From Cab Rides to the Cold War: Richard Rovere, the New Yorker, and Postwar Washington

Article excerpt

This article explores how Richard H. Rovere's "Letter from Washington" helped the New Yorker become a prominent voice on U.S. politics in the years following World War II. He combined the style of a literary critic with a detached approach to politics to create a style that distinguished the New Yorker's Washington reports from those of its competitors and helped shape the magazine's reputation as a powerful player in the postwar political culture. His consistent support of the anti-Communist foreign policy that was pursued by the Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower administrations reinforced the Cold War consensus in the early 1950s. This article draws on archival materials, including the Rovere and the New Yorker papers, as well as the political pieces that he contributed to the magazine between 1948 and 1954, when he established his reputation as a Washington correspondent.

World War II transformed the New Yorker from a sophisticated yet fairly parochial magazine of cultural criticism into a source of national and international information and commentary. The war forced the New Yorker, founded by Harold Ross in 1925 as a magazine featuring "gaiety, wit and satire," to confront more serious topics.1 As America's role in the world expanded after the war, so too did the gaze of the New Yorker. It began publishing reports from around the world and, back at home, no longer confined itself to New York City.2 In 1948, managing editor William Shawn recruited Richard Rovere to write a "Letter from Washington," which would be the magazine's first regular contribution from the U.S. capital.' He had written a number of pieces for the New Yorker since 1944, and his Washington reports appeared in the magazine until three months before his death in 1979.4

Rovere's "Letter" differed markedly from earlier New Yorker pieces about the capital. Previous Washington reports had been either collections of humorous observations or human-interest stories, written sporadically for the amusement of New Yorkers about a town they considered culturally inferior to their own. Rovere's "Letter" benefited from the transition of Washington into an important international capital, and as the only staff writer to focus exclusively on national politics he tackled more substantial matters associated with postwar global politics.5

The New Yorker never became a political magazine in the traditional sense, but it came to play a new role in postwar American politics and culture. To affluent and educated middle-class liberals in cities, towns, and suburbs across the country, it symbolized a sophisticated, enlightened life to which they could belong.6 After World War II, as the Cold War began to suffuse the nation's politics and culture, awareness of foreign policy issues became an increasingly important part of that life. This analysis of the evolution of the Wéw Yorkers Washington coverage shows how Rovere's "Letter from Washington" helped shape the magazine's reputation as a powerful player in the postwar political culture.

This article relies on archival materials and on the political pieces that Rovere wrote for the New Yorker from 1948 through 1954, starting with his first "Letter from Washington" in the December 25, 1948, issue.7 All of his contributions to the New Yorker between 1944 and 1979 were read, but the analysis was limited to these formative years of the Cold War consensus when he established his reputation as a Washington correspondent and helped the New Yorker become a more prominent voice on U.S. politics.8

The New Yorker never has been easily defined or categorized and occupies an ambivalent space in the intellectual world. The magazine initially made its mark through humor (including its renowned cartoons), fiction, and sophisticated arts criticism.'' During the postwar years, argued Ben Yagoda in his 2000 history of the New Yorker, it "appeared to be a force that alternately reflected and justified bourgeois culture," making it an easy target for critics. …