The flameouts of public figures often fill the rest of us with a mixture of schadenfreude and sympathy, but both emotions tend to give way to curiosity. How could he (it’s always a he, isn’t it) do this? Why would he risk his reputation? What variety of self-loathing compelled him to match our contempt with his own? The Brian Williams flameout is different, if only because it did not involve sexual impropriety or financial gain. Perhaps by the time you read this, his employer will have decided whether or not Williams is a compulsive liar and whether he can return to his anchor’s chair. But his fate is not a matter of national importance; after all, he’s no Walter Cronkite. Network news has devolved mostly to weather and dog stories, punctuated by chitchat with a telegenic physician. How much public trust does our news host even need to inspire these days? Still, as James McWilliams tells us in his cover piece, the way Williams changed his copter-under-fire story over the years comports with what we are learning about how memory works—or fails to work. The important thing is not whether we should have felt more sympathy and less schadenfreude for Williams, but what his story can teach us about the nature of memory, history, and truth.

The Scholar lost two friends on one day in May. The distinguished historian Peter Gay was a friend before our time, but former managing editor Jean Stipicevic knew him well, having worked on the Scholar staff when Gay served as acting editor upon the death of editor Hiram Haydn in 1973. After Joseph Epstein replaced Haydn in 1974, Gay was for many years a member of our editorial board. Jeanie remembers Gay as “prolific. … He was humble and good-natured and laughed easily.” Over 32 years, he wrote 10 articles for the magazine, several of them forerunners of his important books about the Victorian bourgeoisie, psychoanalysis, and his own Germanness.

William Zinsser, whose On Writing Well has been the bible for two generations of writers so far, also died on May 12. He wrote a dozen articles for the Scholar over 22 years, and then at the age of 87 became our first blogger, with his popular “Zinsser on Friday” columns. Much to our pleasure and pride, a selection of them won a National Magazine Award for digital commentary in 2012. A lot has been made since his death, and rightly so, of Zinsser’s kindness to aspiring writers. But now it can be revealed that he was kind even to editors. We will miss him. The Scholar’s advisory editor, Allen Freeman, edited Zinsser’s online columns, and the two men became friends. As it happens, this is Allen’s last issue here, after a decade of advising, editing, inspiring, and contributing in many other ways. He won’t be going far, but we will miss him, too.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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