Suzanne Garment

Suzanne Garment, Wall Street Journal

VTR Date: September 20, 1986

Guest: Garment, Suzanne



HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Back during Liberty Weekend, in July 1986, I served as Chairman of the major effort to add, as we put it then, “cerebration to celebration” in marking the Statue of Liberty’s centennial. It was called “Liberty Conference” and many of its participants had, over the years, been guests here on THE OPEN MIND. Others have joined me since, like William Sloan Coffin. Still others will in the future, like Katherine McKinnon. And joining me today is one of Liberty Conference’s permanent panel of distinguished Americans drawn from a quite broad and balanced range of backgrounds and political perspectives, Suzanne Garment, Associate Editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. In fact, I’m going to begin THE OPEN MIND today by asking Mrs. Garment how she could, if indeed she would, characterize her own political perspective as it informs Capitol Chronical, her weekly Washington based commentary in the Wall Street Journal. Fair question?

GARMENT: Well, the question that should make everyone feel very nervous (laughter).

HEFFNER: Not you.

GARMENT: It makes me feel very nervous.

HEFFNER: To say what your political perspective is?

GARMENT: I came…I came out of the neoconservative stream of politics and I did so in a very direct way. My…my teacher at college in graduate school was James Q. Wilson, who was a founding member of the Public Interest magazine, which was one of the magazines very much associated with that movement and through him I got to know the rest of them, or many of the rest of them.

HEFFNER: You say…when you start you say, I came out of the neoconservative tradition – does that mean you are out of it now? Or…

GARMENT: No, no.

HEFFNER: You haven’t abandoned it.

GARMENT: No, haven’t abandoned it, no.

HEFFNER: What does it mean? What does it…I mean, Norman Podhoritz has been here…a number of those people who made up that gang…the old gang…but indeed what does it mean today? Does it mean that which is most prominent in political thinking today?

GARMENT: I doubt it. It is…it is hard to tell now. This is a time when some issues that used to be closed are very wide open so it’s hard to tell what’s most prominent in political thinking. But the neoconservatives that I met then, and know now, had their positions as a result of…in good part, having been men, sometimes women, of the left and having become somewhat disillusioned with that. And that is a different kind of conservatism from the conservatism of someone who has never toyed with ideas on the left.

HEFFNER: You way a different kind of conservatism – is it fair to say better? Worse?

GARMENT: No, no. We don’t (chuckle)…

HEFFNER: What do you mean the. Different in what way?

GARMENT: For instance, the people that I associate with, neoconservatives, are very conscious of language when they…when they write of politics, of course…but when they participate in any political activity, they are conscious of it because they know how important it has been in making a certain set of political ideas into an orthodoxy. They are conscious of how words can be used as weapons against them, how words are important in making a case seem plausible instead of reactionary or extreme. That’s a feature that I don’t notice so much in people I know who are from the old right, who tend to say what they think, the way they’ve always thought it, and not be so aware of their audience.

HEFFNER: Does that mean that the…the neoconservatives, the new conservatives, the old radicals…that they’re talking about…that they haven’t really changed their basic ideas, that they are using language differently?

GARMENT: There are some ideas that I think they did never change. There is a respect in which the policy moved left instead of their really moving right. There are some ideas that haven’t changed and still cause them – I don’t think trouble with the old right, not so far – but that are very different from those on the old right, different from those on the new right, for that matter, then neocons have not been very vocal on specific social issues.


GARMENT: I think that they’re more cosmopolitan, in the sociologists’ sense.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by the sociologists’ sense – they know nothing works?

GARMENT: They…when it comes to social issues…namely sex, for instance, all kinds of sumptuary legislation…with the neocons you tend to be talking about people who live in cities, who come from a tradition that values tolerance immensely, and these are people, therefore, that get very nervous when other people talk about infringements of individual freedom.

HEFFNER: In the sexual or personal family area.

GARMENT: In the personal area, yes.

HEFFNER: Well then, how do the two stay joined together? You said they get very nervous about that. How can you, if you have deep, profound respect for privacy and for letting an individual in the matters that affect himself of herself be free to do so? How can you sit next to those who would use government to interfere with those rights?

GARMENT: It…it hasn’t been, so far, very different from any other political coalition. The…the Reagan administration came into office after many years of presidents who were far to the left. Therefore, there was enough to keep everyone busy in the coalition without reaching the point where the crunch would come – where the fissures would show – but they will come at some point.

HEFFNER: When do you think they will come – seriously. Are you talking in terms of months and years, not in terms of decades or centuries? When will that come and the neocons find that they’re looking back to their old friends?

GARMENT: Let’s see. If the…if the anti=abortion forces continue to grow in strength anc come closer to what they want, which is, among other things, repeal of Roe vs. Wade, I think some of the discomfort is going to show.

HEFFNER: What will happen then?

GARMENT: Some people will even write about the discomfort and say they disagree with their fellow coalition members (chuckle).

HEFFNER: Do you think that the new chief justice and the new justice of the Supreme Court will bring that day that you are referring to closer?

GARMENT: I don’t know. I …and that’s…I…I don’t think innovation…I don’t know how the issue is going to be presented to them.

HEFFNER: Of course, you wrote about their playing poker together.

GARMENT: That’s right.

HEFFNER: The best insight I have into Scalia is what you wrote in The Wall Street Journal – about his poker playing.

GARMENT: The two of them I know just a little bit and I wrote about it only because that little bit was a lot more than most journalists knew when this debate started over…over them and their appointment. And it turns out that the…the reason I know just a little about them is that they play in a poker group in which my husband is a member and sometimes from upstairs, you know, I hear these strange shouts and (chuckle) conversations. So I wrote a little bit about it. I wrote, in fact, about the very different characters and about how I thought both of them were very, very decent men.

HEFFNER: How does it strike you that the one decent, profound conservative is accepted totally by the Senate – his nomination – and the other decent and profound conservative runs into more difficulty than any nominee for the Chief Justiceship of the Supreme Court in our history?

GARMENT: It’s interesting, isn’t it? The…one reason that comes to mind, and you can never tell definitively, is that Scalia is – as well as being an extremely gregarious and charming fellow, who has always been on the right, but also been part of the Washington community – is also an Italian American. And that means that if people beat up on him too badly it means that there are going to be people in his corner, people who will fight back and people who will accuse the critics of being themselves prejudiced. That tends to put a chill on…I think it did put a chill on the anti-Scalia campaign.

HEFFNER: Renquist didn’t have that advantage…doesn’t have that advantage.

GARMENT: No. Different political history. He has been on the right for a very, very long time and was on the right in the days when most of the establishment press thought that it was truly kookie and wrote about it as such. The aura has hung over him – I don’t mean in any deserved sense, but the history of those associations has followed him.

HEFFNER: Well, you say the history of those associations, but a moment ago you pinpointed reversal of Roe vs. Wade as one of the signs, if it happens, when the neocons…I don’t know well you will join them…abandon ship if there is this reversal – and certainly both the new chief justice and the new justice seem bound to push in that direction. Don’t you expect that to happen?


HEFFNER: What’s going to happen to your poker game then?

GARMENT: It’s lasted through a lot so far, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t last for a little bit more (laughter). There is a difference between a disagreement and a cry of extremism.

HEFFNER: What do you think the reversal of Roe vs. Wade would symbolize – disagreement or extremism?

GARMENT: I wouldn’t…I don’t think many people would call it extremism now in the sense that it’s…that the opinion in the reversal – the general opinion – underlying the reversal would be just a possession of some small fringe group. You can’t do it anymore. There are too many people active in that movement and you can like it or not like it – and I know extremism has sometimes been used even by our best historians as a synonym for political ideas that they don’t like and they think are extreme, even if…even if fifty-one percent of the country has taken them for the moment.

HEFFNER: But Mrs. Garment, you said fifty-one percent, even if, is it your perspective from Washington that indeed the public opinion polls would seem to indicate that a majority of citizens – women certainly – would support a continuation of the philosophy of Roe vs. Wade. Are you suggesting that that’s wrong, that the opinion…?

GARMENT: No, no. I’m suggesting that there is a difference between a view that you think is extreme and a view that is extreme in the sense of being held only by a very small proportion of the population. And the anti-abortion view cannot be called extreme in the latter sense any more. I don’t think that a majority of people holds it – I certainly don’t think so.

HEFFNER: You think that the majority of Americans now are opposed to the right of abortion?

GARMENT: No, no. No.

HEFFNER: Oh, it’s the other way around?

GARMENT: Yeah. This is a guess though because the polls are one way that you gauge such things. The other way that you gauge them is by political activity which sometimes involves small numbers of people. It also is a measure of the intensity of feeling and it’s out of all those measures that you get a view of…

HEFFNER: Let me go back then to this question of what the neoconservative position may become if there are successful inroads on privacy, let’s say. What do you see? What is that world picture you have of what would happen to the groups you have been associated with? I shouldn’t say the groups, the individuals – where will they go? What will they do?

GARMENT: This is, of course, over-generalizing.

HEFFNER: Why not, what are we here for?

GARMENT: Right, right (chuckle). There is a sense in which the writers that we are talking about…

HEFFNER: Spelled with a “w” not an “r” – right?

GARMENT: Right, yes. I’m sorry…have never, will never be part of a political apparatus. They’ve been relatively in, some of them are actually in the administration, but most of them are not in and there are people who are capable of pulling up stakes.

HEFFNER: Do you see they’re…

GARMENT: I’m not sure that this stuff would be enough to do it, but I don’t see that…

HEFFNER: Well, the neocons seem to be dissatisfied about any movement in that direction, but also seemingly dissatisfied with the administration’s strong words about the Soviet Union and actions that seem not to keep pace with those words. Is that a fair evaluation?

GARMENT: To a certain extent. Some people I know who, who hold the general position, I think conceive of their role as giving the administration a jab in the ribs whenever it is not living up to what it is saying about the Soviet Union and the feeling…the degree of feeling of betrayal rises and falls (chuckle) with the day, the hour.

HEFFNER: Do you think they’ll welcome an opportunity in ’88 or ’92 to go back to the party from which so many of them came with an appropriate campaign?

GARMENT: Gee, that’s a good question. I don’t know. By now they’ve…their party allegiances are so…are so fragmented and they have been through so much agitation and I just don’t know whether they are going to settle down.

HEFFNER: Settle down of far right or settle down in…

GARMENT: That’s right, either way.

HEFFNER: I caught a column of yours from August 1986, in which you were talking about old sex and new – crosspaths, and you mentioned Christi Heffner and you mentioned others, and the Meese Commission. And you then wrote, at the end, ‘Playboy Enterprises is in trouble today but the chief culprit is not a repressive attorney general, Mr. Meese. Large numbers of people in this country and beyond have a surprisingly inherent desire to pull themselves, their institutions and their rules together after years of disrepair.’ Are you quite convinced that that is an expression of what’s going on in this country?

GARMENT: Well, Tatiana and Johnny, the two singers that I’m writing about, don’t directly speak to the question of this country since they are Latin American. When you…when you write about cultural things you have to, in the end, give a sense of what’s around you – the way people are dressing and words they’re using. I do get the sense…I have just little to do with kids and certainly with what they say.

HEFFNER: What is considered “in”?

GARMENT: Now, that’s a…that’s a question. The kids…college kids…there is no…there is no generalizing that I’ve been able to come to, but they are more conservative – there is no doubt about that.

HEFFNER: Well, again, conservative politically in terms of welfare matters, in terms of dealings with the Soviets, or politically, not politically but in terms of the social issues that you mentioned before. Because does the conservatism extend there?

GARMENT: I last taught college about seven years ago and by then things had begun to change appreciably from what they had been like when I was a child. There were no…

HEFFNER: Think how different they are from when I was a child!

GARMENT: I can’t even think of that. The rules were gone and no one dated any more, as far as I could tell. I kept on…I kept on asking these kids – my students – do you ever go out on a date? And they would look at me blankly – they didn’t know what I was talking about. But they would go out in gangs to get a pizza. There was a different attitude towards all of the rituals of romance. They no longer talked of it as if it were so central and since I went to college at a time when that was all that was on anybody’s mind, that was a pretty marked difference to me.

HEFFNER: Then I guess the question I have to raise is, will they produce a new generation of neocons, when it comes to politics, or is neoconservative simply a kind of last gasp of groups of people who were radicals when they were younger, who were democrats until they were almost older, and then moved away in despair? And can this new generation that does dispose of the patterns that you knew and good Lord knows I knew, in particular, when we were both younger – do they provide an appropriate recruiting ground for neoconservative thinking? I would think that the answer is no, but his is the question I want to put to you.

GARMENT: I don’t know. And I don’t…I haven’t seen any evidence that there is this huge spotting of little neocons. So the question of those generations, which is part of the question of realignment, is very open.

HEFFNER: Well, you know…let’s…let me go back again to your own political perspectives, those that informed your participation in Liberty Conference, or here or in what you write – what are the areas in which you think conservatism plays an important role? Is it in terms of thinking about welfare measures, it is in terms of thinking about the safety net? Is it in terms essentially of dealing with the Soviets and the Chinese? Where are the areas that you want to plant the neoconservative flag and say here’s where I take my stand?

GARMENT: Well, the flag usually isn’t one that belongs exclusively to the newcons and the principles…there aren’t many, especially when you’ve been in Washington for a while – it all evaporates into particulars – but he general ideas of strong defense, respect for family, individual freedom and markets wherever you can get them – those tend to be themes that run through (chuckle).

HEFFNER: Why do you throw in the markets?

GARMENT: The markets (laughter)…they seem different to you?

HEFFNER: They seem slightly different from these other perspectives.

GARMENT: Well, where I come from, at The Wall Street Journal editorial page, we think there is indeed a connection among all of these things.

HEFFNER: Do you?

GARMENT: You bet.

HEFFNER: What’s the connection?

GARMENT: Habits of thought.

HEFFNER: Laissez-faire?

GARMENT: No, for me it’s…our nation’s habits of behavior cannot be easily fragmented, according to what sphere of life we’re talking about. You can’t…you can’t keep people from exercising much freedom in the economic sphere and expect that there will be a great deal of individualism operating in other spheres – from culture to politics.

HEFFNER: But if one lives a social Darwinian existence, or hands off existence in economic matters – how do you avoid living that same kind of existence in m oral and social matters?

GARMENT: Free market does not…is not…should not be, need not be Darwinian. Darwinian is not an adjective that is inherent in the concept of free market. The very concept of free market depends on a whole series of political conditionings that must exist for a market to exist at all. There has to be certain degrees of predictability, there has to be certain minimal means of insuring trust, there is…there is a number of them and to have them exist, and even have government enforce them, I don’t think violates the concept at all.

HEFFNER: That government enforces them?

GARMENT: Enforcing basic conditions? Sure. Sometimes government…there is no way, for instance, to take the most basic one…there is no way you can have real markets in the middle of continual foreign policy and instability. Real free markets don’t work very well in the middle of wars. Governments are the only people…are the only institutions that are capable of providing for peace and defense. You can’t trade if there are robbers all up and down the highway and it’s government that takes them off the highway.

HEFFNER: Suzanne, boy would I love to be able to follow that up logically, and of course I’m getting the signal that our time is over – so I have to thank you for joining me today and hope you will come back another time so we can follow up. Thank you.

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, “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 Lounsbury Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien, Pfizer Incorporated, and the New York Times Company Foundation.