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Columbia College Today May 2003
Cover Story
Rushdie: In
    His Own Words
Five Alumni Honored
    at John Jay Dinner
Twists and Turns
    in a Liberal Arts
Michael Kahn ’61:
    All the World’s
    a Stage

    Turns 100

Love in Lerner


Alumni Profiles





This Issue





Rick MacArthur '78: Maverick Journalist

By Justine Blau

Rick MacArthur ’78 describes his Columbia years as “an exciting intellectual experience,” but he’s proof that not all lessons are learned inside the classroom. He was so busy writing for Spectator that he couldn’t spend as much time as he would have liked on academics. “Spectator just ate so much time, but that’s the way I wanted to do it,” he explains.

“My father said, ‘Don‘t believe what the government tells you. Don‘t believe what the politicians and the businessmen tell you. So much of it is self-serving.’ ”

Doing it his way worked. He’s the publisher of Harper’s Magazine and the author of two books, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War (University of California Press, 1993) and The Selling of Free Trade (NAFTA, Washington and the Subversion of American Democracy) (University of California Press, 2001). An outspoken, award-winning journalist and thorn-in-the-side of several presidential administrations, MacArthur frequently is invited to speak on NPR and has appeared as a guest on numerous TV shows including 60 Minutes, Bill Moyers' Journal, Hardball With Chris Matthews and The O’Reilly Factor.

MacArthur (officially John R. MacArthur) recalls the first time he went to the Spectator office, as a freshman. The managing editor, Dave Smith ’75, “proceeded to give me the greatest sales pitch, the most inspirational speech about why I or anybody should go into the news business that I’ve heard. It was all about crusading journalism, having an impact on the country and on politics (‘I get a charge out of shaking things up because it’s fun’), but if you take it seriously and do it right, you could really do some good. Dave [now The New York Times’ Media section editor] changed my life. He got me into Spectator, and that’s where I learned how to be a reporter.”

Born in 1956, MacArthur grew up near Chicago in the tony suburb of Winnetka, Ill. He says he was perhaps predestined to be a journalist because his great-uncle, Charles MacArthur, co-wrote the classic newspaper comedy play The Front Page. MacArthur’s future as an iconoclast also may have been inevitable because he describes his parents as mavericks. His father, Roderick, told him to figure things out on his own.

“My father said, ‘Don’t believe what the government tells you. Don’t believe what the politicians and the businessmen tell you. So much of it is self-serving.’ For a successful businessman, my father was unbelievably anti-establishment.”

MacArthur’s grandfather, John D. MacArthur, a billionaire insurance and real estate tycoon, was a maverick, too.

“My grandfather instilled a spirit of independence. He didn’t belong to clubs; he went his own way. He was conventionally right wing, but he didn’t give money to politicians. He may have backed a tax assessor in Palm Beach County, might have tried to bribe him … but it was strictly business. His ideological thoughts were primitive. His interest in politics didn’t go beyond what it took to buy influence for his vast businesses.

“He lived modestly, some would say shabbily, in Florida. The only luxuries he allowed himself were a swimming pool and a huge aviary with hundreds of parakeets.”

MacArthur says he believed it when his grandfather “announced he was disinheriting us at an early age. My father told us, seriously, ‘Do not expect to get a dime from him. You’re going to have to work.’ They didn’t get along, even though my father worked for him for a long time.”

MacArthur says that his family, which included a brother and a sister, lived an upper-middle class life. “We were living on my father’s salary, which was good. We went to the top schools, but I knew from the age of 8 or 9 that my grandfather would leave [his money] to his parakeets.”

John D.’s money didn’t go to the parakeets, but it didn’t go to MacArthur and his family, either. It went to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. There was considerable tension between the foundation’s board members and MacArthur’s father.

“He’s on the board with my grandfather’s cronies, and they are unalterably hostile to him,” recalls MacArthur. “In the first couple of years, it’s just a pitched battle, except that my father loses every vote.” Then, Roderick persuaded the conservative board to add liberal academics “to make it more even ideologically.” In the following two years, MacArthur says, “It was a regular horse trading board. ‘You back my project, and I’ll back yours.’

“Some good things came out of it. My father saved the last piece of pristine coastline in Florida, now called John D. MacArthur State Park, and he set up the genius program [the prestigious MacArthur Fellows Program]. And we rescued Harper’s.”

Eventually, though, Roderick, suspecting that the foundation was set up so that John D. could evade taxes, threatened to sue the foundation to break up the estate and to sue his fellow board members for self-dealing and being in violation of fiduciary laws.

Then Roderick was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.

“These conventional Midwestern businessmen were horrified by the bad publicity coming out of the lawsuit,” MacArthur remembers. One of them “said to my father, ‘Drop the lawsuit, and we’ll put your kid on the board.’ My father says, ‘No way, because if I do that, it will look just the way you’re trying to portray this, which is that I’m just fighting for my father’s legacy … and it is about the principle.’ ” Roderick died in 1984, at 63, and the lawsuit was dismissed. “I was proud of my father,” MacArthur says. That was MacArthur’s last chance to get on the board. “They never forgave us, and we never forgave them,” he said.

Roderick’s business, The Bradford Exchange, prospered after MacArthur left for college. It ultimately became “the world’s largest trading center for limited edition collector’s plates,” according to its website. The family businesses include Collectibles Today and Hammacher Schlemmer stores. “We inherited [my father’s] business, which we still have,” says MacArthur, “but my attitudes were formed with the assumption that we weren’t going to get anything from my grandfather.

“My parents weren’t like the other people in Winnetka,” MacArthur notes. “We didn’t belong to a country club. My parents were anti-snob snobs. There was a political reason, too. The local country club didn’t let Jews in, didn’t let blacks in. When I was in junior high school, the dancing school that all the good private school kids were supposed to go to did not invite Jews and blacks. I knew this, and I boycotted it.

“We were a liberal, pro civil rights, anti-Vietnam family. My mother’s foreign, my father’s left-wing. We didn’t involve ourselves in the same activities as the WASP Republicans. We didn’t shun them, but it wasn’t part of our life.”

MacArthur goes over a story with Harper’s longtime editor Lewis Lapham, who inspired him to become a journalist.

At 12, MacArthur worked for the political campaign of Eugene McCarthy, and as a teenager, he worked for George McGovern and for Illinois Congressman Abner Mikva.

“[Mikva] had been redistricted by [Mayor Richard] Daley because he was too independent, and Daley wanted to destroy him. But we won. We beat the machine. That gave me the feeling that anything was possible.

“I’m grateful to my grandfather, because who knows what would have happened to me? If you grow up knowing you’re going to inherit a billion, it could mess up your view of the world, of life, distort it terribly.” (By the way, MacArthur favors a steep inheritance tax).

MacArthur’s journalistic career got a boost while he was still an undergraduate. In 1978, Columbia’s Episcopal chaplain Bill Starr invited Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham to speak at Barnard. “I went with the idea of covering it for Spectator,” MacArthur recalls. “I see this guy in a fancy suit, impeccable WASP, upper-class credentials. The perfect voice, the perfect sort of appearance. And he said the most radical things I’ve heard an editor say.”

Lapham told the audience that journalism is corrupt. “He said, ‘The Washington Post is not a citadel of virtue. It pulled in its horns since Watergate. It’s embarrassed about Watergate.’ … He talked about how the press covered up for the Kennedys.

“[Lapham’s] instincts were contrarian, anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment. Broadly speaking, Lewis is a liberal, not a conservative, but he has that conservative rigor that we got at Columbia. I fell in love with the magazine. I loved the literary side of it.”

Spectator invited Lapham to be a guest speaker at its annual Blue Pencil Dinner. After that, MacArthur’s only contact with the magazine was a subscription until, when he was working as a reporter in Chicago in July 1980, he learned that Harper’s was going out of business.

“I called my dad from the city room at the Sun-Times. I said ‘Dad, Harper’s magazine just announced that it’s folding. Do you think the foundation could bail it out?’ ” His father agreed to try. “So, we lobbied, and two weeks later, they voted to save it.”

At first, MacArthur continued working as a reporter on the Sun-Times, but in 1982, he became publisher of Harper’s. He’d had the idea of owning a magazine or newspaper since he’d read A.J. Liebling in college. “Liebling said, ‘Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. If you don’t have the means to get it out, you can’t do much.’ ”

MacArthur vehemently opposes the war in Iraq and has been unhappy with the media’s performance. “The coverage started out looking like the usual rah-rah, pro-military, super-patriotic drivel that we had in the last Gulf War,” he said in early April, some two weeks after the war began. “I was propagandized and thought it would be over in three or four days, and they’d have a TV commercial at the end of it with happy Iraqis waving American flags. But they’re shooting at us, and there’s no indication they want the Americans there at all. The reporting has been vacuous.”

It was MacArthur who broke an important story 12 years ago concerning the Gulf War — the baby incubator story. After a teenage Kuwaiti girl tearfully testified before Congress and the UN that Iraqi soldiers had ruthlessly pulled Kuwaiti babies from incubators, MacArthur debunked the story in The New York Times, writing that the girl was the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter and she had been coached by a top public relations firm used by the U.S. government, Hill & Knowlton.

“No babies were pulled from incubators at Kuwait City Hospital, but at the time, everyone believed the story,” MacArthur told 60 Minutes. He says that the former Bush Administration had to sell the American people on the invasion of Kuwait with “something more spectacular and gruesome” than merely that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait in violation of international law. MacArthur was so incensed that he wrote Second Front.

“Mr. MacArthur writes in a fury at what he sees, correctly, as the press’s failure to respond effectively during the Gulf War to the Pentagon’s well-rehearsed and openly revealed designs,” praised The New York Times Book Review. “He presents a treasure-trove of evidence of official deception.”

For his second book, The Selling of Free Trade, MacArthur did a tremendous amount of investigative reporting and research about NAFTA. The book earned more praise from the Times. “MacArthur describes NAFTA, correctly, as not a trade agreement but an investment agreement, one designed to assure the safety of American investment in Mexico rather than to increase exchanges of indigenous Mexican and indigenous American goods,” wrote Lars-Erik Nelson ’64.

The blurb that MacArthur calls “the pinnacle of my career” came from Seymour Hersh, whom he admires: “MacArthur tells the NAFTA story in the voices of those who suffered from it. It doesn’t get much better.”

MacArthur’s main focus in journalism is how “democracy gets subverted by politicians and nefarious press agents aided by lazy and overly cooperative journalists.”

MacArthur says the Core Curriculum gave him the background “to understand where we came from and how to analyze current events.”

He credits three Columbia professors for inspiring him in that direction. “Jim Shenton ’49 has a gift for getting you excited about history. He [gives] passionate lectures that [are] full of important and interesting information. For him, the history is present. The Civil War is not really over.”

“His 19th-century course was great. He also did a WWII seminar. He’d been in the war; he was a medic. He was at the Battle of the Bulge, and he went into Dachau, and he was tagging bodies by the hundreds. He’s someone who really cares about his country and understands how history affects politics, and that as amateur historians and journalists, we are obliged to try to combat conventional or received wisdom of the sort that could get Americans killed — or subvert democracy.”

Professor Robert Paxton also made an impression on MacArthur. “He was sort of my model of a great historian because he was responsible for one of the greatest scoops of the 20th century. He was the one who nailed the story of the Vichy government’s collaboration with Hitler,” MacArthur says. “The French built a myth of resistance, which I knew as a kid was phony. Most people were either going along passively or were collaborators.

“My [maternal] grandfather was a passive collaborator in the sense that he made money off the German army. He was selling wood to the German army. He was anti-German, but he was certainly taking advantage of the situation. Paxton confirmed the things that my parents had been telling me, but in a scholarly way.”

MacArthur remembers the “intellectually rigorous” CC class he took his first semester with political science professor Joseph Rothschild ’51. “It was like nothing I had ever done before. Rothschild was an old-fashioned German-Jewish professor, a refugee from Hitler and the same generation as [Henry] Kissinger. It was real old-fashioned Socratic conversation in the classroom. If you didn’t read it, you were dead, because he’d call on you.”

When MacArthur graduated, he helped organize a protest at Commencement against investments in South Africa. “Spectator was very pro-divestment. It was the 10th anniversary of ’68, and I remember saying to my friends, ‘Let’s not do anything too aggressive.’ I didn’t want to be derivative, imitating our elders. I said, ‘Let’s do something a little more subtle. Instead of a walkout, we’ll wear black arm bands and do a “walk aside.” We’ll walk back to College Walk and just stand there. And that will be disruptive in a polite way. We’ll get more people to do it because it won’t be loud and embarrass the kids who want to be there with their parents.’ And for tactical reasons, we picked the moment when AT&T Chairman John DeButts got up to get his honorary degree. AT&T had investments in South Africa, so we picked on him. It was quiet and respectful, but it made the point — and the paper the next day.”

Although MacArthur is liberal about many things, he’s conservative when it comes to Columbia’s curriculum, especially Lit Hum and CC. “When you’re 18, 19, 20, you don’t know what to read. You need to read the basic texts of the Western tradition to understand where we come from and how to analyze current events.

“The thing that strikes me most when I speak to journalism students is that we don’t have a common language. They haven’t read much. They’re bright, they’re curious, disturbed by what’s going on around them, but I don’t have common cultural references with them. Whereas, when I talk to people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, I have much more in common with them because we’ve read the same things. I’m 46, and I’m much more comfortable talking to a 70-year-old than I am talking to a 25- or 30-year-old. I don’t need to tell them who Karl Marx or Rousseau or Freud were or what their books were about. You can’t engage in a conversation with the rest of the world if you haven’t read these things. And reading the Great Books leads to reading other great books.”

Spectator and Columbia were instrumental in helping MacArthur learn journalism and find his magazine. His closest friends, Dan Janison ’79 and Vince Passaro ’79, are from Spectator, but his debt does not end there. He was introduced to his wife, book designer Renee Khatami, through her brother, Jim ’80 GS, who also worked at the newspaper.

MacArthur and his wife have two young daughters, Sophie and Emme. When asked how being a parent has changed him, MacArthur talks about how you can’t see the world the same way after you have kids because you need to protect them. But this also brings him back to politics. “I have to explain to Sophie why I don’t like [President] Bush. He’s a danger because he’s casual about starting a war.”


Justine Blau, a writer of screenplays, books, magazine articles and children’s plays, received her M.F.A. in 1991 from the film division of the School of the Arts and is on the Columbia University Senate staff. Her last article for CCT was on Vince Passaro ’79.




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