Editor, owner choose sides Politics: Michael Kelly of New Republic magazine says he's been fired for his harsh editorial opinions of Clinton-Gore.

September 06, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The New Republic -- a fiesty magazine known for its independent political commentary -- engaged in some partisan warfare of its own yesterday when the publication's owner fired the top editor for coming down too hard on the Clinton-Gore White House.

Michael Kelly, who as editor was credited with making the magazine required reading again in Washington political circles, said he was ousted by owner Martin Peretz for writing too harshly about the fund-raising scandals plaguing the Clinton administration.

"He wants an editor who will reflect his opinions," Kelly said of the blunt phone conversation he had with Peretz yesterday. "He talked in terms of the Clinton columns in general as being something he didn't approve of."

Charles Lane, who has been senior editor at the New Republic for four years, was appointed by Peretz to replace Kelly, who lasted just 10 months in the editor's job.

Some in Washington's political and journalistic communities said the firing was motivated primarily by Peretz's personal loyalty to Vice President Al Gore. And they wondered whether Peretz was sacrificing the integrity of his publication for the sake of a political connection.

But Peretz described Kelly's ouster as a logical choice for a magazine whose character and mission is defined by its political ideology. In a statement, he said "the chasms between Mike's opinions and mine, and between Mike's opinions and those of other editors were both wide and increasingly deep." Efforts to reach Peretz yesterday were unsuccessful.

Peretz's long and close friendship with Gore is no secret, dating back to his days as Gore's instructor at Harvard. Peretz was as likely to praise Gore's politics -- the magazine endorsed him for president in 1988, when Gore unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination -- as he was to describe his conversations with the Gores over dinner at their Washington home.

Some New Republic staffers defended the firing. Lane, the new editor, said if Kelly's dismissal in any way jeopardized the magazine's integrity, he never would have taken the position to lead it.

"Do you think I would take this job if I believed that I wasn't free to run a magazine that reported objectively about absolutely everyone in Washington?" he asked. "I'm hoping that everyone is going to just press on and pull together and keep putting out a great magazine."

But others at the magazine spent yesterday debating what their next move should be, and several were considering walking out. More than just missing Kelly's leadership, they were uneasy with the apparent motives behind his firing.

"Personally, I don't know how comfortable I am here now," said one staffer who asked not to be named. "He [Peretz] had a problem with Mike, saying he somehow wasn't allowing an open debate in the magazine and I think that's preposterous."

In his weekly "TRB" column, Kelly took on Clinton and Gore, calling Clinton "a shocking liar" and asking, "Is there any moral fiber left in these guys?"

Kelly, 40, a Sun reporter from 1986 to 1989, joined the magazine last November after reporting jobs at the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine.

His droll writing style took off at the New Republic, and his brief tenure there seemed to recapture some of the sparkle that had made the magazine shine in the 1980s. Kelly hired bright young talent, and developed a reputation for pointing out the naked emperors in the nation's capital. But he became one of the most despised figures at the White House for skewering the president.

"Mike Kelly comes along and really goes after the Clinton White House, a Clinton White House that is now committed to the election of Al Gore in the year 2000, and it did rub up against Marty's allegiance to Gore," said Fred Barnes, a former New Republic staffer who is now executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "There's bound to be cheering at the White House [over the firing]."

The flip side of the ouster, in Barnes' view, is that it hurts the magazine's image.

"The New Republic has had for a long time a well-deserved reputation for political independence and intellectual honesty and nonpartisanship," Barnes said. "I think this puts a crimp in that."

According to Kelly, the most recent confrontation between editor and owner came over the latest round of news reports about 1996 campaign fund raising by Gore. Peretz wanted an article defending the vice president. Kelly refused. The item didn't run.

"He wanted us to run an editorial in the voice of the magazine saying, 'This is nonsense, these allegations are not serious and shouldn't be paid attention to,' " said Kelly. "I didn't think we should do that."

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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