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, the editor and publisher of The Progressive, has devoted much of his writing for the last eight years to the direct and indirect consequences of Sept. 11, 2001. Where was he and what was he doing when he learned of the attacks?
He had just arrived at the office, at about 8:30 a.m. The phone rang. He answered. It was a friend. "He said, 'Did you hear what happened?'" Rothschild recalls. "I said, No. He said, Turn the TV on, a plane had hit the tower."
Rothschild went into The Progressive's conference room, turned on the TV and watched the second plane hit the tower.
Straight away, he says, "I knew it was going to have profoundly negative consequences for this country in the short term. I didn't want to write anything right away. I don't think I wrote anything for 24 hours. I wanted to try to figure out as much as I could about what had happened, what the causes were, that I could get my hands on. I didn't want to say anything stupid, and I also wanted to go home and be with my family."
He would go home to be with his family, but not until the end of the day. His youngest son, then nine years old, had a soccer game scheduled after school. There was some debate about whether the game should go on as planned. The consensus was to let the kids play, to salvage some semblance of normalcy on a day that was anything but normal.
Rothschild was in favor of this, but "I remember how odd that was, to go to a soccer game on a beautiful fall day here in Madison when New York City was burning, and when there was ash all over the streets and people didn't know where their kids were and 3,000 people were dead."
Like so many others who turned on the TV or radio that morning, "I was stunned, first," he says. "And feeling for the people in those buildings, and seeing the images of those people jumping out of those buildings. That's still in my mind right now as I think back to it. That's an event that, here in Madison, I don't feel like I can talk about it with any authenticity, really, because it was such a different event for people who were there."
In the minutes and hours following the attacks, pundits began to weigh in. Rothschild didn't joint them.
"I really wanted to resist a knee-jerk interpretation of the event," he says. "It is a good idea sometimes just to wait. By the next day, I'd learned enough, read enough, consulted with enough people to figure out what this was we were looking at, and what this was that we were about to expect, and what we should say about it."
The latest issue of The Progressive was about to be sent to the printer, Rothschild recalls. "We had to tear up some pages and write something in the next 48 hours, so I had to keep my emotion for a long time, and there was a feeling of imperative that I needed to say something. But I wanted to give myself the time and give ourselves the time here to be a little bit deliberative about such a serious event."
Meanwhile, a growing number of pundits were establishing a gospel choir around one consensus refrain. "People were saying, oh my god -- as though we were going to be attacked every September or something -- we're never going to be the same, we're never going to be safe here, we're never going to be whatever," observes Rothschild. "And I thought that was extreme. I was worried about what it was going to do to the American psyche, though, and Bush and Cheney certainly exploited that indentation on the American psyche for all it was worth."
As he watched the events of 9/11 unfold, Rothschild adds, "I was worried that civil liberties might go by the wayside, because here at The Progressive we wrote about what happened during World War I, we wrote about Japanese-Americans in World War II, we knew what happened in the Cold War. So that was something we predicted right away, and it was not a hard prediction to make at all. Unfortunately it came true, but it was obvious to us that it was going to happen."
It didn't have to happen, he adds, "but when only one Senator in the U.S. Senate stands up to the U.S.A. Patriot Act, Russ Feingold, bless his heart, and everyone else runs for cover, the likelihood of it happening was astronomical."