Vermont C. Royster

A Servant of History, Part I

VTR Date: May 10, 1986

Guest: Royster, Vermont C.


VTR: MAY 10, 1986

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, I suppose I ought to say it with a smile…that this is only the 30th anniversary of my program: I began THE OPEN MIND in May, 1956 – and here it is, May, 1986, only 30 years later. For, after all, when my guest today thought it over earlier this year and wrote an end to his distinguished weekly column, ‘Thinking Things Over”, Vermont Connecticut Royster was marking 50 years with The Wall Street Journal, having risen from low man on the totem pole in The Journal’s Washington Bureau to Editor of our premier national newspaper. No journalistic novice himself, when The New York Times’ James Reston reviewed for his paper, Mr. Royster’s A Pride of Prejudices, back only two decades ago, he wrote that The Wall Street Journal’s editor “has seen much more than most journalists of the shabbiness of political life, the contentions of the races, the quarrels and wars of nations and the selfishness of men in general, but somehow he has rescued out of all this an optimistic and cheerful spirit, which enables him to look on the events of the day without cynicism. Above all, he has both a sense of history and a sense of humor, and while he writes for a paper that is conservative in thought and innovative in practice, he is far too individualistic to be put into any rigid ideological category”. But, in fact that very reluctance on Reston’s part to characterize Mr. Royster politically leads me to ask my guest – who after all, thought it over for so long, and who has left so much of himself on the public record – whether there really isn’t some kind of succinct, indeed even political or ideological ‘This I believe’ that he wants posterity to ponder…and if he wouldn’t share it with us today. Mr. Royster?

ROYSTER: Well, most of my life I’ve been called a conservative, I suppose largely because of the newspaper that I write for. I always think of myself really as a bit of a radical, uh, because there’ve always been so many things in our political life and our social life and all that I would like to change. I don‘t want to change them by shooting guns off, but I would like to change them. And I think that makes me a radical, doesn’t it?

HEFFNER: Well, what do you mean you don’t want to change them by shooting guns off? No barricades.

ROYSTER: No barricades. No barricades. I would like to try to persuade…as best I can…uh, that some things be changed, uh, some as a matter of fact have been changed in the last ten or fifteen years…uh, most of them, I suppose, for the better. Uh, but there’s still other things that (chuckle) could be changed.

HEFFNER: What about the contemporary Journal’s own particular political orientation?

ROYSTER: Well, as a retired editor I don’t have anything to do with its current editorial posture…uh, and I make ti a firm practice never to kibbitz. By and large though, I think I agree with the editorial posture that the newspaper now takes, but if I were editing I would change sometimes the way it’s done – make it a little softer perhaps – but generally I find myself in agreement with what they now say.

HEFFNER: I’m interested when you say “a little softer”. Bob Bartley frequently is on my other program…

ROYSTER: …Yes…I know…

HEFFNER: …”From the Editor’s Desk”, and occasionally I accuse him of speaking a little too loudly about let’s say 535 men. What do you think about The Journal’s constantly pushing on this business of these…these awful people who sit in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States? Do you evaluate them the same way?

ROYSTER: Well, I must say, I’m not overly impressed…uh, with the current group….uh, in…uh, the House and the Senate. I don’t think that they have the stature that they used to have. But you have to remember that I’m an old man looking back and I may romanticize the days of the past. Uh, but for example, uh, my first Speaker…first Speaker of the House when I was in the Washington Bureau us, was…was Bankhead – a good Southern gentleman in manner, in bearing, in…in…in…in way of speaking. That’s quite a contrast with Tip O’Neill, even in the manner…the surface manner. But Tip O’Neill at least put some life into the politics of the Capitol. I would say, curiously enough, that he and Jessie Helms, and they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, uh, are probably the two most interesting people up here at the moment.

HEFFNER: You know, I’ve read that comment of yours, that feeling about O’Neill and Helms. What is it about them that takes you so?

ROYSTER: Well, I don’t know. In the first place, he’s got a good Irish personality and the Irish are always charming people. Uh, he can be quite outspoken at times. Uh, he doesn’t mind occasionally reversing himself with no apology, just reverses himself. Uh, and he’s been very careful, I think, uh, in his duels with President Reagan – uh, to keep the personality aspect out of it. So that as far as I can tell, uh, Mr. Reagan and Mr. O’Neill manage to…to keep a very good personal relationship although they disagree politically quite frequently.

HEFFNER: But of course, now we’re going to have Tip O’Neill leaving the House, leaving the territory of what you would consider a very interesting Senator, or Congressman to, to Senator Helms.

ROYSTER: Well, you can always count on Senator Helms to stir up the animals. Sometimes I think too much so, but it does make him an interesting personality in the Senate, just as Tip O’Neill is an interesting personality, uh, in the House. And I like for our political figures, uh, to, to not be too bland, you know? And I go back to some real characters. Old Senator Borah for example. Uh, Senator Norris, people of that sort. Tom Connolly from down in Texas. Now they weren’t men of, I thought, great intellectual stature, uh, but they added color to our Legislative Assembly.

HEFFNER: Now I think you’d probably be the last person to say their color was enough and in those fifty years you’ve gathered two Pulitzer Prizes and watched a great many people on the political scene. A moment ago you said, “Well, perhaps it’s hindsight”. You looked back and you say, “Things were better then”. But I suspect you don’t really mean it, you don’t really mean that only perhaps but that you really think things were tighter…

ROYSTER: …Well, I really think, but I always have to recon…I think any man that gets to my age and I’m now three score and twelve, translated that’s seventy-two…Uh…any man that age has to remember that he may romanticize his early years and he may also romanticize the people that he knew in those early years. Uh, another thing is that I do not today have the same close personal contact with these people that I had twenty, thirty years ago. Uh, some of the people I’ve already mentioned, like old Bill Borah, uh, I used to see him almost every day. Uh, and you, you, you got to be uh, sort of friendly with them. They knew you, called you by name, you knew them and so forth.

HEFFNER: Any problem in that, by the way, Mr. Royster, that relationship between political leadership and journalists?

ROYSTER: Well, I think there is and I’ve always been very careful myself. While it’s nice and as a reporter you almost have to establish some sort of rapport with your contacts, but I’ve been very careful and tried very hard never to be too close to a person in political office because I’ve always wanted to be able to, to criticize him without people saying, “Well, they‘re enemies”. Uh, I’ve also wanted to be able to maybe approve of something they did without anybody thinking, uh, that, that’s because they’re friends. I don’t think too close contact between, or friendship between journalist and public figures is a good idea.

HEFFNER: Is there more of that now, or less of it, than when you started with the Journal fifty years ago and more?

ROYSTER: I think there is, uh, because I recall very little of it let’s say in the late thirties, between journalists. We…journalists…we all, we all…all of us who covered say Congress tried to keep friendly relations with all the members of both Houses, particularly the key people. I can remember once when I was invited (chuckle) to go in the office of Old Jack Garner, Vice President Garner, and his…his…his words, “Strike a blow for freedom”, which meant sit down and have a drink, and I would be privy to a lot of conversation that went on between he and the other people. Uh, but I never was…considered myself a personal friend of Vice President Garner and I don’t think he did of me.

HEFFNER: So you think that perhaps there’s more of that closeness in relationships today between key journalists and…

ROYSTER: …Well, sometimes there seems to be, but I’m not going to accuse anybody (chuckle) in particular of that.

HEFFNER: I wasn’t even going to lead you into that ‘cause I knew I couldn’t lead you anyplace you wouldn’t want to go, Mr. Royster, but I did want to get to the question of power. You know, when journalists have been at this table, have sat here and we’ve talked about their responsibility and their power, there’s been so much of the “There’s no one in here but us chickens” approach to the power of the press. As I read you, as I read My Own My Country’s Time and the other volumes that have been published by Algonquin Books, I have the feeling that you’re ready to admit, concede, the power of the Fourth Estate. Is that true?

ROYSTER: Oh, I think it does and I think it has much more power, or exercise it, or uses it, uh, than it did in my early days as a journalist.

HEFFNER: For good or for bad?

ROYSTER: Mmm, a little bit of both, but mostly for bad, mostly for bad.

HEFFNER: You want to explain that?

ROYSTER: Uh, well, you know the famous…we’re called the Fourth Estate, uh, which is not an official…we’re not an official part of the realm like the Supreme Court, the Legislature, and the President. Uh, but I don’t think that, uh, journalism should either a) get in bed with the, with the people in power, the administration or whatever. On the other hand, I have never understood why any of us as journalists should consider the government our enemy. It makes no sense whatever. Uh, we’re all in the same boat. We ought to be able, as editorial writers or commentators, or what have you, uh, to criticize say, Mr. Reagan or one of his predecessors, Mr. Carter, uh, without thinking that somehow we’re enemies because we’re not. I prefer to assume that most of our political leaders, in the House, Senate, Presidency, really have the best interest of the country at heart. I think journalists should also have the best interest of their country at heart. Now that doesn’t mean we all have to agree on the method or the approach or policy to do it, but it’s one thing to criticize a policy, to criticize a president for his particular policy in the budget or whatever, uh, but without a chip on your shoulder as if somehow we’re enemies, because I don’t think we are, or should be.

HEFFNER: But doesn’t that possibly stem from this abrogation, self abrogation of the status of a Fourth Estate. It isn’t anywhere in the constitution, though one might pretend…

ROYSTER: …Well, we’ve been called a Fourth Estate going back to, uh, who was it? McCauley? Back in the early British, uh, uh, uh, governmental period. We’re not a part of the Constitutional framework, uh, but the press is very important in any free country, any free country. You can’t have a free country without it.

HEFFNER: Suppose, Mr. Royster, one were to grant that, but then perhaps define the route cause of this antagonism that you deplore between the press and the tree essential estates. Couldn’t one find the basis for that, in the assumption that the press is a Fourth Estate and there we are? Take ti or leave it, like it or not, we’re the Fourth Estate. McCauley or anyone else…

ROYSTER: Well, I think some of my colleagues, the younger colleagues, do sort of have the idea that they hold some responsibility…

HEFFNER: …to attack?

ROYSTER: Well, they feel a responsibility to set the, the, the country right, according to their own likes. Uh, which is not their job at all. Uh, and then maybe that gives then, a, a, an overweening sense of pride or power. Uh, and I don’t recall that existing in say the thirties and forties. Uh, I guess it really began with the Vietnam period, is when it began to bust loose. I deplore it, but I also am a strong believer, uh, in free speech, in freedom of the press. Uh, I wouldn’t deny them the right to speak, not at all. I’d hate to have had my right to speak denied over the past fifty years (chuckle). Uh, it’s a question of degree. Questions of degree are always very difficult to measure, very difficult to measure.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, when you, when you talk about the measure…a question of degree, and you talk about power, then you talk about responsibility and I frequently ask my journalistic guests about the possibility that they have the same responsibilities or at least the responsibilities in part, of the historian. And I…

ROYSTER: …Oh, I think they do.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, most of them say “No, don’t dump that on us, we don’t have that”. now you begin one of your essays, one of the speeches you made that’s here in the Essential Royster, that also Algonquin Books put out, and you said, well let’s see, on page 23 you say…you started off your essay on journalism as history. You say, “I am not an accredited historian”, but one can then move on to assume that in part, though, you are a historian…

ROYSTER: Well, what I went on to say in that particular thing, I start out by saying “I’m not an accredited historian”, but I’m one of the people or have been one of the people who makes all the raw material of history. Uh, I’ve just finished reading, uh, uh, a book by Tom Wicker, who is an old friend of mine, a fellow Tar Heel dealing with the Civil War. I think it’s an excellent book. Uh, but in order to write it, what did he do? He went back into the record, much of which was in newspapers of that day and time during that period of the Civil War. He got an enormous amount of his material there from. Uh, any historical collection, uh, that deals with a period, not only collects newspaper stories, newspaper editorials, but also personal letters. Uh, the letters that a wife wrote to her husband about conditions at home during the war, or the husband wrote to the wife about what he’s been through. Now these are not history, but they are the raw material of history and anyone who’s going to write a story, let’s say about the Great Depression, has got to deal not just with what Roosevelt did or what Congress did, but with what people were thinking and what people were doing and what was happening to people at the time. It’s the raw material of history.

HEFFNER: Given the fact that it is the raw material, doesn’t that put an added burden of responsibility upon the journalist since what he writes…I remember James Reston did a, a…put together a group of his essays and he called it “Foot Prints in the Sands of Time”.

ROYSTER: …Oh, yeah.

HEFFNER: But they’re not washed away. As you suggested, they’re not washed away…

ROYSTER: …No, no.

HEFFNER: They’re there and they’re used as the raw material.

ROYSTER: Scotty’s book, it still makes very interesting reading today, as a matter of fact. Uh, but the thing is that you cannot worry about at the time you are covering particular event. Uh, it may be a war…a battle in war, or it may be something happening in the, in the farm country, dust bowl country, and you try to describe it, tell about it as best you can. Uh, you may even deplore what’s being done or not being done about it, but you don’t have any responsibility, at least I don’t feel any responsibility, that I’m saying today when I’m writing about a, a, a period of the Depression, that I’m therefore responsible for everything that happens thereafter.

HEFFNER: Well, can we just…

ROYSTER: …Whereas a president of the United States or important figure in Congress has got to think, “What I do today may have consequences tomorrow”.

HEFFNER: May I just hold on that for a minute?


HEFFNER: Because…uh…look, the way we’re going to vote as a people in 1988, uh, depends to a considerable extent upon what we know about our past, what we believe we know about our past.

ROYSTER: Most people don’t know very much about our past.

HEFFNER: Okay, well, most people don’t know how little they know about our past.

ROYSTER: That’s right.

HEFFNER: But their ideas are there and…about the past and those ideas come to some considerable extent from journalists and from essayists, from the scribblers generally, print and electronic, who tell them what the past was like. So I wonder if there isn’t indeed a…You started to say a moment ago, “Well, you can’t worry about…”

ROYSTER: Yeah, that’s right.

HEFFNER: But don’t you have to worry about the future?

ROYSTER: Well, you have to think about it. Oh, worry about the future? Let’s not worry about the future.

HEFFNER: No, no, I mean worry about the future use of the materials that you write today.

ROYSTER: Well, I think…

HEFFNER: …Aren’t you making the future as you write?

ROYSTER: I’m not sure because there’s so many voices allowed in the land, uh, that the voice of one journalist or another journalist, uh, is just another voice. For example, when we come to vote in 1988, uh, I’m sure people will have been influenced to some extent in their thinking, uh, about what’s been written between let’s say ’80 and ’88, the Reagan years. Uh, but I don’t think anybody is going to go and vote because Royster said something or Reston said something or Wicker said something.

HEFFNER: But how do we know what the world is like except as we read Royster and Reston and Wicker?

ROYSTER: Well, you look around you. That’s the way you find out what the world is like.

HEFFNER: And what do we see? The world is too large.

ROYSTER: Oh, well, even a journalist, and I’ve been all…I’ve been around the world twice, but I wouldn’t make any pretense that I really know what the whole world is about.

HEFFNER: No, I, I would not for a moment say that you, Vermont Royster, would make that pretense, but I do know that I depend to a very considerable degree upon what you and the fellow scribblers write.

ROYSTER: Well, but there are lots of other people, too, all putting their voices into the pot.

HEFFNER: Well, you know…

ROYSTER: We call our country a melting pot, which of course it is to a very large extent. But I also think our ideas, each individual person – the citizen in Chicago, or San Francisco, or whatever – his ideas are also a sort of melting pot. They are the melting pot of the ideas of his wife, of his neighbors, of what he reads in the newspaper, what he watches on television. It all goes in and is melted up and somehow out of that he’d…he comes out with a conclusion, uh, that this has been good and this had been bad and he ought to vote for this man instead of that man, but no one of these people has told him what to do.

HEFFNER: Okay, granted. No one, but put together.

ROYSTER: Put together, yeah.

HEFFNER: That self-described…McCauley self-described Fourth Estate does it. I, I…in 1964, in “Thinking Things Over”…

ROYSTER: Good Lord!

HEFFNER: You wrote a piece called, “Who’s Entitled”, and it’s just absolutely fascinating. “The Messrs. Crock”, Arthur Crock, “Lawrence”, David Lawrence, “Alsop”, Joseph Alsop, “Lippmann”, Walter Lippmann and “Reston”, James Reston, “are all charming people, and Ms. Doris Fleason is more charming than any of them, yet it would be a bold man who would argue that they or any of their other colleagues it the columning trade are wiser than you. Certainly they can’t all be infallible since they never agree with each other”. But you go on. You point out that they all come from…well, they come from disparate backgrounds. Uh, uh, “Arthur Crock prepared for his present dignity by covering fires and robberies for the Louisville Times while Dave Lawrence got his start as a legman for the A.P.”, etc. “Scotty Reston apprenticed in the trade as a press agent for the Cincinnati Reds”. And then you say, “What entitles them, then, to have their opinions on world affairs widely published in columns, a very expensive newsprint. Who, they ask, does this fellow think he is about each and every one of them?” Didn’t you write that because you know that together at least they have tremendous influence?

ROYSTER: Well, yes, but uh, I also went on in that same piece, if my memory hasn’t failed me, you go so far back, that to make the point that the only right to express his opinion in a newspaper of a Dave Lawrence or Arthur Crock or Royster, is that unlike most people the journalist devotes his full time to watching the, the, the political and economic affairs of the nation, and to some extent the world. Now, that doesn’t make him any smarter than the doctor, the lawyer, the shoemaker, the carpenter, or whatever, in some small town. The difference is that other man has got to devote most of his time to being a doctor, a carpenter, or whatever he is. Uh, and he only, uh, gets, uh, uh, uh, the news and things, uh, uh, about the world in his extra time, maybe at night when he reads the evening paper or watches the evening television. Whereas the commentator, the professional commentator devotes his whole time to it. Now, no doctor would be a very good doctor if he just doctored in his spare time. He has to devote his whole time to that. Uh, and that’s the only qualification that I, or Scotty Reston, or, or Tom Wicker, or anybody else has is that we have devoted our whole time to following the world. We can take the time to read not only the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, but also the descending opinions if we wish. How many people have the time to do that?

HEFFNER: But you see, I recognize that and that’s why I used to turn to Royster and still turn to Wicker and to Weston…

ROYSTER: Yeah, yeah. We don’t agree with each other, so where does that leave you?

HEFFNER: Well, it leads me to pick and choose.


HEFFNER: But you’re the ones who have the input and therefore I keep…

ROYSTER: Yeah, but you do the picking and choosing. That’s the point.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but the universe is fairly well limited. The universe is limited by the kinds of people who make it in that Fourth Estate. And that’s why I always come back to the question of what responsibility you have and whether it isn’t the historian’s responsibility,. I think you exercise that as an editorialist, you always did, as a columnist. What about the news reporter?

ROYSTER: Well, I think he does, too. Uh, when he goes to report, let us say, the new tax bill which has just been brought forward, uh, nobody’s going to read the whole…not going to read the whole tax bill – maybe a few CPAs will, but most of them aren’t. So what is his duty? His duty is to go through that tax bill and try to pull together as best he can what effect the new changes will have on this group of people, on that group of people, and other group of people. If the newspaper is edited well, as the New York Times was the other day, and the Wall Street Journal was the other day, they gave it a table to lay it out. That lets the reader then decide whether he’s for or against the new tax bill.

HEFFNER: The wise, wise reader. You know, you raise so many questions that I do hope you’ll stay with me here and we’ll do another program after this, but Vermont Royster, at the moment, our time is of an end. Thank you so much.

ROYSTER: It’s been a lot of fun.

HEFFNER: Good. Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you, too, will 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, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer Incorporated, and The New York Times Company Foundation.