A Moral Dimension, Part II

THE OPEN MIND

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James Wall
Title: “A Moral Dimension”, Part II
VTR: 7/23/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and this is the second of a two-part discussion with Dr. James Wall, the brilliant, the erudite, peripatetic Editor of The Christian Century magazine. We talked of cabbages and kings and lots of other things last time…so let’s now just pick up now with more of my innocent questions to my religious friend.

Dr. Wall, we kid each other a lot, we have over the years, but I find the editorials that you write in Christian Century to be truly brilliant, and to touch on many, many, many themes that…about which I envy you your, your ability to articulate what so many of us think. Recently, March 15th, 1989, you wrote an editorial called “Measuring Character in the Headlines”, and I wonder if we could talk about that outside of your usual anti-media point of view. Tell me what your fix was here.

Wall: You better remind me…what was the occasion that brought that editorial…

Heffner: Well, here you were first writing about Jerry Falwell in 19…May 1979, decided it was time to inject some heavy morality in to the public arena, and you go on from there to the question of character in the headlines, and, of course, I’d like you to elaborate further on the Tower confirmation…

Wall: Yes. Alright.

Heffner: You remember.

Wall: I see. It shows that we’re not…this is not rehearsed because I wasn’t exactly sure…

Heffner: (Laughter)

Wall: …what I had said…and I, uh…

Heffner: No, and I surely wouldn’t let you know ahead of time what I was going to ask you.

Wall: I think what I’m getting at in an editorial like this is it concerns me a great deal that perhaps by the very nature of the beast, the media itself, it will always be dealing with somewhat surface material, and one of the reasons you found such a marriage between fundamentalist Christianity and the political development of that in the media is that the fundamentalist Christians have given the media such easy ways of describing the world…black/white…good/bad…easy stuff. And, therefore, in my concern with a lot of editorials is that we take characters like Gary Hart, like John Tower, and we find fault with them. We find them making mistakes, we find them making horrendously bad judgment mistakes, but we let that be the final measure of who they are, and that’s grossly unfair. We lose, in some cases…I won’t make individual judgments in this regard, but we lose good people from government because of that. Now that’s what I mean about “measuring character by headlines”.

Heffner: And yet, when we spoke in our last program, you talked about what you considered to be in time a shift, a necessary shift in American attitudes from the individualism of the past…what…half century or so…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …maybe the individualism that has characterized American life up until now, and you rather believe, as I understand, that we are moving toward a life in which rules will play a larger and larger role. Is that fair?

Wall: Well, rules, and I have written an editorial along those lines, that we mustn’t make light of rules…

Heffner: Yes.

Wall: …that it is important, and that’s the other side of this coin, that we cannot allow the culture just to say, ”do what you want to do”. That’s been the individual approach. “If you want to do this, that’s your freedom…your right to do that, as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody, go ahead and do it”. No, rules for the community are important, and rules for the society that everyone has an understanding of what they are, in common, are important to follow.

Heffner: But then when our public people violate those rules, aren’t they fair game?

Wall: Well, yes they’re “fair game”, but you see the problem with the media in this regard is the way in which they like to pick up on the sensational element…womanizing is a favorite media topic…I can’t imagine why. Yes, I can imagine why, because it’s very popular with the public. And any sexual peccadillo is greatly seized upon by the media and the nighttime talk shows and the Sunday morning talk shows, and that doesn’t necessarily tell us how effective these individuals would be…or have been in government. As I say, I would not stand here and argue for John Tower being the greatest government official we’ve ever had, but he apparently served the country rather well, for a period of time. At least the people of Texas kept sending him back to the Senate and he seemed to be respected. At least not terribly well-liked by his fellow Senators, but at least respected as a man of some knowledge, and yet because he was “nailed” on apparent incidents of drinking and of…and of…not yet to my knowledge, of…proven to be an alcoholic, which would have ruled him out as a government official, at least if he didn’t stop it, or womanizing. It’s just that way of measuring public officials that the media has picked up on in recent years, and it’s recent, by the way. In many…in an interesting way here, your finding the liberal media playing the community game…you just asked me a question that implied there was a contradiction here. It is a shift, but it’s a shift because it seems to be a good way of attracting attention from the public, if you can lift these things up. And as we’ve…I noted, I’m sure in previous programs, the kind of peccadillos we’re looking at now were easily gotten away with back in the thirties and the forties because the game did not permit us to expose a Franklin Roosevelt behavior or Dwight Eisenhower behavior, as it would today. Just a shift and it’s ironically I think a shift in favor of this move toward the community. I don’t like that part of it, but that’s still part of the dynamic that’s developing.

Heffner: You say you don’t like that part of it…

Wall: That’s because it’s a piatistic, moralistic, shallow way of treating it.

Heffner: But wait a minute, isn’t that going to go with the territory?

Wall: Oh yes, that’s the downside. Always the downside of rules is rigidity. Always the downside of a concern with moral fiber is moralism. You’re always going to have downsides. This is never…the media would think it’s either/or, one way of the other. What you and I are trying to explore here, with an open mind to looking at it, is there’s a downside to the advances that we have, and we’ve got to learn to live with the downside.

Heffner: Jim, I’d like to point out to your that we went through a half-hour of this discussion last time, and this is the first time you’ve conceded…no, strike that, that’s not fair…

Wall: Thank you.

Heffner: This is the first time since you weren’t pressed that you raised the question of a downside to this reaction against the individualism that has characterized our nation.

Wall: I suppose it should have been stated, but I would always hope, in the Reinhold Niebuhr tradition, I would always hope that anything we say about a shift in society carries with it a downside. Anything we do carries with it a downside. Otherwise, we’re absolutists in saying “this is absolutely going to be the best thing that’s ever happened to…since sliced bread”.

Heffner: Okay, then let’s, let’s balance them out now. What do we get from this movement away from individualism? What do we lose? And are you really so certain that the balance is as you have suggested it is?

Wall: I’m not sure what the balance is going to be. That’s for people in the future to work out, but what we lose, I think, is the rights of individuals to be who they want to be, and curbing of freedoms, that’s always a danger. A curbing of freedom, I mean the abortion issue would…as the court begins to rule more and more, as I’m sure it will, against abortion, is going to be the curbing of the rights of individual women to have abortions. That’s going to be a loss, there’s no question about that. But on the other hand, the extreme way in which abortion became birth control, casual, the community said “we don’t like this”. And so there’s got to always be that tension, and when there’s tension, there’s downside.

Heffner: But, let me ask this. I don’t think it’s unfair. You’ve described what you seem to believe are the dynamics of the changes in our society.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: What’s your preference, what do you opt for? You see the balance. Where are you? Don’t, don’t be the social analyst now.

Wall: Oh, who I am is in part where I have been in the last period of my life. At heart I’m a liberal individualist, no question about that. I really celebrate the right of the individual to make his or her own choices, and I get very nervous about the larger community telling me what it is I should be doing. But I’m also trying to take the longer look, to step back and not simply be locked into the “tears/taint” arguments between simple sides, and s I step back I recognize the need for corrective. We’re in a period when there’s a need for corrective.

Heffner: Alright, but you seem to be saying “there’s a need for corrections, or correctives”…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …but I still don’t quite know what you’re choice would be.

Wall: Ah, see, you’re…that’s an individualist question. As though I had…

Heffner: Granted.

Wall: As though I had the right or the choice to make that decision.

Heffner: And you don’t?

Wall: No, I live in a culture, I live in a period of time, I live in a history. I’ve raised children. I’m now seeing grandchildren raised in a certain environment. We don’t really have a lot of choices about what environment they’re living in. This is sort of a given.

Heffner: Haven’t you helped make that environment?

Wall: To a limited extent, but I’s also being made by others.

Heffner: But, I…

Wall: …I mean if it had been left up to me, I would have had absolutely no drugs available for any teenager I’ve ever met in my life.

Heffner: But, no…

Wall: I was trapped, if you will, in a culture that thrust these drugs upon the culture in which I raised my children.

Heffner: Yes, but, but you know I, I think back to your friend, the man you admired a very great deal, Jimmy Carter, you served as…

Wall: Still do. Don’t put him in the past.

Heffner: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to put him, or to put your admiration for him…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …in the past.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: If I remember correctly, you served as his Illinois State Chairman…

Wall: Twice…76 and 80, yes.

Heffner: Twice. Once, you won, and once you lost.

Wall: Fifty percent is not bad.

Heffner: Now that’s true, in politics, or in anything…

Wall: (Laughter)

Heffner: …a 500 batting average is pretty darn good.

Wall: You can win the title with that.

Heffner: What do you think lead to his defeat, although someone said, I remember my wife loves to quote that “if only Ronald Reagan…”…mentioning, pushing the idea that Ronald Reagan wasn’t really running against anyone in 1980. What, what…how do you connect, how do you explain his victory, and then his loss, four years later in terms of the points that you’re making now?

Wall: Well, in the very short sense, his loss had a great deal to do with the image that he presented to the public as being unable to solve the Iranian…

Heffner: Iranian…

Wall: …hostage crisis.

Heffner: But he had lost before then, hadn’t he?

Wall: No, no, no. I think there’s very good polling evidence, and I suspect what more research will do on this will show it, that indicates that…Reagan was greatly feared by a lot of American voters. They did not see him as a serious candidate, and he looked too genial. I mean we now see him differently because he’s so popular for eight years, but he was not exciting to the public at that time, and so about Thursday, or Friday or Saturday before the election on Tuesday, it was still Carter’s race. It was over the weekend that he went down.

Heffner: yes, but the fact of the matter is that when the President indicated a kind of moralism, maybe I shouldn’t state it quite so boldly…

Wall: No, you shouldn’t put it that way, at all because…

Heffner: You don’t think that he…

Wall: He was not a moralist, and let me, let me continue to make the point about…

Heffner: And the sweater? The speech about…

Wall: (Laughter)

Heffner: Come on…

Wall: What’s wrong with the sweater?

Heffner: Nothing wrong with the sweater…I’m thinking about the speech in which he tried to impose upon our nation the kind of morality that you may be referring to now.

Wall: Oh, I couldn’t disagree more with you on that…

Heffner: No?

Wall: If you’re referring to the speech that has been incorrectly labeled as the “Malaise Speech”…

Heffner: Why incorrectly?

Wall: Because he did not use the word “malaise”.

Heffner: What would you call it?

Wall: Well, the irony…

Heffner: How would you characterize it?

Wall: The point I want to make is that it was the media that referred to it as the “Malaise”, so from then on it’s always been known as the ”Malaise”…he didn’t use that word.

Heffner: Well, you know…

Wall: What, what he said was “We have got to ask ourselves what we can do for our nation, not what the nation can do for us”, and…

Heffner: The other President, Jim…

Wall: The other President…got away with that. No, no, it’s the same thing. He was saying exactly the same thing. He was simply saying it’s time for us to quit being so self-indulgent, that’s not moralistic, that’s calling for higher ideals. The man spoke almost precisely the way John Kennedy did. Now, let me go back and make the point about the fact that he lost because of that Iranian crisis business, a hostage crisis. Clearly, he did not have much public support so that he could be bounced with such a fragile base, and that’s the larger question. The larger question is he went into the election in 1980 with a very fragile base of support. He never developed a strong national base of support. He never had a political network, he never had a media support that he could turn to when times were hard. I always argued that if you are going to run this country, you’ve got to be sure in every major media center in the country, you’ve allies, you’ve got political people in Washington that will, if you make a mistake, come rushing in and say ”Oh, but you haven’t understood what the man really meant was this”. That’s what’s happened for Bush, that’s what happened for Reagan. It never happened for Carter. He just did not ever develop…he didn’t come in with that kind of a base of support in the media or in the public arena, and he never did develop it. Now why didn’t he develop it? That’s partly his fault. He wasn’t the kind of political figure that knew how to develop that kind of camaraderie. Even Lyndon Johnson because of…even though you Northern Eastern Liberal Elitists thought of him as a “corn-pone Texas Southern type guy”…

Heffner: So, you got it all in there in just a few words, Jim.

Wall: He nevertheless, he nevertheless had support in the media and in the country and in the staffs and the agencies that the people who run this country, who would stand behind him when he was in difficulty, and would help to support him.

Heffner: You know, it’s fascinating to me…get media people here at this table, and they insist “there’s nobody in here but us chickens”, I mean “we don’t have any power, we don’t do anything…we just reflect what’s going on”. Get you at this table and the only thing we seem to have is “the media”, doing this…doing that…forming our opinions here, forming our opinions there, but that’s beside the point. Let’s stick with Jimmy Carter for a moment, and his meaning. You’re…this was a very meaningful point in your life…

Wall: You say…you use the phrase “moralistic”, you see how quickly you dropped into that? You, you assumed…

Heffner: But I didn’t…

Wall: You still…

Heffner: …say that’s bad, Jim, I didn’t say “moralistic, by God”…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …boot the man out.

Wall: Yes, yes you did. The word “moralistic”…

Heffner: Yes.

Wall: …is pejorative. Use it and yo9u become…you’ve expressed a pejorative feeling.

Heffner: Okay…

Wall: Moralistic…

Heffner: …I’ll go along with…

Wall: …is pejorative. You used the phrase and therefore gave yourself away at saying “this was bad”, that speech he gave. It was a very good speech…really. I’ve done some reading on this and other…

Heffner: But then what happened?

Wall: Oh, I noticed other people have researched this, of course, in some depth. When he gave that speech, it was widely well-received, it was genuinely thought here is a man who’s backing up and saying “now just a minute, this country has got to reassess itself, it’s got to say ‘quit being so indulgent’”. It was a kind of bully pulpit statement that a Teddy Roosevelt would have gotten away with. The public responded positively, the media responded positively, and you know what happened?

Heffner: What happened?

Wall: Let me remind you. Recent history. He made a horrendously bad mistake that anybody could have told him not to do. He asked the Cabinet to resign. Remember that?

Heffner: Yes.

Wall: And, my goodness, that looked so dumb, and the point was he was going to get rid of several Cabinet members, three or four, some of which he should have gotten rid of two years earlier…Califano and some of those people who had never been very supportive in the first place. But he did that and it was badly received. People in Europe, for example, said “the Cabinet’s resigned, the government’s fallen, got to have a parliamentary election”, you know…shows how little they understood about how we function. And so from then on the speech went down, it got the name “malaise”. It showed incompetence because of the Cabinet resigning. That was a tactical error. But there’s nothing wrong with the speech itself, or with his desire to call the country to a higher standard of national purpose.

Heffner: Sounds very much like, “there’s nobody in here but us chickens”. Once again, the notion that notion very much happened that was untoward on the part of the President, but it was the “others”…

Wall: No…I just said…I just said he made a mistake…I just said he made a mistake.

Heffner: The dimension of the mistake that you grant…has very little to do with the notion that perhaps Jimmy Carter was calling us to a standard that we couldn’t meet.

Wall: Oh, well it was…

Heffner: No?

Wall: …it was a standard that…it’s the ideal in that sense, his view of the world is not the American view of the world, and maybe in that sense he was at fault. But it’s not moralistic to do what he did.

Heffner: Jim…

Wall: He just did not…I’ll tell you, he went to the pulpit, he went to the pulpit…

Heffner: Instead of the White House.

Wall: No, now wait a minute, you’re not letting me make my point.

Heffner: Go ahead.

Wall: He went to the pulpit…he went to the pulpit…Teddy Roosevelt called it a bully pulpit.

Heffner: Yes.

Wall: Jack Kennedy said “Ask not what you can do…what the country can do for you…”, he was in the pulpit. But Carter went to the pulpit dragging, dragging behind him the burdens of folks like you who said, “Oh, he’s a preacher, he’s going to try and tell us what to do”. He was doomed from the start. Anytime he said something that implied a certain sermonic approach to life, you and your friends in the media went crazy. Do you remember, and, of course, I lived through that Administration so I remember little details like this a lot more than most people do. Do you remember when he gave a little chat to this staff one day and said, I think half-jokingly, I’ve never really asked him this question, “I know some of you have been…just moved to “Washington on my staff (the larger staff, not just the immediate White House staff), and some of you are living with each other and you’re not married, why don’t you go ahead and get married”? Just kind of a nudge into the ribs of you kids…”wouldn’t it be better if you got married instead of living together”? Well, that was seized upon by the American Liberal press, our friends, as saying now bad this moralistic guy is…it was partly tongue-in-cheek. If Jack Kennedy, who was really one of “the boys” in his behavior, for example, had said that, the media would have thought it was very funny, but Carter was doomed from the outset because he was seen as a preacher-type Southern pietist.

Heffner: But you know, don’t forget, Jim, I voted for the guy twice and thought he was a fine President…

Wall: You, you want…you want a merit badge? (Laughter)

Heffner: Well…

Wall: I mean…

Heffner: …in terms of what you are saying…

Wall: What I…

Heffner: …I should have one.

Wall: What I’m saying is that just voting for him and then pillaring him…

Heffner: Now…no, no…

Wall: …in other ways, calling him “moralistic”, calling him…

Heffner: Jim…

Wall: …wearing a sweater, being kind of phony, and all…

Heffner: …come on, come on, come on…you’ve got to…you’ve got to deal with facts. I didn’t do that. I’m asking you questions about him, and you seem…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …to be saying…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …too, doggone it, you were saying so many things I didn’t write it down, but you used a phrase a few minutes ago, that seemed to me to indicate that yes, Jimmy Carter, was out of step with America.

Wall: No, sir. No, sir. No, sir, I did not say that.

Heffner: Well…

Wall: You see you…

Heffner: …when the transcript is at hand, and then we have to do the next program…

Wall: You used the word “out of step”. Just like the media used the word “Malaise”. I didn’t say “out of step”.

Heffner: You know…

Wall: I’m saying his style…

Heffner: Yes?

Wall: …his style did not go over well with the Liberal media.

Heffner: No, no, I know you’ve said that.

Wall: That’s what I’m saying.

Heffner: You’ve said that…

Wall: Not out of step with the American public.

Heffner: You’ve said that every time we’ve, we’ve been together. However, if we had a court reporter here, and I would say, “please read back what this witness has said”, I think you will find that you were saying, Jim, that the President, perhaps in his morality, was at a far remove from the American people. Does it sound a little bit familiar?

Wall: No, I did not say that.

Heffner: So that you think…

Wall: I…

Heffner: …that his morality, I’m not saying “moralism”, because you got me on that…

Wall: That’s right, I got you.

Heffner: …you think that his sense of right and wrong corresponded to what the American people think?

Wall: Much more than you realize. Look at what happened with Ronald Reagan.

Heffner: What kind of an answer is that, “”much more than I realize”? But how much less…

Wall: Much more than you just acknowledged.

Heffner: How much less than what you’ve said?

Wall: No. His, his conviction about the importance of values in the American culture…

Heffner: Yes.

Wall: …went over much better with the American public than it did with the Liberal media. That’s the only point I’m trying to make. I’m trying to simplify this, but…

Heffner: You know the thing that I find…

Wall: And witness…witness Reagan…witness Bush…

Heffner: But…

Wall: …now those guys were moralistic and they got elected.

Heffner: But, Jim…

Wall: They were moralistic, by the way…

Heffner: I think the trouble with what it is that you’re saying is that you’re being wishful in your thinking, and I think you may be making a mistake at that. I think if you rub the American people…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …a little bit, what you find, as you rub through is something less moral-oriented than you suggest, and instead of just blaming the media, instead of just beating, bashing the media, all the time. You know, the first programs we did together you talked about religion-bashing.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Those, those are the media…

Wall: (Laughter)

Heffner: …now you’re media-bashing. I think you’re unrealistic, and you don’t perhaps fully want to come to grips with the degree to which the morality expressed by President Carter, I didn’t say “moralism”, has gone past, over the heads of the American people…a better man that the nation, perhaps, that he lead.

Wall: I think the morality of Carter, his commitment to service…

Heffner: Yes.

Wall: …his belief in values, his conviction that to be married is better than to live together without being married, I think that is a very minor point in the whole picture, is more consistent with the American public ethos today.

Heffner: How can you say that with the statistics…you use the word “marriage”, you use the idea…

Wall: Of preference…of ideal…of “I wish it would be that way”…

Heffner: But, I…

Wall: …feeling of the public…

Heffner: I wish it would be that way, but I’m going to go out and get divorced tomorrow.

Wall: That…

Heffner: Now, Jim, you can’t have it both ways.

Wall: You’re telling me, you’re telling me that it’s something new, that Adam and Eve, the Fall occurred, you tell me sin is not…is a surprise to you? What are you saying?

Heffner: Now that’s your metaphor, not mine, and perhaps we ought to block it. No, I think the question I’m raising for you to deal with, now that we have two minutes left…or something like that…

Wall: Have to another show and cover this.

Heffner: We always have to do another show. Is whether the wish isn’t father to the thought here…

Wall: What wish?

Heffner: …on your part. The wish that the American people were as moral as the former President of the United States.

Wall: I’d say, if you asked the American people in a survey, “would you like for this to be the case”, you will find the American public, generally, preferring a higher moral standard.

Heffner: Ah, Jim, I’m not talking about…

Wall: In their behavior…no, I agree with you.

Heffner: Look at Jimmy Carter now. He goes out and he helps build housed for poor people…

Wall: And people like that.

Heffner: I understand…

Wall: They don’t do it, but they like it.

Heffner: But that’s the point…they don’t do it…he does.

Wall: Alright.

Heffner: So that, aren’t we expressing here, wasn’t he expressing then, a moral standard far higher than one could anticipate would be accepted, voted for…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …by the American people?

Wall: I think I’m agreeing with you. I have to be careful there.

Heffner: (Laughter) Watch it.

Wall: I don’t want to end the program by agreeing with you totally, except…yes I think he was, in that sense, out of step. But I…not “out of step”, wrong term…but in the larger sense, had he been interpreted as calling for a higher standard, but not being “moralistic” about it, had he been interpreted that way by your friends in the media, then I think he would not have suffered the way he has…or the way he did while he was in office, and by the way, subsequently, his popularity has gone up considerably, since he left.

Heffner: Which seems to happen with all former Presidents of the U.S.

Wall: Well, in his case I think it’s especially true. There are a lot of still living ex-Presidents, and his popularity, I suspect, has gone up faster than theirs has.

Heffner: It all comes back again, doesn’t it, to your notion that the media does it all. They command…

Wall: The media is the messenger, what can I tell you? The media is the messenger. I mean you…

Heffner: That’s what they say, Jim. “That’s all we are, we’re messengers”.

Wall: Well, and I’m criticizing the messenger.

Heffner: But you’re saying the media are more than messengers…

Wall: Well, they are, they are assuming roles of shaping public thought that exceeds their role as a messenger, but nonetheless we have to point our finger at media because these are the folk who do these things that cause the public opinion to sway, that takes the Gary Hart situation way out of proportion to what it really was.

Heffner: Dr. James Wall, I’m so glad you were here today, and obviously we’re going to do this many more times in the future. Thanks for this time.

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 today’s program, today’s debate, 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 an 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 Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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