I don't know Leon Wieseltier that well. If we passed on the street, he certainly wouldn't recognize me. (I, of course, would recognize him — anyone would recognize Leon.) I was a summer intern at The New Republic back in 2001 — the summer of stem cells and Chandra Levy, in the calm before 9/11 and anthrax. I worked on the "front of the book," meaning that I helped research, fact check and occasionally write pieces on the politics of the day.

The New Republic was a heady place for a 21-year-old. I was surrounded by some of the best political writers in the business: Ryan Lizza and Michelle Cottle and Jon Chait and Michael Crowley and Noam Scheiber. Andrew Sullivan still poked his head in from time to time. Editorial meetings were something to behold. But most of all, Leon was something to behold. We interns were fascinated by Leon, and we were a bit terrified, too. We passed around Sam Tanenhaus's 1999 New York Times Magazine profile of him as if it were samizdat.


Leon ran the "back of the book," the wide-ranging and incredibly erudite criticism section. Although, as literary editor, he was nominally subordinate to the editor (Peter Beinart) and the owner (Marty Peretz), everyone knew that the back of the book belonged to Leon, as it had since 1983. The book reviews; the art, drama, cinema, dance and architecture reviews; the poetry — all Leon-commissioned and Leon-approved. The summer I was there, he shepherded into print everything from Paul Berman's 25,000-word piece on Joschka Fischer and the German New Left to Helen Vendler's review of a biography of John Milton, from Robert Brustein's attack on Marlon Brando (memorably titled "Contempt for Acting") to James Wood's appreciation of a collection of Alistair MacLeod stories. These were some of the sharpest, most insightful scholars and critics out there, and, in TNR's pages, they were taking on issues of lasting significance. Leon did not tether writers to a requirement of "relevance" to the current news cycle; in turn, they wrote pieces whose relevance long outlasted that week's news.

This is certainly not to say that TNR's back of the book was not au courant. Like many other publications, it ran a review this year of Thomas Piketty's ubiquitous Capital in the Twenty-First Century — a very fine review by Nobel laureate Robert Solow. But the best pieces in the back of the book took on topics that were not in the news and made them feel like they were distinctly of the moment. Jed Perl's piece earlier this year on the 1913 Armory Show and the reception of modern art in America did that, as did Sean Wilentz's piece on Arthur Schlesinger Jr., C. Vann Woodward and American historiography.

The New Republic's back of the book was motivated by nothing so much as an abiding belief that ideas matter, that culture matters, and that if you write about them in a deep and serious way, you can make other people see that and how they matter. This is a — perhaps the — liberal project, in the broadest and most inclusive sense of that term.

But it's over now: Leon abruptly quit TNR on Thursday, along with Frank Foer, the magazine's editor. Jon Chait has eloquently and elegiacally explained why: The magazine for which Leon and Frank stood had very little in common with owner Chris Hughes's vision of the second coming of BuzzFeed. This is a debacle — not just for those who care about the magazine itself, but for all those who care about American letters and culture more broadly.

I will miss the excellent front-of-the-book long-form political writing, but in truth that has been vanishing for some years now, increasingly replaced with listicles and other unfortunate substitutes for substance. (Of the political writers I listed above, only Scheiber is still with the magazine.) Besides, other publications still do excellent, in-depth political feature writing.

But no one else in Washington, nor precious few outlets anywhere, does what Leon did with the back of the book. Leon cared about culture and about ideas, not as adornment, but as ends in themselves. And he cared enough to write passionately and to commission passionate pieces about them. In an era of click-bait, the TNR back of the book ran long-form, thoughtful pieces about the arts, about culture, about ideas and their histories. In an era of vanishing book reviews, the TNR back of the book routinely ran lengthy reviews of books one might not otherwise encounter. In an era of laid-off critics, the TNR back of the book had a deep bench of drama, art, music, dance and literature critics. In a city obsessed with "winning" the 24-hour news cycle, the TNR back of the book played a much, much longer game.

The magazine has not yet announced who, if anyone, will take Leon's place. But the fact that it thinks he is replaceable tells us all we need to know. American intellectual and cultural life is poorer for it.

Chafetz is professor of law at Cornell Law School, where he writes on legislative procedure, the separation of powers and constitutional history. His first book, Democracy's Privileged Few, was published by Yale University Press in 2007. His second book, Congress's Constitution, is under contract with Yale University Press.