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Michael Falco/The New York Times/Redux

Leaving the liberal cocoon

Q&A | From Ivy League grad to copy boy to influential editor, Adam Bellow has gained success as a conservative in the New York publishing industry

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

The offices of major New York book publishers are havens of liberalism-and then there's Adam Bellow. He was an editor at Doubleday and now has a senior position at HarperCollins, with success in both places pushing further down in stories about him the description that was once a lead: son of Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow.

What was it like to graduate from Princeton in 1980 and go to work at the very blue-collar New York Daily News? It was the right thing to do, to start in the classic copy boy role and work my way up. My job was to be a gofer, to do whatever anybody needed to be done, from photocopying articles to carrying a 25-pound turkey for five or six blocks, moving it from one car to another.

You weren't too proud, as an Ivy League graduate, to be photocopying? I thought it was a privilege.

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What did you learn there? My time at the News got me out of my liberal cocoon. I grew up going to school with the New York City elite. Everyone had the same political opinions: anti-war movement, hatred of Nixon. At Princeton, I was among people of the same background. It wasn't until I went to the News that I met people outside of my background. A lot of these guys had never gone to college, and in many cases, their fathers had worked at the paper as well, and their sons worked there. I saw a strong core of decency, of patriotism, of willingness to go out of their way for someone who was considered part of the family. Once I had gone through the hazing, I was embraced.

When you went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and Columbia, which professor most influenced you? I studied with Alan Bloom before he wrote his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind, a book of inestimable value. The next blow to my liberalism was that liberal intellectuals were too dishonest to read the book, and instead joined the chorus of Orwellian hate for having broached a wall they had thought unbroachable. They merely branded him a thought criminal. This offended me personally and I got into a number of discussions and debates about the book with people. I would ask people if they had read the book, and if they said no, I told them that I didn't think that they should have an opinion on the book until they had read it. It took my opinion of the Columbia faculty down several notches.

How did you gain success as a conservative within the liberal publishing industry? I kept my head down. Working in publishing, living at their sufferance, I had to humanize myself, to those who had never actually met a conservative. I had to go out of my way to bring myself into the family. I still take people to lunch, I tell my story. A powerful device is to appeal to them as liberals, to be open-minded and tolerant.

While liberalism is still dominant in academia and media, don't we now have a conservative media establishment? What do you think of it? It's possible now to make known books by conservatives without the help of the liberals. In my humble opinion, the Becks, the Hannitys, and the O'Reillys are all a bunch of inflated egos, like balloons at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, bumping into each other. I shouldn't be saying this, but part of what you're thinking as an editor is "How can I make this more interesting to Glenn Beck?" You really don't want to be doing that, but it's like in the solar system, certain planets affect the gravitational fields.

Many publications in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began by being sensational, as Glenn Beck tends to be. Then, to become more respectable, they became serious. Eventually they became solemn, and then lost the fun of it and became a snooze. That lost them their audience, and the cycle would begin again, with people who were having fun as they published. Having fun in business is important. When you're watching TV, you can tell when the actors are having fun. When I was young and Saturday Night Live debuted, it was clear that they were having a blast. It's clear that they're having a blast at 30 Rock, at the Daily Show, and at Glenn Beck, whereas at 60 Minutes, I don't think they're having fun. I think part of why they're not having as much fun is that they've realized that they don't have as much clout as they once did. At one time, they sat at the top of the media pyramid, and now that's not the case, and I think it takes away from some of the enjoyment of what they do.


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