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The Atlantic and Stockman: depth, not slam-bang coverage

Down by the Boston Public Garden, the offices of the magazine everyone is talking about - The Atlantic Monthly - are in disarray. Part of the problem is physical. A fire swept through the elegant building last Thanksgiving; reconstruction crews are still studding up new walls and carting off old rubble.

Another part of the problem is transitional. The 124-year-old magazine, owned by only two families since 1908, is still shaking down to new rhythms after its purchase last year by Boston real estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman.

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But most of the problem is sensational: the aftershock of a long, probing article in the December issue by Washington Post columnist William Greider entitled ''The Education of David Stockman.''

By now Mr. Stockman's brooding doubts about supply-side Reaganomics, and his subsequent humiliation in what he called ''the woodshed'' of the Oval Office, is a familiar tale. When the story surfaced after President Reagan's Nov. 10 press conference, the news media leaped all over it - or, at least, all over its more quotable extracts. Front-paged around the nation, leading the evening news on television, the furor lit brush fires which only now appear to have been stamped out. But the ground behind them is thoroughly charred; and Mr. Stockman seems to have singed his credibility as White House point man.

What can be learned by picking through the rubble? Something about reporting, for one thing. Something about the future of the Atlantic, for another.And, most important, something about the place of a monthly magazine in an age of slam-bang electronic journalism.

First, the reporting. William Whitworth, the new editor of the Atlantic, is perhaps as far from the image of the hard-nosed investigative reporter as you can find. A small, gray-suited man with a neatly trimmed beard, he speaks softly. Fifteen years as an editor with the New Yorker have not hardened the contours of his Arkansas accent. He has a reputation for meticulous editing. So far, he knows few people in Boston: A reader and thinker, he does not tend to run with the movers and shakers.

Looking out his window at the stately elms in the Public Garden, he is conscious of his magazine's tradition of publishing the best writing in America. Emerson, Twain, Henry James - Mr. Whitworth is well aware that their names have lasted not only for what they said but for the way they said it. Yet looking across his desk at a table piled with magazines and newspapers, he is well aware that what he describes as ''a serious general interest magazine'' has to take a leading role in the shaping of the nation. Public affairs and the arts, he says, are his magazine's ''two broad fields.''

So it was with great interest that he received a brief letter of inquiry from Mr. Greider last spring. His reply encouraged the columnist to explore the possibilities further. Nothing more happened until August, when, says Mr. Whitworth, he got a long letter (''Three or four single-spaced pages,'' he recalls) from Mr. Greider outlining what he had learned from his 16 long interviews over breakfast at the Hay-Adams with Mr. Stockman. ''We said OK, definitely go ahead,'' says Mr. Whitworth.

By September Mr. Greider was ready to write. But the Oct. 1 copy deadline for the December issue came and went, and the issue, complete with cover, was ready to roll.

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Then in the second week of October came the Greider manuscript - reasonably clean, but very long. And onto Mr. Whitworth's desk came the decision: Do we hold it for January or rejigger the entire December issue?

That, of course, was largely a journalistic decision. With the increasing interest in the budget deficit and the hints that all was not shipshape with the Reagan economic plan, the Stockman article took on new importance. ''It seemed so interesting that we thought we had to jam it in,'' says Mr. Whitworth. Few journalists would disagree.

But it was also, though Mr. Whitworth does not say so, a political decision. To hold it for release a month later would be to risk finding nobody home in Washington during the Christmas recess. Would it have made the same impact on the lawmakers and the newsmakers? Would it have bent the course of national policy?

Had the magazine inclined to the political right - or, perhaps, had it been published somewhere other than liberal, controversial Boston - there might have been more pressure to hold the piece. Yet as one academician and contributing editor of the Atlantic explained, the question is whether ''the magazine sees itself as clarifying the world in which political decisions are made'' - sees itself, in other words, as ''teacher to the nation?''

The answer, obviously, was yes. The Arlington Street offices erupted in a flurry of activity - the kind of reworking not seen since a letter from Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, titled ''To Boris Leonidovich Pasternak'' was hastened into the June 1967 issue.

For all the haste, however, it was not done behind Stockman's back. Mr. Whitworth sent photographer Annie Leibovitz to follow Stockman around Washington one whole day - with his permission. Mr. Greider even requested advance issues of the magazine to send to Stockman - photocopies of which were reportedly distributed around the OMB office. Then the news broke, and the rest is history.

But what sort of history? The Atlantic has apparently struggled for years against red ink. Will this scent of success breed major changes?

No, says Mr. Whitworth. He sees this simply as business as usual - just better quality business. The magazine, he observes, has always had a hand in public affairs, wading into the issues of Vietnam in the 1960s and Watergate in the 1970s. And long before he arrived, he says, the Atlantic had been shifting toward reporting - rather than what he describes as essays by ''experts.''

Nor is media attention anything new. The press began sniffing around the new Atlantic earlier this fall, when excerpts from Robert A. Caro's book on Lyndon Johnson suggested that the former President was not above taking bribes. Future issues, says Mr. Whitworth, will contain noteworthy articles by Seymour Hirsch on Nixon and Kissinger and by Gary Wills on John Kennedy. He has also commissioned some reporting on major issues - though he won't say what.

The events of the last week, however, may leave their mark. Before the December issue, circulation had already risen to about 330,000, with close to 40 ,000 in newsstand sales. But it must have been heady stuff for circulation manager Roy Green to watch a truck deliver 1,000 copies of the magazine to the newsstand in Harvard Square last Saturday noon - two weeks before the scheduled newsstand sales date - and see them sold out two hours later. It will have, says Mr. Green happily, ''a major impact'' on subscriptions.

Such success must turn the heads of thousands of would-be Greiders, who even now must be queuing up with stories even better than his to tell. Will they be sent packing? Or will the magazine accede to its popular reputation by leaning even farther toward public affairs? If it does, will its circulation shift from the old-line leisurely to the swiftly moving up-and-comers?

That last question, in fact, may be the most interesting. For like Harper's Magazine and the Saturday Review (both of which are high-quality general interest publications which have fallen on hard times and recently been sold) The Atlantic Monthly is notable for one salient quality: its capacity to publish long articles.

Long articles, however, take time to read. They demand a commitment from the reader not usually made by the swiftly moving. And yet it is just here that the Stockman article is so instructive. To read it in its entirety (as, sadly, not many of those I talk with have done) is to find a very different portrait of the man from that suggested by the now-notorious ''Trojan horse'' and ''None of us really understands'' quotations. What strikes the reader - as it struck Richard Todd, the Atlantic editor who saw the piece through the press - is ''a portrait of a much more complicated mind'' than the news reports typically suggest.

It is, in fact, a meditative, brooding, and ultimately sympathetic picture of a candid and thoughtful man. Nor is Greider a sensationalist: He wanders almost casually into his central revelations through a long introductory passage about Stockman's home and boyhood. The Trojan horse doesn't appear for 19 pages. Yet the 22,000-word piece does not feel long; it could not well be shorter.

In this age of brevity and instant news, what newspaper, what weekly news magazine, what network, has space for that? On the other hand, what book publisher would consider such a short piece - or bring it out so quickly? And that, it seems to me, is the point. It is because we are in danger of becoming a nation of digests that magazines like The Atlantic Monthly matter. The world is a complicated place, not easily reduced to short takes. Henry James knew that. With the other great stylists who set the literary standards for his age, he knew that what mattered was not only the moment but its context. He would never have flinched from setting the Trojan horse into a 28-page context.

One hopes the Atlantic, too, will not flinch - will resist the pressure for shortness, will continue to make us sit down and understand at length.

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