Icon of West Coast Liberalism Set to Take On D.C.
Harold Meyerson has spent the bulk of his working life shuttling between the political barricades and the journalistic trenches. And for much of that time, he has championed his Los Angeles hometown as the left-wing mecca of the future.
As executive editor and chief political columnist for the L.A. Weekly, Meyerson has argued that the new “L.A. model” of progressive politics, centered on a powerful labor-Latino alliance, offers a blueprint for reviving a sluggish U.S. liberalism. Even this month’s defeat of mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, whom he roundly endorsed, hasn’t shaken Meyerson’s conviction that the Golden State is rapidly shifting leftward, with L.A. at its tectonic midpoint.
Which is why it may surprise some to find Meyerson packing his bags this summer and heading for Washington, D.C., where the current political climate is palpably frostier to self-described social democrats. In his new role as executive editor of the American Prospect, an 11-year-old, left-leaning biweekly magazine of politics and culture, Meyerson will be moving to a city where think tanks and policy journals are as common as carwashes in the San Fernando Valley. “It’s hard to leave it [Los Angeles],” he says, “which is why I’m not really leaving.”
Not entirely, anyway. Though he soon will be living off DuPont Circle, Meyerson’s byline will continue to appear biweekly in the Weekly, where his new title will be political editor. His column will alternate with one by another longtime Weekly political scribe, Marc Cooper. Meyerson says he plans to return to California fairly regularly to report on Left Coast political happenings for the Weekly and American Prospect. “He’s still going to have a lot to say about what political stories we cover and who we endorse,” says Weekly president Michael Sigman. “This way, I think he can kind of have his cake and eat it too.”
In moving full-time to the American Prospect, where he’s now a senior correspondent, Meyerson, 51, hopes to bring an outsider’s perspective to perhaps the nation’s most self-absorbed city. “What’s good and interesting in this country is not what’s happening inside the Beltway,” says the native Angeleno. “I do view it as an advantage [to be coming from outside], because it’s easy to become a captive of the Beltway view that all wisdom begins and ends there, which is not the case.”
Another of his new job’s attractions, he says, is being able to move beyond “strictly opinionating” to a place where it may be easier to influence national public policy, or at least national public policy makers. He believes that American Prospect, like the Weekly, can speak with “a multiplicity of voices” in serving a diverse readership: not only politicians and other Beltway analysts, but grass-roots activists as well.
“It’s the same church, just different pews,” he says of the two publications. “It was really a terrific opportunity. And it’s clear I’m not going to get a job in the [James] Hahn administration.” With a daughter at UC Berkeley, the move’s timing also made sense for him personally, Meyerson says.
During his dozen years at the Weekly, and previously as a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Meyerson has acquired a national reputation as one of the left’s most consistent and respected voices. A member of the editorial board of the quarterly journal Dissent, he has contributed to the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
Although politics, labor and social justice issues are his forte, he has written extensively about movies and popular culture, and was co-author of a biography of lyricist-composer and social activist Edgar Y. “Yip” Harburg, “Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz?”
“I think what Harold brought to the Weekly was not only a huge level of credibility, but also a humane intelligence that had been missing a lot from left-wing progressive debate,” says Kit Rachlis, editor of Los Angeles magazine and Meyerson’s former boss at the L.A. Weekly.
Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, credits Meyerson with raising local consciousness about issues affecting the working classes. “His coverage of the labor movement and of the transition of the labor movement and the alliance of Latinos with the labor movement has really been instrumental in educating the public,” Contreras says.
Others, while wishing Meyerson well in his new job, hope he’ll remain highly visible in Southern California. “We need him here,” says Jon Wiener, professor of history at UC Irvine and contributing editor to the Nation. “It’s not so clear to me that the progressive movement in L.A. is headed onward and upward. It’s equally easy to imagine that this is a wave that is receding.”
Founded as a quarterly in 1990 by Princeton sociologist Paul Starr, political analyst Robert Kuttner and future Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the American Prospect has slowly been carving out an identity as a serious liberal policy journal that’s also readable and accessible.
Its circulation shot up a reported 80% last year and paid subscriptions now stand at 42,000. Kuttner says the magazine, which is relocating its editorial operations from Boston to Washington, has benefited from rising liberal concern over President Bush’s policies on the environment, strategic defense and other issues.
Meyerson says one of his main objectives is to give the magazine’s stories more narrative drive to match their ideological urgency. “We have a good policy component, but I hope to give it a little more narrative or journalistic one as well,” he says.
Kuttner describes Meyerson as “an amazingly productive guy” who will bring his own writing and reporting skills to the magazine while directing a full-time staff of 32 and nurturing young talent.
Raised in L.A.'s Crestwood Hills neighborhood, a Westside liberal enclave he jokingly describes as “an upper-class ghetto,” Meyerson attended public schools and went on to study at Columbia University. While there, he developed two enduring passions: politics and film. The latter led him into writing criticism for Film Comment. The former led him to Chicago, just in time for the disastrous 1968 Democratic Presidential Convention. He was 18. “Got beaten up by the cops inside the Hilton Hotel, after they’d run out of people to beat outside the hotel,” he says.
In his writing, Meyerson frequently derives political insights from pop culture, and vice versa. In a recent American Prospect essay, he likened California’s “progressive mosaic” to a new musical waiting in the wings. “A full continent off-Broadway, the next New Deal is in tryouts,” he wrote.
In a 1996 piece, he compared Pat Buchanan’s “attack on Steve Forbes” with George Wallace’s wildly pugnacious putdown of elites in the 1960s and early ‘70s. “The first is your standard Populism 101; the second translates the inchoate fury of a collective subconscious into weird folk poetry.”
Meyerson says he “spent a lot of the ‘70s being blocked, which people say I’m compensating for now,” before returning to Los Angeles and finding his calling in journalism. Along the way he also has worked on a variety of political campaigns and grass-roots causes.
He describes the Weekly and American Prospect as “works in progress” with similar core missions, and notable differences.
It’s doubtful, for example, you’ll see ads for liposuction in American Prospect anytime soon. “I think anyone would have to conclude that the Weekly has more interesting ads than the Prospect,” he says.