At 4:59 p.m. on Tuesday, October 24, 2017, Politico revealed that allegations of workplace harassment made against the journalist and intellectual Leon Wieseltier had resulted in both the cancellation of Idea, Wieseltier’s new magazine, which had been scheduled to launch the following week, and of Wieseltier himself.
According to the story, Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective, which funded Idea, had severed ties with him. The next evening Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution, where Wieseltier was a senior fellow, sent an e-mail announcing that Wieseltier was no longer employed at the think tank. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, waited until Friday before notifying his staff that Wieseltier, a contributing editor since 2015, had been removed from the masthead. Wieseltier offered only a “shaken apology,” disputing nothing. “The women with whom I worked are smart and good people,” it read. “I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected. I assure them that I will not waste this reckoning.” And then?
“I went away,” he told me. “And I reflected. I tended to my son as best I could, because that was my primary consideration. Some friends stood by me.” He paused. “It was sort of an interesting experience. I’d been made a pariah, and I’ve read about pariahs all my life, so I guess I’m the wiser for it.” When I pressed for more details about this period, Wieseltier said, more than once, “This is not my redemption story.” He became more animated on the subject of his new quarterly, which until now has been a closely guarded secret. Its name, at once proudly patriotic and vaguely seditious, is Liberties. It has an editorial staff of two: Wieseltier and his managing editor, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Pennsylvania named Celeste Marcus.
I met Wieseltier for lunch, pre-lockdown, at I Ricchi, in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from his new office. The restaurant occupies the ground floor of the building that once housed the New Republic, where Wieseltier reigned as literary editor from 1982 to 2014. One avenue over is the Brookings Institution, where he held the title of Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy, a position that was created for him in 2015 and, since his ouster two years later, remains unfilled.
Wieseltier is pretty conspicuous for an unperson. Now 68, the years having caught up with the mane of prematurely white hair that Gore Vidal once called “important,” he was dressed in his customary black: black shirt, black jacket, black overcoat, black jeans, and black cowboy boots. A “rumpled reversal of Tom Wolfe,” according to one observer. He’s a striking figure, especially in Washington, a city so aesthetically conservative it can be scandalized by a tan suit.
“There is a need, I think, for people who don’t belong either to the Sharks or the Jets, as it were, to have a place to publish,” Wieseltier said, a clear reference to the nativist-populist right and the progressive-socialist left. Recent evidence suggests there may be such a need, at least on the supply side. In July of 2020, the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, a former editor at Idea, helped gather the signatures of Gloria Steinem, Salman Rushdie, Wynton Marsalis, Margaret Atwood, and Noam Chomsky, 153 in all, for an open letter published in Harper’s in defense of “the free exchange of information and ideas” amid a spreading “intolerance of opposing views.” Of the letter’s signatories, six—including Williams—are among the contributors to Liberties No. 1, which was published in mid-October.
If Idea was a throwback, Liberties is antediluvian. Sized like a paperback book, the first issue is 420 pages of text with zero images (and zero ads). There are 20 essays, each several thousand words long. What white space there is accompanies the occasional poem. “We joke that it should say, ‘Reading time: three months,’” Wieseltier said.
The years have caught up with the mane of prematurely white hair that Gore Vidal once called “important.”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware that even just contributing will potentially open you up to criticism,” Williams said. “But that’s exactly what we’re fighting against.” Daphne Merkin, who has known Wieseltier since the 1970s and is writing a piece for the second issue, noted, “The one problem with it being so Leon’s creation is that it is inevitably colored by how you view Leon.”
Certainly, Wieseltier is aware. The issue opens with a quotation from Maimonides: “Accept the truth from whoever utters it.”
Attention of the Wrong Kind
Born on June 14, 1952 (“a birthday I share with the fucking president”) to a family of Polish Holocaust survivors in Brooklyn, Wieseltier was enrolled in the local yeshiva when he was three. He attended Columbia University, where he was singled out for promise by the literary critic Lionel Trilling. Thence, on a Kellett Fellowship to Balliol College, at Oxford, where a letter of introduction from Trilling led to a private audience with his next mentor, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Onward to Harvard—and not just Harvard but “Harvard’s Harvard,” as the alumni magazine has characterized the school’s Society of Fellows. Entrée to this “elite within an elite” is based not on clubbability but, as one founder put it, on “rare and independent genius.”
Martin Peretz, who bought the New Republic in 1974, offered him the job of literary editor in 1982. “That was Edmund Wilson’s perch and Malcolm’s Cowley’s and Alfred Kazin’s,” Wieseltier said. “That was a special little office in American letters.” Wieseltier was 31. In 1985, he married Mahnaz Ispahani, a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiating.
Wieseltier’s “back of the book” was admired even by many of the magazine’s detractors. When the New Republic published an excerpt of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s still controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, under the headline “Race, Genes, and I.Q.—an Apologia,” one of the accompanying dissents was written by Wieseltier, who accused Murray (Herrnstein died before the book’s release) of having revived “one of the more deplorable legacies of the Enlightenment” in their search for “a scientific foundation for generalizations about groups.”
Daphne Merkin, who has known Wieseltier since the 1970s, noted, “The one problem with it being so Leon’s creation is that it is inevitably colored by how you view Leon.”
At the same time, much of the attention Wieseltier attracted was the wrong kind. He was called a dilettante, a social climber, a warmonger. There was the reported gram-a-day cocaine habit. The never-delivered book on the significance of sighing. But, following his 1994 divorce from Ispahani, he straightened himself out, published a widely acclaimed memoir (Kaddish, 1998), and got back to work. In 2000, he married Jennifer Bradley, a senior policy analyst at Brookings. They have one son, Matthew, who is 18.
In 2012, Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, purchased a majority stake in the New Republic. Hughes told The New York Times that he bought the magazine “because of my belief in its mission, not to make it the next Facebook.” In fact, he wanted to make it a “vertically integrated digital media company,” a distinction that was lost on the four dozen staffers and contributors, Wieseltier included, who resigned en masse in December 2014. A number of articles were written in the days that followed, some critical of the magazine’s past, others celebrating it. Few questioned that this was the end of an era. The tributes to Wieseltier in particular (“The Last of the New York Intellectuals,” “Wieseltier the Dinosaur”) read like elegies. But Wieseltier was not through yet. Soon, he was a contributing editor at The Atlantic (then owned by his friend David Bradley), a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and partners with Jobs in Idea. Then came the fall.
A Champion of Women?
Wieseltier’s reckoning occurred within weeks of, and was indirectly precipitated by, Harvey Weinstein’s. Yet “Leon’s was not a Harvey Weinstein or Roger Ailes type of predation,” Michelle Cottle, a former New Republic staffer, wrote in The Atlantic. “No one I spoke with was ever physically afraid of him.” He was “the most powerful person at the magazine—regardless of who was the top editor at any given moment,” so some reasonably “feared his ability to make their life miserable and ruin their future.” At the same time, Cottle wrote, “Leon always presented himself as a champion of women, which in many cases he was.”
“Leon was the one who gave me a column. He advised me; he helped me get a new job,” Sacha Zimmerman told Cottle. “He was important to me—and he was also unquestionably inappropriate with women.” The critic Ruth Franklin, who wrote an essay for Idea on Karl Ove Knausgaard, said, “I owe a great deal to his support and his mentorship,” adding, “It was no secret that Leon regularly acted inappropriately with many women on staff, including me, but his actions were largely overlooked because he wielded enormous power and because he was often charming, funny, and brilliant. Regardless of what he intended, numerous women found his actions and remarks patronizing, insulting, or damaging.” Cottle observed, “On one point, almost everyone seems to agree: with Leon, things were complicated.”
Rebecca Traister recorded something similar in her book Good and Mad. “I heard from many friends and former colleagues who were pained about [Wieseltier’s] situation,” she wrote. “‘He was, really, my champion,’ one woman told me. ‘All these things about him are true, but it is simultaneously true that if you were on his good side, you felt special—protected, cared for, like he believed in you and wanted you to succeed.’” But the stories about him—of inappropriate flirting, or touching, or suggestive comments about women’s clothing, or, in the case of Sarah Wildman, an unwanted kiss at an after-hours gathering—had convinced “many of even his most conflicted former admirers” that “sacking Wieseltier was the correct choice.”
“On one point, almost everyone seems to agree: with Leon, things were complicated.”
Few would deny that the experiences of Wildman, recounted in a Vox article titled “I Was Harassed at the New Republic. I Spoke Up. Nothing Happened,” demonstrate the need for clearer rules and a more accountable process. But so, in another way, do the experiences of Wieseltier, whose punishment and prospects for rehabilitation were never specified. “It’s been three years,” said the writer Laura Kipnis, a contributor to Liberties. “I suppose some people will think that’s too short a term, but I’d like to see a table of sentencing toward the severity of the crime and the length of the exile. The default position is that it should somehow be banishment for life.”
“He’s someone who, for all his life, has acted in a way that’s now called ‘harassment,’ and not only was it tolerated but he did very well.… So why would he realize how offensive his behavior now seems to many people?,” Mary Gaitskill said, in an interview with The New Yorker, of Quin, a character in her 2019 novella, This Is Pleasure, rumored to be modeled in part on Wieseltier. Quin is “flawed, but he’s essentially a good man who is being punished beyond the scope of his ‘sins.’ The women in the story have the right to express anger at him. If his employer feels it necessary to fire him because he’s become a liability, that is the employer’s right, too. But to behave as if he were a monster, equivalent to a rapist, and to circulate petitions threatening to boycott anyone who would dare to hire him, to create a situation where he can’t work—that is, to me, absurd and even cruel.”
“I’d like to see a table of sentencing toward the severity of the crime and the length of the exile. The default position is that it should somehow be banishment for life.”
In his inaugural essay for Liberties, Wieseltier makes just one direct reference to #MeToo, noting in parentheses, “Which came also to my door, with its lesson and its excesses.” Of the lesson, he writes, “I may like to think that I am what I present myself to be, but I am also what she sees me to be, because she sees me as I cannot, or will not, see myself.” He continues, in the first-person plural, “We always show more of ourselves than we think we do, which is why we may learn from the responses of others. We spill beyond our intentions and our conceits, and what we gain from this overflow is criticism.” I asked him whether the criticism had changed him. “It sensitized me to things,” he said. “I am certainly more careful in the way I speak. I don’t believe I was a threat to anybody, I really don’t. But I’m much more careful not to seem like one.” He told me he felt especially remorseful about the incident described by Sarah Wildman, and that he tried, through a mutual friend, to offer “a proper apology,” but never heard back.
And the excesses? “The Robespierrian haste with which people’s heads were chopped off before they could say a word,” he said. “The fact that an allegation was tantamount to a conviction. The fact that all infractions were treated equally—there was no sense of proportion or sense of measure. And that we developed a culture of unforgivingness.”
“Leon lost a great deal, and gained some, from his fall,” David Bradley wrote in an e-mail. “What has he gained? As fine a father-son relationship, with his one child, as a man can have. I would guess that that is what Leon now treasures most in life. Leon may have gained a sense of self-dependence, even independence. He, like all of us, had led a contingent life—contingent on his platform or publication, on his standing in the synagogue, on the social scene’s regard in New York and Washington. At least for a time, Leon lost much of that. He feels like a man who now knows he can live without it.” Daphne Merkin said, “Leon has always had a seductive charm, but in the last period I find him changed for the better. He is less arrogant and less caught up in power plays, kinder.”
“I am certainly more careful in the way I speak. I don’t believe I was a threat to anybody, I really don’t. But I’m much more careful not to seem like one.”
“I’d been thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my short life,” said Wieseltier, who is in the middle of a divorce. “There was a part of me that wanted to get back into the fray, because the culture and the country are in a dire emergency and I wanted to do my part. Not that the world needed one more person to curse Trump, but there were all kinds of themes, larger questions, that I didn’t think were being adequately addressed.” He added that he “was beginning to really worry about earning a living, because the pile of savings was getting smaller.” But he was apprehensive.
“Then,” he said, “an old friend of mine announced to me that he was putting aside a substantial sum of money for me to start a journal, and here we are.” The old friend was Alfred Moses, 91, a former adviser to Jimmy Carter, the U.S. ambassador to Romania from 1994 to 1997, a partner at Covington & Burling, and a fellow congregant at Kesher Israel in Georgetown. In his 2018 memoir, Bucharest Diary, Moses refers to Wieseltier as “my synagogue pal.” In spring 2019, after a study session with their rabbi, the two men took a walk along the Potomac, and Moses made his pitch to Wieseltier.
At the suggestion of his son-in-law, Bill Reichblum, Moses started the nonprofit, nonpartisan Liberties Journal Foundation. Reichblum, 60, an arts entrepreneur and a former dean of Bennington College, is the president of the foundation and the publisher of its flagship journal. Also on the board is Peter Bass, 56, the C.E.O. of Quberu, a global trade platform. Moses provided the initial endowment, but they are seeking new donors.
“On that gorgeous afternoon,” Wieseltier said, “I remember thinking, One of the great things about this man is that he’s not from Silicon Valley.”
A New Partner
Off Dupont Circle sits a quaint, two-story carriage house belonging to the Phi Beta Kappa society that now serves as Liberties’ homey headquarters. Wieseltier led me into his office, which he shares with Marcus. The three of us walked upstairs, past a framed page from Kafka’s Hebrew-vocabulary book, to talk in the conference room. Galleys were stacked on the floor beside yellowing copies of Partisan Review. I sipped coffee from a heat-sensitive mug covered with redactions that disappeared to reveal the titles of banned books.
Marcus met Wieseltier when she was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, concentrating in intellectual history. When she wasn’t co-hosting The Divided Line, a political radio show, or writing the occasional guest column for The Daily Pennsylvanian castigating the school’s shallow materialism, Marcus was editing Or: Judaism, Philosophy, Politics, and Culture, which she started as a freshman. She contacted Wieseltier while “looking for intimidating figures to have on our advisory board so people would actually file their pieces on time,” Marcus recalled. “He said yes, to my shock, and he was the most active member on the board.” She spent the summer of 2017 working as Wieseltier’s research assistant.
“Leon has always had a seductive charm, but in the last period I find him changed for the better. He is less arrogant and less caught up in power plays, kinder.”
“When the story first broke, I was pretty upset,” Marcus told me in a subsequent conversation. “I was a victim of sexual assault—so many people that I care about were—and this was something that mattered a lot to me. So I was upset, initially with him. But, also, he had been really important to me, and the portrait that I had in my head of him was very different from the portrait that emerged in those articles,” she said. “I knew from experience what he was like in an office with women—it was him, one man, and then four women, and me—and it wasn’t like that. But if there was a time that he was this other thing, I needed to know, which is why I spent several months talking to people who had worked with him before.” She asked them “about the kind of culture that he created in the office: Was it really true that women felt like he was trying to scare them and intimidate them?”
Marcus came away satisfied that it wasn’t, though she says no one she spoke to would say so on the record. “One person said to me, ‘Even if he didn’t do anything really wrong, maybe that’s the price of this moment.’ I think a lot of women were trying to figure out whether they could have complicated feelings about these things and still be loyal feminists, and that’s a difficult question.” When Wieseltier offered her a job at Liberties, Marcus accepted.
Whether the production of Idea was “suspended,” as Emerson Collective said in a statement, or the entire run was pulped, as some involved with the publication suspect, remains a mystery, but I obtained one of the few surviving copies. With its elegant layout, thick paper stock, and French flap, Idea may be the most lavishly produced intellectual journal ever printed without C.I.A. backing. The writing is accomplished but accessible, and, at least to this reader, still vital nearly three years after its intended release. An expanded version of Robert Kagan’s case for a U.S.-led world order, “The Jungle Grows Back,” was released as a short book by Knopf. Other pieces ran in The Washington Post and The New York Review of Books. Michael Gerson’s essay on Trump and the religious right became a 2018 Atlantic cover story. Also repurposed for The Atlantic, which Bradley had by then sold to Jobs, following an introduction from Wieseltier, was Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday’s design. John Edgar Wideman’s critical appraisal of Ta-Nehisi Coates, written for Idea’s second issue, may never get read.
“One person said to me, ‘Even if he didn’t do anything really wrong, maybe that’s the price of this moment.’ I think a lot of women were trying to figure out whether they could have complicated feelings about these things and still be loyal feminists, and that’s a difficult question.”
Liberties is Idea, only more so. Any of the pieces commissioned for one could have been written for the other. (David Grossman’s lament for the Israel that might have been appears in both.) It’s often said that there are perfect short stories but no perfect novels, and a version of that applies here. Liberties has its longueurs, and certain of the essays overlap in their themes and their points of view. But the ambition is undeniable, and there are more than enough standouts to justify the $18.95 cover price, such as Sean Wilentz on the American anti-slavery movement, a counterblast to The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project”; Laura Kipnis on the decline of the provocateur; Thomas Chatterton Williams on the meme-ification of James Baldwin; and James Wolcott on Jacobin, the Daily Worker of the Brooklyn left.
“This journal will not be in the business of rapid response,” Wieseltier writes on page 417, in case that wasn’t clear. A Web site exists mainly to direct people to the paper journal. (At some point, users will be invited to post their “Disputations.”) When I asked Wieseltier how he planned to reach interested readers, he cited a favorite Middle Eastern proverb: “The donkeys smell each other across seven valleys.”
Liberties is concerned above all with “the rehabilitation of liberalism,” Wieseltier writes. “The errors and the failures of the liberal order … need to be acknowledged, but they do not need to be exaggerated.” For him, liberalism is more than a political program. It is a “worldview,” an “anti-ideological ideology,” an “education in human sympathy.” It is what Henry James meant, Wieseltier believes, when he wrote about “the liberal heart”: “A large heart, a generous heart, a receptive heart, an expansive heart, an unconforming heart, a heart animated by a wide variety of human expressions.”
It’s true that Wieseltier has demonstrated a career-long commitment to humanistic principles, but this time is different. Before, the defense of such ideals was taken up on behalf of perfect strangers in distant lands. Now he has skin in the game. Though Wieseltier prefers to speak in the language of universalism, the fact is that the fate of liberalism is inextricably tied up with his own. “Nothing can be assumed anymore,” he told me. “We have to begin again.”
Ash Carter is the Features Editor for air mail