In Memoriam to Richard D. Heffner
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I’m Alexander Heffner, grandson and past guest of Richard Heffner, your longtime Open Mind host whom we lost last December. On this landmark public-affairs broadcast that he created fifty-seven years ago, Richard Heffner occasionally interrupted his weekly on-air conversations to present – In Memoriam – a past interview with one of Open Mind’s many distinguished guests including Martin Luther King, Jr., William F. Buckley, Helen Gurley Brown and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Today, we celebrate the extraordinary life of Richard D. Heffner, public intellectual, inspirational teacher, broadcasting pioneer…a great American patriot and public servant.
As a young historian in1952, Richard Heffner published A Documentary History of the United States, a bestselling collection of seminal documents in U.S. history updated in ensuing decades…from the Constitutional crisis of Watergate through the historic election of President Obama.
With this American heritage richly preserved as its backdrop, Richard Heffner’s Open Mind interviewed world renowned dignitaries, prize-winning academics and leaders across disciplines…displaying all the while an indefatigable curiosity concerning ideas – and unparalleled enthusiasm, grace and inclusiveness toward its subjects.
Open Mind’s enduring principles – too seldom exhibited in mainstream programming – were civility, civic-consciousness and yet contemporary relevance. Each week was a brilliant, timeless exposition in the universe of ideas.
The program was also prescient: Giving early voice to civil rights activists before anti-discrimination laws were enacted and to critics of money’s outsized influence in politics long before the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
During the following 50th anniversary Open Mind special taped in 2006, public television’s Bill Moyers turned-the-tables on the Open Mind host and probed his mastery of this medium: “The key,” my grandfather said, “Is listening.” The interview is a voyage into Richard Heffner’s personal journey and the indelible imprint he leaves on intellectual life in America.
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
I first said those words in May, 1956, when I began to produce and host this weekly conversation.
Today, however, on what will become the beginning of our Open Mind 50th anniversary celebration, I’ll play guest instead … as I admit I’ve so much wanted to for the past half century…while my most favorite and admired broadcaster – my friend Bill Moyers – will be this program’s host. And I can only hope he’ll treat me as gently as my years warrant. So, Bill, it’s all yours.
MOYERS: Richard, I’m flattered by those words; honored by this invitation and impressed that you would invite the younger generation in … and that you’d yield to the younger generation. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Well, I’m so pleased that you were willing to do this. You know something … I have to tell you … I feel nervous.
MOYERS: I was going to ask you … are you nervous? Why?
HEFFNER: I am.
HEFFNER: Because I’ve had it easy. I’ve been able to ask the questions and not have to think as quickly on my feet as you, as my guest had in past years and as my guests do each week.
MOYERS: What are you … what question are you nervous about being asked?
HEFFNER: Aha. (Laughter) That’s the best question you could ask me …
MOYERS: I mean, seriously, are you … is there something you, you … you have often feared that I … “if somebody would ask me something, that I wouldn’t be able to answer glibly or smartly and that I just have egg on my face”.
HEFFNER: Well, I think what I mean by this is that I don’t think I can answer glibly any question. I watch my guests. I watch you. I watch others. This past week I’ve been looking at programs that I want to use for the anniversary broadcasts. I’ve been looking at Sidney Hook. And Richard Helms. And others. People who feel so strongly about what they’ve done in life and are so articulate about what they’ve done. I think I’m a questioner, not an “answerer”.
MOYERS: What do you think is the key to listening?
HEFFNER: Being a teacher. Does that sound strange?
HEFFNER: I think it’s wanting to teach … meaning wanting to teach the audience … whatever that audience is … a classroom, or a television audience … and wanting them to hear, to understand, what the important person you’re talking with has to say.
MOYERS: Well, I … I think most people watching this see you, almost exclusively as the host of Open Mind and the listener and the questioner. But I know you as a teacher, a historian, a scholar, an editor. Where did this curiosity about ideas come from?
HEFFNER: Columbia College. I can tell you that or maybe just before then at the greatest high school there ever was … DeWitt Clinton High School … in those days. DeWitt Clinton which produced, incidentally, Bill, so many of the top editors of The New York Times, previous generations. A great teacher by the name of Doc Gurnsey …
MOYERS: What was the name?
HEFFNER: Gurnsey … Irwin S. Gurnsey … “Doc” to his students. I think he was the only Ph.D. on the faculty.
MOYERS: What did you learn from him? What did he do for you? How did touch … you know, Robert Penn Warren once said to me that anybody who’s anybody has been touched by somebody. A grandmother, a grandfather, a next door neighbor, but usually a teacher. What did this “Doc” do for you?
HEFFNER: You know, it’s the first time I’ve thought to answer that question. That’s what I meant, Bill, about not … about feeling rather tense about being asked the questions rather than asking them. I guess what “Doc” gave me was a sense of the glory of American history. He was an American historian. He taught American history.
And the relationship that he created with all of us students … “Doc” had had polio as a young man. And as FDR did, and don’t forget I was his student …
MOYERS: You …
HEFFNER: … when our President was Franklin Delano Roosevelt … “Doc” wore heavy braces on his legs. And moved slowly, one leg after the other and had a great big cane. Well, now I have a cane …
HEFFNER: … but his was a great big one …
MOYERS: What goes around, comes around … right?
HEFFNER: Absolutely. But he used to bang it on the desk. Last year, when I first began … not to “sport” my walking stick, but to use a cane for balance, I went into a classroom and, by gosh, I thought of “Doc” and I brought the cane down heavily on the, the desk. And I thought to myself, “This is wonderful. They may get from me, now, somewhat …something of what I got from ‘Doc’.” Because he pushed his ideas and he pushed he feeling about teaching.
MOYERS: Did he … did he live long enough to know that you had edited and abridged Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America, or that you had put together this long best selling, A Documentary History of the United States? Did he know about these books?
HEFFNER: “Doc” didn’t … well, the books hadn’t been as successful as you’re kind enough to say, by the time he died. But they had come out. I mentioned “Doc” I believe in the “thanks”, the acknowledgements in the Documentary History which came out in ’52 … 1952 …
HEFFNER: … but you know, Bill, “Doc” cursed at the beginning with infantile paralysis, later had cancer, facial cancer … and a large part of his jaw was taken out. But when our boys were, I think, about five or six and three …we took them up, just before “Doc” died … to meet him, and I thought to myself, “What’s going to happen? These boys may be horrified at what they see?”
But what exuded from him as a teacher, exuded from him as a sort of grandfather substitute, and they loved him. As I had loved him and thought he was great. Bill, I will tell you one thing, he was on television with me on a program I did called “Man of the Year”. And Variety reviewed that program and said, “Heffner had an old teacher …”
HEFFNER: … “He should have known better.”
HEFFNER: But “Doc” was a great, inspiring person.
MOYERS: Well, this compilation you did of great American documents … A Documentary History of the United States … prompts me to wonder if you think of all the documents you have studied and added to this over the years, is there one that most eloquently expresses the American mind?
HEFFNER: Yes. I, I don’t think there’s any question but that it is the Declaration of Independence. But I have to tie it to the Constitution. I think those two seminal documents cause us to go back and be proud and I don’t say that as an originalist; I don’t say that as a believer that if you take those words literally, you will have the American mind and the American spirit and what we mean by America today.
But I think they’re brilliant, magnificent distillations … the Declaration certainly was. Jefferson said that it was a distillation of what … the mind of America at that time. And I think the Constitution, too.
But there are so many others, whether it’s a Lincoln document because Lincoln remains my great hero. Or a Franklin D. Roosevelt … the first Inaugural Address was so magnificent. Back in the days when I was the Chair of the Motion Picture Rating System …
MOYERS: Most people don’t know that about you … that you’re the guy who helped put X, R …
MOYERS: … PG-13 …
HEFFNER: Well, you know …
MOYERS: … on movies for how long? For how long?
HEFFNER: Twenty years.
MOYERS: Twenty years.
HEFFNER: My sentence was 20 years. But, what I wanted to say was that your friend, Jack Valenti and I, and Jack was the head of the Motion Picture Association of America …and the father of the rating system …
HEFFNER: And I’ll give him credit for that. But when we’d get into disputes … and Jack I think is the most charming individual ever born, he would say … he would quote your other friend, Lyndon Johnson and say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And I think Johnson was quoting Sam Rayburn at that.
And I’d say, “Jack that may be your favorite statement, but I think back to Abraham Lincoln who said, ‘When new views prove to be true views, I shall adopt them’.” And that I happen to think is the essence of those two documents that I love the most, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
MOYERS: When you go home this evening, read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense …
MOYERS: … the Declaration, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and then one of my favorite documents in here, the 1892 platform of the Populist Party. Remember that?
HEFFNER: I sure do.
MOYERS: I want to come back in a moment to the ratings, that’s another side of your life, another long experience in your life. But, in this new version of A Documentary History, the documents of American history, you include two speeches by George W. Bush after 9/11 and Rudy Giuliani’s farewell address in late 2001. Why those three documents and do you think they will stand the test of time?
HEFFNER: Good question. And some of my guests say that to me, “Good question”. And it’s a puzzling question because politically speaking I certainly have nothing good to say about George W. Bush. But I think probably the power that he maintains today, the very fact that we re-elected him, or we elected him in 2004. The Supreme Court choose him in 2000; we elected him by a substantial number of votes. You can’t just say …
HEFFNER: … he squeaked through. I think all stems back to those important documents. The back to the stand he took …
MOYERS: One was at the prayer breakfast that followed 9/11. The other was the State of the Union.
HEFFNER: Yeah. And both of them, of course, identified him with opposition to the terrorists. And I think that George W. Bush has only that.
MOYERS: It is clear in, in the introduction you write to those three speeches, the two by Bush, President Bush and the farewell address by Giuliani, that you, you have a deep admiration for Giuliani. For what he did that, that period.
HEFFNER: I have a profound admiration for the way he was able, at a time when he was just coming … when he was down at the bottom in his political standing, that he was able to make us feel, “We can do it. We can live through this. We can survive.” And that was terribly, terribly important.
Does this mean that I hope, as a number of people I know, hope that he becomes a candidate for President? Not one bit. I like Rudy Giuliani. I liked him as a guest. He was here when he was United States Attorney; he was here when he was Mayor of New York. But when I think of what he did at the Republican Convention in 2004 … I want no part …
MOYERS: … (chuckle)
HEFFNER: … of political power on the part of Rudy Giuliani in the future.
MOYERS: You know, as you talk and as I just sit here thinking about your life and look at you, I realize what you’ve lived through … the Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the McCarthy years, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, raging inflation in the 1970s, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the polarization of American politics, and culture and life today … 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. Has there been any moment in all of that time when you thought the United States might not withstand the forces, the gales that were tearing it apart.
HEFFNER: Yes. My students, I think, can’t appreciate this, but Lyndon Johnson made a great speech, I thought, at the … what was it … in Chicago, at the National Association of Broadcasters … the night after, the day after he announced that he wasn’t going to run for President …
HEFFNER: … for re-election.
MOYERS: Not many people remember that speech.
HEFFNER: And it … I think it’s a terribly important one, it’s in the Documentary History, I have my students read it. And he says to broadcasters, “You must ask yourselves what responsibilities you have … think back to those grim days at the beginning of World War II, what would have happened to our resolve, our ability to fight and to win, had you been here and had there been a living room war. And night after night after night, the losses of that first year been open to the American public again and again and again.” And the answer to your question is that “Yes, in those early days after Pearl Harbor, in the year after Pearl Harbor, the losses that we sustained, the losses that the British sustained, the battle ships that went down, there was a time when the question was … not, we did it before and we can do it again …
HEFFNER: … but, indeed, can we do this in time?”
MOYERS: Did you know, Richard, I think that’s one of the reasons I like so many of the old British dramas on, on public television. By the way, I happen to know … the audience doesn’t, that you were an early Founding Father of the flagship station for public broadcasting, Channel 13 … here in New York. But I think I like them because I’m old enough to remember how close it was to a cataclysmic disaster that, that just a few days or a different judgment by Adolf Hitler or Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill and it could all … of what we call “The West” come unraveled.
HEFFNER: it’s hard for anyone who didn’t live through that time to remember it. To understand it. And you understand why I raise questions about our media, our medium, let’s, let’s focus on this.
MOYERS: Your friend and hero, Edward R. Murrow, who was a hero of mine, too, once said in another speech that television is a … I don’t get this exactly right, but I’m close … is a, is a rusty sword still in the scabbard … well, I … it sometimes seems to me that rusty sword has been pulled out and is being used against democracy. Now does that make us both an old fuddy-duddy?
HEFFNER: No, I think it makes us both aware of history and both concerned about what we do when we do not know what the past is composed of. And I find, and maybe that’s the old fuddy-duddyness aspect of it. I find that most people today think the world was made yesterday, was the world … and I’m not putting myself in the creationist Darwin battle … I am saying that I just think that what I’ve noticed most about our times is a non-historicism, an anti-historicism, that if anything will do us in … it will.
MOYERS: What George Orwell called the “black hole” everything is pushed down the black hole of memory.
HEFFNER: The trouble is so many people never knew it to remember it.
MOYERS: In your introduction to the Tocqueville book that you edited … you … in that introduction you refer to his strong belief that the future of American life and liberty would depend upon an independent press. What do you think that de Tocqueville would think today about these giant media companies that are really in bed with power? For me, the best moments in the history of the American press have come when the press has stood independently of, of power and I’ve said that on your program before. But what do you think de Tocqueville would think about the state of our press today?
HEFFNER: I think he’d be as horrified as you so articulately express your horror. I think that the state of the press, the conglomeration … the conglomerates that we’re concerned about and the state of the judiciary, which he also emphasizes … he said, “We will maintain our independence; we will maintain democracy and freedom if we have a free and independent press and if we have an alert judiciary; a judiciary that can stand between the representatives of the people, the President of the United States and those Constitutional principles that we have spoken of.
MOYERS: Interestingly, de Tocqueville thought the Presidency, when he was here in 1830 was too weak. He thought the national government was ineffective and would be unable to unite the, the forty states of the continent as he then … he called. He’d be astonished today, I think, at the power of the Presidency. Don’t you?
HEFFNER: I don’t think there’s any question but that was the major mistake that he made. The, the area … that he did not see carefully enough and fully enough … but I think that his concern for the tyranny of the majority; his concern for that has metamorphosed into the President as a symbol of majority will. When you can use all of the devices at your disposal; all of the public relations devices; all of the advertising devices. All of the spinning to create, I think, an inappropriate public opinion. That is what he would fear the most.
MOYERS: Here’s a question that I have never heard you ask your guest. I may have missed it somewhere along the way, I haven’t been able to see every program although I’ve watched a lot, and I have read the text of many of the interviews you’ve done in your book As They Saw It.
But here’s a question I don’t think you’ve ever asked them … that I … that discombobulates me … why do we stand for it? I mean if you read Common Sense and you read Tocqueville and you read the Gettysburg Address … “of, by and for the people” … and you read the Populist Platform of 1890 … this is our government. The airways belong to the radio and TV, which belong to the American people and yet, they’re in the control of … run by … large mega-media corporations that have no interest whatsoever in this democratic discourse that you’re talking about. Why do we stand for it? Why are we so complacent, so passive … so, ah, “done to”?
HEFFNER: You know, Bill, you ask me as if I could answer.
MOYERS: Well, I expect you to … that’s why you’re on my show.
MOYERS: I brought you here for answers, Richard Heffner. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Fair enough. Fair enough. I don’t know. I, I’m … I have thought about that in a slightly different way, I’ve thought about it and your question is a very important one and may be I’ll ask it from now on. I’ve thought about the dispossessed. I’ve thought about the Black community. I’ve thought about Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail … it’s in my collection, in the Documentary History … the question that he asked, “Shall we … shall I say ‘wait’ to my children and my grandchildren?”
I’ve asked the question of how we take … what you’ve described, why haven’t we brought down … why haven’t we had our own Populist Platform in the year 2006. I think in a sense we’re too fat and sassy. I think we’re too satisfied; we’re too busy with material things.
I’ve don’t mean there isn’t a huge area in this country that’s … I don’t mean that there is not a huge area that’s dispossessed. But I think perhaps it’s the only answer I can think of .. we’re too well off.
MOYERS: Well …
HEFFNER: … Bill, let me … I want to say this …
MOYERS: Yeah, sure … it’s your show …
HEFFNER: (Laughter) … no, it’s your show …
HEFFNER: … when I’ve asked the counterpart of your question of my guests … after the program is over … what are we going to do about the things that they have said ay de me about on the program. They say it’s going to take another major depression or it’s going to take another major war for us to come back to basics.
MOYERS: One has to admire the Conservatives, though, because when Howard Beale, the anchorman on “Network” stood up and said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore …”; they were mad as hell and they didn’t take anymore. I mean they set out to take over the political and media power in this country and they’ve largely succeeded. Where is everyone else?
HEFFNER: Ah, well … fat and sassy or scared or not mean enough, Bill, not determined enough.
MOYERS: But you deplore so much of the polarization and the invective and the distemper of our public discourse today. What do you mean by “mean enough”?
HEFFNER: Well, let’s take the … let’s take the way in which the Right decided to organize a long, long time ago. I don’t think that Hilary Clinton was wrong when she talked about a Right Wing conspiracy that had gone on for a long time, I think she was quite right. They organized back, almost to that horror of horrors … the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, ’32, 36, 40, 44 … they couldn’t take it, they couldn’t stand it any longer and they began to organize then and I think everything on the Right today is a reaction against the New Deal and what followed it.
MOYERS: You know the frustration of television is that 30 minutes passes as fast as 50 years.
HEFFNER: Are you going to tell me the time is up?
MOYERS: (Laughter) It’s almost up …but on that note, Richard Heffner … I turn your show back over to you, for the farewell.
HEFFNER: Bill … Bill Moyers, thank you so much for being the host today. I’m enormously grateful to you …
MOYERS: Happy anniversary, by the way.
HEFFNER: Thank you. 50 years deserves something. And I got it in your being the host of this program. I was nervous to start with, I’m not quite so nervous to begin with, thanks to you. And I hope you’ll come back here on The Open Mind, as my guest.
MOYERS: Most certainly.
ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Thank you for joining us today … In Memoriam. I hope you will visit thirteen.org/openmind to reprise the vast collection of Open Mind interviews retracing pivotal moments in our history and the debates that shape us as a people.
Meanwhile, as my dear friend, my mentor, and my grandfather used to say, citing his broadcast hero Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck.”