What Leon Wieseltier's Fall Reveals About Washington

News & Politics

Does anyone in Washington still remember Leon Wieseltier now that indictments and a guilty plea involving the political misdeeds of associates of the sexual harasser-in-chief have sidelined the national paroxysm over sexual harassment itself? Even so, we should ponder Wieseltier’s case all the more intently now for what its blend of stylistic, political, and sexual power tells us about Washington’s decades-long indifference not only to sexual harassment but to the curiously mixed cocktail of rhetoric and rage that Wieseltier and many others carried into to their offices. If Washington has its way, he’ll be a literary and political eminence again before long. All the more reason to use his moment of disgrace to learn not mainly about him but about Washington’s culture of literary, political, and sexual predation and evasion.

“When I arrived in Washington in 2005,” writes Vox’s Ezra Klein, “Wieseltier was the philosopher-king editing the New Republic’s arts and culture section, but his influence extended deep into the rest of the magazine, and into liberal journalism broadly. As [ABC’s Mark] Halperin defined the conventional wisdom of the political elite, Wieseltier defined it for the liberal intelligentsia — he was, wrote Vanity Fair, Washington’s “aesthetic and moral arbiter.”

Yes, and nothing could match the preening, Cold War’ish orotundities of Wieseltier, a cankered horror show of unction and alliterative pomposity with the ethics of a faculty-lounge lizard who held Washington journalists of upper-middling intelligence in thrall, as I noted in Salon in 2014 when he led New Republic staffers in a heroic march out of the place to protest the publisher’s firing of the editor. I was thinking then only of Wieseltier’s stylistic and political perversities, which had damaged even more people, if indirectly, than his shameless shaming of young women and his soul-sucking sycophancy toward famous and wealthy older ones.

On the sexual front, he certainly made himself necessary to the Washington-based New York Times writer Maureen Dowd, who has cited “my friend Leon Wieseltier” occasionally in her columns and twice in her book, Are Men Necessary?):

The free-love idea that sex could be casual and safe and unfraught was, in retrospect, chuckleheaded. As my friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor for the New Republic, observes: ''Sex is a spiritual obligation. It makes up for the poverty of bourgeois experience. We're too late for the Spanish Civil War. We missed the landing at Omaha Beach. But we still need to know what we're capable of. So it is in the realm of private life that we have to risk ourselves, to disclose ourselves, to vindicate ourselves; and the more private, the more illuminating. Our theatre of self-discovery is smaller. And in this lucky but shrunken theater, the bedroom looms very large. It is the frontline, the foxhole."

''The bedroom is where people who live otherwise safe lives can learn how cowardly or courageous they are, what their deepest and most dangerous desires are, whether they can follow the unreason within them to what it, too, can teach. Tolstoy said that modern tragedy should be set in the bedroom.''

But Wieseltier set some of his modern tragedy and tests of courage in the offices of The New Republic quite openly for decades, at no cost to his prestige and his power over others’ journalism careers and book-publishing prospects. (Wieseltier has never wronged me personally; I wrote for The New Republic fairly frequently in the 1990s but only once under his aegis, and I was on the premises only a few times.) Washington’s inside-the-Beltway worldview is now so roundly disgraced that its stink tanks, such as the Brookings Institution, and its Very Serious Glossies, such as The Atlantic, are shunning him for offenses they didn’t take seriously before now.

Even Wieseltier’s prospective new journal, Ideas, his bid to restore his Bourbon-like preeminence as Washington’s high-cultural and political arbiter, has been de-funded on the eve of its launch, thanks to what he surely if secretly regards as a witch hunt by shrieking harridans. What no one has said is that he deserves this torture of the damned for many reasons besides sexual predation, the only offense that Washington now punishes openly by shunning, when not by law. 

There have been other, equally serious offenses. In September, 2001, as Ground Zero lay smoking, Wieseltier and 42 other neoconservative and Vulcan eminences signed a letter to President Bush, dated September 20, on the letterhead of neoconservative Field Marshall William Kristol’s Project for the New American Century. “Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq,” they instructed the President. “Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”

It wasn’t by fluke that Wieseltier signed. He was as comfortable with Kristol’s crowd as he was in the seat of literary and sexual judgment. It was largely thanks to him and New Republic owner Martin Peretz that conservative Republicans could say, “Even the ‘liberal’ New Republic says we’re right” in perpetrating the Reagan Administration’s scandalous interventions in Central America or in the Iraq War.

In 2007 Wieseltier wrote a letter urging clemency for his friend I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, who’d been convicted on charges of lying, perjury, and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame affair. In his letter, Wieseltier departed from praising Libby to assure the judge that “I am in no sense a neoconservative, as many of my neoconservative adversaries will attest. I am, to the contrary, the kind of liberal who many neoconservatives like to despise, and that’s fine with me.”

It would have been fine with the court, too, surely, had Wieseltier forgone such stylized bleating on his own behalf. But he had tracks to cover after serving with Cheney, Carl Rove, and others—before 9/11, and before Cheney was vice president—on the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a now-defunct cousin of Kristol’s PNAC and the American Enterprise Institute.

That kind of offense, unmentioned and unpunished inside the Beltway, reminds me that one morning in the summer of 2012, standing outside the Union League Club on Park Avenue in Manhattan, I watched 40 or 50 otherwise fit men who lacked only legs or arms wheeling or peddling themselves around on a tour of New York City arranged for them by the Veterans Administration and philanthropists. They were Iraq War veterans, casualties in no small measure of the Project for the New American Century and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.

Wieseltier, trumpeting the imperatives of American interventions in Iraq, Central America, Ukraine, and the virtues nuclear deterrence, was hardly a liberal whom neoconservatives despised. He was their critic only in the disingenuous way he criticized the neo-connish writer Martin Amis, a self-styled bad boy of British letters, whose book about 9/11, The Second Plane, he disparaged in a review whose serpentine coils of hypocrisy I untangled in 2008. Wieseltier wanted only for bad boys like Amis or David Frum to stop embarrassing him by promoting so brazenly the murderous follies that he preferred to propose more seamlessly and secretly.

True, war-mongering is a First Amendment-protected freedom whose exercise we must live with even when it's wrong, while sexual harassment like Wieseltier’s is either unlawful or now, at least, widely considered reprehensible. But shunning a chronic war-monger doesn't require prosecuting him. Harsh reckonings with Wieseltier's destructive political as well as social conduct can be rendered effectively without bureaucratic red lines that the hobble living, breathing understandings that sustain freedom. It’s a delicate balance: constitutional rights do protect freedoms where a stampeding society would smother them, but if statutes become the only protectors of decency, there is no freedom at all.

Instead of confessing their political blunders freely and decently, however, most who signed that 9/11 letter to Bush not only worked hard to disgrace the war’s critics and cheer on its folly, but doubled down as the fiasco unfolded. And now, more nervous and desperate as the damage they did metastasizes, they're seeking new enemies abroad, new scapegoats at home, and new conquests on the front lines and in the foxholes of their bedrooms and offices.

The Beltway excuses all this. It avoids awkward condemnations because, as the saying about this sad reality in Washington puts it, “It is what it is.” But that empty, sophistical apercu, like the house of cards that it excuses, can no longer finesse the frightening truth that “what it is” is a regime of economic, political, and sexual predation, driven by casino-like financing, larcenous lending, and the relentless, ever-more intrusive and intimate entrapment of consumers with degrading entertainments and addictions.

Now that that regime has tightened its grip on democracy, installed a financier of casinos and predatory self-marketer in the White House, and bankrupted Congress, it is a republic in name only, illegitimate, unsustainable. Only its last, naive apologists can crave the fairy dust of moral and intellectual regard that Leon Wieseltier once sprinkled upon some of them. For the rest, grand or hysterical moral outrage is the only -- and illusory -- escape from facing their own complicity in his kind of political if not sexual corruption. His public shaming brings not deliverance but denial and a dodge.

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