David Hirschman’s question for a 2004 Media Bistro article was the same one reporters had been asking Graydon Carter for more than a year: “Do you plan to keep Vanity Fair more political?” Hirschman was referring to the magazine generally and to Carter’s ferocious editor’s letters in particular, which, since 2003, had become an outlet for his disgust with the Bush administration. Carter’s reply was defensive. “Vanity Fair’s always covered politics quite heavily,” he said. “I think that my own participation has probably run its course. I’ve said everything I want to say.”
He had not, however. Two and half years have passed and Carter shows no sign of quieting his political voice. Vanity Fair readers can now expect to open their magazine each month and find an editor’s letter that, instead of introducing an article — though that occasionally happens — or extolling the virtues of the current issue, will attack the current administration. Carter’s foray into political commentary began with his May 2003 letter, which went to press on the eve of the Iraq war. In it, Carter acknowledged the strangeness of editing a glossy and, at least superficially, celebrity-obsessed magazine that also publishes serious, long-form journalism: “I’m in the curious position of being in Los Angeles preparing Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar party … and at the same time organizing our coverage of the conflict,” he wrote. In the space of half a page, Carter went on to criticize the president’s complacency (“I see none of the worry lines that should be etched in the face of a man taking the greatest military power ever assembled to war”), his decision to declare war on “a country that has not attacked us,” and what he saw as the careless economic and diplomatic policies of the administration.
Carter’s political letters continued in the next issue, and the one after that, and on and on, surprising not only some readers but also several of his longtime friends. After all, Carter had never affiliated himself with a political party, and, before 2004, had never even voted. “I never thought of him as someone who’d get onto a political soapbox that way and I was happy to see it,” says George Kalogerakis, who worked under Carter for many years at Spy and later at The New York Observer and Vanity Fair. “I thought it was one of those things that, in the old fashioned way, he would play close to the vest.” But instead, says Kalogerakis, now a deputy op-ed editor at The New York Times, “he was very much saying what he thought.”
Carter’s political passion has unquestionably benefited Vanity Fair. It has deepened his commitment to serious journalism and rescued the magazine from a fallow period around the millennium. He recently embarked on a hiring spree, snatching up five high-profile editors and writers in the span of a year. He’s expanded the front section of columns, a mix of commentary and reported articles that now tend to address political issues, and premiered an environmental edition. Even as he stays with Vanity Fair’s strange but time-tested formula, Carter is adjusting it, stretching its limits.
Vanity Fair has never been an easy magazine to define. Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate, describes it as the “the wicked offspring of a tryst between Esquire and Vogue” with “the incredibly high production values of Vogue and the wraparound glossy advertising package and the serious reporting that Esquire had” during the days of Harold Hayes. Resurrected in 1983 by Si Newhouse, the billionaire owner of Advance Publications, it was conceived as a general-interest magazine covering literature, the arts, politics, and popular culture. It was initially modeled after The New Yorker and an earlier Jazz Age Vanity Fair started by Condé Nast in 1914, which published a slew of famous modernist writers as well as the work of Picasso and Matisse, but eventually died in 1936. Newhouse’s new version floundered under its first two editors, Richard Locke and Leo Lerman, but gained traction under Tina Brown, the former editor of The Tatler, the irreverent British society magazine that Newhouse bought in 1982. In her eight years as editor at Vanity Fair, Brown made it a success by blending high and low culture — coverage of scandal, celebrity, high society, politics, and international affairs. When Carter replaced Brown in 1992, he inherited a healthy magazine in terms of buzz, circulation, and advertising. After two shaky years, during which the magazine was mockingly called Vanishing Flair, Carter began to make the magazine his own, refining Brown’s blueprint. In 1994, he established the now famous Vanity Fair Oscar party and the Hollywood Issue, which according to Steve Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter, “put Carter on the map.”