Vermont C. Royster

A Servant of History, Part II

VTR Date: May 10, 1986

Guest: Royster, Vermont C.


VTR: MAY 10, 1986

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host of THE OPEN MIND. Last time I pointed out that not so long ago Vermont Connecticut Royster – a very distinguished newspaper man, not a region of our country – that my guest Mr. Royster had only recently thought it over and written an end to his notable weekly column, “Thinking Things Over”, thus marking fifty 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. Vermont Royster stayed with us for another program as we mark our own anniversary – it’s thirty years since I began THE OPEN MIND – and I’d like to start now where we left off last time. Mr. Royster, it really is impossible to start off where we left off. I’m going to ask a question, in a sense, about something where you left off. It’s at the end of your “My Own, My Country’s Time”, your journalist journey, published by Algonquin Books. In the retrospective at the end, talking about, well let’s say the failures of our generation, you wrote, “If my generation has an excuse, and we sorely need one, it was that the thirties found us already beaten down by the Great Depression”. And I was a little puzzled by that because what I say to my students and what I say to my sons, I know, goes somewhat along the lines of, “We had a challenge to meet – we had the Great Depression, we had the second Great War, we were better off than you”. Do you really think so?

ROYSTER: Well, the second Great War came around a little bit later. Uh, but you have to remember, and you’re old enough to remember, almost, but for example, I got out of college in 1935, with Phi Beta Kappa key, Cum Laude degree and so forth, and went looking for a job and the first job I had was as a busboy in a cafeteria up here at 72nd Street and Broadway. That was a bit of a come down from my aspirations. Jobs in that period of time were very hard to come by and I was up here trying to crack the newspaper world, set the world on fire. I went around to all the main newspapers time and time again, no luck. Finally one day, after I’d been here about a year I lucked out with a job on the Wall Street Journal. But in those days that was just a small newspaper – about 35,000 circulation, you know? And I took it on the theory that I…it would be a job until I could get a job on a better newspaper, you know?

HEFFNER: And you never did.

ROYSTER: And I never did. As it worked out, I spent fifty years there. And I’ve often wondered, to show you how luck plays in things, suppose I had gotten a job instead, which I would have preferred, on say, the Herald Tribune, or The World Telegram, or the old New York Sun. What would have happened? What direction would my “career” have taken if that had happened? Of course, I have no way of knowing, but if I hadn’t been so unlucky as to find my first job on this little 35,000 circulation newspaper, I would never have ended up as the editor of this country’s newspaper of largest circulation.

HEFFNER: But you know, I, I was thinking more about the question of the uses of adversity.

ROYSTER: Oh, yeah.

HEFFNER: Those were tough times for you. Were we as a people really so badly off in terms of our capacity to bounce back to face a challenge, to meet it, in terms of personality, in terms of character, I really should say, is there a sense of softness today that’s a function of not having to face that kind of challenge?

ROYSTER: I think that may well be true. I think there are uses of adversity if they do not crush you. And unfortunately there were some people who were crushed by the Great Depression. I was very young, I was just twenty-one years old. This is the world I found and I made the best of it. But consider the plight, say of a man in his forties or his fifties who got caught in the Great Depression and lost his job or his business or what ever it was and in effect had to start over again. That’s very much like what happens in war time. Take our own great Civil War. I’m from the South, so I, I come from a defeated land. Uh, I had an ancestor who was a Southerner, who had a very prosperous paper mill and in the course of the war you Yankees came down there and blew it up. Now here he was then pushing fifty, or was in his fifties, and all of a sudden everything that he’d worked so hard and built up for was destroyed. Now he was the one that I have great sympathy for, not for younger people like my grandfather who was seventeen when the war ended. He was able to bounce back. So while there’re used to adversity, and I hate to see a whole generation pass (chuckle) with no adversity, you have to be very careful and make the distinction if it doesn’t crush you, and very often it does.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you where that attitude leads you in terms of political philosophy, in terms of let’s move from the uses of adversity to the uses of the state – to what degree you feel that in our own times, leaving behind the social Darwinian ethic, dog eat dog, and getting to the top on the top of everyone else. What does it lead you to conclude about the appropriate relationship between the state, between government and the well being of its people?

ROYSTER: Well, I think the state has some responsibility for the well being of its people. Uh, if those states which made up the Confederate States of America hadn’t done what they did, uh, the South wouldn’t have been crushed like it was. I think the State has a great deal of responsibility to its citizens, to do what it can to make the economy function properly. I don’t think the state has a responsibility for every individual in the community. I think that is the individual’s responsibility, except for the lame, the halt, and the blind and so forth. But…

HEFFNER: …And yet…let me interrupt a minute. When we talked about the Great Depression a moment ago, you were…we were in a sense talking about the blind, the lame and the halt, who had been made so by the collapse of an economic system…

ROYSTER: …system. That’s right. That is correct.

HEFFNER: What then, should we do when the individual is not responsible, cannot possibly be responsible for his own jobless state? It’s not that he doesn’t want to work, he wants to work but there just isn’t the kind of opportunity that he wants and needs.

ROYSTER: Then I would say, and instead of saying that the government I will say, we collectively, we the people.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by that, though?

ROYSTER: Well, I mean all of us, the whole country, should try to do something to help those people. Not only the lame, the halt and the blind, but those who…particularly those of middle age or old age who through no fault of their own, uh, have been crushed or injured. Then I think the community, the community has some responsibility to help those people. And as a matter of fact, in all the civilized countries of the world, that has been the attitude. Now if you go back in the past, they didn’t do it very well. Uh, the poor houses of times past, uh, are not anything I’d recommend for today, but it was an effort on the part of a community to do something about the unfortunate ones. Even those orphanages that Mr. Dickens wrote about, uh, made such gruesome places…was at least an effort by the community, uh, to do something to help to take care of the orphans within the community. I think it’s a community responsibility, uh, now to some extent that…government plays a role in that, but I, I, I’m just trying to get away from government welfare state and all that and just say community has, has a responsibility for those of its members who are less fortunate than others.

HEFFNER: Do you believe that the American community today sufficiently cares for those who are crushed or who do not have the opportunity that you feel most people should – all people should?

ROYSTER: Well, I think local communities do. One…one of the problems when you transfer all this responsibility up to a nice little government in Washington D.C., which is a thousand miles away, is, a lot of times then local community…people just wash their hands of it. They say let Washington do it. Let the national government take care of it. And that’s too bad. I live in a small university village, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There are a lot of things that we do leave to the national government to do for our unfortunate, but there is an enormous amount of, of, effort on a part of the local community, uh, to take care of the elderly, the sick, all sorts of things. Meals on Wheels to take food around to the elderly people. Now, we must have at least a hundred people involved in that, doing just that. We take on a lot of the responsibility for the younger people through everything from the Boy Scouts to, to playgrounds and what have you. And we don’t leave that to the national government, we do it ourselves. We, we the people of the community.

HEFFNER: But President Reagan spoke of a safety-net. He was speaking, I believe, at the beginning of his administration, of the national government making certain that all Americans had there beneath them, ready to prop them up when necessary, a safety net. Do you think that we the people, the American community at large, not an individual town, that we are doing what you feel needs to be done for the unfortunate – you call them the crushed.

ROYSTER: Well, we try so many things, some of which are good and some of which aren’t. Uh, I like Mr. Reagan’s phrase – the safety-net. But then you get down to the problem of trying to define what is the safety-net? What is properly part of the safety-net? And that’s where most of our political disputes arise. I doubt if very many people in this country quarrel with his concept or idea of having a safety-net. The argument comes over how much of a safety-net, what kind of a safety-net and so forth. Uh, we try to meet it in many ways, in housing, and other things, social security to some extent. But so often what starts thing you know it gets out of hand and I happen to believe – I’m on social security, was one of the original ones in social security. I started in social security the first day it started and the government took money out of my salary for social security. Now I think I’m far over-paid by social security. I don’t think social security ought to be paying me what it’s paying me.

HEFFNER: What would you do to prevent that inequity and while at the same time maintaining what it does pay for those who need it?

ROYSTER: You are asking me to solve a problem (chuckle) the Congress and the President have been wrestling with, uh…I think one of the things we could do…David Rockefeller is my age and he gets the same social security I do. Now, I’m not in dire need, but I’m certainly not as well off as David Rockefeller. Why the hell should David Rockefeller be paid social security?

HEFFNER: Would you have a needs test, then?

ROYSTER: I would have a needs test. Some form. I don’t mean needs in the sense of being you have to have nothing. I don’t mean that kind of need. What I think is that there ought to be an upper cap on social security. You know, there are people today in social security who are drawing over a thousand dollars, twelve hundred dollars a month out of social security, when they don’t need it. And I think this is a…frankly, I think it’s outrageous. Now they did make one, one effort, which I happen to agree with, which is now your social security income is taxable. Of course, if all you have in social security, it’s not taxable, but if you…anywhere twenty, thirty, forty, fifty thousand dollar person a year, your social security is taxed. And I think it should be. In fact, only half of it is taxed, I suspect all of it should be taxed.

HEFFNER: Mr. Royster, that’s one side of the equation, that’s the side, let’s say, of the glass that’s half full. You look at the side, the other side, where the glass is half empty – are there specific areas, too…you pick out social security, you’re concerned with the abuses…are there specific areas over the past years where we have been too, we haven’t been generous enough as a people, haven’t been as generous as we should be and could be in terms of caring for the dispossessed?

ROYSTER: Well, one of the problems with the safety-net, to use Mr. Reagan’s phrase, uh, is that no matter how carefully you devise it, there are people who fall through the gap. Uh, I can think of a few people, uh, in my own community where I live, uh, who fell through that gap. For example, they did not work all those years on, on job salary, where, there they paid the social security, so they get very little social security. For many reasons, particularly in the South, uh, there are many people, mostly black, not all, but mostly black, uh, who have what I consider inadequate housing. Uh, and our big, broad, sweeping housing program doesn’t take care of them. They fall through the net. So I think on the one hand, for some people, we do too much, myself for example, and for other people we don’t do enough. Now I’m not so foolish as to think anybody could devise a perfect program, there is no such thing really as perfection in almost any human activity, but I think that’s what we ought to watch out for –for the holes in the safety-net.

HEFFNER: Do you agree with those who maintain, as Charles Murray does, that when government, when that part of the community we call the government, tries to interpose itself, tries to straighten out the crooked things in our lives, that things that aren’t going the way they should, it almost inevitably makes them worse rather than better.

ROYSTER: Unfortunately that is all too frequently true. And one of the reasons I think is that we’ve transferred too much of this to the national government, which is too big, too far away from most of us, uh, and unfortunately we have in the process, uh, taken way from, form more local governments, uh, the capacity to do anything because the money is taxed mainly by the federal government, goes to Washington, is fed through bureaucracy and some little bit of it trickles back, you know? But as I said, I don’t know of any perfect solution for it. All I think we can do is keep looking at it and try to find two things: first, where the system is abused, as I think it is in many cases in social security. And in the other, is to watch out for those holes in the safety-net through which people fall…well, if people fall through, through no fault of their own, and see what we can do about it. That’s a section by section thing, you can’t get a big plan to do it.

HEFFNER: In these more than fifty years that you spent at The Wall Street Journal, accumulating a couple of Pulitzer Prizes, uh, coming to know so many great people in our society…you experienced the new deal and the fair deal, and you watched Hughie Long and you watched all of the other Utopians – do you think that we as a nation are rich enough to provide social justice, whatever that may mean? I think, in your terms, it means not letting people remain crushed.

ROYSTER: I think we are. The problem though is to…as I say is to devi…is to try to find, and you’ll never find it. I’m not a Utopian. I don’t believe there’s any perfect way to solve this problem. I think you have to do it y trial and error. You look for this place where there is a hole in the safety-net and you try to patch it up. You don’t, though, try to devise one whole huge, bug program uh, and think you have solved the problem because they’ll be holes in that one. Furthermore, you’ll end up with something that costs more than the country can probably afford. It really wouldn’t be so expensive to fill up the holes in the safety net if you didn’t go whole hog and try to put everybody under the same thing. But we have some sort of a prejudice. Uh, if we’re going to have social security, it has to be for everybody, never mind whether it’s David Rockefeller or not, it has to be for everybody. And I think that’s the wrong way to go about it.

HEFFNER: The result of an equalitarianism in our society?

ROYSTER: I think that has a lot to do with it, plus political pressure groups.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, the major political pressure group now is the older people.

ROYSTER: Yeah, I know. I’m…

HEFFNER: You and I are the beneficiaries of that.

ROYSTER: Uh, well, I’m…I think I’m too much of a beneficiary of it. I certainly belong to that generation, being a bit older than you are. Uh, but I don’t think you devise…you set out to devise a plan that’s going to take care of all the old people. That’s not the way to go about it. Uh, and that’s what’s gotten us into trouble, notably with social security. What you try to do is devise a plan for those older people, my age or older, who for one reason or another, either because of their own shiftlessness, or because of illness or what have you, have fallen through the net. Uh, that I think we ought to take care of. But I don’t think you do it by setting up a whole program that’s going to take in every human being.

HEFFNER: Mr. Royster, this is a, a vast question. I hope you won’t feel it an, an…

ROYSTER: …All the ones you asked are pretty vast.

HEFFNER: Okay, fine, I’m given to vast questions. But one more then. Do you suspect that if we were to do the right thing in terms of the crushed and if we were to do the right thing in terms of being intelligent about our plans for social justice, patching up the hole and not letting the patchwork be exploited, do you think we can do so without increasing the percentage of your income and my income that goes to this project? The earned income? Do you think, in fact, we can do this without finding ourselves taxed more?

ROYSTER: I think we can do it and find ourselves taxed less.

HEFFNER: You do.

ROYSTER: If we don’t make the thing mammoth, if we don’t try to put everybody in the same, in the same, uh, tub, you know? I think that’s what’s wrong now with, with many of the things we’ve been talking about. I think that’s true of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. We try to put everybody in the same boat.

HEFFNER: You know, after the, after the second world war there were a couple of places in this nation…well, Adlai Stevenson in Illinois and Earl Warren in California, where they said just what you’re saying: we’ve got to do this on a state level. Do you see any prospect that this country is going to experience that kind of devolution of power?

ROYSTER: I doubt it very much.

HEFFNER: Then where are we going to go? To hell in a wheelbarrow?

ROYSTER: No, no, because sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.

HEFFNER: But why would they get bad?

ROYSTER: But we’ve already…we’ve already done some I just mentioned. For example, all of a sudden now, within the last two years, they’re started taxing my social security, which I don’t object to at all. I’m not sure they ought to send it to me in the first place…Put the whole thing as part of my income to be taxed. But…so…things…devolution, to use your word, there’s already been some of it and there will be more. And then we will devolute, if there is such a verb, we will devolute too much and the pendulum will go back the other way. Uh?

HEFFNER: You’ve seen that pendulum swing.

ROYSTER: I’ve seen it swing so many, many times. Many times. Uh, and I don’t know what the future holds, but I just know it’s going to be different.

HEFFNER: Mr. Royster, I get a signal we have about three minutes left. I want to ask you about given this long life in journalism, who are the American leaders who stand out most positively in your estimation, overall?

ROYSTER: Overall? You mean today?

HEFFNER: No, I mean in the past, and in your career.

ROYSTER: I would say, first of all, in my time, I would say, I would put Franklin Roosevelt first, if we could just stop his career, uh, at the beginning of World War II. Uh, he did not in any way cure the depression, but he did for the American people what Winston Churchill did for the British during the war – he gave us all hope. Unfortunately, I think, Roosevelt, was, was terrible as a war leader and most of the troubles of the world – Mr. Reagan and everybody else, every other president dealt with, a division of Europe and all that – were Roosevelt’s doing. But anyway, I would still put him very high on the list. I would put Dwight Eisenhower very high on my list of “great men”, although he didn’t get much credit for any of it during his life time. I notice even my journalistic friends now are beginning to change their minds about Dwight Eisenhower. And, I would put a foreigner…I’d put Winston Churchill…he did more to save England than any statesman I can think of might have done at that particular time. I wouldn’t be surprised. You can’t tell about statesmen ‘til time is passed and you look back, uh, I wouldn’t be surprised but what both Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan are going to end up on the list of great presidents.

HEFFNER: In a few days you’re going to go to the White House and receive one of the highest civilian honors from the President of the United States. Why do you feel that this particular president may loom larger in time?

ROYSTER: Well, because Mr. Reagan is not, in my opinion, a man of great philosophic capacity. Uh, I don’t think he’s a great intellect, but then none of our presidents (chuckle) in my time have been for that matter, but Mr. Reagan has some instincts which I think are sound. One is that we came in, that the people are too much taxed and he’s right. Uh, that the government is trying to do too many things, and he’s right. The way he goes about it may not work out, but they are very sound ideas.

HEFFNER: That’s a good point at which to end this program and thank you so much for joining me, Vermont Royster.

ROYSTER: I’ve enjoyed it very much.

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, today’s themes, 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.