John Brademas

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

VTR Date: June 29, 1985

Guest: Brademas, John


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Brademas
Title: “Politics and Education”, Part II
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.

And so I greet you back again, Dr. Brademas. I’m glad you stayed at the table here. Last time we talked about education and politics and cabbages and kings, and there are so many things about which I’d like to know your opinion. One is as a longtime Congressman, I wonder how you feel about the notion that is being booted about these days that the president’s hands – and I’m not just talking about Ronald Reagan, but increasingly the hands of the President of the United States are tied by the insistence of what The Wall Street Journal has called “that gang of 535,” by their insistence upon becoming involved in not just legislative matters but really executive matters. And I wondered how you feel about that.

BRADEMAS: Well, I feel fine about that.

HEFFNER: You mean about the fact of it?

BRADEMAS: Yes, yes, I do. I’m a strong champion of a separation of powers system. And I draw to your attention that in the latter part of, I believe, 1979, 1980, Lloyd Cutler, who had worked for President Carter, the very distinguished lawyer, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in which he bewailed the problem, bewailed the situation just as you’ve just suggested, and in effect urged that we move more toward a parliamentary system of government. Within a few months after that article appeared, President Reagan, who had to contend with a democratic House of Representatives and a republican Senate, had been able to win approval of an enormous tax cut bill that he wanted, and a huge boost in military spending that he wanted, and got his way with a significant reduction in spending for domestic programs. The point being that the political situation had changed so rapidly that the complaints were then coming that here a president who had been elected with such an overwhelming majority had Congress in the palm of his hand. And that Congress was acting like nothing but a rubber stamp for whatever Mr. Reagan wanted to do. So the point I’m making is really two-fold. Be careful about generalizing, because the configuration of political forces in the United States changes from election to election. As a result of the November elections of 1984, when the democrats picked up 26 seats in the House and two seats in the Senate, Mr. Reagan no longer was the master of Capitol Hill, nor is he today, where a republican Senate is giving him just as much difficulty as a democratic House of Representatives. This is what the founding fathers of our country had in mind. They did not want a situation in which an almighty sovereign sat in the White House and said, “Do this, do that.” We do not have a parliamentary system of government in this country. We have a separation of power system in this country. Now, I was a member of Congress, for example, when the Vietnam War was brought to an end. President Ford was in the White House. It wasn’t brought to an end because the president and the Secretary of State, Dr. Kissinger, wanted it brought to an end. It was brought to an end because democrats and republicans in Congress, expressing the will of the American people, said, “No more. We’ve had enough of this. We will stop.” We have a separation of powers constitution in the United States, and people who take the position that you’ve just articulated basically are not happy with the American Constitution.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s well said, well said. But I notice that your example, when you were in the House, when the war came to an end, etc. etc. Why didn’t you pick an example where the House and all the Senate had blocked presidential action that you favored? Has it not happened?

BRADEMAS: Oh, of course it happens. As a matter of fact, there are many situations where the House and Senate will approve legislation that the president doesn’t want, and vice versa. I don’t propose, however, to change the whole constitutional system because I don’t happen to prevail on a particular issue. I’m not sure that I…

HEFFNER: You think that the criticism is not well founded, that what we are in today essentially is a situation not just of checks and balances but of checkmate?

BRADEMAS: We are not in a situation of checkmate. We may be for a few months, but that happens in the American system. What is it that people would like? Let’s take a recent example: the rejection by the Senate Judiciary Committee of William Bradford Reynolds to a top position in the Department of Justice. Now, there were those who said on some editorial pages, “That’s terrible. Mr. Reagan won the election. Why aren’t those senators giving him whoever he wants?” The editorial writers have not read the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution says that the president nominates, but it’s the job of the Senate to give consent or withhold consent. Otherwise, why have that provision in the Constitution? The Senate has also rejected other nominees – a republican Senate, I remind you – within the last year of Mr. Reagan. They are behaving the way senators ought to behave.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, last time when we sat here and talked about these matters, related matters, led me to want to ask you (and I did) the downside of some situation. Now I would ask you again, staunch defender of the Constitution as it was written…

BRADEMAS: I’m very conservative.

HEFFNER: All right, as a good conservative in terms of conserving structures from the past.


HEFFNER: Is there any way in which you think that structure does not serve us well enough today, changes that John Brademas would bring about?

BRADEMAS: Yes. And I think the changes can be effected within the constitutional structure. I don’t think it’s necessary to change the constitution in order to bring about change in the political system. We do have elections every two years, you’re well aware, for the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate. So it isn’t all that difficult to effect change, as Mr. Reagan is now finding, as I earlier suggested. I think that in foreign policy, for example, which is often where these objections to so-called congressional interference with the executive most arise, there are ways that the situation can be improved. Much of the answer – not all – comes through informal methods. So that if presidents and secretaries of state and their counselors would be sure to come to Capitol Hill and quietly advise the key figures in the House and Senate of what’s going on, that’s one way of increasing credibility and respect and winning more support on Capitol Hill for positions of the administration. Where you get into trouble, however, is where, for example, the administration carries on covert warfare and denies to Congress that it is doing so. That impairs the credibility of the executive branch of government and causes congress, in reaction, to say, “We don’t believe you. You’re not telling us the truth. Therefore, we are going to impose all manner of onerous restrictions on you.” And that has happened, as we’ve seen in the Central American situation. So it’s terribly important, I believe, for a president and his advisors – and it’s very hard work. It is very hard work. And they don’t like to do it at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue – to be much more aggressive in informing members of Congress what they’re doing.

HEFFNER: So you don’t share them, I gather, the concern that your fellow scholar in politics, Woodrow Wilson, felt and expressed in his congressional government, book on congressional government, that Congress had then at the end of the last century – and perhaps some people feel now has – a tendency to extend its power to not modify the Constitution structurally, but so use the constitution to tie our hands in a way that’s not acceptable.

BRADEMAS: The key phrase in understanding the workings of the American political system is, “It all depends.” It depends on what year you’re talking about, it depends upon who the President of the united States is, who controls the Senate and the House of Representatives; and today it’s even more complicated than that, because with the diffusion and dispersal of power on Capitol Hill, especially within the House of Representatives, it’s important to go beyond who the leaders and the committee chairmen are, to know who the subcommittee chairmen are because they are new centers of power in our political system. When Woodrow Wilson wrote that book, he was right. It’s also true, in my judgment, that the Senate of the United States did not well serve the people of our country in their position on the League of Nations. It’s also true that the Senate and the House at times, depending on your political values, do the wrong thing by the country, even as the president does the wrong thing by the country. I have, having served in Congress 22 years with six presidents, three republicans and three democrats, I must tell you that I am not about to bow my knee and genuflect to a President of the United States and say, “Oh, you always know what’s right for the country.” Remember, I served with Mr. Nixon.

HEFFNER: I got the point. I got the point.

BRADEMAS: Okay? For eight years.

HEFFNER: Three democrats and three republicans.

BRADEMAS: Yes. I served with Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, with Johnson, with Kennedy, and Carter. And I fought with some democratic presidents. I did not agree with them in certain areas of foreign policy, and I said so. And even led efforts on Capitol Hill to block some of the things they wanted to do. So I’m a strong defender of the American separation of powers constitution. I do not think that members of Congress are elected to go to Washington, DC, pick up the phone and call the White House, and say, “Mr. President, how am I supposed to vote on this bill?” I was the Whip when I was in the House of Representatives. I was not the Whip of the White House. I was the Whip of the House of Representatives. And there’s a very important distinction to be made. I could never serve – and if I sound feisty in my response it’s because…

HEFFNER: You do!

BRADEMAS: …it’s because I enjoyed being a member of Congress – and I am a strong believer in the separation of powers Constitution. I think that it’s healthy to have a lot of criticism. And I was a strong critic, as I say, of presidents of both political parties, and I could not be happy serving as a member of the British House of Commons where all you have to do is go through and salute the party leaders and vote with them.

HEFFNER: You will make the concession, I trust, that those who feel otherwise say that they too believe in the separation of powers but that what has happened has been that the Senate and the House have imposed upon the president, and that they have imposed their will, that the separation of powers has not been there adequately enough. That the Congress has smothered many presidential initiatives inappropriately.

BRADEMAS: Of course I certainly grant that there are those who say that Congress has smothered presidential initiatives inappropriately. I have helped smother a number of presidential proposals appropriately. And the answer to the question that you put there is: Whose values are you looking at?

HEFFNER: Or whose ox is being gored at any one time?

BRADEMAS: That’s exactly right.

HEFFNER: Talking about oxen and being gored, I had picked up something that Jan Waldman had given me the other day. It was from Look magazine in 1968, and it was John Brademas saying, “I was once the flaming boy liberal. Now I’m a member of the establishment.” And of course that was the time when, during all of the action on the campus…we’ve seen a little more action on the campus these days. Now you’re on the campus itself. And I wonder how much sympathy you have for the students who in various parts of the country have begun to demonstrate their strong feelings that if their protests have not accomplished for them what they seek to achieve that they must take stronger action. I wonder what your fix is on that.

BRADEMAS: The first observation I would make is that I don’t see all that many signs of student demonstrations in the United States. I know that there were the demonstrations at Columbia. There were almost no demonstrations at all at New York University. By and large, students in this country are preoccupied with their education rather than with political and social issues. I state that as an objective fact. Whether that’s a good thing of not is something we can discuss. It costs a lot of money to go to college at most private universities today, as well as a number of public ones. And for students, that is a serious investment. And many of them do not have the time to devote to demonstrations and strikes. At times, I wish students were more interested in political and social issues. But I don’t see that this is, as we speak, a major problem in American life, as it was in the time of the Vietnam War. We are not in a shooting war in the country today, and that is the fundamental distinction. If we were to be involved in war in Central America, let’s say, and there were that threat, and a lot of Americans were dying in Nicaragua, then I think you’d see a very different picture on the American university campus. The other point of your question, I think, so long as students like any other citizens act within the law, they have every right to picket or demonstrate, but only if they are within the rubric of the law.

HEFFNER: First, what I’d like to point out, something else that Jan gave me, and this goes back to April ’62, making me wonder whether – hoping not – but wondering whether what John Brademas just said might not have to be chalked up to famous last words. You’re talking about the feelings of students today on the campus, and you don’t see that those feelings could likely erupt into the demonstrations of the past. But Brademas, who wrote for The New York Times in 1962 said, “Here it ought to be noted that the great majority of American college students remain apathetic towards politics. I suspect they do so for several reasons. Some may feel that political activity should come later, following their education. Others, that it is impossible for a student in our national tradition to participate in politics in any significant way. Many are simply preoccupied with plans for their private lives, a good job with a good firm with a good pension plan and the pleasures of suburbia.” 1962, just a few years before the explosion on the campus. I hope that what you’ve just said in 1985 isn’t just a few years before more explosions on the campus.

BRADEMAS: I totally agree with you. I totally agree with you. We’ll just have to wait and see. That depends upon developments in the world, developments in the country, particularly in foreign affairs. We have not been going through a Watergate. We have not been going through a Vietnam. South Africa is an issue that has become a symbol, and it’s a significant issue, not an easy one to resolve. But I think that, politically speaking, it has clearly not yet been the engine of protest that the War in Vietnam became.

HEFFNER: Indeed, how do you explain the fact that, in the election of 1984, President Reagan was able to draw so heavily upon the young?

BRADEMAS: First place, I think the whole country has become more conservative. No question in my mind. It’s not just young people. The whole country has become more conservative. But second, I think one wants to be careful about even the assertion you’ve just made. Because a report that I’ve looked at, produced by Alexander Aston, who is at UCLA, and who annually does polling of freshman college students on what he calls an “altruism/materialism index,” and does some other polling of their attitudes, Dr. Aston has concluded that it’s an error to categorize today’s university students into conservatives and liberals, because they are conservative on some issues and liberal on other issues. They are clearly more liberal on social issues like civil rights or civil liberties, for example, personal relationships. They are more conservative on economic issues than their predecessors were. So far as voting is concerned, the fact of the matter is young people don’t vote very much, although they have the right at the age of 18 to vote now. And I think for the other reasons that you recited from my 1962 essay in The New York Times. They continue to be preoccupied with their jobs and, as there has been a time of economic uncertainty – we did have a recession a couple of years ago you will recall – that only intensifies their concern with their own economic future. Those are some of the reasons that I think cause them to be sympathetic to Reagan. On the other side, President Carter had become, to young people as well as to people generally, a less sympathetic figure, in no small part because of the Iranian hostage crisis, which damaged him substantially at the polls and is one of the reasons that I’m here today as President of New York University rather than as a member of Congress, because all of us running on the ticket with President Carter in 1980 suffered from his weakness at the top of the ticket.

HEFFNER: Did you second-guess him? Would you have had President Carter act differently than he did?

BRADEMAS: Yes. I think it was not a wise idea for him to have, in effect, made himself a hostage to the hostages. He so focused the attention of the country – not that it was easy to have diverted it. I don’t mean to say that – but he so focused the attention of the country on his own preoccupation with the hostages that he was not able to be as effective elsewhere as he might have been.

HEFFNER: Let me turn for a moment to this question of, again, the young people on the campus and protest. You talked about action within the law. And I don’t think, using those words, anyone would disagree with you. The question comes up that, when Floyd Abrams was a guest here on THE OPEN MIND, and Roger Rosenblatt, Time Magazine, was with him, and we were talking about what had happened at Columbia earlier this year, I raised the question – again it was something, a bug that Jan had put in my ear – how do you deal with the frustrations, how do they deal with the frustrations that they feel as young people at the fact that there are so few opportunities for their voices to be heard effectively?

BRADEMAS: I don’t agree that there are so few opportunities for their voices to be heard effectively. If they want to write a letter, if they want to come call on the president of the university, if they want to have their views expressed by their own elected leaders in the university senate, they can do so. The doors are open. This is a very porous, free society generally, and it is certainly free on a university campus. I have not found the complaint that, “We cannot make our views known.”

HEFFNER: Then let me carry it one point further. Sympathetic to young people who feel a certain way and feel that a social injustice is being done. Effectively, no. But are they capable of talking to the president of the university, making their voices heard, but they’re rejected. What does a young person do then when their moral fervor, as it expresses itself in a demand, a request, a need for social action, has been rejected? What then?

BRADEMAS: Well, you do exactly what John Brademas did. In 1954 I ran for Congress at the age of 26. I was defeated. In 1956 I ran for Congress a second time. I was defeated. In 1958 I ran for Congress a third time. I was elected. The fact that your views are rejected carries no particular weight with me, because if you’ve had an opportunity freely in a free society to make your case for a particular point of view on a particular issue, that’s what democracy is all about. Nobody says that in order for you to feel good or for there to have been a moral resolution of the dispute, your side has to win.

HEFFNER: But that’s John Brademas, my gosh, who’s almost as old as I am, who was brought up at a very different time, who was brought up by parents who had very different standards and very different needs of their own in terms of what their little darlings could have and could appreciate. Today, how likely is it that youngsters are going to be capable of dealing with defeat in the same way?

BRADEMAS: Well, your question is an interesting one psychologically, socially. I remember going to, at Harvard, when I was an undergraduate there, we had morning chapel services for 15 minutes. And always there appeared a distinguished professor to come and talk for five minutes. And my philosophy professor, Rayfield Diemos, who was John Kennedy’s philosophy professor, talked once on the need to learn how to fail. He said, “In our society, we teach people only how to succeed, only how to win. We don’t really give people instruction in how to graciously to deal with defeat.” That stuck with me. And I think that the idea that there must be instant gratification obviously is a great fallacy. But I would say, Richard, I’m a little more optimistic about today’s young people than your question may suggest you feel. I don’t know. I have been enormously impressed – I must say this – by the civility, the courtesy, the common sense, the commitment to hard work of the students I have met at New York University. These are very hardworking people. I realize there’s a self-selection process; if you get admitted to a first-class university you probably have some stuff to begin with. But I’m not all that nervous about today’s generation.

HEFFNER: I am grateful that you feel that way. I hope it isn’t just a presidential point of view. And I do want to thank you for joining me here today again on THE OPEN MIND, John Brademas.

BRADEMAS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Come back next week. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”