Governance and Religious Sensibility in America, Part II

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James Wall
Title: “Governance and Religious Sensibility in America”, Part II
VTR: 1/29/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN NIND, and once again today my guest is Dr. James Wall, the Editor of Christian Century magazine, who in the persons of the new President and Vice President of the United States finally sees what he has so long sought: religious sensibility and sensitivity in the White House.

Now today I want to continue with Dr. Wall our discussions about what practical consequences may derive from having a pair of openly traditional Southern Baptists in the highest offices in our land. And, as I’ve told Dr. Wall, my voice is beginning to give out, if it gives out totally, I’ll let him do all the talking. Jim, what…what are the things that further than the things we said last time?

Wall: Can I begin by emphasizing the difference between an absolutist approach to political matters coming out of a religious sensibility, and a sense of ambiguity coming out of a religious sensibility?

Heffner: Aha…it, it seemed to me that when we spoke last time you were indicating that the absolutism came out of a non-religious…

Wall: Oh, no, no, no, no. I’m very sorry if I left that impression. The absolutism that came out of Ronald Reagan and George Bush was, at least aided and abetted by the absolutism of the fundamentalist Christian Right. It was also an ideology of the political Right, but no…I think George Bush was a man who, at least, understood the ambiguity of the things he ws dealing with. But he found himself governing in terms of absolutist. He, he created a demon in Saddam Hussein in order to do what he had to do. Now, demonization process is in a way, a form of absolutism. It, it’s easier to fight a war once you’ve created a demon. Otherwise, if you have to explain to the public, “there are problems here…we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that”, it doesn’t have quite the zing to it that an absolutist war against a demon does.

Heffner: But are you saying that in a…oh, I don’t want to put words in your mouth…in a truer, religious orientation there is not a devil?

Wall: Well, the devil doesn’t quite manifest itself in quite the specific ways that I think the president wanted to do with Saddam Hussein. Let, let me…I’d like to illustrate this in a couple of ways. One was when President Clinton was dealing with the matter of what to do about gays in the military, and when he was preparing to issue a statement and, and have a press conference and talk about it. I remember very well, it went over maybe two, three days before he…from the start of his negotiations with the congress until he held a meeting, and, and made his statement. About the second day, one of the CBS commentators, really exasperated, stood on the white House lawn and said “They promised us a statement yesterday, and they promised us a statement today, and we haven’t had it…this is getting ridiculous”, and it struck me, it’s ridiculous only to the monster of the media that has to be fed on the hour, like, like a big monster baby that has to have the feeding. If you’re grappling, as a congress, as President must do, with complicated cultural, social issues, as in the case of gays in the military, and what are clearly political issues and what are clearly military problems about how do you implement a particular policy. Then you don’t need to decide that today or yesterday or tomorrow, or the day after that. We don’t feed the media monster to that extend. You simply wait until you’ve worked out all of the opportunities you can work out, then you move. But it was that anger at not having been fed yesterday that I got this sense of an absolutist President would have said, “Gays are wrong and immoral, and the issue’s over”, and this is not…

Heffner: Or the opposite.

Wall: Or the opposite which would have then said, “Gay lifestyle is an absolute way to behave and so with a stroke of a pen, I’m going to say do nothing to prevent gays from being in the military”. What Bill Clinton on the, on the other hand has been able to do is to say there is clearly ambiguity here. The principle, there is no ambiguity in the principle…fairness. That’s a principle, not ambiguity there…fairness to all citizens. If they adhere to behavior that is appropriate to all the citizens there will be no discrimination against them. That’s a principle. But how you implement that principle is ambiguous, and so you have to work with an ambiguous set of rules and procedures.

Heffner: Jim Wall, if there were, in 1993, a school for Presidents, do you think that there would be a course, seminar perhaps…Ambiguity 101…

Wall: (Laughter)

Heffner: …with the notion that ambiguity that stems as, I think you believe…

Wall: Yeah.

Heffner: …from religious sensibility…

Wall: Yeah.

Heffner: …would be a plus…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …in the administration of a nation?

Wall: Yes. And you know, I have said before that times have changed.
Back in 1976, I think I may have said this to you on an earlier program, but I, I was doing Jimmy Carter’s campaign in the State of Illinois, running it, and a reporter and I were having a conversation, and he asked me a question and I said “well, I think the President is very ambiguous about this…or the candidate at the time…the governor is very ambiguous about this”, and then he stopped and he said, “I’m going to do you a favor”…

Heffner: I’m not going to use that phrase (laughter)…

Wall: “I’m not going to use that”…you see, because it implied he couldn’t make up his mind. Remember that was a condemnation of Adlai Stevenson. He was a man who was thoughtful…I mean the original Adlai Stevenson…he was thoughtful and he was, therefore, accused of not being able to be forceful.

Heffner: But, James Wall, for crying out loud…you and I, now you as long as I have, have lived through a big chunk of this century and we have seen those who were categorized as ambiguous in their thinking…Adlai Stevenson…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …nominated for the Presidency of the United States, defeated. Nominated for the Presidency of the United States, defeated…

Wall: Sure…

Heffner: …Jimmy Carter, nominated…victorious, and then defeated in a bid for a second term. Is it not possible that the ambiguity that you embrace here…smilingly…willingly…enthusiastically…is not what is going to be offered in our seminar on Presidential leadership?

Wall: I believe that I will give the sixties, that era we call the sixties, a lot of credit for opining up our attitude on the subject of ambiguity. If you remember before the sixties, authority was absolutist. And part of the revolution of the sixties was against absolute authority, and that meant the Deans of the schools, the President of the colleges, and the local police chiefs, and it became excessive, and radicalized, but in principle it had a point. Namely, no authority also as to be questioned. That’s where ambiguity comes in. Oh, can I, can I quote you something out of my mentor in this field, Reinhold Niebuhr…

Heffner: Please.

Wall: …who taught in at Union Theological Seminary in New York some years ago, and is one of the preeminent Protestant theologians grappling with this problem. His point that I want to lift up is that the, the sense of absolutism that tempts all persons, and that tempts all nations has to be examined in the light of theological wisdom. And this is what he said at one point, “We cannot expect” he said, “even the wisest of nations to escape every peril of moral and spiritual complacency. For nations have always been constitutionally self-righteous. But it will make a difference whether the culture in which the policies of nations are formed is only as deep and high as the nation’s highest ideals, or whether there is a dimension in that culture from the standpoint at which the element of vanity and all human ambitions and achievements is discerned”. Now in that last sentence…a little bit convoluted, he is saying if we’re limited to only as deep as high as the highest ideas…the, the Empire State Building and no further…or, is there a reality in which the element of vanity and all human ambitions and achievements is discerned. Is there something else addressing us? He was saying “surely we’re going to be self-righteous, but we’re going to have to be judged in our self-righteousness and have to keep that in mind when we make our decisions”.

Heffner: Yes, but I would like to point out to you that if we go back…excuse me…to our schools for Presidents…successful…

Wall: Yeah.

Heffner: …Presidents…

Wall: Yeah.

Heffner: …that you have pointed out that at his most popular we found George Bush at his most authoritarian…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …we found Ronald Reagan similarly…

Wall: No, that’s complicated.

Heffner: You’re trying to get out of that now?

Wall: No, no, I’m going to say…that’s complicated because both of those men skillfully, when they were pushing for their highest level of popularity and convincing the public that they were right, and take Bush in the case of the Gulf War…he had to create a reality that was without ambiguity. He had to create a reality, and he did that, and you know who helped him in that…the media that was so happy to have a war they could report on…the would-be correspondents, the Edward R. Murrows went dashing over the Middle East and stood in front of the bunker and talked. He had to create a reality. Now since reality is ambiguous, if you’re going to create a reality that’s not ambiguous you’ve got to demonize the other side, you’ve got to simplify the issues, you‘ve got to make it look as though there’s no other alternative. You see he started that Gulf War business a way early on after visiting with Margaret Thatcher…out in Aspen, Colorado, and determined that it’s going to be a single-minded, no other alternative sort of thing.

Heffner: But what I’m suggesting…ah…knock it down if you will, and I, I hope you will because I’m not happy with the idea…is that it is clear that at this stage of our national life…the media, in their presence, the nature of our thinking, seems to attach itself positively to the leader, to the macho person, not to the one who says, “Let’s us keep an open mind”, if I may use this phrase.

Wall: Well, it’s, it’s…I, I won’t attack your point…I will just illustrate it further by saying that media prefers to say “’The President acted today”.

Heffner: But there they are, Jim, you and I have spent hours at this table. You think I’m a media defender…you know better, but you like to get after me on this program. I’m a good whipping boy for that. But there they are…yes, they do that damage to our society, and the question I ask is can a President who manifests ambiguity, and I know in our last program you said, “Well, I’m not talking about manifesting it, I’m talking about an inner…”…

Wall: Being sensitive to it.

Heffner: Right. Sensitive to it.

Wall: Because he will have to make decisions, and when he does the ambiguity’s gone because he’s decided on option “a”, rather than option “b”.

Heffner: And if he decides on option “a” today, and option “b” tomorrow and option “c” the next day…

Wall: Well that, that’s not good leadership. I mean once you decide upon an option “a”, you stay with “a” until you have a very good reason not to stay with “a”…very good reason, and then you go to “b”.

Heffner: Well, that’s why there are…was it Safire who…Bill Safire who in his…in his comment about the…yeah, here it is…in his comment about the President’s…Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Address, he gave it a B plus. But he said in his…part…his paragraph on historic resonance…”he watered down Jefferson’s relish for revolution as a taste for dramatic change. But his peroration ‘Let us begin’ echoed John Kennedy’s phrase and his hopeful call to service echoed Wilson’s…excuse me…great Inaugural Peroration ‘Men’s hopes call upon us’.”. Then he said, “The too brief, too brief FDR quotation ‘old, persistent experimentation’ missed the moxie in that 1932 passage. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit if frankly and try another, but above all, try something”…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …but try something with determination…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …not with any…

Wall: Alright.

Heffner: …outward manifestation of ambiguity.

Wall: Ambiguity. Oh, no. No, no. Look, he’s appointed his wife…the First Lady of the land to coordinate the health care program. I’m sure that she’s going to work diligently with some talented people, eventually they will present options “a” and “b”, or maybe option “a” to the President. Eventually, at some point, he’s going to say “We’re going to go this way. We’re going to have to work with the Congress on this”. And when he does, he’s going to say, “This is my program and we’ll work it out, and with the conflict of Congress we’ll see what we can do”. Now if at some point this is not working out for various reasons, if, if new data comes to light, if…not just the fact that the insurance companies are going to lose money, that’s not the new data you’re looking for. If, if new reasons arise that makes you change, then you go to option “b”. No, he will move forcefully, but I think the public will fell better about his decisions if they feel that he’s moving out of a sense of what is best for all, not driven by some narrow ideology, or absolutist approach to the, to the solution.

Heffner: Oh, I agree with you. But I think more important that that is that the public will respond to certainty.

Wall: Well, he will show the certainty. I believe whatever the issue is, whatever he decides to do in Bosnia, for example, he will show a certainty. I don’t think, however, he’ll try and demonize one side or the other in Bosnia. The demon in Bosnia is the suffering of the people and the starvation and the agony. The demons in Somalia are those people who are starving and fortunately and to his credit, George Bush moved on that to, to stop that demon.

Heffner: Yes, but you see you’re, you’re…you seem to be ignoring or perhaps you don’t agree that there is a level of immaturity afoot in the country. You see it in the media, a level of immaturity that demands certainty.

Wall: Yes, if you’re looking for absolutism that’s immature, in my judgment.

Heffner: Okay.

Wall: Yes, there is that in the country.

Heffner: And I’m now, I guess, addressing myself to the question of political success. The success of this Administration. And it will succeed if it reflects, if it echoes, sufficiently, what the American people want in a President, and what the media want, too, because what do we know about what goes on in the world except as the media inform us?

Wall: Sure.

Heffner: Now, it, it seems to me you, you have a position and I admire it. And you, for the first time in my experiences with you, are ignoring the power of the media to undo the potential of the, of the working out of that modest ambiguity that you address yourself to.

Wall: You say for the first time I’m ignoring that? That’s been my major criticism of the media. Their need to entertain us with absolutes.

Heffner: Oh, sure. But, no, what I mean by that is that if that is their need, how is the President going to get away with something less than that? I mean at one moment you’ve talked…or many moments you’ve talked about almost the absolute power to sue that word…of the press…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: And now you seem to be positing the potential that the President of the United States will be able to survive, succeed and not have to play into that…need on the part of the press.

Wall: One reason is this, this President, I think, has the capacity to communicate to, with a sense of authenticity, to the public. And when he goes directly to the public with press conferences, and talk shows and whatever means he uses, he will be able to cut over, move through the media by trying to explain the complexities of what led to this point. First of all, he’s a teacher. I, we saw him in the Economic Conference that led into the Administration’s Inauguration…

Heffner: Yes.

Wall: …he loves to teach. He loves to grasp the complexities and the ambiguities and say, “here, here, and here, and then here’s where we’re going to”. I think he’ll do that with great skill.

Heffner: You seem to think that it is possible today for any leader to communicate directly with the people. I’m not talking about Ross Perot. I mean I’m talking about a leader, the President of the United States…really to get past the media, and connect himself directly to the American people.

Wall: It’s very difficult to do so. It’s very difficult to do so because as soon as he finishes speaking, you have all the talking heads that come on…

Heffner: Wait…

Wall: …after, after the Inaugural Address (laughter)…as soon as he finished what I think was a magnificent address, I gave him an “A” for it, not a B minus, or B plus…

Heffner: B plus, Safire said.

Wall: Safire did. The thing that caught my fancy was that the talking heads came on immediately and said, “Well, there are no memorable phrases”. And I thought to myself immediately “what does it mean ‘no memorable’, something is memorable only if enough time is passed for us to remember it”.

Heffner: But Jim, you, you’ve always been in my experience e a very toughly, realistic person. And now you describe this instant analysis after a Presidential speech, and the Inaugural Address at that…almost as if that’s not going to count in the Clinton years.

Wall: It will count…no, no…

Heffner: It’s not going to do what Agnew was so upset about in terms of…

Wall: It’ll still be a problem, but listen, I…we’re just starting out with this Administration. I think we’re going to have lost of difficulties with the talking heads that will, that will create the conventional wisdom, and tell us what the conventional wisdom is week by week. And…but I do believe that this country seems to be going through some kind of communications revolution in which…just look way back, and look at Zoe Baird’s nomination. Nobody understood that that was not going to work except the general public, and once the talk show people got on it, once the public started phoning in, the core issue emerged, which had been missed by everyone involved…missed, I think, by everyone, except Zoe Baird, because she told them, “Say, I think this could be a problem”, and they told her, “No, it won’t be a problem”. But the public jumps in…I think maybe since we began talking some years ago when I was so concerned about how the media was keeping the rest of the public from the reality of the leader. I think things are changing because of the technology, because of cable, because of C-Span…C-Span, and CNN, to some degree, but especially C-Span, they give us things as they happen, unvarnished, and the public is responding to that, and increasingly that’s going to be the case.

Heffner: Wow…that’s all I can say now, because it seems to me that that is not the case, that we still have to have matters interpreted for us. We don’t sit and watch C-Span the way you do…

Wall: Well, yes, we have…

Heffner: We don’t.

Wall: Okay, we have to be interpreted, and there’s not question but what the talk show host that puts the question to the audience, puts it as Rush Limbaugh might put it in a very negative fashion, and then someone else put it in another way, and that creates the feeling…you know, radio talk show hosts and the Larry Kings of this country are in many ways ministers with their congregations. And Larry King comes on the air as a minister, and his congregation is out there…not everyone listens to him…people who do listen to him do it either because they like him very much, or they dislike him intensely, but that’s his congregation, and he shapes the, the dialogue. That’s where the dialogue is being shaped.

Heffner: That’s why I’m so puzzled that you should think that a direct link between the President and America-at-large can be made. James Reston said once that Richard Nixon insisted on, in describing what should be the proper relationship between the press and the President, it’s what’s up front that counts…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …report what the President said…

Wall: Yeah.

Heffner: …don’t interpret it. Don’t set it in perspective.

Wall: Well, that’s inevitable that they’re going to do that. but, the, the…first of all, it’s the man himself…he was elected in large part, I think, because of who he is and what he projected as a human being, and he captured the fancy of the public, and I think that he had the experience of 12 years with a smaller audience, but nevertheless, a cross-section of America in Arkansas, in which he would go directly to the people. And the man himself resonates in such a way that people respond to him, and I think given the increased availability of, I’m not sure he’s going on Arsenio Hall, but he’s going to speak directly to the public in ways that will be more than just a televised news conference, but will be a one-on-one experience for the public.

Heffner: You’re making a bet, I gather, that the media will be used more and more as a conduit.

Wall: I would think that would be the case. Remember we’re moving into an era before his…let’s say he has eight years…before his time is finished, he will be looking at a lot of cable stations out there, not just 4 big network stations, or 5 big network stations, and so, yes, I think you’ll be able to m ore directly go to the public.

Heffner: But you also…I’m not talking about his ability to go to the public…

Wall: It’s…the technology that’s available will allow him to do that.

Heffner: I’m talking about the public’s ability…

Wall: To come back?

Heffner: No, no, no…the public’s ability to see, to understand what it is seeing, and what it has heard, to spend its time with the speaker himself, rather than with an encapsulated moment.

Wall: Alright, there’s no question but what we’re still victims of the sound bite…

Heffner: Willing victims…

Wall: Willing and, and shallow. I mean the shallowness is still there, and we…believe me I’m not over the anger and the feeling that we’re being entertained to death, as Neil Postman has explained to us, through the news coverage…no question about that, and we’re a long way from being the informed public that Walter Lippmann wanted us to have, so we could make good solid decisions. We’re a long way from there. But…

Heffner: But you think we’re heading in that direction.

Wall: I think…it depends on the leaders that we get who will appeal to our higher instincts…appeal to our better instincts…appeal to who we are at our best, rather than our grossest instincts…and I’ve got confidence at the beginning of this Administration that this man will do that.

Heffner: I think, Dr. Wall, what you’re doing is ignoring the dynamics both of American thinking, contemporary American thinking, which welcomes the sound bite. It doesn’t take very long to absorb it. I can then go about my business, I can go play tennis, I can take a drink, I can do whatever I want, because I haven’t had to sit and watch the President of the United States explain the ambiguities or explain his program to me…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …I’ve let the media do it for me.

Wall: Well, it may not just be a speech, it may be a dialogue with Larry King. People watch that, as I say his congregation watches that, and if the President is on a particular evening, the, the crowd will grow heavily, and then it will be reported about, and the word gets out there.

Heffner: We have less than a minute left…let me ask you…are you really that sanguine, are you really that hopeful, are you really…knowing where we are now, hopeful that we’ll be at that different point?

Wall: I am extremely hopeful because I think there’s a new feeling in the country, it isn’t just Democratic/Republican, I think there’s a feeling of change, and I do believe that this man’s capacity to inspire his audience out there is so strong that I think he will make a difference.

Heffner: Jim Wall, I hope you’re right. Anyway, come back and we’ll examine the question again…and you’ll tell me whether you were right or wrong. Dr. James Wall, thanks so much for joining me today.

Wall: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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