Peter Beinart is one of those journalists, common in Washington, who is less interesting for what he says than for who he is, or who he wants to be thought to be. He’s an exemplar, and when, this May, he published an essay in the New York Review of Books announcing that “morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral,” he deserved the considerable notice that the article brought him. As a piece of reasoned argument, or even as an anguished moral plea, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” was a mess: a goulash of overstatement, baseless accusation, statistical sleight-of-hand, strategic omission, and wince-making self-regard. As a piece of attention-getting, however, it was a masterstroke, and it’s on those terms, rather than its own, that the article and Beinart are best understood.
Beinart is well known among Washington journalists as a quick-witted polemicist and a gifted stylist. He’s also regarded as one of the most energetic careerists anyone has ever seen. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Banish careerists from the ranks of Washington journalism and the only people left would be a handful of newsroom librarians and a couple of copy editors from Human Events. What makes Beinart’s campaign of self-promotion conspicuous—week after week, year after year-—is its utter lack of inhibition. There’s a kind of insouciance to it.
As far as I know, it first came to general notice in a brief biographical sketch that Beinart circulated early in his career. Having climbed over the bloody, dismembered carcasses of his co-workers and mentors, Beinart was named editor of the New Republic in 1999, at the dewy age of 28. His self-written bio made unsurprising mention of an undergraduate degree (Yale), a Rhodes Scholarship (Oxford), and a master’s degree in international relations (ditto). And then, deathlessly, there was this: “Beinart won a Marshall Scholarship (declined).”
That “(declined)” became a much-loved inside joke among Beinart watchers, a large and contented group who have known ever since that their man always repays scrutiny.
Back then, Beinart wanted to be thought of as a neoliberal, a “liberal hawk.” A neoliberal—you youngsters might want to listen up now—was someone who, although allied with the center-left, nonetheless thought of himself as tough-minded and wised-up, intent on beating down the pacifist illusions of his panty-waisted fellow Democrats. Irving Kristol, who had famously defined a neoconservative as a liberal who had been mugged by reality, said (not quite so famously) that a neoliberal was a liberal who had been mugged by reality but refused to press charges. To Beinart and his fellow neolibs, these were, appropriately enough, fighting words. They stormed the nation’s cable shows and editorial pages, launching precision-guided op-eds and multiple-warhead blog posts to demonstrate their eagerness to use American military might to advance the nation’s interests.
Note the subtle but important distinction. The liberal hawks weren’t making fresh arguments in favor of military force; they were establishing themselves as the kind of Democrat—sensitive as any liberal, yet fearless as any hawk—who was in favor of military force. Neoliberals loved it when admiring reporters called their views “muscular.” Beinart went so far as to sign a public letter got out by the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Though he never personally donned a loincloth, he did title his own neoliberal manifesto “A Fighting Faith” and published a book called The Good Fight. We all got the message.
While adding little to public debate, the mere existence of the liberal hawks was deemed significant, and not just by the liberal hawks. Neoliberals said their fighting faith represented a decisive turn from their party’s McGovernite past: pacifism had been expelled from the liberal mainstream at last. The final, fatal proof of neoliberal bellicosity was their endorsement of President Bush’s decision to decapitate Iraq. From the set of Hardball to the studios of C-Span, the word went forth: these liberals, by God, were going to press charges.
And then the war came. The liberal hawks discovered that fighting a war in the desert was so much…messier than advocating one in the New Republic. People getting shot, humvees blown up-—this wasn’t what they’d signed up for! With head-spinning speed and a few exceptions, like Senator Joseph Lieberman, the liberal hawks became liberal doves. They covered up their chagrin by complaining, as Beinart did, that they had been victims of the Bush administration’s “duplicity.”
Now that it’s over, it’s unclear what the neoliberal moment actually accomplished, other than exposing the fecklessness of liberal hawks (as conservatives tell it) or their gullibility and childlike naiveté (the neoliberal version). Their chief legacy may be the otherwise unthinkable presidential nomination in 2004 of John Kerry, a dour, unappealing candidate whose main qualification seemed to be his heroism in combat 40 years earlier. There was also a telltale neoliberal excess to the convention that nominated him, in a hall festooned with so much military paraphernalia and overrun by so many saluting veterans that you might have thought you were watching a Latin American coup.
Influencing practical outcomes, though, is not the point of a career like Beinart’s. The career is an end in itself, which is why last year’s ideological fashion can be so easily shrugged off for next year’s model. Many American friends of Israel and students of Washington politics found his recent article unnerving, but not for the reasons Beinart might have hoped. Like the neoliberal he once was, he makes no new arguments and presents no new facts. If he wants to position himself as scourge to Israel’s government and scold to America’s Zionists, it is because those views are now squarely in the mainstream of liberal opinion. That alone is unnerving, and the sum of what his essay revealed. This is not a man to take chances.
On the other hand, it’s tempting to take a Washington “public intellectual” like Beinart too seriously, even as a weather vane. I should add, too, that my assessment of him is based solely on his public career. I’ve never met him nor spoken to him, as far as I recall, but—if you’ll forgive a closing personal note—I do cherish a single, vivid memory of him.
I was living the life of Riley as a writer at Bloomberg News at the time. I returned from lunch to find a voicemail message from Beinart, then the editor of the New Republic. The message commenced with 90 seconds of flattery, densely packed, followed by an insistence that I had to write for his magazine, simply had to. Did I have any ideas? Of course, I had ideas…someone of my stature. He had ideas of his own, though they could only pale next to mine. Perhaps lunch would be in order? He had never dared allow himself to dream that such a transcendent experience would be available to him, but if I might find time…
It had never occurred to me that there could be such a thing as too much flattery, no matter how insincere. I discovered then that my upper limit is about 45 seconds. We were well into overtime when I figured out what was coming next.
Each year Bloomberg News followed the annual White House Correspondents Dinner with a sumptuous “afterparty,” held in a Beaux Arts mansion ringed by rope lines to hold back the hordes who couldn’t get in. Invitations were restricted to Hollywood celebrities, powerful newsfolk, top-of-the-chop politicians, and, grudgingly, employees of Bloomberg News.
My faithful fan made noises as if to ring off. And then came the sudden turn, in a voice that had the texture of Vaseline: “Oh, one other thing. You know it’s so odd, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to the Bloomberg Party! You don’t suppose…”
My colleagues enjoyed the message as much as I did, and the Beinart legend grew. Even more satisfying was the thought of the word that best described his request: declined.