One Man's America, Part I

THE OPEN MIND
Guest: Ambassador Henry Grunwald
Title: “One Man’s America” Part I
VTR: 3/4/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And too many years ago now (for I’ve really missed him), when today’s guest was last here at this table and I had quite properly introduced him as “Mr. Ambassador,” since he had most recently served in Vienna as our nation’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Austria, the land from which he had come to America as a refugee when only a boy, he replied, “One remark at the outset, if I may, about this matter of the title ‘Mr. Ambassador.’ I’m very proud to have served as an ambassador, but I don’t know that these titles should be really in place for life, and I’m more than happy to be called ‘Mr. Grunwald,’ or, even better, ‘Henry.’ ”

So, let me introduce Henry Anatole Grunwald today not as “Mr. Ambassador,” or even in his enormously powerful, longtime, earlier role as managing editor of Time magazine, and then as editor-in chief of Time, Incorporated, but rather as the author now of an absolutely splendid autobiography: One Man’s America, published by Doubleday.

Of course, this book isn’t really about Henry Grunwald’s America alone. For we’re contemporaries. And on every page of it I find my own American odyssey as well, as I suspect you will too, however young, however old. Which means that in this program, and the next, there’s so much I will want to ask my Open Mind guest, starting, if I may, with his book’s concluding point. Let me read it: “The most exciting fact about America is its refusal to recognize limits. The most dangerous fact about America is its refusal to recognize limits. And in this contradiction lies the heart of America.”

So, Mr. Ambassador, Mr. Editor-in-chief, whatever … Henry, what do you mean by that?

GRUNWALD: I mean by that that one of our great virtues is that we really think we can do anything we set our minds to. And that, I think, has driven America to tremendous heights and to tremendous accomplishments. And I wouldn’t necessarily want it any other way. But we also sometimes have a very unrealistic perception of what we can do, what human nature can accomplish. And when we fail, we become very disillusioned and very disaffected, and sort of, in a sense, blame everybody in sight: politicians, journalists. And both of these categories certainly deserve a share of blame. We blame foreigners. We blame conspiracies. We’re particularly eager to blame conspiracies. And we do not, often enough, it seems to me, blame ourselves for perhaps lack of effort or lack of realism. And I think this sets up these two opposite poles, as it were, set up a certain tension, which, more often than not, I think, is creative, but not always.

HEFFNER: Does this contribute to what Richard Hofstadter, the historian, once called the “paranoid style in America?”

GRUNWALD: I think it probably does, yes. Yes.

HEFFNER: You know, you talk about human nature. And I don’t remember which of our programs that we did together, you said something about, as far as human nature is concerned, you found yourself on the conservative side. And I wonder what you meant by that.

GRUNWALD: Well, I think what I meant by that was that the very term “human nature,” in many ways, and in many intellectual and academic quarters, is an offensive term. Because some people believe that there is no such thing as human nature; that anything that people do is determined by environment, by society, by how they are treated by their parents, by their communities, and so on. Whereas I believe, and many conservatives believe, that there are certain irrefutables in human nature. I would include in that a certain amount of evil, which is in everybody. And therefore not everything can be determined, not everything can be shaped, by the right environment, or even by the right education, although certainly the right education can do a great deal.

HEFFNER: And what shaped that philosophy or that outlook, as you look back? And you have done that in One Man’s America. What has contributed most to your own sense of what you and what we and what this country is all about?

GRUNWALD: Well, the first thing that shaped my own impressions and beliefs, of course, was the fact that when I was 15 years old, having led a rather sheltered and comfortable life in Vienna, where my father was a very successful librettist, I was with my family and so many others who were overwhelmed by the Nazi invasion and Nazi takeover of Austria. We were actually, my family and I, were tremendously lucky by virtue of surviving. We got out, and we lived. Nevertheless, I had lost, and all of us had lost our homes, our habitual ways of living, and so on. And that was, shall we say, quite a shock to experience that at 15 or at any age. It was even, in many ways, harder for my parents.

Then, the second tremendous experience, formative experience, of course, was coming to America, discovering America, and finding a society and a social and political order that was so very different from even the best nations politically and socially in Europe. The great discovery – and it is hardly news, but it was very, very, very important at the time to me – the great discovery was freedom. The degree of freedom, the kind of freedom that simply did not exist in the Europe of my childhood. And I began to realize that freedom was an immense benefit, a great glory, a great blessing. But I also began to understand that freedom had its perils. There is such a thing as too much freedom. There is such a thing as freedom without an underlying sense of order or underlying discipline. And that is sort of how my, that is what the recognition that my American education was based on.

HEFFNER: But it’s interesting. I used the word “conservative,” which I drew from an earlier transcript; you used it here. But at Time, I know that you were not considered anywhere near as conservative as the powers that were when you arrived and for a long time during your tenure there.

GRUNWALD: Well, look, these terms, of course, as you very well know, are highly flexible and subject to interpretation and so on. I was very amused, for instance, to read in one review of my book (generally the reviews were very favorable), but I was amused to read in one review of the book that under my guidance the publications of Time, Incorporated have become too liberal. A great many of my former colleagues undoubtedly were quite surprised to hear that. However, basically what I was trying to do when I became responsible first for Time magazine and then for the other publications was, very frankly, to steer something of a middle course politically. I know that, to many people, the center is a boring and uncreative place. I think politically, however, that the center is very important, and it is, in my opinion, where most progress, political and social, is made, unless things are so bad that they require a stronger remedy from either the right or the left. But, yes, you are right; I tried to be more moderate and more balanced. Not so much moderate as more balanced in our judgments when I took over Time.

HEFFNER: More balanced.

GRUNWALD: Yes.

HEFFNER: I think of Time as a young man, remembering back those days, as being enormously political. Did your balance mean that you were political in a more balanced, fairer way, or that you became, the magazine became less political?

GRUNWALD: No, I would like to think that the former description is the accurate one. We certainly remained a political magazine, partly because I personally am fascinated by politics, and partly because I really think that, in a democracy, the citizenship must be concerned, should be concerned with politics. And I think the important thing is not to see politics purely in terms of caricature or oversimplification, but to get behind the clichés and to sort of explain what is really going on. And we try to do that at Time. And I think it’s one of the really important functions of journalism, which nowadays is not always performed as well as it should be.

HEFFNER: Tell me about that. As you knew I would pick up, I would have to pick up something that sounded even the tiniest bit critical.

GRUNWALD: Well, of course. I’m not here criticizing Time magazine as it exists today …

HEFFNER: I didn’t mean about Time; I meant about the press.

GRUNWALD: I just want to make clear that I think Time magazine is in very good hands. But in general, the press, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the press in this country has become, to some extent, trivialized. There is a wonderful line in T.S. Eliot which goes like this: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in the knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” And I would add to that: Where is the information we have lost in entertainment? And I think that the American press of recent years has reared more and more toward entertainment. By “entertainment,” I don’t mean just stories about Hollywood or rock music; I mean, in a sense what I mean is tabloid kind of material, which is legitimate up to a point. People want to read it, they want to see it and hear it. But there is much, much less coverage, both on the tube and in print, with very few exceptions, of serious news, especially foreign news. And I’m distressed by that.

HEFFNER: Why has it happened?

GRUNWALD: Well, I think it’s happened partly because, as I said, of the collapse of the Soviet Union. You see, the communist threat, mostly real, occasionally imagined or exaggerated, but mostly real, kept the American audience, the American public, committed to being at least concerned with foreign affairs. Because if there was that great, big enemy out there, the Soviet Union, we saw that enemy working in every part of the globe, whether it was the middle of Africa or in Asia, and we felt that we were threatened, and therefore that we had to pay attention. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, that threat seemed to have disappeared. Other threats emerged, of course, but they’re not nearly as simple to describe or they’re not even as easy to resist as communism was. And so we’ve decided, as a people, I think, that what happens out there isn’t so important, and we’ll just worry about ourselves and our own country. And even in stories about our own country, very often people, the mind sort of shuts off when we have yet another story about medical care or political slush funds and so on. There’s a threshold beyond which people don’t seem to want to go. And I don’t altogether blame them; but I blame them somewhat, because I think that, as much as we distrust the press, much as we blame the press for things, we also should blame the audience a little bit. The audience simply must make, is required to make, in a democracy, a somewhat greater effort to be informed than, in fact, it does. It prefers entertainment now.

HEFFNER: Henry, this is not unlike other discussions we’ve had, when you say “the public must take some blame,” it seems to me, because I was going to say to you, “This is a two-way street, isn’t it?”

GRUNWALD: It is.

HEFFNER: You seem to me to be putting it all upon a changed readership, a changed viewership, a changed America. Couldn’t you, during your period of command at Time, have done just about the same thing with safety and with box-office impunity, which audience participation, readership impunity? You didn’t. Are you going to say that during your period of command audiences were so vitally interested, thanks to the Soviet threat, in what was going on about the world that magazines and television (and I’m not talking about Time now, I mean just generally information media, where has the information gone), are you saying at that time the audience would accept it; now it wouldn’t?

GRUNWALD: I think at that time the audience was more ready to accept it than it is now. And it is also possible that before, because of financial conditions, we were willing, in my day perhaps, to risk, let’s say, a cover story that we knew wouldn’t sell very well, because the overall financial picture was still fairly comfortable. Nowadays, if you put a foreign-affairs cover on Time magazine or on Newsweek, or if Peter Jennings devotes a long segment to some foreign subject, the viewership and readership will really turn off, in a way. And it has become harder to take these chances because of the very competitive financial and business climate in which media companies now function. It is always a question of chicken and egg, what comes first. Does the press in itself, or the media, do they really kind of shape people’s tastes and inclinations of the people? People’s tastes shape what the media do? It’s a tough one to disentangle.

HEFFNER: And when you do disentangle it, where do you come out?

GRUNWALD: When I do disentangle it? I guess I don’t disentangle it. I guess I have to say, which is perhaps a cop-out, but I think I have to say that it’s a mutual process, it’s a mutually reinforcing process.

HEFFNER: Are you talking about going broke? Or are you talking about not doing as well in the competition as the next fellow?

GRUNWALD: I think I’m not talking about going broke, exactly. But there is no question that the readership for many serious newsmagazines, for newsmagazines and other forms of serious news, has declined, newspaper readership has declined, and network viewership has declined, as you well know. So it is not exactly a question of life and death; but it is a question of potential attrition and, as you say, a sort of poor competitive position.

HEFFNER: Where does your optimism come from?

GRUNWALD: My optimism about America in general?

HEFFNER: Uh huh. Because you’re not talking about an uninformed America. You certainly couldn’t be optimistic about an uninformed America.

GRUNWALD: Well, my optimism is … Let me first of all say there’s a good deal of pessimism in my view, which has to do with, not primarily with the press or general level of information; it has to do a great deal with education. I think our educational system is in dreadful trouble for any number of reasons. And it also has to do, my pessimism has to do with what I call “tribalism,” which is the, let’s say, certainly in race relations, the resegregation, I would say voluntary, not only of schools and universities, but of communities. The tribalization in the sense that we are more, we seem to be now, many of us seem to be more concerned with what’s known as “group rights” than with the country as a whole. If, in spite of this and many other problems that I could cite and do cite in my book, even in spite of this I remain optimistic. It is a study of, in a sense, an observation of history in America that we have managed to pull ourselves together and pull ourselves out of so many serious crises before that I have a sort of faith that it will do this again. If you think of what we have gone through (I won’t even mention the Civil War, which was an extraordinary thing to survive, but we did, and we emerged, I think, as a better country, much better country, much better civilization than we were before), if you think about the two wars, if you think about Korea and Vietnam what we have survived, even for Vietnam, although the scars are still everywhere, I think we have a talent for survival. And I might add, I think, that talent is partly sort of due to native American optimism, but I think it is also partly due, perhaps to a large measure due to immigration. That’s a hot-button word these days. But I think the continued inflow of immigrants has contributed to this capacity we seem to have for self-renewal.

HEFFNER: Now, when you say that, when you say, “Where has information gone? Where has knowledge gone? Where has immigration gone?” and you look back at the last century, this century, our century, don’t you have to see the progress that you have identified as part and parcel of an expanding educational structure, an expanding informational, information-satisfied public (if not satisfied, at least a public that was getting its information), and now you’re talking about a change, a sea change.

GRUNWALD: Well, let’s go to education first before we sort of talk about information of the media again. Of course education has expanded tremendously. It has expanded, to some extent, qualitatively. People are studying things, are being taught things way beyond anything that would have been imagined in your day or my day in high school or in college. But some of that expansion of education has been quantitative rather than qualitative. I think a great many people have concluded that college is something they must have, and it is their right to go to college. And I think in many respects, college education therefore has somewhat thinned out. College actually is still, I think we’re still pretty well in college, although I’m appalled by the fact that many college graduates have only a smattering of history, including American history, have only the slightest acquaintance with the English language, and you can find college graduates today who really can’t put words together in a properly constructed sentence. So I think that some of our achievements here are, as I said, in numbers, that is, in how many people manage to get to college, or to high school, for that matter, and how many … But the question remains: How well educated are they? The real problem, of course, as we all know, begins in grade school and really most serious in the middle schools and high school.

HEFFNER: And your assumptions about what we’re going to do about that?

GRUNWALD: My assumptions about what we’re going to do about that is that we seem to have a quality of muddling through for a long time, discussing the problem endlessly, and then getting fed up and finally saying, “Well, something has to be done about this.” What I look for – and I think we’ve talked about this before on my previous visits with you – what I look for is what I call one of those “secular crusades,” where people really get passionate about an issue. And it happened with the environment, which was not a big issue 50 years ago. Teddy Roosevelt did something about it, but it was not a major political issue, certainly when I came to political consciousness. We’ve had similar secular crusades about things that may seem trivial, like smoking, but it isn’t. We have had secular crusades about women’s rights. You may argue that that crusade has gone too far, but that’s another issue. We have had crusades like that about gay rights. We are extraordinarily capable of changing the assumptions and the rules by which we live. This is very much against the cliché that people are powerless. They are not; they are tremendously powerful. And I think that if enough people get really angry about education and begin to develop some kind of program, this could change. In fact, in some ways it has begun to change.

HEFFNER: That’s an optimistic note.

GRUNWALD: Yes.

HEFFNER: And I appreciate that, coming from two old pessimists.

GRUNWALD: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But what about immigration, which you think of as so important?

GRUNWALD: Well, I think that the current emotion against immigration is quite unfair. I do think that the …

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “unfair?”

GRUNWALD: Well, I mean, for instance, we have just passed some laws that are removing certain benefits from legal immigrants who are already here. It seems to me that these people came here on the assumption that certain things were due to them as immigrants. You can argue whether they should have been promised, as it were, promised to them or not. When I came here as an immigrant, much less was promised to immigrants than in more recent years. The fact is that these things were on the books, they were promised, and the rules were suddenly changed. I’m talking about legal immigrants now. Illegal immigrants are a totally different story.

I think it is also either unfair or just simply inaccurate to blame immigrants for job loss. First of all, our unemployment rate is the envy of Europe, and it is remarkably low. Secondly, I don’t think – I know you can push statistics around any way you want to – but I don’t think that immigrants, on the whole, have cost a lot of American jobs. In fact, I think the contrary is true.

And I do sometimes worry – in fact, I frequently worry – about one aspect of current immigration, which is that it is quite true that, I think, many recent immigrants, because of the principle of uniting families and bringing in relatives and so on, that many immigrants are really quite poorly educated, and especially seem to be resistant to learning English. I am personally outraged by bilingual ballots. I think anybody who has earned the right to vote in this country must be required, should be required to understand English. I am outraged and worried, outraged by and worried by bilingual education. I think while it was advertised as a kind of transitional measure to help people in their own language to become educated and then make the transition to English, it is not clear to me that this is really working as a transition; it seems to me to be coming a permanent or semipermanent bilingual condition is many of our cities. That worries me.

HEFFNER: Now that I’ve got you worrying, I’m going to say we’ve reached the end of our program. But stay where you are, and we’ll worry more on the next program.

GRUNWALD: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thank you. Thanks very much for joining me today, Henry Grunwald.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time too. If you would like to a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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