WASHINGTON ― Soon after the long-whispered allegations concerning Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein came to light, former editors and writers at The New Republic, a 103-year-old political magazine, started emailing each other to share decades of stories about Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s longtime literary editor.
The former editors and staffers described routine verbal harassment and invasive physical encounters that involved unwanted kisses on the lips and liquor-fueled lechery. Wieseltier’s inappropriate comments were ubiquitous. The details were bad enough that he issued a public apology Tuesday without his victims needing to come forward. The email thread from former staffers may have helped to capsize Wieseltier’s new magazine, Idea, funded by Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective and set to launch soon.
A day after his apology became public, writers and editors are grappling with their culpability in the scandal. They are replaying their own interactions with Wieseltier, looking for clues they might have missed and thinking about colleagues they should have helped.
“I accept I was blind and complicit and just, like, did nothing,” one former top New Republic editor, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly, told HuffPost. “There was a bully, and I was not standing up to the bully to protect people.”
But he added that there were men and women in the office who did not know what was going on. They all should have looked out for each other more. “It was kind of a collective failure. This sits heavily on me.”
In part, Wieseltier’s behavior went unchecked because there was no one in place to check it — or at least willing to. The New Republic had no human resources office where employees could safely lodge complaints about Wieseltier. It also didn’t have a clear organizational structure; it wasn’t always clear whom Wieseltier reported to or if he reported to anyone. “If you asked me if I was Leon’s boss, I would probably answer, ‘I’m not sure.’ Like I’m not even sure on paper if I was Leon’s boss,” said the top editor.
Former owner Marty Peretz could be quick to fire editors, and he was loyal to his friend Wieseltier.
Peretz claims no one ever complained to him about Wieseltier. “I really had no inkling that Leon did anything remotely, remotely what other people have been charged with,” he told HuffPost. “He was, he is an intellectually and philosophically, an overwhelming character, and I don’t mean ‘character’ in the pejorative sense. He’s a formidable person, absolutely formidable. You talk to him, you’re faced with a powerful intellectual and psychological force.
“I mean, I could see how he sometimes overpowered me and overpowered other people on the staff. But that was because of his cerebral capacity.”
This cult around Wieseltier helped protect him. He let it be known he held sway inside and outside The New Republic. In 1999, The New York Times called him “a Wunderkind turned near-elder statesman…. part Maimonides, part Oscar Wilde.” Years earlier, he quipped to Vanity Fair that they should refer to him as “Oscar very Wilde.”
If you got on his good side, he could make your career, several former staffers said. If he turned on you, you felt it. In editorial meetings, Wieseltier had his own chair positioned at the end of a long table opposite the editor-in-chief. If anyone sat in his chair, he considered it a capital offense. Like Weinstein, he delighted in being cruel to others he perceived as weaker — which included the men on staff.
“He was perceived as the person who capped editors, who created editors, made careers,” said the top editor. “He was somebody that held really vicious grudges against people. He was just a very intimidating person to deal with.”
Several of the magazine’s former editors refused to comment for this story, including Franklin Foer, who left as editor in 2014. Andrew Sullivan, who edited the magazine in the early to mid-’90s, did not return an email request for comment. Charles Lane, who was at the helm from September 1997 through October 1999, told HuffPost that no complaints from female staffers ever came to him. But he understands why that was the case.
“I will tell you that the truth of the sort of reality of life at The New Republic was not what was represented on the masthead,” Lane said. “In other words, the editor was nominally the supervisor of Leon Wieseltier. But that was not reality, OK? I mean Leon had total autonomy as literary editor and a very close, almost brother-like relationship with the owner at the time, Marty Peretz, who, of course, was above both of us on the masthead and totally had complete untrammeled control of the magazine.”
“In reality I don’t think I was the place where the buck stopped, given how the place worked,” Lane said. “The buck stopped with Marty. I think he’s the person you need to be asking that question. I really do. I mean, if you want an answer from the person who was in authority, that’s it.”
But Wieseltier’s reputation concerning women was well known, Lane says. “I was aware, as everyone in Washington was aware, that Leon had extramarital affairs. I think those are public knowledge. I’m racking my brain. I did not have specific knowledge of anything like what these people are talking about. Having said that, none of it surprises me.”
Former New Republic Publisher Chris Hughes told Politico, which first broke the story, that he heard about Wieseltier’s behavior only after a building manager complained that he tried to hit on one of the manager’s employees. “We directed Mr. Wieseltier to immediately cease any communication with her, and I made sure he knew The New Republic had a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment of any kind,” Hughes said.
One woman who was on the New Republic staff decades ago attributed Wieseltier’s harassment to the magazine’s male-driven culture. What was so shocking, she said, was just how long it had been going on: “That’s a long fucking time, and that’s some bad judgment.”