It takes audacity to launch any new magazine, but it took a special sort of spirit to launch a magazine like the Wilson Quarterly in 1976. Beneath the glow of that year’s bicentennial celebrations, the nation bore a sickly pallor, and it was not merely coincidental that for the serious general-interest magazine it was a time of unusual peril. Many of the great names in the field—Harper’s, the New Yorker—were bound for hard times, and at least one, Saturday Review, would not survive.
The plight of these magazines wasn’t only a result of changing business conditions; it was a symptom of a certain kind of cultural exhaustion. After Vietnam, Watergate, and the other traumas of the era, there was a feeling in the air that perhaps we Americans could no longer speak to one another about important public questions in civil and dispassionate terms. There was a feeling, too, that in an age marked by the headlong specialization of knowledge, a larger view of the intellectual landscape was increasingly beyond the grasp of even many educated people. The old ideal of an informed citizenry—a bedrock democratic principle—was much in doubt.
Twenty-five years later, one is struck by the confidence of founding editor Peter Braestrup (1929–97) and James Billington, then director of the Wilson Center, in the importance and vitality of the principles that to others seemed so uncertain. Their goal was to create a magazine that would reach into every precinct of the world of ideas, striving to make the most important work of scholars and thinkers intelligible to others. In a time that questioned whether real debate—indeed, truth itself—was possible, the magazine was to be nonpartisan and disinterested. Most of all, against the growing pessimism that the ideal of an enlightened public could any longer exist, the WQ was to serve a general audience.
Many of the doubts of that time are still with us, and the world (as well as the WQ) 4 Wilson Quarterly has changed in many ways since then, yet this fundamental confidence remains a hallmark of the magazine. The WQ’s 25th anniversary is in that sense a testament to the continuing vitality of those original principles.
One reason for the WQ’s steady course is the unusual dedication and continuity of its editorial staff. Braestrup’s immediate successor, Jay Tolson (editor from 1989 to 1999), and I both worked under the founding editor, as did managing editor James Carman and senior editor Robert Landers. All of the magazine’s editors over the years have shared the founding ethos, keeping the magazine true to its core commitments.
“Think of the Reader!” Braestrup often growled at his young editors. The injunction applied to the largest intellectual questions and the most excruciatingly minute details. It made us cringe to insert information we thought an educated audience ought already to know—that NATO is the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that T. S. Eliot was a poet—but we came to understand that such details went to the heart of the magazine’s mission. The WQ was to help readers know what they ought to know (“What do I need to know?” was another Braestrupian refrain). The last thing its editors could allow in the magazine’s pages was a tone suggesting that the world of ideas was closed to those who did not possess a certain kind of intellectual pedigree. The WQ was to be inclusive, democratic, public spirited. While other intellectual periodicals served an academic discipline or an ideological cause, the WQ was to serve the Reader—which meant, in essence, the American public.
The son of an émigré Danish scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, Braestrup had a profound appreciation of the openness and freedom of American society, as well as an acute awareness of the delicate mechanisms that keep it going. A product of the U.S. Marine Corps (he was wounded in the Korean War) and a veteran of the New York Times and other top news organizations, he was a fellow at the Wilson Center when Billington, then the Center’s director, invited him to start a magazine that would find a broad public. They were a complementary pair, the gruff, rumpled former newsman and the scholar (now Librarian of Congress) whose own historical studies had demonstrated that the very best scholarship could also be supremely inviting to the general reader.
The WQ debuted in the fall of 1976, 160 pages pressed between plain, ivory-colored covers with modest red-and-black lettering. It was an immediate success. (And there were many who had helped make it so, notably, our friends at Smithsonian.) “Our aim is to provide an authoritative overview of current ideas and research on matters of public policy and general intellectual interest,” Braestrup wrote in his Editor’s Comment. He continued:
As a group, of course, scholars have no monopoly on wisdom or even rational analysis. But the better scholars have something special to say to all of us. They refresh our thinking, surprise us with new data, occasionally remind us of old truths and new paradoxes lost in the daily hubbub of the press and television. Their more powerful ideas eventually help shape our perceptions, our politics, and our lives.
That first issue boasted the bylines of some of the leading thinkers and writers of the day—from Dennis L. Meadows and Walt W. Rostow to Robert Nisbet and Merrill D. Peterson—on subjects ranging from “the limits to growth” to the American Revolution. The “cluster” of articles on a single subject quickly became a signature feature of the magazine. There also appeared in the first issue the patented (and much imitated) feature we now call the Periodical Observer, with its roundup of significant articles from learned journals and other specialized publications.
The magazine’s second editor, Jay Tolson, raised the WQ to a new level of intellectual excellence. Long before they became the stuff of newsmagazine cover stories, public issues such as fatherhood, the New Urbanism, and civility were the subjects of thoughtful WQ essays. Tolson, who is also the biographer of Walker Percy, led the magazine in new directions, creating a feature devoted to the rediscovery of poetry and publishing essays on subjects as various as Confucius, Central Asia, and the decline of America’s passenger railroads. He recruited leading scholars to examine some of the deeper forces shaping world events, from Islam and Hinduism to nationalism. In 1998, Harvard University’s E. O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, chose the WQ as the place to preview his ideas about the “consilience” of all fields of human inquiry.
Upon taking the editor’s chair in 1989, Tolson saluted his predecessor as “an editor of vision and a committed citizen.” Those words apply with equal justice to Tolson himself. He remains a valued friend and contributor.
In this issue, we return to one of the WQ’s founding concerns, with seven essays on “The Making of the Public Mind.” Our contributors find much to criticize in the way Americans consider public questions— but much more, I think, to justify the profound sense of hope and confidence that inspired the magazine’s founding a quarter-century ago.
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