John Brademas

Politics and Education: The Arts of the Possible, Part I

VTR Date: June 29, 1985

Guest: Brademas, John


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Brademas
Title: “Politics and Education” Part I
AIR: 6/29/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. It used to be that the Hoosier Greek American who served 11 terms in the Congress of the United States, who became the Democratic Party’s enormously effective Majority Whip in the House of Representatives, and who for over 22 years there had been so extraordinarily instrumental in forging public support for the arts, the humanities, and the whole education process, that he was known on Capital Hill as Mr. Arts and Mr. Education. It used to be that today’s guest was introduced simply as Congressman John Brademas of the third District of Indiana. And in that role he said, “I’ve been asked more than once if I would be interested in serving as a university president. And my answer has always been, ‘No thanks, I’m already in politics.’” But all things change. And we change with them. And the fact is that John Brademas now enjoys tenure not from the Third District of Indiana but rather from his lofty post as President of New York University, one of the largest private institutions of higher education in the United States.

Thanks for joining me today, Doctor, Congressman, President Bradmas.

BRADEMAS: Thank you, Richard. I’m glad to be here.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, last time that you were here it was, we were taping two weeks before you assumed the presidency, and I made a note that when you came back, I would ask you, how does it feel to have traded in the politics of politics for the politics of academic life?

BRADEMAS: Well, it feels fine. I’ve enormously like being a New Yorker and being at New York University. And in fact, I find a great many similarities between my old life in Washington DC and my new life in Washington Square. I’m still making speeches, appearing on television, raising money, articulating purposes, reconciling conflicts, trying to develop consensus, still wrestling with big egos, except they’re not now committee chairmen or cabinet members or presidents of the United States, but the other constituencies in the University. And in short, I’m enormously enjoying it.

HEFFNER: And doing as much good?

BRADEMAS: Well, I like to think so. It’s a different universe. It’s a different arena in which I now work. One of the reasons that I so much enjoy being a university president is the same reason I enjoyed being a member of Congress, and that is that one deals with such an extraordinary array of problems, of subjects. It’s a great, both of them are great jobs, if, like me, you have a low threshold of boredom. I do think that in the four years that I’ve been here we’ve made some significant headway in a number of areas at New York University. We have certainly, I think, forged ahead in what is always used as a measure by trustees and other observers, and that is that we’ve generated more resources for the university. The year before I’d come we had raised, I think, about $29 million in one year. We completed about six months ago a two-year campaign to raise one million dollars a week for one hundred weeks for NYU, and I’m glad to say that in that time span we raised $110 million. So on that front we’ve moved ahead. We’ve also moved ahead, I think, academically in terms of attracting, continuing to attract first-class scholars and teachers and first-class students. I know that there has been a decline in enrollments in a number of colleges and universities in the country. I’m glad to say that our enrollments at New York University are holding up and that the students we’re getting are first-class. So those are some of the indices of, I think, exciting progress.

HEFFNER: I was wondering before the program how you would react if I noted that you seem, of course, in a sense, to be waging the same political battles. Because right now I find the president of New York University doing battle with a Republican Secretary of Education just as if you were back in the Congress.

BRADEMAS: Well, you’re quite right about that. I suppose it’s because many of the pieces of legislation that are under assault by the Reagan Administration are ones of which I was an author during my years of service on the House Committee on Education and Labor. Particularly is that true of the arts and humanities endowments and legislation to support museums and libraries. But perhaps even more centrally, so far as a university is concerned, is the question of student financial assistance. You may recall that Mr. Bennett, the new Secretary of Education, when he came in almost immediately attacked the college students of the country and said that they were more preoccupied with stereos, cars, and three-week vacations at the beach than they were in getting an education, and that they were, as it were, taking it rather easy. I think it’s true at New York…I know it’s true at New York University, and I’ve observed it’s true elsewhere in the country that students work very hard today. Particularly expensive is it to study at a private university like ours. At New York University four of five of the students who come to our university work. We are a university still in large measure for the sons and daughters of immigrants as we were founded 150 years ago for that purpose. Our students largely come from low and middle-income families; increasingly, I do have to say though, upper income families. And they need the financial assistance that is made possible both by programs in the State of New York and by the federal student assistance programs as well as working in order to be able to pay their bills. So yes, I do think the administration of Mr. Reagan – and I can elaborate on that if you want – has been very hostile to education generally, to higher education in particular, and curiously enough, especially hostile to private colleges and universities. I say “curiously” because, of course, this is an administration, this is a president who has talked about the glories of the private sector. And I was present in May of 1981 on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, which is my old hometown, South Bend, as you know, to hear President Reagan say on that occasion that if the independent colleges and universities of the country were driven out of existence by tax-supported institutions, that would be a sad day for academic freedom. He was right. But if you look at the policies that this administration has been pursuing, you can see that they are wholly at odds with the support of private higher education that Mr. Reagan trumpeted. I can explain, but…

HEFFNER: Let me ask you a question first. I’m aware of the debate that has gone on in a number of places, a number of platforms, between you and Secretary Bennett. And we have an invitation out to him to join us here on THE OPEN MIND.

BRADEMAS: I hope you’ll let me debate with him sometime.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s conduct a debate at the moment by my asking you a question as to whether you didn’t think that that was taking him, not too seriously, but not giving him enough credit. Because he was a bit punning on the matter of students in a number of universities demanding divestiture in relation to South Africa when he talked about the necessity for the administration cutting funds that will require for some students divestiture of certain sorts, stereo divestiture, automobile divestiture, three weeks at the beach divestiture. It was a cute and maybe harmful remark. But are you suggesting that there is no good reason for the administration, for any administration to think in terms of cutting back on what we have been spending as a nation?

BRADEMAS: On education?

HEFFNER: Now, well, I said what we have been spending as a nation…

BRADEMAS: Oh, no. Of course…

HEFFNER: …because it’s forced us to think about that huge deficit.

BRADEMAS: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I’m glad, as we used to say, Senator, you asked me that. I think what has been particularly striking has been that this administration has given so little attention to the danger to the American economy of these enormous budget deficits. We’re going to be running a budget deficit of over $200 billion this year, and in the month of May we hit an all-time record for this country of a $40 billion deficit. It is terrible. It is colossal. And it is the direct consequence of the enormous reduction in tax revenues occasioned by Mr. Reagan’s 1981 tax bill, coupled with the huge increase in expenditures for the military which he also insisted on. That’s what…those are the two principal factors that have brought us to this impasse. And I am very pleased that both the House and Senate, at least as we speak, have passed budget resolutions that would substantially, significantly – I won’t say enough – but significantly reduce the budget deficit. But Mr. Reagan has been paying very little attention to that. He’s been much more concerned with getting his so-called tax reform bill through Congress.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I wanted to ask, not President Reagan, but NYU President Brademas…


HEFFNER: …whether at some point something doesn’t have to give and whether included in what gives doesn’t have to be some sense, some portion of the resources that we have given to education in this country, to social welfare measures perhaps? In other words, do you think that we are so rich that we can afford to have everything that we want in the social area? And that’s really an honest question.

BRADEMAS: Richard, you’re dealing with a former legislator. I deal in specifics. I deal in specifics as President of New York University, and as a Congressman I would deal in specifics. And I would be glad to say, of course we can’t have everything we want. We make choices. We have to make hard, discrete, concrete, specific choices. So if you say to me, “Mr. Brademas, where would you cut?” I would say, “Give me a menu, and I will be glad to point out, let’s cut here, let’s cut here, let’s cut there.”

HEFFNER: Would your cuts include education in any form or semblance?

BRADEMAS: I will give you one example of a reduction in student aid that I would support. And that is, I believe, included in the recommendations of the Senate budget resolution now under consideration on Capital Hill. And that is to provide guaranteed student loans paid to students not once a year but twice a year, thereby saving a substantial amount in interest payments to the federal government. That is an example of a concrete, specific, intelligent way. But if you ask me if I would support the massive cuts that Mr. Reagan is now pressing, I would unhesitatingly say no. Why? He’s already cut in current dollars 25 percent in his first four years in office in student aid programs. The budget that he first proposed earlier this year for fiscal 1986 would call for a reduction of 25 percent below current levels of spending on student assistance. Can you imagine Cap Weinberger’s reaction if the president had said to him, “Mr. Secretary, I want you to reduce spending for the Department of Defense by 25 percent next year.”?

HEFFNER: But that leads me to ask you…


HEFFNER: …whether you feel that the American people generally would be as shocked and as chagrined by a cut in education as they would be by a cut in our armed services.

BRADEMAS: No, because clearly they have not been. The fact of the matter is we did have a massive cut in student aid in the first four years, and we had a massive increase in defense spending in the first four years of this administration. But the world has changed since the first four years of Ronald Reagan, and you have seen the change in the votes on Capitol Hill. So that both Republicans and Democrats are saying to the president, “No more cuts in education. Stop attacking the colleges and universities and the students who attend them.” And Republicans and Democrats are also saying, and they express their views in the budget resolutions for which they have voted, “We must bring a halt to fraud, waste, and abuse in the Department of Defense.” And you’re seeing that in the roll calls in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senators and Congressmen come from both the liberal camp and the conservative camp. Sen. D’Amato and Sen. Moynihan, a Republican conservative, a Democratic moderate to liberal, are both strongly opposed to the Reagan assaults on student assistance. So too is Terrill Bell, who was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education in his first four years. And in a piece in The New York Times in April of this year he sharply rebuked the Reagan administration for its assault, in his words, on the private colleges and universities of the country by the attack on student assistance which is essential for young people to be able to study at colleges and universities like New York University. What I’m saying is not a partisan matter in respect either of aid to higher education or the new opposition to and criticism of the tremendous waste in the Department of Defense. That runs across party lines. And I think it’s about time.

HEFFNER: Do you think that, as some people have said, that in changing the rules in the Johnson years, in extending government as we have, we have in a sense lost ground consequentially?

BRADEMAS: No, I don’t agree with that.

HEFFNER: You don’t think so.

BRADEMAS: And there again, I must say you’ve got to be specific. I’m perfectly willing to look at program by program. And if you say to me, “In this particular program it’s not working,” then my reaction is, “Let’s fix it. Let’s do something about it.” But don’t just say, “Let’s get rid of it.” Let me give you and example of a program that I know something about because I’m the author of it. That’s the Education of All Handicapped Children Act. This is the tenth year of the enactment of that legislation. When I went to Congress, my colleague, Albert Kui, Republican of Minnesota and I looked around and we saw in the hearings we conducted that there were millions, literally millions of children of school age in this country who were not getting…handicapped children who were not getting any education at all, or an inadequate education. The states were not doing anything about it despite the fact that in 49 of the 50 states there were mandates either in the state constitution, state statute, or by state court order to educate those handicapped children. The states were not carrying out their own laws. So we wrote a statute that provided more funds to local school systems and states to help educate their handicapped children. I am the first to say that there are probably provisions of that statute that years later can be amended, can be improved, and that the program can be more effectively administered. In that event, let’s do it. Let’s amend the statue. But do not hide behind the rock of ”Well, it isn’t working very well,” to say, “Let’s not pay attention to the education of handicapped children.” That’s an example of what I am calling a pragmatic approach to the question you put me in a general way, “Would you get rid of some of these programs?” I want to know: What programs are you talking about? What are your complaints about it? And if you can show me that it’s wholly unjustified, let’s repeal it.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask a question, a somewhat different question, or maybe the same question ins a different way. Having served those years in Congress, having been a major factor in the development of current social policy, or at least up to the Reagan years, what’s the downside of what you and your colleagues in the Congress and the administration created and accomplished? Any downside at all?

BRADEMAS: Of course, of course.


BRADEMAS: One is arousing expectations beyond those that could be met.

HEFFNER: Like what?

BRADEMAS: For example, saying that we, or suggesting, as President Johnson did, that we could eliminate poverty in the United States. That’s very difficult, to eliminate poverty in the United States. Poverty has become a more serious problem within the last five years, not a less serious problem. We’ve got more poor people now below the line than was the case before Mr. Reagan became President of the United States. I think that Mr. Johnson made, President Johnson made a serious mistake in opposing an increase in taxes at the time of the Vietnam War, because he thought he could have both the funds with which to fight the war and the funds with which to pursue the great society. That was a very serious mistake, and one of the reasons that we continued for a number of years to have a serious problem of inflation. I think also that we have not yet worked out satisfactory inducements to states and local communities to supply more support for public service programs. And one of my major objections to the Reagan tax plan is the elimination of state and local deductibility from federal taxes, which I regard as a savage blow against the whole federal system. Those are some of the criticisms that I would make.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that, now you’re on the, what, the head of, the Chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York…I can put questions relating to economics to you then. And it is this general one of whether you feel essentially this nation is rich enough perhaps through taxes, to tax itself, to support an adequate defense establishment to meet the challenges that must be met, and to provide what you want to provide by way of social justice.

BRADEMAS: Yes, I think that it is all, of course, a matter of degree. This is a country of 230 million people. We can never be sure we’re doing the right thing on every front. But we can do far, far better than we are doing. And I am especially alarmed by the continuing refusal of the present administration to acknowledge the enormous importance and downside impact of the federal budget deficit on the American economy. What would I do? Well, here are some things that I would do. I would think that, first of all, Mr. Reagan ought to figure out a way to go to confession, as it were, and say to the American people, “I really erred when I said there would never be any tax increase.” You and I know that David Stockman has been campaigning for one. And most people who follow these matters know that senator Dole, the Republican Leader of the Senate, is a sophisticated enough leader and a responsible enough leader to understand that we may have to have an increase in tax revenues rather than a reduction in tax revenues which the Reagan tax reform plan presently before Congress would occasion. So one of the things we have to do is get some more tax revenues. A second thing we have to do and are now slightly beginning to do is slow down the rate of increase in military spending. I didn’t say sharp reductions in military spending; I said slow down the rate of increase in military spending. That also Mr. Reagan has been unwilling to do. If he is willing to move on those two fronts – and he has to move or nothing will happen – then he can make a moral and political case to the Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill for looking at the entitlement programs that are the principal target of his administration. But he’s not been willing, so far, to do that.

HEFFNER: But are you suggesting that John Brademas would be in favor of reducing the entitlement programs?

BRADEMAS: I am saying that I would be willing to consider in the interest of getting a handle on the budget deficit, selective reductions or limits on some of the entitlement programs, provided that we got increased tax revenues and we slowed down the rate of increase in military spending. I would be strongly opposed, however, to putting all of the burden, as Mr. Reagan wants to do, of coping with the budget deficit on the backs of several domestic programs which, after all, do not make up the major share of the deficit.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, my friend in Washington, Marcus Cohn, interviewed you once sometime back, a whole series of congressmen, and was kind enough to share with me the transcript of that interview. And somehow or other the name Walter Lippmann came up, and he asked if you had been as influenced by Walter Lippmann as a number of the other young congressmen he had interviewed. And you said, “Well, the US foreign policy shielded the republic.”

BRADEMAS: …shielded the republic.

HEFFNER: It had been a book that had been important to you. And you said that in terms of the book’s…then you recalled the book’s central thesis about not over-committing.


HEFFNER: It was in terms of foreign policy. But I guess I’m pressing you to wonder about what the limits of our commitments must be in terms of our capacity to warrant social justice for all Americans.

BRADEMAS: Well, let’s take an example. Again, you see, I’m pressing you, Richard, because you give me broad generalizations. I’m not letting you get away with it. I’m saying let’s be specific. Let’s take education. We now supply from federal tax dollars perhaps six to seven percent of the total cost of public education. You haven’t heard me say that the government of the United States, the federal government, should pay 50 percent of the cost of public schools. I haven’t said that; I don’t believe that. I think that’s fundamentally a state and local responsibility. But I also argue that there is a very important and indeed essential role for the federal government in supporting our state and local public schools at the margins, where they can help districts with large numbers of two income families, they can provide special training for teachers who are in the subjects of vital importance to the country like science or mathematics. As a matter of fact, all you have to do when it comes to elementary and secondary schools is follow the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence appointed by President Reagan’s Secretary of Education, which report I do not believe the president has read. Because the report does not endorse a single one of Mr. Reagan’s proposals for education, and instead endorses every one of the proposals for education that I would support.

HEFFNER: But you know, you asked me to be specific.


HEFFNER: And that’s not a ploy. It’s a wonderful thing to do. Be specific.


HEFFNER: You know perfectly well that I couldn’t because I’m not well enough versed. But I can go back…

BRADEMAS: In a general subject. I don’t mean those…

HEFFNER: Well, all right. I can go back to the point you made about Lyndon Johnson and the over-commitment, the war on poverty that one assumed would eliminate poverty.

BRADEMAS: That was an over-commitment.

HEFFNER: Okay. What is the line – and you’re going to say, “In what area?” – what is the line generally that you would draw? What can we do? Can we think in terms of anything other than a substantial number of our citizens living at or below what we now call the poverty line? To what extent can this nation be a nation of justice, can social justice be achieved?

BRADEMAS: I think that it is not acceptable for the richest nation in human history to have millions of people, blacks and whites, living in abject conditions of poverty. And that is the case in 1985. I do not set a particular percentage as morally acceptable. I simply say that we ought to do far better than we are doing. I was reading a review today in The New Yorker of a recent biography of Dwight Eisenhower in which President Eisenhower was quoted as saying, “Why do we spend these enormous sums of money on munitions” – to use his phrase – “instead of putting more resources into our schools and our roads and highways and other domestic needs?” And I say that, Richard, as a man who, because I did read Walter Lippmann, believes in a strong defense. The fact of the matter is – and I got into a squabble with a former Secretary of Defense a few days ago on this, who was needling me because I was complaining about too much waste, fraud, and abuse in the Department of Defense – and I said, “Just a minute, Mr. Secretary. I served 22 years in Congress. I never voted against a defense appropriations bill. I understand the threat of the Soviet Union. I’m not an innocent. I don’t think, however, that we should be wasting money the way we have been wasting money. I think the resources are there for us to provide an adequate education for our young people, to do a better job of meeting the health care needs of the country.” And even as I have pressed you to be more specific, and you properly responded, “That’s difficult,” I’m not going to try to sit here and say, “Well, it’s acceptable that we have this many people in poverty and not that many people in poverty.” I think we can do a great deal better.

HEFFNER: You know what I would like to do, Mr. Brademas, if you would permit, I’d like to do, go further and say, I want to ask you more about education. I also want to ask you more about these other larger questions. And what I’d like you to do when this program is over – and it’s over now – to stay where you are and let’s go on to John Brademas, Part Two. Okay?

BRADEMAS: Fine. Fine. Fine.

HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me in part one. And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”