TWO AND A HALF years ago, when the New York publisher Steve Wasserman left his job as editorial director of Times Books and went west to give the Los Angeles Times’ book-review section a transfusion of highbrow culture, he expected to be called a few names. "Pointy-headed," "Eastern elitist," and not for the first time in his life, "arrogant." But "radical leftist" was one label Wasserman hadn’t anticipated.
Wasserman, an erudite forty-seven-year-old who speaks in theatrically perfect sentences, says that he is the victim of a campaign waged by David Horowitz, a right-wing cultural critic. "It’s very tedious to deal with what should rightfully be called by its proper name: Red-baiting," Wasserman said recently. Horowitz, a field marshal in the culture wars, is himself a former left-wing radical. He led protests against the Vietnam War, consorted with the Black Panthers, and once edited the bible of radical chic, Ramparts. During the nineteen-seventies and eighties, though, Horowitz underwent a political conversion, and he now runs a conservative think-tank called the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, in L.A. Horowitz seems to have singled out Wasserman as an enemy, accusing him, as he put it in a recent column in the on-line journal Salon, of "relentlessly censoring" conservative views.
Horowitz’s attacks began almost as soon as Wasserman took over the book-review section. In an article about the L.A. Times in the now defunct Buzz, for instance, Horowitz was the unnamed source for a report that Wasserman learned how to make bombs from Tom Hayden. (In a letter to the editor, Horowitz said that the story was secondhand and that he had told the reporter to check it with Wasserman, who denies it.) The tension escalated in 1998, when Wasserman published a lengthy introduction to a reissue of Marx’s Communist Manifesto by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm Infuriated, Horowitz widened his target, and began to write vitriolic columns in Salon accusing the L.A. Times of harboring leftists, including not only Wasserman but Robert Scheer, a contributing editor of the paper, and Janet Clayton, the editorial-page editor. As proof, Horowitz noted that Clayton’s living room, which he had observed during a Christmas party, was "telling adorned with an iconic portrait of Jesse Jackson." (Clayton says that a landscape, not a picture of the Reverend Jackson, hangs on her living room wall; she does, however, have a photograph of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in her library.)
Wasserman is dismissive. "David Horowitz never lets the facts stand in the way of a good rant," he said. "The old categories of left and right have been exploded by events in the closing years of this century, and have very little meaning today. But his eyes are on the rear-view mirror." Still, Carlin Romano, the literary critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the former president of the National Book Critics Circle, when he was asked what he made of Horowitz’s charges, examined a hundred and ninety-four issues of Wasserman’s book review and reluctantly came to the conclusion that Horowitz might not be all wrong; Wasserman’s regular reviewers, Romano said, "are almost universally writers identified with the left." But, he suggested, this bias only provides balance to the New York Times Book Review, which, he says, "favors neoconservatives."
© 1999 Condé Nast