IT was 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson had just started his second term; and an editor at The Saturday Evening Post began to wonder what was happening to the social scene in Washington as Johnson's homegrown Texas life style eclipsed John Kennedy's Camelot. So, he set star writer-reporter Lewis Lapham up in the posh Hay-Adams Hotel across from the White House.
A couple of weeks later, Lapham called to say there was no social scene worth writing about, but he would like to do a profile of Johnson himself, a piece that would take at least three months to research and probably would run into thousands of words. Without skipping a beat, the editor OK'd as many days as Lapham needed in one of Washington's most expensive hotels and whatever expense money he might accumulate.
``Those were the great days of magazines,''Lapham muses today, sitting in his smallish editor's office at Harper's magazine: the days when a Life photographer on assignment with him in Miami hired the Goodyear Blimp for one shot of the beachfront; the grand days of long articles, voracious readers, and the writer's art.
Now, Lapham says, only the television networks have the kind of money and clout the great magazines used to have; and the flickering image has replaced the durable word as the lingua franca of American thought.
Lewis H. Lapham is known these days as the man who has squeezed much of the written word out of Harper's. Last year, he rejiggered the 135-year old literary institution -- which once published the likes of Melville, Twain, and Henry James at full length -- into a breezy compendium of Sesame-Street length ``readings,'' snippets, arcana, and a handful of longer pieces.
Sitting behind a cluttered desk, backgrounded by a modest shelf of books (``Heroic Imagination,'' ``Editors on Editing,'' Evelyn Waugh, W. H. Auden), with a typewriter at his side, Lapham gazes out at the elderly, gracious buildings that still dominate this piece of New York City real estate -- buildings that are fast being replaced by glass and steel skyscrapers.
The tall, rangy editor, who looks a bit like film director John Huston and thinks a lot like a renaissance man, says he has simply bowed to ``the incredible pressures on people's time'' in making the magazine into a highbrow Reader's Digest.
The result has been called ``salted peanuts for the mind'' by the Dallas Morning Herald. Lapham acknowledges that he is now editing and writing for a generation groomed on television with little time or forbearance for negotiating lengthy, discursive sentences, no matter how illuminating the journey or how profound the conclusion.
For Lapham -- who once wanted to write novels, and who left the San Francisco Examiner because he was disillusioned with the length of newspaper articles and their ``inability to get at the more interesting elements of character and event'' -- it took a long time to kiss long-form journalism goodbye.
You can easily find examples of this kind of journalism in Lapham's book, ``Fortune's Child: A Portrait of the United States as Spendthrift Heir.'' This collection of essays also includes three pieces from the days when he did the long, densely-reported article. One piece deftly exposed the foibles of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when the Beatles were sitting at his feet. Another is an exhaustive, detailed account of the notorious Candace Mossler trial, in which he spins testimony, lawyers' speeches, and crowd dialogue into an engrossing, lengthy yarn.
``He used to get very involved in things and like to go into them in great detail,'' recalls Otto Friedrich, his former managing editor at The Saturday Evening Post. Now a senior writer at Time magazine, Frederich says Lapham never wore his patrician upbringing (he comes from a wealthy San Francisco family) on his sleeve. He was, according to syndicated columnist Jimmy Breslin who worked with him on the Herald Tribune, ``very energetic . . . good, terrific.'' Was he friendly, ambitious, arrogant, accessible, rude, headstrong? ``All of those . . . and more. All part of his energy.''
That ``energy'' transformed Harper's, under Lapham's stewardship in the '70s, into a highly volatile and eclectic magazine, noted for its irreverence toward the liberal ideals of that decade.
Lapham himself provided elegantly shaped columns that fairly smoked with moral indignation. You can find Lapham in those essays writing like a journalistic Nabokov (with all the complexity and insight that implies) about the dream of death in American society.
There were complaints, however, that Lapham had taken the magazine too far to the right, and that he had made it ``too negative.'' Also, over the course of a decade, the magazine began to repeat itself and many observers pointed to a predictable set of tirades against a tired handful of targets. Lapham's own columns frequently seemed to be aimed at a chosen set of enemies.
``Lapham inveighs bitterly against a variety of adversaries,'' Time magazine commented in 1978; and the magazine later intimated that Lapham's negative tilt was to blame for bringing Harper's to financial ruin in 1980, failing to find an identity or an audience.
It wasn't until Harper's back was to the wall again in 1983, however, that Lapham brought the new success formula to Rick MacArthur, who had engineered the magazine's rescue from bankruptcy in 1980 by convincing the MacArthur Foundation, set up by his billionaire grandfather, to buy Harper's and give it, in conjunction with the Atlantic-Richfield Foundation, a $3 million closed-end operating fund.
At that point Lapham, who had edited the magazine for five years, left in a dispute with the new board in 1981, and brooded in exile over what he saw as an inevitable and sadly quixotic end for the book, unless someone came up with a way of drastically cutting costs and giving it a new niche in the magazine world.
All that has been done. The new Harper's has just reported its first profitable quarter in recent memory. Circulation is up and stable. The press has been generally favorable, and the new magazine is attracting attention.
Some of those who are publicly kind about the magazine, privately express reservations. ``I don't think the world is to blame for being insufficiently interested in ideas,'' one editor of a noncompeting magazine observes. ``I just don't think that is the case.''
Not surprisingly, Lapham disagrees. ``I'm a teacher manqu'e,'' he explains. ``I'm a historian manqu'e. But you have to work with what you've got. If I were going to teach a class, I wouldn't come in presuming they'd all been reading Proust. They wouldn't. They'd have been watching MTV and the A-Team.''
And he has stong supporters. ``I've been surprised at how well some of the innovations have worked,'' observes Tom Wolfe, author of ``The Right Stuff,'' who took over Lapham's typewriter and his job after he left the Herald Tribune, and has written several pieces for the magazine. ``I remember hearing him talk about it . . . and I couldn't imagine that it was going to click. But I think it has all worked out pretty well.''
Even people inclined to cling to the vision of independent, thought-leading magazines with plenty of space to devote to discussion of great issues tend to give Lapham the benefit of the doubt.
Norman Cousins, former editor of Saturday Review, says, ``I have the utmost sadness over the fact, if it is a fact, that such magazines cannot exist today.'' But he adds, ``I have the highest regard for Lapham. I'm inclined to believe that, if he does it, it must be right.''