During August Time and Newsweek both have published four comprehensive cover packages in a row on the Persian Gulf crisis, which must constitute something of a record for sustained interest -- and for cover messages pushed to a tabloid boil, as well: Newsweek's cover this week (Sept. 3) blasts Saddam Hussein's hostage video as a "Horror Show," while Time's cover, with its ghastly image of a soldier in chemical-warfare headgear, asks, "Are We Ready for This?"
The question now becomes: Which of the magazines will be the first to blink, and deem another cover subject more important?
U.S. News & World Report joined its competitors with cover stories the first two weeks, but then mysteriously published an end-of-summer double issue on World War II. To make up for that stunning irrelevance, U.S. News can lay claim to some remarkable prescience. Back on June 4, the magazine published a long cover story on the wile and menace of Saddam Hussein, "The Most Dangerous Man in the World."
Such editorial decisions are not flukes, but evidence of thinking ahead of the curve. The miserable corollary to this good judgment is that in June, most people were tempted to dismiss or ignore a story about an Iraqi tyrant as some dreary faraway unpleasantness. Time and Newsweek, with their June 4 pre-summit cover stories on the supposedly teetering political strength of Mikhail Gorbachev, seemed much more au courant.
Spy, of all publications, was a seer as well. In the narrow border of marginalia at the front of the September issue are excerpts from a chummy conversation last April among Saddam Hussein and the visiting Bob Dole and Alan Simpson. These two usually above-average-in-brains senators demonstrate how far people will go in the presence of an ogre to be pleasant as you please. In this case the three statesmen find something they can all agree on -- contempt for the press.
The Atlantic made a canny decision back in June to publish a September cover story on "The Roots of Muslim Rage." In this concise explainer, Bernard Lewis, the esteemed scholar of Islam, probes the Arab world's bitter hostility to the West. It all comes down to envy. Describing Western capitalism and democracy as "an authentic and attractive alternative" to life in the Muslim world, Lewis observes, "Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in western civilization the greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to retain or restore for their people."
Lewis could only have surmised what came to pass so soon, but his warning is apposite: "This is no less than a clash of civilizations -- the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival."
License to Steal
The United States confronts at home a threat even less comprehensible and even less tractable: a savings and loan industry looted by its licensed guardians. In the September Harper's, L.J. Davis describes in his caustic but wholly defensible fashion how the debacle came to pass, step by unbelievable step.
For the thieves, it was easy -- and it was legal. In the 1980s, "to deftly rob a thrift suddenly required only a fountain pen, a circle of close personal friends in the real-estate and financial businesses, and the perfect freedom provided by the absence of regulation." Such thefts, Davis writes, "became as depressingly commonplace as those other hallmarks of the Reagan years, homelessness and debt."
Davis and Harper's won a National Magazine Award for his May 1987 story predicting fairly accurately how and why the stock market would crash, as it shortly did.
Loudly We Hail
Conde Nast has just delivered on its promised repositioning of Details as a magazine for men. It bears little resemblance to the somber, studiedly weird magazine whose name it inherits. Graininess and shadow have given way to loud primary colors and BIG headlines, and the world view and editorial sensibility no longer seem to emanate from a basement nightclub.
Stephen Saban, whose beat that venue once was, reports from a rather different environment -- among the hearty loggers of Washington state. Doug Vaughan examines the delectably wretched excess Manuel Noriega left behind, now housed in a U.S. Army archive. And Jennet Conant tells the sad (not really) story of what's befallen all those little punks who made their first millions on Wall Street during the '80s.
Details hasn't lost an attitude, it's cut a new one out of whole cloth. The cover lines shout, "Say it loud! Music! Comics! Sex!" and the logo includes the commercial mantra "style matters." Details has not forsaken fashion ads and (as night follows day) fashion features -- including a couple of subliminally gulf-prescient displays of bomber jackets and "Hard corps: Casual clothes with military intelligence."
The story is being repeated throughout the nonprofit world, so it's no wonder it is hitting literary institutions -- including, but not restricted to, PEN American Center, the powerful New York branch of the international writers organization.
"Cutbacks in federal funds, increased operating costs, and bureaucratic expansionism have caused officials at such institutions to turn to the nouveau riche, who have been eager to donate money in exchange for social certification," writes John Taylor in this week's (Sept. 3) New York. "The internal adjustments these institutions have had to make to accommodate their new patrons have created a degree of discomfort and led to complaints that the institutions are prostituting themselves."
That's putting it pretty mildly, given the hot words Taylor reports about the role Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg have carved out for themselves as major patrons of PEN. Their money taints the enterprise, according to a disputatious minority of writers (Kurt Vonnegut, David Halberstam, E.L Doctorow, Ken Auletta). Doesn't either, say the leader of PEN and its defenders (Larry McMurtry, Norman Mailer, Frances FitzGerald).