Matthew Rothschild pushes back against a personal question. "I don't think I am the story," he protests. True. The story is The Progressive magazine's 100th anniversary celebration and conference May 1-2 at Monona Terrace. A spectacular constellation of progressive luminaries - including Robert Redford, historian Howard Zinn, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, columnist Katha Pollitt and the Rev. Jesse Jackson - will convene to mark the occasion and the publication of Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive Magazine, 1909-2009.
But Rothschild, 50, is The Progressive's guiding hand. He's been its editor since 1994, and its publisher since 2007 (a post he also held between 1989 and 1994). He is curator of the magazine's legacy and bearer of its burdens. If he is not the story, he is the narrative's contemporary embodiment, its public face and leading voice.
Redford, the centennial event's honorary chair, calls The Progressive "a personal touchstone." He is especially appreciative of Rothschild's willingness to stand against the prevailing winds after Sept. 11, 2001. As the Bush administration's war on terror became an assault on the Constitution, Redford "started to target, for me, personally, who were the brave people who were saying, 'Wait a minute, hold the phone.' Matthew stood tall at that time, and he has ever since."
Speaking from his home in Napa Valley, Redford lauds Rothschild's devotion to thorough research and his capacity for critical analysis. "He becomes an investigative journalist," Redford says. "Even though he may go in with a point of view, he strives to be well informed. I get that from him."
The two men first met face-to-face in 2007, when the filmmaker came to Madison to open Sundance Cinemas. The Progressive editor appeared younger than Redford had imagined.
"He looked like a graduate student who could stand to lose a few pounds," Redford recalls. But Rothschild's character soon came into focus. "He seemed very gentle and very, very warm and friendly."
"Gentle," however, doesn't mean Rothschild has no backbone. "When I watch how Matthew moves through his organization," Redford says, "he seems tougher."
Matthew Rothschild grew up in a liberal Democratic family in Highland Park, Ill. His father was a Chicago attorney and served on the school board. His mother was active in local civil rights and fair-housing issues, while raising eight kids. "Biggest Jewish family this side of Haifa," Rothschild says with a broad smile.
By 1972, young Matt was handing out leaflets and bumper stickers for George McGovern's presidential bid.
"I was such a square, geeky kid," he remembers. "A fat kid. I was an uncoordinated kid until seventh grade." He studied hard and didn't skip class: "It was expected that I would get A's, and I tried to get those A's."
Riding the A's to Harvard, Rothschild studied Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci, became involved in the anti-Apartheid movement on campus and was introduced to anti-corporate politics. "It was an eye-opening experience," he says.
Taking his baccalaureate in social studies in 1980, Rothschild spent the next 2½ years working for Ralph Nader's Multinational Monitor, a monthly magazine that covered large corporations and the World Bank, rising to editor. "I really had done no journalism before," Rothschild says, yet editing came easy. For this, he credits his parents' fastidious attention to proper grammar.
Erwin Knoll, then editor of The Progressive, hired Rothschild as associate editor in 1983, when he was 24. Under Knoll's tutelage, he honed his skills as a writer, editor and political commentator.
Launched by Sen. Robert M. La Follette Sr. on Jan. 9, 1909, La Follette's Weekly stood for social and economic justice, civil rights and liberties - and against corporate greed, war and environmental degradation. The magazine changed its name to The Progressive in 1929 and its publication schedule to monthly in 1948, but remains faithful to its core ideals.
Going back through 100 years of The Progressive to select its best work for the new book, published by the UW Press, deepened Rothschild's appreciation for the magazine's "continuity of concern."
"You can go back from the beginning and see the central concerns of progressivism today represented very well back then," says Rothschild. For instance, the term "living wage" was used by the magazine almost a century ago.
The Progressive decried the brutality and torture of German prisoners of war by U.S. interrogators. It stood up to Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy's red-baiting witch hunts in the 1950s. And it faced down the U.S. government's efforts to stop it from publishing the "secret" of the H-bomb in 1979.
"The courage of The Progressive," says Rothschild, "is what impresses me over time."
After Knoll's death in 1994, Rothschild took over as editor. He's sought to escalate The Progressive's investigative reporting while interjecting more humor and political commentary.
"Erwin had utter disdain for politicians," Rothschild says. "He despised liberals, and he really didn't have much truck with Washington."
Rothschild, who says "humor is oxygen to me," notes that an intern once described The Progressive as deadly earnest, a criticism he took to heart. For many years, the magazine limited its humor to the riotous Molly Ivins. It felt, he says, that the world was "just too serious to allow any more funny."
Under Rothschild's reign, the magazine added humorists Kate Clinton and Will Durst, among others. "I love to laugh," he says. "I love to make people laugh. I sometimes try too hard. My dad told me that when I was a kid, and my kids tell me that now." (Rothschild, who lives on Madison's west side, is married and has three children.)
Poetry, too, now finds a home in The Progressive. Rothschild says it makes the magazine read less like attending lecture hall, and more like an interesting dinner party.
His interest in poetry dates to a college course that introduced him to Auden and Yeats, who remain among his favorites. Soon after arriving in Madison, he enrolled in a poetry class taught by Ron Wallace. Wallace asked him why The Progressive didn't publish poetry.
"I didn't have a good answer," says Rothschild. He pitched the idea to Knoll and the other editors. Their response was lukewarm. He was persistent. When Anne-Marie Cusac came on board as an editor and investigative reporter, she brought an English doctorate's credentials to the evaluation of poetry submissions. (Now that she's left for a communications faculty post at Chicago's Roosevelt University, the task of picking poetry reverted to Rothschild and two other staff members.)
Elizabeth DiNovella, the magazine's culture editor, says Rothschild's devotion to beautiful writing is fused with his commitment to social justice. "The last poem he gave me was one by Seamus Heaney, 'The Cure at Troy,'" she says. Rothschild highlighted one of the lines for her, thus:
"History says, Don't hope / on this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime / the longed for tidal wave / of justice can rise up, / and hope and history rhyme."
But serious investigative reporting remains the magazine's mainstay. Rothschild cites working with Alan Nairn and Madison photojournalist Michael Kienitz on "Behind the Death Squads" as an early high point. The firsthand 1984 report detailed CIA training and support for Salvadoran paramilitary groups that killed thousands of peasants and leftists in El Salvador.
"It was an incredibly risky story to do," Rothschild says, "[but] the process itself was exhilarating."
Cusac's decade at The Progressive yielded a string of investigative reports on criminal justice, along with three Project Censored awards and a prestigious George Polk prize for magazine reporting.
In the acknowledgements of her new book, Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America, Cusac writes that she was reluctant to take an early assignment on prison use of stun-belt technology. But she says that the experience "changed me into someone willing to question why our authorities punish the way they do." It also generated a torrent of media attention, an Amnesty International campaign against the device and more assignments. Her acknowledgements credit Rothschild as "the driving, sharp-minded, kind editor behind 10 years of my investigative journalism."
Elaborating via email, Cusac calls Rothschild her "polar north" whenever she needed guidance through the details of her source material. "I could hardly believe his trust in me, even early on, when I was just coming to The Progressive," she says. His confidence "was a great motivator for me, and for others as well."
Rothschild, says Cusac, has transformed The Progressive into more of a readers' magazine, while preserving its "essential, attractive identity of a critical political magazine." And more than once, she says, he's saved the magazine financially.
Rothschild doesn't dispute this. "Keeping this place afloat has been a burden," he says. The magazine owns its building on East Main Street, and its paid circulation remains strong, at about 55,000. That's down from a peak of 65,000 in 2004 and 2005, though up from 43,000 at the turn of the century - and about 27,000 in the late 1980s.
But making payroll, soliciting donations and keeping creditors at bay are relentless tasks. And overlaying Rothschild's professional load is personal loss. His mother died a year and a half ago. His father is now quite ill. "It's been a hard stretch," he says. He drives down to visit his father every Saturday.
Chief among Rothschild's ongoing concerns is overseeing the magazine's continuing evolution. "We don't want it to be musty, and we don't want to be necrophiliacs," he explains. "We want to bring new, fresh ideas and find new writers and not just be worshiping at the altar."
This has led him to increase the amount of original reporting the magazine does, and to institutionalize The Progressive's long-form monthly interviews. Barack Obama, Patti Smith, Bill McKibben, Sen. Russ Feingold, Janeane Garofalo and Hugo Chavez hint at the breadth and depth of subjects who make up the Progressive DNA of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Redford, for one, is appreciative. "It's very focused," he says of the magazine. "It's very clear. It's lively. It's never dull."
An early and enthusiastic adapter of new media, Rothschild wants The Progressive to compete in every medium it can. The Progressive Media Project generates op-eds for distribution to mainstream newspapers and websites. This is a means to reach a broader audience and, says Rothschild, makes the case that "we'd be a better country and a better world if people were adhering to progressive values rather than primitive Republican capitalist values."
Rothschild prefers to break the big stories in print. The magazine's website, progressive.org, functions as a more responsive and urgent medium. It encompasses Progressive Radio, online exclusives, the magazine's columnists and the Progressosphere - a beguiling rabbit hole that leads to a wonderland of sympathetic websites (from Air America to Znet by way of In These Times and two dozen others), people (from Newsweek's Jonathan Alter to people's sportswriter Dave Zirin by way of Bill Moyers and Rolling Stone muckraker Matt Taibbi), blogs and videos.
The web has been liberating for Rothschild, who used to feel "my mouth was shut 29 days of the month." This frustration is gone.
"When I write and when I speak, it's catharsis," he says. "I do it because if I contained my anger about what I'm reading, I would explode." This ire is audible in many of his daily commentaries for Progressive Radio, though tempered by the concise and reasoned craft he invests in each. Recorded at Audio for the Arts studio every morning, each two-minute segment is posted to progressive.org and broadcast on about three dozen radio stations throughout North America.
But despite the growing number of vents through which he can release steam, there is an abiding rage behind Rothschild's gentility.
"Bush-Cheney really got my blood to boil," he admits. His 2007 book, You Have No Rights, catalogs scores of cases in which the rights of individual citizens were trampled by the Bush/Cheney disregard for civil liberties.
"It was the closest we came to a real anti-democratic government, small d, a real neo-fascist government," says Rothschild, "and we're finding out every day that we came closer than we thought." Much of his outrage is directed at complacent media.
"It should have been headline news, the cover of Newsweek and Time, and there was barely any mention of it in the mainstream press," he says. "The whole system of government that we grew up to revere was hanging by a thread, and the fact that not many people were paying attention to it is appalling."
While facing such political realities with eyes wide open, Matt Rothschild is no pessimist. He says he is sustained by the lessons of history, as elucidated by Howard Zinn and others, "that nothing is static, that nothing is hopeless, that progressive change happens, sometimes in the most unexpected ways at the most unexpected times."
Rothschild's determination to lead a balanced life sustains him, too. He and his wife, Jean, a nurse practitioner at UW Children's Hospital, make a practice of going out every Friday and Saturday night. "I save time to do things I like to do," he says. "I'm not one of these people who only does politics. I don't know how Ralph Nader and Amy Goodman do that, actually. I wouldn't be able to make it."
He has played basketball at the Salvation Army gym at 12:30 p.m. most weekdays for 20 years, and is an avid birdwatcher. "When I'm playing basketball, I'm not the editor of The Progressive," Rothschild says. "When I'm in the Arboretum, looking for a scarlet tanager, I'm not the editor of The Progressive."
When he is editor of The Progressive, however, he is a magnet for vitriol. A wall in Rothschild's office was once covered with hate mail, "people calling me a communist, people calling me a filthy Jew." He no longer maintains this display, but you can find disparaging references to him online, where he is reviled as a "communist editor" and a "corporate Democrat."
The latter slur was leveled by votenader.org, in response to his support of Barack Obama's presidential bid. Rothschild laughs this off.
"Some of the Nader people," he says, "can be kind of vindictive to former employees who don't light a candle at the Buddha's statue every day."
Having made The Progressive his life's work, it's reasonable to assume Rothschild will steer the magazine to the end of his career. He's not so sure.
"I got here in diapers and I might leave in diapers," he says, but he might also scale back. "I do think we should have a transition at The Progressive at some point that is a little bit more institutionalized than the Politburo's used to be. People shouldn't wait for someone to get incapacitated or die to know what's going on."
Still, the idea of retirement unsettles him. "I can't solve any problem in this world if I don't have a pen in my hand," he says. These considerations pull and tug at Rothschild. "I always wanted to get to the 100th, though. That was the end in view, and for a while there it was a distant view, and now it's very much right here and now. That's thrilling to me."
The Rothschild File
- How he met Jean, his wife of 24 years: standing in line for a table at Gino's.
- The fam: Sons Sam, 22, and William, 17; daughter Katherine, 19.
- Ride: Toyota Prius.
- Grocer: Regent Co-op.
- Subscriptions: The New Yorker, Birder's World, New York Times, Wisconsin State Journal.
- Faith: "I'm an ice-cold atheist when it comes to the question of God, but I was raised Jewish and identify as being Jewish. It's hard to be called Rothschild and have curly hair and a big nose like me and say you're not Jewish."
- Guilty pleasure: Mid-afternoon cookie breaks at Marigold Kitchen. "I don't believe in denying myself a cookie a day. Life's not worth living then."
- Baking braggadocio: "I'm prepared to enter my blueberry pie in any contest."
- Restaurants of choice: Café Continental, Otto's, Sa-Bai Thong, Sardine.
- One more: "I like the Oak Crest Tavern for a cheeseburger."
- Music: Dylan, Springsteen, the new two-disc Utah Phillips tribute album. His mother used to take him to concerts at Ravinia Park, "but it was pearls before swine," he says. "It didn't take."
- Rothschild's Law: "The better the writer is, the more the writer appreciates the editing. The worse the writer is, the more the writer complains."
The Progressive and the Progressive Movement, Then and Now: 100th Anniversary Conference will take place Friday and Saturday, May 1 and 2, at Monona Terrace. Speakers include Robert Redford, Amy Goodman, Jesse Jackson, Howard Zinn, Sen. Russ Feingold, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, poet Martín Espada, columnist Katha Pollitt, humorist Michael Feldman, the magazine's editors and columnists and scores of other significant figures.
Full registration is $295, individual sessions are $50; see conference.progressive.org.
The conference kicks off with a concert Thursday, April 30 at the Orpheum Theatre, featuring Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, Dar Williams and others. Tickets: $50 ($100 premium).
The public is also invited to attend "Raise the Roof" on Friday, May 1, 6-10p.m., at Monona Terrace. The event features Goodman, Jackson, Feldman, Espada, Dennis Kucinich, the Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Sextet and DJ Trini. $10.