David Halberstam

Power In America

VTR Date: December 21, 1986

Guest: Halberstam, David


“Power in America”
Host: Richard D. Heffner Guest: David Halberstam
VTR: 12/21/86

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

Frequently, it’s a book, sometimes a political victory (or defeat), or some other event or achievement – that first focuses my attention or curiosity (and yours, too), that leads me to invite my guest here to The Open Mind. Well, today that achievement – and it is, indeed, a provocative, outsized one – is writer, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Halberstam’s new William Morrow and Company book: “The Reckoning”, a study not only of giant American and Japanese automotive companies in conflict, but of a larger struggle between two cultures, two ways of life, two ways of making a living, two perceptions of what it means to be a human being…a struggle we Americans seem to be losing…as car makers, and perhaps as people.

An outsized theme, all right, chilling and rewarding to read. But, then, David Halberstam’s books so often address themselves to our largest people, problems, power centers…as The Best And The Brightest, his stunning analysis of America’s war in Vietnam…and, of course, his The Powers That Be, about the rise in power and influence of America’s communications empires. So that I want first to ask Mr. Halberstam whether these big, critical studies of America that he’s written leave him with very much more than outsized fears – perhaps fearful prophecies – about our country’s future. Indeed, he begins The Reckoning quoting Felix Rohaytn saying that in just twenty-five years, “We have gone from the American century to the American crisis…an astonishing turnaround – perhaps the shortest parabola in history”. And he ends The Reckoning sad that so few Americans are considering how best to adjust our “nation to an age of somewhat diminished expectations, or how to marshal its abundant resources for survival in a harsh, unforgiving world”. So I thank you for joining me today, Mr. Halberstam and wonder whether your studies have left you with this fear.

Halberstam: Particularly the last book or the newest book The Reckoning, I am indeed somewhat melancholy about the way we are adapting to diminished circumstances as we…as our economy is challenged, as we leave an era of what really was, in effect, the American economic hegemony where we were the only rich nation in the world, and where there are other new entrants into the middle class world and particularly the challenge from tough, aggressive, East Asian countries. I think we are…we’ve been careless. We’ve gone through our endowment, so to speak, or a lot of it. We are losing now industrial jobs at an accelerating rate and yet we are doing nothing about it. We are paying very little attention to it, it barely gets mentioned in our political debates. And our focus seems to be out of whack and I don’t have a sense that any politician is talking candidly about different circumstance.

Heffner: Little Jimmy Carter did…

Halberstam: He made a light, little stab of it and got roundly pounded for it, I think. One of the problems is, I think, that the media itself does a poor job on this, particularly television. I think the print media has covered, for instance, the story of Detroit and Japan quite well, but television doesn’t know how to do it, television news. I mean unless, unless Henry Ford went over and punched the Chairman of Nissan in the nose or Iacocca went over and set fire to a Toyota car or Roger Smith from GM went over and, and picketed a Mazda plant, I mean it wouldn’t get on the evening news by and large, because it wouldn’t have film. And therefore, the main carrier of our communications system – our circulatory system – which is television news, because it doesn’t have film, chooses not to cover it and because it doesn’t cover it, we don’t have a sense that our circumstances in the world have quite dramatically altered.

Heffner: There are those who have said that television doesn’t do it to a large extent because of the nature of the commercial relationship to these automotive companies. Do you think there’s anything to that?

Halberstam: I don’t think that, no…no. I don’t think that. I think first off it’s dealing only with twenty-two minutes, which is like putting The New York Times on a postage stamp.

Heffner: Yes, when I look at your book I realize…no twenty-two minutes there.

Halberstam: But the second is it’s really about film on television news. And I think it’s one of the burdens of living in an age where news is perceived primarily now more and more through the norms of entertainment. A weak story with good film will beat out a good story with weak film. This is a good story with weak film. The hostage crisis, those earlier ones in Iran, were good stories with great film. And therefore they went on. The Iran/Iraq war is a very important story with no film, so it never figured as a story until Colonel North started playing around with it. Now it’s a story. It is, it is a real weakness of television news. And I think they’re much worse at it now than they were ten or fifteen years ago.

Heffner: I wonder as you say this, whether I’m finally going to meet my match in pessimism?

Halberstam: Well, I’m very pessimistic. I have a six year old daughter and I think every parent wants to leave a better society to a child. I am not…I’m not happy about where we’re going. I think we are…we are a rich country and we’re a blessed country but we are careless about education and our expectations are too high for the world that we are entering into. We are going to share the middle class no longer with just Western Europe, but we’re going to share it with hungry, well-disciplined East Asian nations, who put education at a primacy. And the years of easy affluence, from 1945 to 1971, when only we were rich, those years are over and we are not adjusted. One of the great problems of the Reagan Administration in this new Northgate or Contragate or whatever you want to use, I think, is it underlines the difference between the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and that administration, which is very vigorous, patriotic, America…you know America will fight any place, a sort of a ‘didn’t happen on our watch’ kind of talk…the contempt for Jimmy Carter and the essential inability of him to act in the same manner because, in fact, the country’s resources are diminished. If you read David Stockman’s book, it is a book about not being able to pay the bills. I mean you can have the pressure from your social welfare part of your government, pressure from Cap Weinberger in Defense and there’s David Stockman who’s really trying to bring the balloon down and he can’t do it. I mean we are living as if we were still that rich, and we’re not.

Heffner: do I understand then that you’re being critical of the President’s rhetoric but not of what he does and does not do?

Halberstam: Well, I’m certainly critical of what’s going on in Iran and the illegal use of the money to…to supply the Contras…I think skirmishing of the Contras is, as someone who’s spent a couple of years in Viet Nam and for whom Viet Nam was ten years of my life, I regard our policy in Nicaragua as an extraordinary aberration and a serious mis-reading of history. I…what is interesting to me is that when you have that kind of rhetoric, almost Rambo-like rhetoric, I mean he really praises Rambo, and you can’t…when the United States Army is wary of getting into Nicaragua, and the United States Senate is and the State Department is and when all the processes really are warning you against it. You end up, if your processes won’t match your rhetoric, you end up with Colonel North going down there as a kind of Rambo-like cowboy. And it doesn’t work. I mean eventually you get…it doesn’t work and you get caught up…you get caught out in it. So I am critical of both the policy and the rhetoric. I should be very clear about that.

Heffner: I remember that Walter Lippmann’s American foreign policy shield of the republic back in the Second World War made the point that you can’t …we can’t as a nation, we mustn’t as a nation let our premises outstrip our resources, our ability to deliver.

Halberstam: One of the things we found out in Viet Nam is the limits of our power. We are a very rich, powerful nation and part of that power is upon a great economy. Compared to the Russians we are just wonderful. I mean they have an economy that doesn’t work. They are a failed nation in terms of the basic human premise of a government’s ability to deliver minimal acceptable services to its people. It can’t house its people, it can’t really deliver food. It’s a soured, failed bureaucracy. The one thing they can do is build large missiles and they can supply a lot of troops. For us to waste too much of our economic energy going one on one with them is a disaster. We have got to keep our economy viable because that’s a source of our overall social political strength. I addition, we have…the lesson of Viet Nam is not to apply power where power cannot be applied. I’ve just seen a brilliant movie. I mean it’s the best…it’s a classic…

Heffner: Platoon.

Halberstam: Platoon, sure. It’s a classic. It is…it’s right up there with Passive Glory by Stanley Kubrick or All Quiet on the Western Front. I mean in an age of Rambo, finally instead of a movie made by someone who was out teaching school at a girls’ school in Switzerland, which is what Mr. Stallone did, we have a movie made by somebody who went to Viet Nam as a grunt. It’s a great movie. And if…one of the advantages of that movie which brings the terror of the war home, is you get a sense…here these American kids fighting…and they’re good soldiers…and God are they armed, I mean a squad in Viet Nam is armed like a platoon or company was in World War II. I mean the armament is ferocious. But if you pay attention to that movie, you’ll get a sense of how the jungle and the terrain filter out American technology. Five hundred thousand men sounds like a lot. Placed in that jungle, they disappear. And so does the air power and the…and the armored cars. I mean suddenly the jungle swallows up your technology. And that…and that lesson is there in the movie. Do not apply power where power is not applicable. It’s a great movie by the way.

Heffner: In your talking about those errors of expectation and ability, I…

Halberstam: We’re racing around, aren’t we?

Heffner: No…no…no. I hear a direct parallel to what you wrote in The Reckoning. What you wrote in The Best And The Brightest and what you wrote in The Reckoning…

Halberstam: One is the arrogance of power – the Best And The Brightest; and the other is the arrogance of affluence. We’ve had thirty years where…or even forty years where we were rich and everyone else was poor and we developed a lot of bad habits. We…our expectations of how we would live, of how…how much reward we would get for our work. Our belief almost that we would get ten percent a year annual increases, as if won in a labyrinth negotiating session with God…the gods would give us 10%…that’s over, but we have…we haven’t…we still believe that because we’re Americans we’re going to keep on living better and getting more. And it’s not true. I mean our na…we’re imbalanced in our trade, we’re running a huge deficit. Countries like Japan are buying our bonds and financing our debt. We’re something like sixty billion a year in trade deficit with Japan alone. It’s very unhealthy. I mean it’s a …it‘s a nation living on credit cards and on credit. Essentially what we’re doing is eating our children’s lunch.

Heffner: Who was it who said that…was it Lee Iacocca?…that…

Halberstam: We’ve been using your credit cards and you don’t know it.

Heffner: Talking to the young.

Halberstam: Yeah. At a graduation at Duke, I think. It’s very sad. Very sad.

Heffner: Where does it lead? What’s your prophecy? What’s your bet?

Halberstam: Well, I’m a child of World War II. I mean I belong…I go back to the Depression Era…I used to be on…a young journalist, I’m not a young journalist any more, I’m a middle-aged journalist. And I’ve see the resilience of this society. I mean I remember how quickly we went from a standing start in Pearl Harbor to the enormous muscle of American energy and manufacturing harnessed and focused and funneled. So I think we can do anything. And I think we are a very strong, pragmatic society. But we are not dealing with it…we are not telling the truth to each other. It is only slowly entering the American consciousness that something, the easy years are over. Maybe we have to bottom out more. Maybe we have to really be in more pain before we call the doctor, I don’t know.

Heffner: Are you saying that essentially you believe that if we had the word, if we knew what was happening, we have the ability to shift?

Halberstam: I think so. I have a lot of belief in the commonsense of the average American. I…I believe in their ability to…if good political leadership says this is what we’ve been through, here’s what we’ve got to do now…we have to have equity of sacrifice; here are new tax laws designed to encourage productivity; this is what we expect of you; this is the sacrifice we’ll all make across the board. I have a lot of…of belief, you know, that Americans can do it.

Heffner: And yet, you write these books that indicate that we haven’t done it.

Halberstam: We haven’t done it yet. Maybe as I say, we have to bottom out more. Maybe we…maybe we have to feel more pain. Maybe it hasn’t come home enough. I mean you’d think that with sixty billion dollars a year in trade deficit, the people would begin to be paying attention. And we’re being challenged no longer now just by Japan, Korea and the other East Asian nations. And maybe…maybe Mexico and Brazil next.

Heffner: In The Reckoning I was fascinated by those pages on Doug Fraser and his…what he felt as the head of the United Automobile Workers, thinking back to what the UAW had won for its workers and the unwillingness any longer to do the work in the first place.

Halberstam: but I think its…I mean Doug Fraser’s a wonderful man. I…I think he’s enormously attractive. Great deal more charm, really than Walter Reuther. I mean everybody…the sainted Walter Reuther. And he was a wonderful labor leader. But Doug Fraser has a human touch that is well beyond that. And when Fraser was a young man, I man you couldn’t even be a union…you’d lose your job if it was even thought that you’d been near a union meeting or a union leader. At the end…as he becomes the President, the union is so big and powerful, the workers are so alienated that when they win these victories and they get special overtime and deals like that, the workers still don’t want to show up. I mean, you know, a $100 extra a day, he says and the guy from Chrysler calls and says no one’s here. He says, Jesus, get me a pair of gloves, I’ll be out there myself. And then he told me the story of the young guy who was a die-maker in one of the factories, young guy, and he would only show up, you know, four days a week. And he’s never show up five…they would have fired him if it wasn’t a critical job classification. Finally, they go, they tap on his plastic helmet, he snaps it back and the plant foreman says why won’t you work five days a week? Why do you only work four? He says I only work four because I can’t make enough money working three. And that attitude had settled in. Now it’s different.

Heffner: What do you mean, it’s different?

Halberstam: Oh, I think, well, that was of an earlier time. I mean that was in the 70’s, late 70’s when there was a belief that the affluence would go on forever.

Heffner: You think it’s turned around?

Halberstam: Yeah. Well, I think there’s an awareness that you can lose these jobs. The industrial…the jaded quality…the jaded attitude towards those jobs, which was a reflection I suppose of fifty years of affluence, that’s over. Now they know that they can lose those jobs. There have been enough plant closings…couple hundred thousand men out of work, maybe a million, all in all with supplier jobs. Ahhh, enough recognition of Japanese goods coming in and now Korean goods that people are aware that if they don’t hold on to that job, they’re falling off the end of the earth. I think the attitude has changed.

Heffner: You know I…sitting where you’re sitting now a few weeks ago was Pehr Gyllenhammar, the CEO of Volvo, who spoke quite critically, not only of the automobile industry in this country, but as you do about our attitudes, our easy-make-it attitudes generally. I was astonished at the response in terms of mail. People said finally, someone is speaking that way. Reading your book they’re going to feel that way, too.

Halberstam: Well I hope so. You know everybody’s so cavalier now, oh the industrial sector’s over, it’s alright, no more blue collar. We’ll all go on to a service industry. That’s the new buzz word, service. And every once in a while I get up when I lecture and say, has anybody here had good service lately? I want everybody who had, dealing with someone in a service economy, to have had good service. I mean, when you called in to American Express, did you get good service or when you went to such and such a restaurant or place, I mean, who has had good service? The service, by and large, sector of the country is terrible.

Heffner: Of course more that that…

Halberstam: I mean people aren’t…do not give good service.

Heffner: Ahhh, but more than that you say if we focus that way, if we…if we think in those terms, let’s see…

Halberstam: Well, there would be high service and low service.

Heffner: Well, yeah, you talk about high service and low service, but then you go on to say, “As the blue collar sector the economy declined, there was danger of the nation’s becoming more sharply divided along class lines”, which you said a few moments ago “with a diminishing middle class, and a chasm between the educated few and the unlettered many”. That’s…those are dire consequences.

Halberstam: I think that’s political dynamite. I think…and I think it’s happening. I mean I don’t know like anyone else how you lightly turn that around. But, the great error, brought on first by the first Henry Ford and Franklin Roosevelt of the blue collar affluence, where the working man was a consumer and he could not only make a car, but finally afford to buy one. The oil age…

Heffner: But it worked.

Halberstam: It worked. The oil age, the American age, which is really an oil century. And which flourishes through Franklin Roosevelt. That is now diminishing and where blue collar workers could work very hard in the knowledge that though they themselves had not had a good education, but dint of their sacrifice, they would have a better life and that their children might go to school. That’s diminishing and the jobs, those blue collar jobs are not being replaced. There’s going to be high service and low service, you and I are in high service. But the person who works at a franchise food place is in low service. He or she has no hopes that their kids will do very much better. There’ll be seventy-eighty percent turnover a year in the job so there’s not much incentive to do the job well. Ahh, and you’re going to have a society, I think, breaking down into an elite and then almost everyone else. And the elite will be not on basis of aristocracy as it was in the pre-Roosevelt era, but on the basis of access to elite education. And that’s already happening.

Heffner: And no one will be producing anything.

Halberstam: Well, it’ll be…the winners will win big and we will…I mean nobody seems…everybody seems to think we can have affluence without making things and I don’t think that’s true. I’m maybe in the minority. I mean there are economists who probably can show that this society is going to be as affluent as ever, but I don’t believe it.

Heffner: You know, you said a few minutes ago that to a very large extent, it was the media’s, and you were talking about television’s essentially, refusal to or inability to or failure to, communicate our problems to the public generally that you found so distressing. And Meg Hanlon, The Open Mind’s Associate Producer, had gone back and gotten for me a story you did in May 1961, twenty-five years ago plus, when you were first covering Washington for The New York Times. And it was about, well at the end of this program, I say as an old friend used to say “good night and good luck”. Of course, that old friend was Ed Murrow and this is about Murrow and you write about him saying, you know, your perspective changes radically when you’re sitting at a meeting at the State Department of the National Security Council. You are alternately jarred a little by the accuracy of some of the reporting of allegedly top secret meetings. And then alternately jarred by the inaccuracy of some of the reporting which is written off the wall. And, I wondered whether that criticism of your field, your profession,
American journalism, is even more valid today than 25 years ago.

Halberstam: Well, I think it’s more valid today, not that when they report…I think television has a great capacity to report and report well. All you have to do is look at the Charles Kuralt show on Sunday or the Brinkley show or the additional use of Nightline as a sort of page two to ABC. But what’s true, is it seems to me, is that film is more powerful than ever on…on…on the nightly news shows and serious reporting, that is reporting without film, plays less and less of a role. I think when television actually deigns to cover something, it covers it well. I think it makes its selection, however, more and more now by films, so that those parts of the agenda that don’t have film and don’t lend themselves to film don’t get covered very well. I’ll give you an example. I think Bruce Morton is one of the most dazzling reporters in American television. He works for CBS, he’s terribly smart, he may be as good a political reporter as there is in the country. But you rarely see him because his stories are really supple political stories that generally don’t have enough film to get on. I mean if…if CBS News were really doing its job right, Bruce Morton would be on every night. That’s an acid test; that’s a good litmus test.

Heffner: Well, it’s one that you say the masses of the media is failing.

Halberstam: No.

Heffner: What chance is there then, ahhh, that we’re going to have the turnaround. I mean you said before dire consequences, dire straits. I suppose you were talking about a real depression.

Halberstam: Or just a society that begins inevitably to become less and less productive and loses its, its industrial excellence and slips into being a second rate nation. That’s …that’s a rather dire consequence.

Heffner: But when it’s second rate…it…second raters don’t usually have the ability to pull themselves up again…

Halberstam: It’s harder. It’s easier…it’s easier to have bad habits than to go from good habits, I mean to get…undo bad habits. It’s easier to get bad habits than to undo them. I look at America this way. If I were doing a chart of America, thirty or forty years down the line. I mean we’re blessed, we have great agriculture – best in the world probably. In terms of mineral wealth, wonderful. These…these are the factors you need for great power. Upper education, best in the world. Most of our engineering schools, probably half the students are Asian, but still it’s a great plant. Venture capital, start up capital, ideas and science…scientific ideas plus capital, wonderful. We’re very good there. Political pragmatism and economic pragmatism, we rate pretty well. Weaknesses, two-fold. Our expectations of our people are too high and we’re not facing the reality and our basic elementary and public school system is not adequate and is corroding and we are up against people who have a primacy of education. And that’s a chart. So what do we make of it? How do we sustain excellence in the next twenty or thirty years? How much will we sacrifice? Against nations that have sacrificed a great deal?

Heffner: Well, if we’re alert and you’ve said this, if we’re alert, we will. But, I have the feeling you’re kind of beating around the bush there. That I can’t help, after reading The Reckoning and remembering The Best And The Brightest, but think you’re even more pessimistic…

Halberstam: I’m very pessimistic. I mean as we are going right now, we are doing poorly and we are continuing to do poorly. I am not one of the optimists who reaches out in…I mean, I think the Japanese are doing better because they value work more and they waste less. I think ours…theirs is a careful society and ours has become a rather careless society. I think the people in America who…who leverage money and manipulate money, the new gunslingers of Wall Street, even people like Boesky, although they finally caught him, they are the people who are making money, they and the real estate men, and the people who make things, who actually manufacture things. They don’t make…they don’t make much money. I mean…I mean you ask a class at a business school these days, you know. The Dean says who wants to go into either Wall Street or consulting groups or anything like that and three-quarters of the class will raise its hand, particularly the brightest ones. And then someone ways what about going into manufacturing…there might be a few hands raised. By and large, I mean those are the hot jobs and the rewards are there and the incentives are there. We have deeded away that which was a great American strength which was manufacturing.

Heffner: You speak, you write in The Reckoning about a visit to oil people in Japan. And, ahhh, the …the reticence that they expressed or they demonstrated to be critical.

Halberstam: Steel…the steel.

Heffner: Steel. And…

Halberstam: Kawasaki Steel Plant. Vice President Mondale goes there.

Heffner: Right.

Halberstam: He goes and he looks around and its…he’s dazzled by how brilliantly the Kawasaki Steel Plant is done. And he…he finds…what do you think of U.S. Steel, what do you think of U.S. Steel? This is shortly after U.S. Steel has acquired Marathon Oil. And the Japanese, as they are in a situation like this, are very delicate, they don’t like to look like they’re criticizing the Americans and they mumble a few words and they keep saying, you know, well we regard U.S. Steel as the father of our industry. But Mondale pushes ahead and they finally say, “We don’t understand why a steel company acquires an oil company”. And then he says, ahmmmm, and what they’re really saying Mondale realizes, is they are businessmen and their job is making profit. We are steel men and our job is making steel. That is our purpose and that is theirs. And the purposes are different. And that’ something we’ve lost.

Heffner: Lost the production values…

Halberstam: Well, also the purpose.

Heffner: …we make money.

Halberstam: Purpose. There’s a purpose about being profitable or is the purpose about being productive. And that is something that runs through our country and it’s something we ought to be paying a great deal of attention to.

Heffner: You know, the question that I come back to and we have maybe a half a minute left. Are we going to do it?

Halberstam: Well, I hope so. Because there’s so much at stake and I mean I think it would be a terrible testimonial to our generation that we left this country, on our watch to coin a phrase, and we left it in worse shape and less able to compete in the world that we inherited. I’d like to think we can. Right now we’re not and we’re not even addressing ourselves to it.

Heffner: David Halberstam, thanks so much for joining me today. The Reckoning remains a great book as The Best And The Brightest. Hope you’ll come back again.

Halberstam: I will indeed. I will.

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, 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, as I noted before, “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 Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer, Inc.; and The New York Times Company Foundation.