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Awards & Honors: 2008 National Humanities Medalist

Myron Magnet

In 1968, when Myron Magnet returned to Columbia University after two years of studying English literature at Cambridge, “they were sweeping up the debris of the student riots.” He was not, to say the least, hip to this groove, and he soon found himself out of step with academic fashion. His dissertation on the social thought of Charles Dickens, literature’s most famous friend of the lower orders, reported the discovery of a Burkean conservatism beneath Dickens’s liberal reformism. The author of The Pickwick Papers was prone to playing the unfashionable busybody, as when he dragged a young woman to a police station and demanded she be arrested for cursing in public. Magnet’s exploration of Dickens’s strong views on law and order (which he later expanded into Dickens and the Social Order), he says, “sank my academic career like a stone.”

In 1980, the literature professor joined the staff of Fortune magazine. The position afforded him many opportunities to interview prominent executives and learn about their work. Magnet then extended his journalistic efforts to matters of social policy, writing about American family, race, poverty, and, rather memorably, homelessness.

“A critical part of my education,” he says, “was going around the country and talking to homeless people and directors of homeless shelters.” The homeless, he concluded, were not hapless victims of a cruel marketplace, as often described in the media. Many indeed were victims, the mentally ill in particular, but of the policy of deinstitutionalization. Many others, Magnet found, were suffering as a result of habits and predilections that no longer bore the heavy price of social disapproval.The turning point for his career came when, at Fortune, he had an article marking the two hundredth anniversary of the Constitution spiked just prior to publication. Magnet complained to a sympathetic friend, William Hammett, then-president of the New York City think tank, the Manhattan Institute. He felt like he had so much more to say, Magnet said, not just about the Constitution, but about American society as a whole. Hammett asked if he had enough material to fill a book. Magnet thought he did. On the spot Hammett offered to pay him his magazine salary to become a fellow at the Manhattan Institute while he completed such a book. In 1993 The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass was published.

Magnet, having been on leave from Fortune, went back for a year, but found his heart wasn’t in writing corporate profiles anymore. Meanwhile, the Manhattan Institute had a struggling policy journal that had gone through five editors in four years. In late 1994, Hammett offered Magnet the job of trying to run this magazine about urban policy and New York City. The onetime Dickens scholar’s first move as editor was to hire a British writer, Theodore Dalrymple, which is the pen name for Anthony Daniels, a physician who has worked in British prisons and written narrative exposés about underclass pathology. Magnet went on to assemble a formidable team of unsentimental writers who would make very big names for themselves and the magazine.

Although City Journal would become known as a “neo-conservative” publication, it used journalism rather than social science as its preferred method of reporting and understanding social phenomena. And it sought to achieve a high rhetorical style. “We are journalists,” Magnet would say, “but we are aspiring to write literature.”

While stories ranged from out-of-wedlock births to racial profiling to urban architecture to private philanthropy, an underlying concern was how majority or elite opinion failed the American underclass by blaming others for its problems and in some cases sanctioning its most self-destructive behaviors. Another great theme of the journal has been reviving and preserving New York as the Opportunity City. When reached for this interview, Magnet was writing an essay about the great New Yorker (and economic optimist) Alexander Hamilton.

A glossy, perfect-bound book with a fondness for old-fashioned black-and-white photography and illustration, the journal became famously associated with the policy triumphs of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration. After Giuliani was reelected, City Journal published a package of articles suggesting a new set of goals for his second term. At a press conference on his new agenda, Giuliani held up the issue and said, “This is my agenda for a second term.”

Magnet inspired another prominent politician when Karl Rove recommended The Dream and the Nightmare to Texas Governor George W. Bush. Magnet remembers visiting Texas to meet with the governor’s cabinet, who were all sitting in a conference room with a copy of his book in front of them when he came inside and took a seat. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence he realized these high officers of the Lone Star State were waiting for him to begin. Totally unprepared, he launched into a ninety-minute private seminar on the lessons of his book. Magnet’s work, along with that of Marvin Olasky, came to be credited with the ideas behind compassionate conservatism, the philosophy that animated the social policy agenda of President George W. Bush. In 2006, Magnet became editor-at-large of City Journal, for which, along with other national publications, he still writes regularly.

By David Skinner