William Bennett’s latest fundraising project is an organization he calls “Americans for Victory Over Terrorism,” a special project of his previous experiment in do-nothing think-tankery, Empower America. Collecting a veritable rogue’s gallery of lobbyists and special-interest reps, the former Czar of Drugs, Education, and Culture says that he is modeling AVOT explicitly on such neoconservative Cold War groups as the Committee for a Free World. Bennett promises the usual full schedule of paid advertisements in the New York Times, teach-ins, press conferences, etc.—anything to bring back the happy days of the Cold War, when you could eliminate a rival simply by calling him “unpatriotic” or “comsymp.”
Bennett’s first list of threats to America’s internal security is interesting: one goofball ex-president, Jimmy Carter; one goofball congressman, Maxine Waters; and Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s. Why Lapham? While Carter and Waters have been content, for the most part, to criticize the Bush administration’s saber-rattling, Mr. Lapham has committed lèse-majesté in mocking John Ashcroft as a “mullah” and ridiculing even the Czar himself.
The idea that Lewis Lapham is either a leftist or a peacenik, much less a threat to anyone’s security, is something only Bill Bennett could dream up. Mr. Lapham is a professional curmudgeon, something of a cross between Henry Adams and H.L. Mencken, without the gravity of the one or the brilliance of the other. At his best, he is a fine essayist with a graceful prose style that reminds us of a time when Americans read books and talked about serious things, a country that had room for George Santayana, Paul Elmer More, and Albert Jay Nock. He does not like the vulgarity and greed of America’s business and political leaders—and says so—and he has even challenged the pretensions of the New York intellectuals who claim to represent the best and brightest of Western civilization.
There was a time, back in the late 70’s, when the New York establishment regarded Mr. Lapham, who edited Harper’s for the first time between 1976 and 1981, as a serious problem. In issue after issue, Harper’s published devastating cultural criticisms by Tom Wolfe, by Lapham himself, and by Brian Griffin, whose “Panic Among the Philistines” sent shockwaves through the corridors of Knopf and Random House. Lapham even wrote for the other great magazine of the period, Andrei Navrozov’s Yale Literary Magazine, which the establishment, with the help of Yale’s President Bart Giammatti, put out of business. If Lapham were a leftist, it is odd that he was willing not only to publish such conservatives as Chilton Williamson, Jr., and Tom Bethell but even to hire (in addition to Bethell) Navrozov, Martin Wooster, and Katherine Dalton.
To get rid of the dangerous Lapham, the establishment had to rig the sale of Harper’s with one string attached: Lapham had to go. His replacement was the lackey of the regime par excellence, Michael Kinsley. When Lapham returned, some of the fire had gone out, and the magazine has steadily become more conventional. Nonetheless, Lewis Lapham does, in fact, continue to represent a threat to American security—the security of hypocrisy and straight-party thinking exemplified by William Bennett. One single essay of Lewis Lapham is worth more than all the ghostwritten “books” and articles that have been circulated under William Bennett’s name.
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