of an informal group of left-leaning young academics who called ourselves, rather self-importantly, The New Left Club of Cambridge [for those too young to remember, The New Left Club was an important left-wing organization in England and the founder of The New Left Review.] It was an interesting group: Gabe and Joyce Kolko, who went on to do really interesting writing on the left [it is worth looking up Gabe Kolko's early book, Wealth and Power in America.]; Michael Walzer, a political theorist who taught Government for many years at Harvard before relocating to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study; Gordon Feldman, Nadav Safran, even, believe it or not, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, later to become fanatic rightwing neo-cons. I was friendly with all of them, and in fact we used to gather every so often for bag lunches in my office. In those days, Marty Peretz was an obnoxious sycophantic little wannabe who hung around with us trying to get accepted into the group. He had gone to Brandeis, where he had attached himself to the columnist Max Lerner.

The defining moment for our group was Kennedy's invasion of Cuba. We had all supported Kennedy enthusiastically [despite Barrington Moore's cautionary warning to me one day that there was not a dime's worth of difference between him and Richard Nixon]. Kennedy, after all, was a Harvard graduate, a liberal, an author [we did not then know that it was Ted Sorensen who had actually written Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage], and to top it off, his wife spoke French. What was not to like? But when he invaded Cuba, each of us had a dark moment of the soul. Kennedy was a liberal. If liberals invaded Cuba, then we were not liberals. But what were we? Faute de mieux, we decided we were Radicals, even though that notion had very little content for us beyond "not a liberal like Kennedy."

Max Lerner the next day wrote a column in the New York POST defending the invasion, and Peretz, ever the suck-up, sided with Lerner, which pretty much finished him, in my eyes anyway.

Time passed, and we scattered. I went on to the University of Chicago, then for seven years to Columbia, and in 1971 to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In 1973, when I was living in a lovely federal style brick house on a quiet dead end street in Northampton, I got a call one day from a young man who introduced himself as a political scientist in New York City. He was part of a group called Political Scientists for Impeachment who wanted to place an ad in the NY TIMES calling for the removal from office of Richard Nixon. The TIMES, not surprisingly, wanted the money for the ad up front, and he was calling to ask whether I could get in touch with Barrington Moore, Jr. and Martin Peretz. Peretz by this time had married rich and had bought himself The New Republic magazine, which until then had been a pretty good left-liberal journal of opinion.

I told the caller that there was no use getting hold of Moore -- he never gave money to anything, even though he was, in a modest way, independently wealthy. [The caller knew that I knew Moore because Barry, Herbert Marcuse, and I had published a little book together in 1965]. But I thought I could reach Peretz through Walzer. I hadn't talked to Mike in a while, but I knew he was at Harvard, so I found his number and gave him a call. We spent a little time catching up -- I asked him how his wife and daughter were, he asked about my wife and two small sons -- and then I explained why I had called.

There was a long pause -- so long I was afraid the connection had been broken. Then, in a soft voice, Walzer said, "Well, you see, we are supporting Nixon." I was so stunned I was sure I had misheard him. I had never even met anyone supporting Nixon. I spluttered and protested for a bit, asking in a dozen different ways what on earth he was talking about. There was another pause, even longer than the first, and then, in that sweet, soft voice that Jewish men use when they are explaining sadly why they are stabbing you in the back, he said, "Well, you see, Israel."

Suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes. Despite his anti-semitism [now well documented by the White House tapes], Nixon was, for geo-political reasons, a strong supporter of the state of Israel, and that fact, apparently, trumped all other considerations in the eyes of Peretz and Walzer. I was so embarrassed for Walzer that I made a few inane remarks and got off the phone as fast as I could. That was thirty-six years ago, and despite the fact that Michael Walzer and I are both prominent American political theorists, I have never spoken another word to him to this day.

So that Martin Peretz is Al Gore's old instructor, mentor, and close political advisor.

It makes one think.

1 comment:

NotHobbes said...

De Omnibus Dubitandum