The Bell Curve, Ten Years After: It Tolls For Us

[Also see:
“You Have To Tell The Truth”—The Bell Curve
After Ten Years
, by Steve

see: Charles and Catherine Murray`s

on the
reissue of their book of the Apollo moonshot

Tomorrow, we are honored to post
Steve Sailer`s You Have To Tell The Truth”—The
Bell Curve After Ten Years.”

Reading Steve`s article took me

Ten years ago this weekend, the
little world of

Forbes magazine

was in turmoil. In the middle of going to press—which,
with typical eccentricity, was a four-workday process
beginning Thursday and ending Tuesday—the

and creator of the modern publication,

James W. Michaels
, then 73 and well into the fourth
decade of his brilliant tenure, had abruptly vanished.

The impact of this was all the more
extraordinary because of the peculiar political
structure of Forbes. Essentially, it was an
antebellum Southern plantation. There was an absentee
owner, first

Malcolm Forbes
and then his son

. We never saw them on the editorial floor but
periodically heard that they were cavorting in the
fleshpots of Charleston (or, in the case of Steve, the

pots of Washington). There was the
plantation manager,

Jim Michaels
. And then there were slaves. Some were
gangmasters (“Assistant Managing Editors”, in
-speak) and some were field hands. But all
without exception were subject to Michaels` merciless
lash, hanging, branding, evisceration etc. at any

I don`t think Michaels had been
absent for a magazine closing in living memory. He would
regularly arrive back from vacation in the middle of the
process to scrap the cover, kill stories, tear apart the
layout and generally crush the egos and otherwise
entertain the editors who had been left nominally in

His presence was definitely missed.

I was a house slave at Forbes.
I had cunningly confined my role to producing a
certain type of attention-getting feature story—for
example, an


Ralph Nader
, written with my beautiful and brilliant
co-author Leslie Spencer. But now I had precipitated a
crisis by inadvertently pouring hot tea on my owner`s

For more than a year, I had been
preparing for a cover story on

The Bell Curve
—the epochal book on the role of
IQ in society. This was no easy task, because the
publisher had embargoed the galleys and was intensely
security-conscious. Months earlier,

Charles Murray
and his co-author, Harvard

Richard J. Herrnstein
had met with Michaels and
myself in New York.

This was to be a great coup for
. The magazine was immensely profitable—then—
but its readership seemed to be 750,000 retired
dentists. It never registered on the public policy radar
screen. It simply had no place in the elite media food
chain. The only reason our Nader story had got any
reaction at all was that Nader had foolishly used his
contacts to vent his rage and pain in

Howard Kurtz`s
Washington Post media column.

Our cover story would have reached
subscribers simultaneously with Jason DeParle`s


cover story
in the New York Times
magazine—the first stone in what no-one realized would
be an

unprecedented avalanche


But Steve Forbes, breaking the
family`s long-established concordat with Michaels, had
intervened to kill our story.

I didn`t witness their
confrontation, partly because I`d just moved with my
family to the country—one of the privileges, I had been
assured, of house slave status. (A lie, as it later
turned out, but that`s another story.) However, it must
have been epic. When it was over, Michaels walked out
and spent the weekend calming down by looking at
antiques in Pennsylvania, I believe.

I liked Steve Forbes and that time felt grateful to
him for various kindnesses, but his behavior was stupid
on a number of levels. For one thing, it was apparently
too late to kill the huge story entirely—even the Forbes
family knows you need text to hold the advertisements
apart—so he took the story off the cover, buried it
inside, and insisted on removing all references to race.

Ironically, the excision of race
did little damage to The Bell Curve`s thesis—it
really is true that race plays only a minor part in the
book. Charles Murray later kindly

what I was able to salvage as “still
the best published synopsis of The Bell Curve.” [
For Whom the Bell Tolls
October 24, 1994

But it made Forbes look
silly—and meant that it was still taking the risk of
publication while passing up on the prize of public

Secondly, Steve attempted to
justify his actions by trying to debate The Bell
thesis. He was never clever enough to
outdebate Jim Michaels, who also in this case had the
advantage of knowing something about the subject. So, of
course, things rapidly degenerated into unreconstructed
allegations of “racism.”

This was especially disappointing
to me. After an earlier argument about IQ, I had brought

John Hopkins University

Robert Gordon
by to instruct Steve on this
unreported but momentous intellectual development. Steve
listened politely in the opaque glassy-eyed way that was
later to become famous to his

campaign advisers
. Apparently, he took nothing in.

Thirdly, it was all unnecessary. If
Steve had simply said “Look, I don`t want to upset
we would have instantly complied.
didn`t boast of being the Capitalist
for nothing.

We would have complied even faster
if Forbes had said “It`s because I want to run
for president”
—which, it subsequently became clear,
was probably his motive—although I might have told him
that his political judgment was wrong.

I believe this Bell Curve
episode presaged Steve`s disastrous, and personally very
costly, political career. His failure was one of
courage, intellect, imagination, judgment, human
relations and common sense. All of these were fatally
replayed in his presidential races.

I could have saved him a lot of
money, if he`d asked.

But at least because of Forbes
I`d gotten to interview the great Richard J. Herrnstein,
then 64, while he was

mortally ill with cancer
earlier that summer.
(Before he died, a completed copy of The Bell Curve
was placed in his hands.) My profile of him, published a
sidebar to the ex-cover story (click
), was, I believe, the only one that appeared
amid all the Bell Curve brouhaha.

I was profoundly affected by the
interview, during which Herrnstein appeared positively
serene. As I was leaving, knowing I`d never see him
again, I spontaneously kissed him on the top of his
head. He laughed and said something graceful. 

But when I`d earlier told him that
a prominent Harvard colleague had recently opposed
discussing IQ on the grounds that “There`s a limit to
what you can say in a multicultural society,”
eyes had widened in anger.

With great intensity, this son of
Hungarian Jewish immigrants said: “That`s entirely
contrary to everything the Founding Fathers stood for.”

Too bad it wasn`t Herrnstein who
ran for president.

Our cover line was to have been
“For whom the bell tolls.”
  At that early point in
the Bell Curve Wars, the echo of

John Donne
seemed fresh.  

Not least because of Steve Forbes`
failure, Donne`s conclusion—”therefore never send to
know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

still does.

Peter Brimelow, editor of

and author of the much-denounced

Alien Nation: Common Sense About America`s Immigration
(Random House –
1995) and

The Worm in the Apple
(HarperCollins – 2003)