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Hot Prospect
The 11-year-old liberal magazine seeks to raise its profile by shifting its base from Boston to DC and bringing in a talented new editor

BY DAN KENNEDY


BOB WOODWARD’S 1994 book on the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, The Agenda, includes two telling anecdotes about the American Prospect, the Boston-based liberal magazine.

In 1991, Woodward reported, pollster Stanley Greenberg handed Clinton a draft of an article he’d written for the Prospect on how the Democrats could win back the middle class. Later, when Greenberg asked Clinton what he’d thought of it, the future president replied, “I’ve read it three times.”

Then, in late 1992, as Clinton was getting ready to announce the appointment of Prospect co-founder Robert Reich as secretary of labor and Laura Tyson as chief economic adviser, he was reminded that the two had written opposing essays in the Prospect on whether a corporation’s nationality was important — a matter so arcane that Woodward didn’t even bother to report who held which position.

“Clinton looked as if a light had switched on in his head,” Woodward wrote. “ ‘I didn’t know you wrote that,’ he said to Tyson. ‘I forgot that. You know what? You were right, and Bob was wrong.’

“How many people in the country, Tyson wondered, read the American Prospect?”

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the Prospect’s 11-year-old life. Deep enough to have seriously influenced a president. Wonky enough to keep readers at arm’s length.

Now, with Republicans ascendant in Washington and Democrats running low on both leadership and ideas, the Prospect is getting ready to take some major steps toward boosting its visibility and popular appeal.

Next month, a major talent — Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the alternative LA Weekly and a frequent Prospect contributor — will take over as the Prospect’s executive editor and head up the magazine’s growing Washington office, signaling a clear shift in the center of gravity from the Cambridge/Boston axis to the nation’s capital. Meyerson will join the recently recruited Washington editor, veteran investigative reporter Robert Dreyfuss, in heading up a 21-person staff in DC.

By contrast, just 12 people will remain in Boston, although their numbers will include some pretty important people: co-editor Robert Kuttner, who remains at the top of the masthead; publisher Robin Hutson, who joined the staff after having served in a similar position at Lingua Franca; executive editor–turned–culture editor Scott Stossel, who says he’ll now have time to finish writing his biography of Sargent Shriver; and books editor Dave Denison.

The changes will be accompanied by some subtle refinements aimed at making the biweekly more reader-friendly.

“If you want to be a good political magazine with a really high profile, you’ve got to have a real Washington presence,” says Kuttner, a syndicated political columnist who co-founded the Prospect with Reich (who today holds the title of national editor) and Princeton University sociology professor Paul Starr (who remains as co-editor, although his involvement in the magazine has decreased since the early years).

As for what the changes will mean, Kuttner says he expects Meyerson will bring “more edge” to a magazine that he concedes has been “a little bit too polite, a little bit too academic.”

Kuttner says he’s looking forward to changing his own role, too, explaining, “I get to be a real editor-in-chief and less of a guy who reads the proofs and figures out at 11 o’clock at night how to cut six lines to make it fit.”

WHEN DEMOCRATIC delegates arrived in Los Angeles for their national convention last summer, they were hit right between the eyes by Harold Meyerson, whose essays in special daily editions of LA Weekly smartly analyzed what was wrong with the party, and portended what would go wrong in November. (You can check out Meyerson’s work at www.laweekly.com; search for “Meyerson.”)

In one piece, Meyerson criticized Al Gore’s snooze-inducing “program of debt reduction über alles,” and wrote: “Democrats don’t win when it’s nap time in America. The candidate of choice for a sleepy-time nation is W., himself a proud and accomplished napper. The notion that the Democrats, and their stately, deliberate, centrist ticket, have it within themselves to rouse a nation is — well, improbable, though not impossible.”

Meyerson, who’s been at LA Weekly for 12 years, is a veteran California political activist who was inspired by the late socialist thinker Michael Harrington. He’s known Kuttner for the better part of two decades, and Kuttner considers him one of the best liberal journalists in the country not to have a national audience. Adds a friend of Meyerson’s, Washington Post columnist and Brookings Institution senior fellow E.J. Dionne: “Harold is a very good weekly editor. To bring in someone with Harold’s background is a great idea.”

It’s not that Meyerson is an unknown — just last Friday, for instance, the New York Times published an op-ed piece he had written on the Los Angeles mayoral election. But by having him set up shop in Washington and serve as the public face of the Prospect, Kuttner and company hope to establish him as a national figure and television talking head who will, in turn, lead the magazine to greater prominence.

Meyerson is already engaged — during an interview, he pauses to take a call from Kuttner on his cell phone — and both he and Kuttner use the term “self-decapitated” to describe the Democrats, abandoned at the top by Clinton and Gore. His own take on how he intends to change the Prospect is that he’ll bring “more of a journalistic bent.” Translation: expect to see more reported pieces with policy implications and fewer pure policy essays. That would be a welcome change at a magazine where “narrative” isn’t so much a dirty word as it is not even part of the vocabulary.

As for where the Prospect fits ideologically, that’s the easy part: right between the liberal/radical Nation and the eclectic, moderately liberal New Republic. “There’s clearly a niche to be filled and a need to be met, and I think we’re more in a position to do that,” says Meyerson. “We’re clearly a liberal publication, but we’re not a publication with a line,” he adds, saying he wants the Prospect to have “an element of unpredictability.”

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Issue Date: June 14-21, 2001