Love at First Sight

We heard ominous rumbles out of Chicago magazine about the new man. “A martinet.” “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” “He’s alienated everybody.”

The art director quickly resigned.

An eyewitness: “He was very New Yorky, very arrogant. People felt he talked down to everyone. He thought everyone in Chicago was sort of stupid. He’d explain the simplest things over and over again. Or he’d mention some magazine in New York and say something like ‘Have you ever heard of that? It’s a big magazine in New York.’ That kind of attitude. He seemed sort of gratuitously insulting to people.’

Not until now did we realize that Hillel Levin, the old editor, had been not just liked but beloved. “There was really high esprit de corps at the magazine, which was Hillel’s doing,” said a frequent visitor then and now. “Hillel made it this big team effort. People were really shocked at this guy’s attitude. They felt condescended to.”

Levin resigned in January. The owners, Landmark Communications of Virginia, conducted a search and eventually hired Richard Babcock, a 44-year-old assistant managing editor at New York magazine. Wouldn’t you know it! Someone from Norfolk hires someone from New York to run Chicago’s city magazine.

(To be fair, since Babcock grew up in Woodstock, he presumably knew about Chicago what there was to learn from McHenry County.)

On the other hand–and the staff awaiting Babcock’s arrival considered all sides of their situation–maybe he’d be just what they needed. Chicago, after all, has never been must reading. Chicago has literary traditions, and it has journalistic traditions, but a great city magazine would fuse the two and Chicago has never known how. “We were kind of hoping,” said a member of the staff, “that somebody brilliant and wonderful would come in and dazzle us. It’s our own second-city mentality. So maybe our own expectations were a little high.”

Babcock showed up in mid-April. The June issue was far enough along that he could have ignored it and let it be Levin’s last. Instead, disconcertingly, he made it his first. Babcock is modest about how involved he actually got, but the editors he inherited had the sensation of someone new and supercilious dismantling their handiwork and reconstructing it line by line, picture by picture. They felt their autonomy gone overnight.

“He doesn’t feel that it’s incumbent on him to ingratiate himself with us,” said a name on the masthead. “You can interpret that one of two ways. He’s always like that. Or he doesn’t consider us to be the big time.”

An occasional contributor told us, “I hear that after a week of lecturing everyone, insulting them, he came up to one of the editors and asked, ‘Does the magazine have a softball team?’ People couldn’t believe it. Like, first he says all of these horrible things to us and now he wants to play ball with us!”

Some tried to take the long view. “Hillel went through a year of pissing people off, destroying relationships that should have been nurtured,” says a survivor of that year.

Last week we interviewed Richard Babcock. We found it convenient to talk by phone, sad to say, even though we’d been told that for the full effect it was necessary to enter his office. But having heard that familiarity was already softening his harrowing first impact, we didn’t feel so obligated to experience it ourself. “Some of them are wheezing a little less when he walks into the room,” a writer said about the editors.

“It seems perfectly natural to me that people would be somewhat uncertain when a new person comes in,” Babcock told us about all that. “The staff is the magazine–I happen to be the person on top of it. It would be utter fatuousness on my part to presume I knew better than they did what was going on.”

We said we’d heard he had been blue-penciling language that struck him as sexy or profane. “I’m not a prudish person myself,” Babcock responded, “but I still register a small shock when I see certain kinds of profanity in a family magazine.”

Which Chicago is, he thinks.

“All these things are called case by case,” he went on. “In the New Yorker in the last few years I think I’ve seen ‘fuck.’ I do remember Pauline Kael using the word ‘turd.’ There are literary pieces of writing where it’s absolutely appropriate.”

We hear you have little use for fiction, we said.

“I love fiction,” he said. (He writes it, in fact; his first novel, Martha Calhoun, was published in 1988.)

In Chicago?

“I’m not sure. How much fiction do you read in magazines?”

We felt ashamed and moved on. Working down a list of anonymous grievances, many heard secondhand, is not the highest form of interviewing. So we offered an objection of our own.

In your editor’s note in the June issue, we said, you laud the magazine as “a feast fit for Chicago.” Really? A feast?

He didn’t see the problem. “When I think of ‘feast’ I think of something that’s delectable, exciting–there’s variety.”

For some reason, “feast” strikes us as seriously off the mark, and not just because it’s so trite. We don’t think of any magazine we like as a feast. Reading gratifies the mind in ways unknown to the stomach. What “feast” promises is something heavy, formal, and bloating.

“Maybe a nouvelle cuisine feast,” said Babcock.

In his editor’s note, Babcock reminisced about taking the North Western in from Woodstock when he was young, and feeling “adventure and surprise and bountiful possibility beckoning me into the heart of the city.” But he went east almost 20 years ago. We asked him how well he thinks he actually knows Chicago.

“I think the staff here knows it very well,” Babcock said. “I think I have a very strong–without sounding too pretentious–a very strong historical sense of the city. My family goes back here several generations. There’s much I’m relearning about it. . . . I don’t get the sense that the pulse of the city is dramatically different.” The Cubs, he pointed out, are still firing their managers.

Did you really ask if the magazine has a softball team?

Yes, he said. “I saw a softball bat. I haven’t played 16-inch in a long time.”

Free Speech, Cheap Rhetoric

“I’m all for freedom of speech, but . . . ”

You’ve heard that one all your life and you can think of a hundred ways to finish the sentence. “But no one has a right to go around stirring up trouble” is a classic. “But when this nation goes to war everybody ought to line up behind the president” got a good workout earlier this year.

Last Sunday, Stephen Chapman, the libertarian columnist at the Tribune, came up with another. Chapman was writing to applaud a five-to-four decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding a regulation that forbids federally funded family-planning clinics to discuss abortion with their patients.

“The point of this regulation is not to restrict freedom of speech,” said Chapman, “but . . . ”

He continued, “but to make sure that taxpayer-supplied family planning funds are not being used to promote a procedure that, in the view of the executive branch, is an illegitimate method of family planning. The rule, judged from that perspective, is not only constitutional but sensible.”

But since freedom of speech clearly winds up being restricted (Chapman admits it), why judge the rule from that ass-backward perspective unless you think the abortion issue is bigger than the First Amendment? Someone as smart as Chapman would see through this line of reasoning in an instant if it weren’t his own.

He writes that “in the debate over abortion, there are three basic positions: (1) yes, (2) no, and (3) OK, but not with my money.” This isn’t true and he knows it. The first two positions are basic; the third is a way station that opponents of Roe v. Wade such as Chapman hope the Supreme Court won’t tarry at much longer before pushing on to overturn it. The chief justice, who wrote the court’s decision last week, isn’t ashamed to reason tendentiously, and Chapman applauds and imitates him.

“As Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote in the court’s opinion, Congress can provide funds to foster democracy abroad, through the National Endowment for Democracy, without being obliged to provide funds to foster communism and fascism,” Chapman wrote. “The government can doubtless subsidize clinics that help people quit smoking while refusing to let its money be spent to encourage those people to keep smoking.”

So Chapman is comparing the freedom to discuss abortion (not the freedom to have one) with communism, fascism, and nicotine addiction. He also compares it with astrology. This is silly enough. But the comparisons don’t even work structurally. If a patient at a family-planning clinic affected by this ruling asks a staff member about abortion, the staffer is obliged to respond that the clinic does “not consider abortion an appropriate method of family planning.” Abortion is, of course, legal. The patient might need to discuss it. But mum’s the word.

Suppose a Christian Democrat storefront in Bratislava blessed by a few bucks from the National Endowment for Democracy is entered by a jobless mill worker who observes that at least under communism he wasn’t living under a bridge. Can the C.D.s discuss the point? Or must they read from a card, “This office does not consider communism an appropriate method of national planning”?

And is a counselor at a smokers’ clinic allowed to chat sympathetically with a patient about the seductive qualities of the evil weed? Or must he answer curtly, “This office does not consider smoking an appropriate method of oral recreation”? Chapman’s inane example would be more apt if the counselor were permitted to discuss every method of breaking the habit but one. Maybe, “This office does not consider chewing betel nut an appropriate method of stopping smoking because some taxpayers are offended by the funny stain it leaves on your teeth.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.