Note: As The Progressive celebrates its centennial with a gala concert and concert this weekend, its publisher and editor Matt Rothschild is profiled in the new Isthmus cover story. Here are more details about the guiding hand behind the iconic magazine.
Matthew Rothschild on….
His experience at Harvard: "I didn't realize what college was like, what a prototypical Big Ten college was like, until I came to Madison and I saw people having so much fun. I thought I'd missed out on something."
How he met his wife: "I came to Madison in 1983. Didn't know a soul. I met Jean the next year on State Street on Labor Day weekend in Gino's restaurant, waiting for a table. She was right ahead of me. I was with a high school buddy of mine, and this beautiful woman was right in front of us. What do two high school buddies do when they see a pretty woman? They start to chat her up. And then she lived on the near east side where I did. I was living in an apartment on Spaight and Baldwin street, on the corner there, and she was in the neighborhood and we'd bump into each other after that and one thing led to another."
Reconciling core beliefs with daily behaviors: "The real crisis of conscience, I guess for anyone who is middle or upper class in this country, is, there are all these people who aren't, in this country and around the world. So the question is, are you living as humbly as you can and are you giving as much away as you can, and to both of those answers I don't think I can answer yes, if I had to go into confessional. I think those are big moral questions for people who are in a position to do more… I just think it's a hard question that doesn't have a real good answer to, unless you say I'm going to strip down and give away most of my material goods. Unless you do that, you're being a little bit hypocritical."
Humanitarian interventions: "What do you do in a Bosnia, a Kosovo situation? It's a tough question. What do you do in a Rwanda situation? It's a hard one. I think Rwanda, the lesson of history is the U.N. should have been given the power to use military force and enough manpower to get it done. The Canadian commander said if he had, I think, 2,000 troops he could have saved 500,000 lives. And yet we are at a magazine that is almost pacifist."
June Jordan: "Having June Jordan write for The Progressive was a thrill. I didn't know much about her until she was here once giving a talk and then she taught here for a semester. And my wife cut out something from the Cap Times saying June Jordan, poet and writer, will be speaking on campus and I went there and she knocked my socks off. And I went up to her after and introduced myself and bought her books that night, read her books when I got home and in the morning I said we must have June Jordan writing for The Progressive. And I was up front with them. She's not a pacifist, she's not an absolutist on the First Amendment, you're not going to like some of her views, but she's a voice we need to have. And it was fun working with her, though we had our disagreements toward the end. She would write in longhand in beautiful but hardly decipherable writing and she would fax it in. So it was my job to figure out what the words were and type them in on a computer. That process was kind of intimate and lovely, but the words themselves were astonishingly forceful."
Howard Zinn: "Just a delightful man, and has made such a huge contribution to the study of Progressive history in this country and to Progressive activism in this country, and his essays are beautiful too and inspiring. He may be the most famous person who writes for us and he's got his ego most in check, let's put it that way. I don't know if he's got a small ego or a big ego but he doesn't flaunt it, and I really respect him for that… Howard Zinn, even when he's writing a little email, takes the time to write something cute or clever or personal and not just businesslike. I appreciate that in a day and age where email, at least the way I practice it, is pretty much a form of dispatch.
Molly Ivins: "Molly Ivins, I barely talked to for years, and I would deal with one right-hand woman after another there. And I love Molly Ivins, and I thought she was a hoot and a stitch and an incredible contribution not only to the magazine but to the country's political conversation. I didn't have a real close relationship with her. She did come to an event or two for us, and I went down there for the Texas Observer's 50th anniversary. I regret to this day that I didn't go to what was essentially a going-away party for Molly Ivins when she was dying of cancer."
Erwin Knoll: "I have to laugh when I recall the conversation I had with Erwin Knoll when I was interviewing for a job in this very room back in the fall of 1982 when I said, Erwin, who are your competitors? And he leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head and rocked and said, We have no competitors….You know, it's funny, one thing that Erwin said that I thought was incredibly arrogant at the time, when I wasn't the editor here, but I've come to appreciate more, I asked him once, who do you edit the magazine for? And he said, I edit the magazine for me, I edit the magazine for us here, and I'm trying to put out a magazine that we would like to read, or in my version that we think approximates the true and the beautiful. If we can do that in a way that is engaging and interesting and provocative, so much the better."
Which civil liberty he would give up to preserve all others in perpetuity: "Well this is Dostoyevsky's dilemma. This is The Brothers Karamazov where he says, If you could kill one innocent baby and thereby save humanity, would you do it? And when I was a reckless college kid I said, That's about the easiest thing ever. You would go kill the baby. But I don't believe that any more. I don't think you kill innocent people even with the promise that you'll save other people's lives. Those promises are in the future and you never know if those promises are going to come true, but you know that innocent kid is gonna be killed. You don't do that. It's an immoral thing to do. Similarly, I don't, I would not, I don't throw away civil liberties."
The last time he cried: "Oh, I can cry at movies. I can't remember. Sad movie recently… Obama winning was a happy teary moment."
His mother's death: "I had said goodbye to her. Actually, she was sick in October of, November of 2007, and I would go down there. I canceled a speaking engagement in Minnesota. I hate canceling speaking engagements. I hate people who cancel speaking engagements. I was driving up. I had been down there for a week. She was really sick. I said I can do this, I can go up there. I stopped at the magazine to get a few things, I kept driving up north. I got to Tomah. I said, what the hell am I doing here? I should be back there. And I pulled over and I called and canceled and I turned around and went back, and 10 days later my mom died. We'd had some bonus time with her because she lasted a little longer than she thought she would or than she wanted to. She was really ready to go, and she said goodbye to us a couple times. One time I was trying to hold it back and I'd been good and light and, you know, and I just dissolved."