IN A 1925 prospectus for the New Yorker, legendary founding editor Harold Ross famously declared that his new magazine was “not for the old lady from Dubuque.” Eighty-eight years later, a publication that once prided itself on being the best, brightest and most sophisticated magazine in America has become something of a provincial old lady itself. Granted, the provincialism is of an inverted sort, centered as it is on the island of Manhattan, but provincial it is nonetheless. This inverted provincialism was perfectly—if inadvertently—summed up in a cartoon by P. C. Vey that appeared in last year’s July 30 New Yorker, just as the 2012 presidential campaign was heating up. In the cartoon, a blasé, forty-something couple is sipping wine on a penthouse balcony as the husband tells his wife, “It’s not that I love New York. It’s just that I hate everyplace else.”
The same might be said for many of the New Yorker’s 1.04 million readers. An impressive 85 percent renewal rate makes for a solid subscriber base but also encourages a reader/editor mind-set hovering somewhere between smugness and stasis as the age of the subscriber pool—and many New Yorker writers and editors—steadily inches upward. With an median age of just over fifty-one and an average annual income of about $110,000, the typical New Yorker reader is a relatively affluent, middle-aged urbanite with expensive tastes (or aspirations) that are reflected in upmarket travel, auto, cosmetic, fashion and gadget advertisements. The full-page, back-cover ad for the new iPhone that ran in the same issue as Vey’s telling cartoon says a lot about who these readers are and how they like to think of themselves: it shows a handheld iPhone answering the query, “Am I close to the Central Park Zoo?” For most New Yorker readers, the preferred answer is probably “yes.” Spiritually, if not physically, they want to be Manhattanites; reading the New Yorker sustains them in the illusion that, underneath it all, they really are.
Since Manhattan was the birthplace of the limousine liberal—a term that goes back at least to the mid-1960s, when it was personified by the jet-setting New York City mayor John Lindsay—it should come as no surprise that a magazine catering to real and wannabe Manhattanites also follows a consistently liberal political line. That is exactly what the New Yorker has done while, in an increasingly politicized age, more and more of its pages have been devoted to political rather than cultural subjects. In its first seventy-three years, under its first four editors (Harold Ross, 1925–1951; William Shawn, 1952–1987; Robert Gottlieb, 1987–1992; and Tina Brown, 1992–1998), while drifting steadily leftward, the magazine stopped short of actually endorsing presidential candidates. Even Tina Brown, who modernized the layout of the magazine even as she vulgarized its contents in pursuit of “hot” trends and trivia, and who frequently hobnobbed with Bill and Hillary Clinton, drew the line at a formal endorsement.
But when Brown resigned in 1998 she was succeeded by David Remnick, the first New Yorker editor from a strictly hard-news background. Remnick, a talented foreign correspondent with the Washington Post and a Pulitzer Prize–winning nonfiction author, brought more of a newsroom mentality to the magazine. One result of this was the New Yorker’s first-ever presidential endorsement, for Democrat John Kerry in 2004. Then, in 2008 and 2012, Remnick’s New Yorker endorsed Barack Obama. This gives the New Yorker a mixed presidential record of one loss and two wins . . . always backing the Democratic nominee.
All of this must have made Eustace Tilley very happy. Tilley is the dapper, monocle-toting Regency dandy who became the New Yorker trademark after appearing on the cover of its premiere issue on February 21, 1925. While a fictitious character himself, Tilley was inspired by a real one. The artist who drew him, Rea Irvin, based his likeness on a caricature of Count Alfred d’Orsay (1801–1852). The choice was more apt than Irvin could have known. Count Alfred, a darling of Parisian and London café society, was born a century too early to be a limousine liberal, but he was the ultimate coach-and-four liberal, a pampered son of privilege who dabbled in trendy left-wing politics and the arts, ran through fortunes belonging to his wife and mistress, and was one of the foremost “beautiful people” of his time. Were he alive today, he would almost certainly be a New Yorker subscriber, an espouser of “progressive” politics and, like David Remnick, an avid fan of Barack Obama.