Sam Tanenhaus: Both Conservatives and Liberals Are Wary of Him

Historians in the News

Rachel Donadio, in the NY Observer (March 17, 2004):

"I’m very moderate by nature," Sam Tanenhaus said by telephone from his home in Westchester, two days after The New York Times announced that he would be the next editor of its Book Review. "People with extreme views interest me, dramatically and narratively."

The author of a very well-received 1997 biography of the journalist and eventual anti-communist Whittaker Chambers, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr. Tanenhaus has spent the past five years as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, largely chronicling conservatives and neoconservatives in the orbit of the Bush administration. And so liberals seem to think—or, perhaps, to fear—that the man taking over one of the country’s premier literary institutions is a conservative, while conservatives find him, as he said, more middle-of-the-road.

Affable, energetic but easygoing, well-respected by a broad swath of the intellectual community, possessing a healthy understanding of the ideological debates of the day but with no apparent dog in the race, Mr. Tanenhaus appears to fit The Times’ bill perfectly as a successor to Charles (Chip) McGrath, who has been itching to return to writing after nearly a decade in one of New York’s most prestigious—and thankless—jobs. Mr. Tanenhaus also happens to come equipped with an M.A. in English literature from Yale and a background in book publishing.

Still, for all Mr. Tanenhaus’ well-roundedness, some see his appointment as another sign that The Times is devoting more attention to conservative developments. The paper recently assigned David Kirkpatrick to cover conservatives as a beat, and hired David Brooks as an Op-Ed columnist. Indeed, Mr. Tanenhaus himself said that The Times under executive editor Bill Keller had "remarkably and boldly" addressed "the conservative ascendancy" in America, and that he wanted his Book Review to address such developments as well. "It doesn’t mean they’re going to win all the time and are right, but if you look into the last half century of politics, the conservative presence was always stronger than intellectuals knew," Mr. Tanenhaus said.

For his part, Mr. Keller said, "Sam’s politics, if he has any, had nothing to do with his selection. We hired him for his intelligence, his voracious curiosity, his passion for good books, his creative energy."

Privately, some conservatives said they were taken aback when Mr. Tanenhaus went to work as an editor at The Times’ generally liberal Op-Ed page in 1997, after spending much of the early 90’s publishing Chambers-related work in conservative cultural journals, including The New Criterion, Commentary and National Review, as well as in non-conservative publications.

But Mr. Tanenhaus said that he never intended to align himself with the conservative cause. "Many [conservatives] were surprised that I didn’t plan to reside permanently in that world," he said. Rather, he described his role as "an outsider who’s invited to participate or to observe." Instead of a member of the family, Mr. Tanenhaus turned out to be a very skillful journalist. "I’m a political skeptic," he said. "The people I’ve written about tend to be not political figures, but politically engaged intellectuals—people who live the life of ideas and also become political actors of a kind."


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