Anthony Lewis

Where Power Lies …

VTR Date: September 24, 1994

Guest: Lewis, Anthony


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Anthony Lewis
Title: Anthony Lewis: “Where Power Lies…”
VTR: 9/16/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today, for what I would like to think of as something of a second chance for a reappraisal of some of the points and counterpoints we first made at this table a decade and a half ago about the power and responsibilities of the press, and about other issues too, is Anthony Lewis, one of this nation’s most honored journalists, tong one of The New York Times’ most distinguished columnists.

Now, not long ago in The Times, Mr. Lewis raised the question, or descriptive, as you choose, of where power ties. Obviously, my guest thinks it more or less lies, and lies, with political preachers and talk show hosts. And I would suspect that he would say with those print journalists too who egg them on.

So if ever there were truth to Lord Acton’s dictum that “Power tends to corrupt,” I would ask Mr. Lewis what response we should make today to this power and to its corruptions.

LEWIS: The short answer is: Talk back. We live in a country of free speech. And Justice Brandeis said, “The best antidote for bad speech is more speech, good speech.” Not to try to suppress anyone. t mean, I’m delighted for Rush Limbaugh to go on telling as many lies as he likes, It’s fine. But as long as someone points out that they are ties.

HEFFNER: You know, Mr. Lewis, I had the feeling, as I read my favorite columnist recently in The Times, that he, you, were somewhat modifying that position, because certainly that absolutist position is the one you took 15 years ago here and that you would have taken years before that also. I had the feeling that you had been so disturbed by what has happened in the press, electronic and print alike, that perhaps even Tony Lewis was less of an absolutist than before. No?

LEWIS: I’m not an absolutist, as Justice Black said he was, on freedom of speech. I think there are limits to free speech, but I don’t think I’ve changed my view, and I certainly would not try to stop anyone from speaking because he or she had a different view from my own. I don’t believe that in this country you can stop people from saying or printing what they desire because of the content of the speech. Now, there may be, of course… Freedom of speech is not absolute. You know, we have laws against blackmail, we have laws against perjury. I mean there are lots of things you can do by writing or speech that are wrong and can be stopped or punished. But political speech, no. That’s free.

HEFFNER: But, of course. But you’ve been describing in your columns is a kind of speech that is perhaps in the minds of some the equivalent of perjury. But perhaps in the minds of some is the equivalent of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater. It is perhaps more dangerous now than it has ever been before.

LEWIS: No, in politics I think you have to allow that. That’s the system. And indeed, Judge Boric, when he was on the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, not a radical thinker, but a very sound on this subject, said, “After all, in politics, exaggeration and even falsification are common coin.” And, I mean, that’s what political speech is like. And I don’t think you could mimic that.

HEFFNER: You know, you sound so benign about it now. But I swear there has to be something to the feeling that I had as I’ve read you in the last year or so that your patience is being more sorely tried now than ever before.

LEWIS: Well, I think probably what you have in mind is my revision at the meanness of political discourse in this country today. It’s not that I’m trying to stop it; it’s just that I regret it. And, you know, regretting it is something we can do. We can, as I say, we can answer back, comment, criticize. (think, you know, the attacks on President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton, even Chelsea Clinton, Rush Limbaugh even had it in him to make a nasty comment about Chelsea Clinton, and then the preachments from the television evangelists, its pretty nasty stuff, and it’s lowered the level of political dialogue. So that I, as I say, I regret it. And I think it evokes in the public a cynicism that I regard as profoundly dangerous in the democracy. We’re in a very cynical time when people really, I think, hate government, don’t want government, and they’ve lost their sense of the necessity of government to do things. Of course it has many mistakes, it has many faults, government. But we need it. We have to try to make it as good as we can.

HEFFNER: How do you account for what you seem to think of as the lowest of the low points that we’ve reached in hate speech? And this is a kind of hate speech.

LEWIS: Well, I’m not speaking of hate speech in terms of racist speech….

HEFFNER: I understand.

LEWIS: . . .for example, but of just nastiness toward political figures and the kind of personal attacks we see.

HEFFNER: Worse than ever before?

LEWIS: No, because I won’t surprise you when I say that I have in mind the McCarthy era. That was pretty bad, in a different way, and very cruel and unjust. But it’s a pervasiveness now, kind of lowest common denominator of public feeling that I find distasteful, and I think dangerous in a democracy, as I say.

Now, you asked me why, why is it. Well, it’s quite a profound question, because I think the distrust in government, we can go back and back, but maybe you could start with Vietnam and President Johnson credibility gap, or then, after him, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on Vietnam, more credibility gap and more widening the war while you said you were narrowing the war. And then, of course, Watergate. And it’s just been a succession of scandals and lies. People being told untruths to the point where their belief in the system has eroded. I think it’s quite serious.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you go considerably far back for the beginning of this. Seated at this table the other day was Robert Redford, whose new film Quiz Show indicates that he and others believe that that erosion began, that our loss of innocence began with the quiz show scandals. Whenever you begin it, you are talking about a ongoing continuing phenomenon.

LEWIS: It’s a good point. I think you could… I mean, that’s a little forgotten. That’s the Fifties, isn’t it?

HEFFNER: Uh huh. Late Fifties.

LEWIS: Late Fifties. So, a little earlier than I mean, Johnson and Vietnam was, look, about eight years later. So, that’s a good point.

HEFFNER: All right. Then as an analyst of contemporary affairs, and the future, what do you anticipate? Because again you’re talking about something that has been going on for 30, 40, almost 50 years.

LEWIS: I think we’re in a tough time for the functioning of democracy, first of all, because of this public cynicism that I mention, and secondly, because the way our system works has strayed so far from what the framers of the Constitution intended or had in mind. They thought they were creating a reflective system of government in which the members of Congress would be sort of, well, I don’t want to sound elitist, but a superior group at people who would have time to reflect and form judgments. And as Edmund Burke had said in England, “Were not there merely as rubber stamps for their constituents, but were to make up their own minds and apply their judgment.” And now we have a system in which the member of Congress spends very little time thinking about issues, practically none because he or she has to spend 75 percent of the time raising money for campaigns, and then the campaign goes on all the time. It’s a permanent campaign. So everything is judged in campaign terms, and you’re deluged with polls and lobbies, and Harry and Sally, or whoever they are, Harry and Louise, I forget, ads. And, you know, it’s a din. There isn’t a lot of time for judgment on the merits.

HEFFNER: So things have changed?

LEWIS: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: Okay. Then when you say, when I talk about what I had perceived of as a growing impatience on Tony Lewis’s part with at least aspects of the media, parts of the media in terms of the level of discourse these days, and you say to me, “Well, in this country we do so and so. In this country we would tolerate that speech.” If the very basis for this country has changed, as you have just described it, nothing could be more fundamental than the shift from the founders’ view than what you have described, don’t you anticipate that we will change those other aspects of our national life that have been built upon the notion that the best people, good people, reflective people will rule our country?

LEWIS: Well, you lead me to quote as best I can from memory, my colleague Russell Baker, who had a most wonderful column at the end of June about why he, “Why I’m going to run for president,” why he, Russell Baker, is going to run for president. Because he wants to have his sex life examined, he wants his tax returns for the last 40 years looked over by a special prosecutor, he wants to be abused by political preachers and so on and so on. A really funny column, but serious, because that’s what anybody who goes into the job today has to expect. And, you know, you have to be a lithe crazy to want to go through that. You couldn’t get, today, a person who is fundamentally a shy, internal intellectual like Thomas Jefferson willing to undergo that kind of abuse. So it’s too bad.

Now, what’s the cure? I’m not someone who thinks we should, you know, we should go to some other kind of dictatorial system or something. I think we have to try to deal with the worst excesses. And money is one of them. And we have to try to limit the role of money in politics. It’s very hard because people, you know, people who are in office are used to raising that money, and they don’t like to change the system. But we have to attack the evils one by one. But not, I repeat, not by stopping people from saying what they want.

HEFFNER: Okay. But on a larger canvas, you do describe, and particularly well, the shift in the absolute philosophic basis of this nation, of our democracy, from a reflective government to one that reflects but is not reflective. Then doesn’t everything, in a sense, have to change with that? When you have my favorite, the cameras in the courts and you make the nation the jury, and the people shall judge not just at election time but at jury time, isn’t everything changing? Don’t we have to rethink all of this?

LEWIS: Well, you mainly depress me with the last example you’ve given. And, of course, I think maybe you and I have the same case in mind when you speak of that process. But, you know, I remember Justice Douglas, who was a great supporter of free speech, and nevertheless, using as a terrible example of what we didn’t want, Fidel Castro, in the early days of his revolution, having trials in a football stadium, in which somebody would charge somebody with something and the crowd would shout, “Guilty!” That’s what we’re approaching. And we don’t want that. I quite agree with you. We need, certainly we want to have a more reflective trial system. But, I mean, how do we get away from it? I’m not so sure I know how.

By the way, you mentioned something before that, in fairness, I should have mentioned. And that is my own profession: the press, the media. We have changed also, and it’s a much more tabloid media. We are much less respectful of authority. Maybe that’s a good thing. But we are much more given to printing trash. And that has its, that helps to wear away the stone of reflectiveness too.

HEFFNER: And again, you would simply comment on it?

LEWIS: I would say that it’s up to good editors, and they do, to try to stop that degrading process. And the best editors fight hard. But, you know, you’re in a world now where everything is instant. In the old days The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal could decide something was not fit to print, some sex charge or something or other. And they just wouldn’t print it. And their audiences wouldn’t know. But now, if those editors decide they don’t want to print it, as, for example, for a long time, The Wall Street Journal didn’t print anything about, I guess, Paula Jones or one of those stories. Well, the readers are going to learn from their television that night, or the magazine, or, you know, or their, whatever that, Internet or something. (Laughter) You can see how uncomputerized I am. But the means of communication are so multifarious and instant and demanding, that there’s no control.

HEFFNER: But aren’t you just accepting the notion of competition?


HEFFNER: They do it, so we must do it?

LEWIS: Well, you could call it “Gresham’s Law.” And I’m afraid it applies.

HEFFNER: Would you do it?

LEWIS: No. No. In a column?

HEFFNER: No, no.

LEWIS: If I were an editor?


LEWIS: I would resist. It’s very, very hard. But I certainly would resist. Just because something is on MTV or somewhere else doesn’t mean that The New York Times has to follow that pattern. We may just have to be ourselves. I think you choose your character and you should stay with it.

HEFFNER: Nobody seems to be doing that these days.

LEWIS: Oh, I’d say The Times still was different from The New York Post, shall we say, or The Weekly Globe, or whatever those supermarket tabloids are. Yes, we’re still different. But we print things that I think would have made Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s hair curl. That’s true.

HEFFNER: And one has to assume then that next year more of those things to curl his hair, and next decade still more.

LEWIS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I’m depressing you. Why not? I’m depressed; why shouldn’t you be?

LEWIS: You called me an analyst of the future. Which is something it never occurred to me that I could be or anyone could be. But you’re not making it look very cheerful.

HEFENER: Do you feel cheerful about it?

LEWIS: Well, I’m not…

HEFFNER: Even away from this table?

LEWIS: I don’t feel cheerful about our political system. I think there’s a… Something I haven’t mentioned so far which adds to the cynicism and the danger, and that is that the system is so blocked by the money and the din and these other matters that I mentioned, that it’s very hard to get anything done. I hardly need to say. You know what it takes nowadays to pass a piece of legislation in Congress. It’s practically impossible. So the public, having contributed to the stymieing of this process, then is, concludes that Washington is hopeless, nothing can get done, and turns off the process which it has helped to…

HEFFNER: Well, wait a minute, wait a minute. You say, “The public, which has contributed It has been led by the media.

LEWIS: Led by the media and the interests. Now, you take the health care bill, for example. I would say, it’s a complicated subject, and I don’t mean to make any judgment on the merits of President Clinton’s plan or anybody else’s plan. But I think you’d agree that in Congress there has been relatively lift le focus on the actual merits of any plan. They haven’t spent a lot of time weighing the merits of this or that. What they’re weighing is the pressure of different constituencies: the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, the small businessmen who did the Harry and Louise ads. And those interests, in turn, have aroused, very successfully aroused – they spent $50 million on advertising – aroused public opinion to be against this or that. And so the public has, in that sense, having been aroused negatively, is a very important factor in blocking any action on health care. Then, in the end, you know, when Congress adjourns, the public will say, “You see, they can’t even deal with health care.”

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I would then turn to Tony Lewis and say, symbolic speech, you don’t want to do anything about it. Do you?

LEWIS: No. No. It makes me sound a bit like whoever that mythical monarch was who sod of washed his hands. No, I’m afraid it was Pilate. But I don’t want to be Pilate. But I don’t mean that. I just mean to say we have to try to work our way through this period we’re in without, you know, saying, without instituting some system for deciding who can say what. We can’t have that. We have to have… We can’t make judgments on the content of what people say. I can’t say, “I don’t like what you’re saying, so stop it.” But we have to try to channel our political system to be more productive, more selective, and to have more time. I’ll tell you what’s the worst thing about being a politician today, there literally is no time to think. You’re working 18 hours a day on trivia, on raising money and all of that stuff.

HEFFNER: So time is a factor with politics, impoverishes our politics, and time is a factor with our news media…

LEWIS: Right.

HEFFNER impoverishes their standards. And yet time is the one thing that we can’t do anything about. That’s absolutely for sure.

LEWIS: Einstein, where are you when we need you?

HEFFNER: (Laughter) That kind of relativity. No, but seriously. In a situation in which the dynamics are such where you’re dealing with things that are not going to be turned back, even a Luddite like, as I am…


HEFFNER: Okay. All right. Maybe that’s why I keep hoping that I see, or I want to think that I see in you some result of that Luddite position in the column. You then talk about leadership. Because you’re not going to increase the number of minutes we have in an hour or hours in a day. But you do have to develop a kind of leadership to deal with this. Are you satisfied that the nation chose two years ago the kind of leader who could and would provide what was needed? Have you changed your mind? Are you disappointed? This isn’t part of that hate-Clinton routine?

LEWIS: Yes, there’s a degree of hatred for Clinton which I think is not related to any particular policy he favors or disfavors.

HEFFNER: All right. Let me ask you…

LEWIS: It’s a personal chemistry that goes wrong for lots of people. I don’t have that dislike, you know, visceral dislike at all. I find him an engaging and interesting and very intelligent person. I have been and am very critical of some of his policies. That’s a different matter.

In answer to your question just now, I would say that Clinton chose the limits of intelligence as a factor in being an effective president. Intelligence is not all. It takes a kind of temperament and ability to calm the public down and move it which I’m afraid he lacks. Now, i’ tell you a story, and ifs a well known, or not so well known, but its a story about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was 92 years old when Franklin Roosevelt became president. He had recently retired at that advanced age from the Supreme Court. Roosevelt was brought to see him. Great visit. He left, and Holmes turned to his law clerk and said of Roosevelt, “Second-class intellect; first-class temperament.” And the temperament really mattered. Roosevelt was never a good student, wasn’t a Rhodes Scholar like Bill Clinton. You know, he was a gentleman’s C at Harvard. But he knew how to be president.

HEFFNER: And Mr. Clinton does not.

LEWIS: I think not. Not in the same way. He doesn’t know, he hasn’t yet had the feel for marshalling opinion on a few issues at a time. He’s too easily distracted. He doesn’t focus people’s attention. I mean, Haiti is the latest example. You come along, after a year or more of this maneuvering to try to get the generals in Haiti out, and suddenly you tell the public, “Well, this is why we have to have an invasion.” It’s not an effective way of being president.

HEFFNER: Now, we taped this program in the middle of September 1994. When it will be on, who knows? When it’s on, there will, something will have happened in terms of Haiti. What do you think should have happened in terms of presidential leadership? What do you think will happen?

LEWIS: I think, first of all, I’m a great believer in following the Constitution on issues of war. The Constitution says it’s up to Congress to declare war, and I’m against presidents initiating wars, whether it’s Ronald Reagan or George Bush or Bill Clinton, or whether I like the particular object of the military operation or not.

HEFFNER: Or 50 overage destroyers?

LEWIS: Well, that wasn’t a war.

HEFFNER: Okay. I withdraw that. I think it was, but let’s go on.

LEWIS: But, I mean, it was on the edge.

HEFFNER: It was our war. A good one.

LEWIS: Well, no, but it wasn’t actually the engagement of American fighting personnel, which is what I’m talking about.


LEWIS: But it, at the time, it was viewed as on the edge. For readers who are not quite as ancient as I am, we should explain that that was Roosevelt’s trading of 50 overage destroyers to Britain when it was desperate for munitions for bases in Bermuda, before we were in World War II.

Well, I think in Haiti that what went wrong was the president trying for this extended period of time to wheedle the generals out of Haiti, and then that having put so much of his and the country’s prestige on the line, he then had to do what he said he would do, you know, “Leave or else.” The “or else” came along, so he said I’ll have to… But in the meantime, he hadn’t prepared the country for it. And if he really was of a mind that Haiti was so important, the issues there so important to our security that we had to act, maybe, despite what I said about Congress and declaring war, it would have been better to do it in the first place, quickly, in a day, and not torment us for a year and a half.

HEFFNER: Now, we have one minute left. Would it have been your conclusion that it was important enough to invade Haiti?

LEWIS: I care greatly about the cruelties that the military in Haiti did. And I certainly wanted to see them go. On the other hand, I know the History of American intervention in Caribbean countries, and in particular, in Haiti. We don’t do good. Or at least in the past we haven’t done good. Our efforts to “promote democracy” haven’t worked. So my next conclusion is I wouldn’t have done it.

HEFFNER: Would you have said the same thing about Bosnia? Would you have said the same thing out other trouble areas? And we’ve got 45 seconds.

LEWIS: In Bosnia, I thought we were committed by 40 years of American guarantees in Europe and the involvement of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in NATO and billions of dollars, to maintain peace and security in Europe. And the precedent of allowing genocide to rear its head again in Europe seemed to me so terrible that I would have intervened at the start, not with American troops, not at all, but with the threat of bombing, which, at the start, would have stopped it before it got out of hand.

HEFFNER: Anthony Lewis, that’s probably the best point at which to stop, because neither of us know what would have happened, what would have developed. And it will be interesting though when this program is shown what happened, what we did finally, in Haiti.

Thanks so much for joining me today, Anthony Lewis.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”