Leonard Silk, Mark Silk

The American Establishment

VTR Date: September 9, 1980

Guests: Silk, Leonard; Silk, Mark


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Mark Silk with Leonard Silk
Title: “The American Establishment”
VTR: 9/9/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And for me today’s a first. Twice! First, it’s a first because I’ve never before talked on the air about an important theme and an important book with guests who were quite so intellectually – and genetically…Today’s subject is The American Establishment. Today’s guests are Leonard Silk, economic affairs columnist of The New York Times, and Mark Silk, teaching fellow of history at Harvard University. Not only do the Silks come from two profoundly establishment institutions themselves, but they are indeed father and son. And Basic Books has just published their new volume entitled The American Establishment. And then for me today’s second first has to do with the fact that for the first time after all of these years producing and moderating THE OPEN MIND, I’m not really quite so sure at what level to focus our discussion. And so I’ll ask my guests.

Mr. Silk, Mr. Silk, Leonard, Mark, let me thank you for joining me today, and then quite seriously ask you, because I’m puzzled, about how serious you are in terms of the fact that the beginning of your preface, the very first paragraph, you say, “The late Richard Revere and his essay Notes on the Establishment in America, published in 1961, explained the nature and operations of an institution whose very existence was unknown to, or at least denied by, the great majority of its own members. Yet Revere persevered, confidently believing in the existence of the American establishment. We are grateful to him for his pioneering work”. And the trouble is I remember when Dick Revere was my guest, when he first wrote that article in The American Scholar, Notes on the Establishment in America, the autumn of 1961, and it seemed quite clear, and he was willing to say it, that he was kind of kidding us along, providing entertainment for those who saw somebody from the establishment behind every liberal notion in this country. Are you kidding, or are you serious?

LEONARD SILK: Well, the opening line is somewhat waggish, as Revere’s book was waggish, but I think that Revere himself came to believe more firmly in the existence of the establishment. If you read the essay that he did on Walter Lippmann, the obituary essay, he treats Lippmann as the voice of the establishment and so on. I think the concept has established itself in this country as it has established itself in England. If you take the recent spy case, the Blunt case, everybody once again spoke about the British establishment. I think it’s almost like asking, “Does the nation exist?” The nation exists, and the nation doesn’t exist. Any institution which is complex is somewhat amorphous and one can have fun on whether it exists or whether it doesn’t. But I think that the way we have tried to establish this institution demonstrates that it does exist. That is, it exists through the institutions we’ve examined, through Harvard, through The New York Times, through the Council on Foreign Relations, through a lot of establishment institutions.

HEFFNER: Mark, do you think that’s true? Do you feel as firmly that the prophecy was self-fulfilled?

MARK SILK: Well, I think anybody who uses the term should realize that it’s a metaphor. It was never intended, I mean it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a word like “government”. It’s not a word like “church”. I should say it’s a word which was applied in Britain to a set of institutions and people which were supposed to act like a church in a broader sense, in a secular sense. And so when people sort of deny the existence of an American establishment, I think that they often don’t know exactly what they’re talking about, what it would mean for them even, you know, how it could be demonstrated to them that there was an establishment. That’s not something that’s clear. And what we’ve tried to do is to focus on institutions which behave in a way which parallels the behavior of large ecclesiastical organizations in traditional societies.

LEONARD SILK: Yeah. That is, we see it as a kind of quasi state church. Its purposes are moral. They’re also intellectual and functional to a degree. I mean The New York Times’ only function is not a moral function, but it is partly. It has an editorial page. And even in the news columns, in saying, “We have to worry about the Pentagon Papers, we have to worry about Watergate, or we have to worry about Rockefellers, or we have to worry about anything”, the principle of selection is: what is important to the public? What is important to our country or to the world or humanity? You know, what has happened in Cambodia? Is Pol Pot a bastard? And so on. And so, too, I think with all of these institutions. They are, to use Walter Lippmann’s favorite word, disinterested. They are not supposed to be self-serving. They are supposed to be unifying. This is why we call it a third force.

HEFFNER: Yes, Leonard, when you write about that part of the Third force, that you should know so very well because you come from The New York Times, and you write about it, one has a sense of something prevailing other than a concern for only the public interest. It’s a business, isn’t it?

LEONARD SILK: Yes. Well, that’s right. And I think that that is, I’m delighted that you said that incidentally, because we have not tried to do some sort of apologia or some sort of a whitewash on the establishment. All of these institutions are imperfect. Incidentally, ecclesiastical institutions, if I’m not mistaken, are usually imperfect. So we’re trying to look at both the good and the evil that’s embodied in institutions that seek good. And I hope that we have done that job honestly. But the principle we do defend, that is the principle that somebody should be concerned about the public good, we think should not be maligned. That as, in a different context, Joseph Conrad said, “It is the idea that redeems it. And it is only the idea that redeems it. Not the people, who are imperfect like all human beings, present company included, but…

HEFFNER: Not so fast.

LEONARD SILK: (Laughter) You’re right.

MARK SILK: Let me just break in and say that I think that what we’ve said so far is likely to sound to people somewhat amorphous. And what we’ve tried to do is to show why the institutions of the establishment look different in their basic purposes from either financial corporate interests, business interests, making a living; or, on the other side, government interests, popular democracy. Now, I happened to be looking up your own background and I noticed that, for example, you’re a member of the Century Club, you’ve participated in running commissions for the Ford Foundation and the Twentieth Century Fund, you’re educated at Columbia. You are really a man of the establishment. And what that means is that you’re a man who, in his public life, has participated in private institutions which set up means for addressing questions of larger social questions that affect the country. And I think in fact, you know, it’s funny to be on this show, but you also happen to be a kind of moral arbiter to the nation as, in your role…

LEONARD SILK: Richard Heffner, are you now or have you ever been a member of the establishment?

HEFFNER: Come on fellas, who’s doing this program?

LEONARD SILK: (Laughter)

MARK SILK: But in…No, but I think it’s important. The reason I brought you up is because I think a lot of people pass through institutions like Harvard – I mean, I know them – read The New York Times every day of their life, they take money from the Ford Foundation, they read Brookings Reports…

HEFFNER: Accept money, not “take” money.

LEONARD SILK: (Laughter)

MARK SILK: Accept money. And if you ask them, “Are you a member of the establishment?” They would say, “Who, me?” I mean, I’m nothing like it. I’m anti-establishment. I don’t believe those things. I’m not part of that cabal”. And it’s a curious phenomenon, that most people who, I think we all would agree, are members, don’t like to think of themselves as members.

HEFFNER: I know what you’re talking about. Funny, walking down here today I was thinking about the question of power and how uncomfortable it rests upon the shoulders of many of us, refusing to accept the fact that in certain areas we do exercise power. But the American establishment, for me, and for your father, because we’re of the same generation, the American establishment I always felt had meant, as recent as invention as it is in terminology here, referred to something that wasn’t quite as benign as you gentlemen now make it sound. It referred to something in which people were literally feathering their own nests. Nothing much happened except as the establishment let it happen. And that was the thrust of Dick Revere’s piece, certainly.

LEONARD SILK: Well, not entirely. But I think that one can certainly argue since, you know, in the one sense it doesn’t exist, that there are two central concepts of what the establishment is. One is closely synonymous with the notion of a power elite. And that was the Marxist, you know – What professor am I trying to…

MARK SILK: C. Wright Mills.

LEONARD SILK: C. Wright Mills’ concept. And closely related to it you might say was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s notion of a military industrial complex. Well, I don’t think the term “establishment” was ever quite applied to that, certainly not by Wright Mills and not by Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, some people do think of it that way. I think there is a second concept which at least is our concept, that it is this institution which lies somewhere between business and government, which acts as a mediating force between business and government, which does try to be disinterested and to pursue the public good. Now, of course, one can say it’s a false front. It really is a cat’s paw, an agent for the real power-laden institutions in the society which are business, which are governmental, which is the military, and so on. That it’s nothing more than that. Which makes what out of us? Which makes hypocrites and phones out of thee and me and thee. And I don’t believe it. I mean, I haven’t lived my life that way; have you?

HEFFNER: No, I trust not. But, you ask a very interesting question. Is it not possible that we just don’t have the kind of power that you gentlemen in the American establishment have…

LEONARD SILK: Well, we have enough to bring down a president, I might remind you.

HEFFNER: But, wait a minute, we…

MARK SILK: No, I think that goes too far, really. I think that, you know the courts brought down the president. And, you know, there were a lot of people who were angry throughout the country. I think what we’re not, we’re not saying, we’re not talking about power in the sense of wielding large sums of money to get things done. We’re not talking about the trilateral commission in the way that some of Ronald Reagan’s ambassadors talked about the trilateral commission. We’re talking about really a power to talk to people, to be important; also to bring people who are important people in the country into an institutional setting where they think these big thoughts and where they try to scratch their chins and think about the future, not in their boardrooms and not in Congress, and not even in their studies at a university.

HEFFNER: But you know, it’s interesting. I was just thinking that when I was a young man and thought of getting a Ph.D., and didn’t realize The Times could endow me with one quite as quickly and as easily as it has recently, I thought of doing my Ph.D. on E.L. Godkin. And I had the feeling as I read your fascinating volume on the American establishment that you were talking about the nineteenth century. You were, as Marshall McLuhan said about another setting, “Marching into the future, looking through a rear-view mirror”, attributing to the groups, our club, other groups, a kind of power that perhaps they had – a kind of influence; let me now say “power” — I think you’re right, Mark – but a kind of influence that I suspect they don’t have to such a great extent. I was fascinated that in the establishment, unless it’s totally a moral establishment, the advertising world doesn’t venture forth, Hollywood isn’t there, the television world, even the press except for The New York Times…

LEONARD SILK: And The Washington Post.

HEFFNER: Incidentally, they’re not there. So I wondered whether you weren’t looking backwards or, more importantly, looking to what you wish were the case, the power of these noble individuals.

MARK SILK: Well, yeah. I think, you know, the reason it sounds like the nineteenth century is that the language is more familiar in the nineteenth century. I mean terms like “disinterest” and “idealism”: and ”morality”, and those are terms which you can sort of sway with a straight face in the nineteenth century and which, you know, sort of, you have to snicker or put it in quotation marks today because nobody really believes it. But I think that it really is a mistake to put the golden age of the establishment back then. There weren’t any such institutions. There were no big foundations. Harvard was not a national university in any meaningful sense of the term until the end, the very end of the century.

LEONARD SILK: Well, but in one sense maybe Dick is right. Though the institutions didn’t exist, you can almost say that, like, as in a Parkinsonian way, once the institutions existed, they began to die. But the idea was perhaps more alive then.

HEFFNER: More alive…

LEONARD SILK: And, I don’t know, I suppose that maybe we are getting old enough so that we re looking backward, although Mark has not that excuse. But to the extent that our book is a crusading book (and it is to a bit, to a degree), I would say we’re trying to revive that idea of civic responsibility and civic morality and concern. And if one has to apologize for that, for being a fuddy-duddy and thinking such thoughts, well I apologize.

HEFFNER: No apologies needed. Identification though is helpful at times. But I was interested in the various chapters, whether you’re talking about politics or business, Fletcher Barrow, one of the gentlemen you interviewed for this book, was a guest on THE OPEN MIND, and say as a representative, were very responsible, concerned businessman. Yet there has to be a kind of bottom line performance measuring stick involved in what he says or in what David Rockefeller says of in what any of those you interviewed here. Where then was that ultimate fool, that morality, that basic concern, that you…

LEONARD SILK: Yeah. Well, I think it’s purer in some institutions that others. And I think that’s why business, I mean, any given businessman has pulls from these opposite directions. He really is caught in the middle between interest and disinterest, if you like, and so is a newspaper publisher. But not necessarily a columnist, thank God, or a reporter or a professor. There are…

MARK SILK: Well, you know, you should mention really what Byron said in the interview, which is, you know, in responding to a question about whether he could belong to a lobbying group like the Business Roundtable and at the same time a kind of disinterest in at the same time, he said, “You know, people ask me if I can be both a businessman and a Christian”. Well, that’s really exactly the point. He says that he can do it; some people might say that he can’t do it. And there’s a tension there. But still, it’s a question of which hat he’s wearing. And people do wear different hats.

HEFFNER: That’s a fair statement.

LEONARD SILK: Now, there’s one other point which I thought I might make, and that is, you know, Cyrus Vance was always regarded and is to this day regarded as the quintessential man of the establishment, of the current crop. And he was the person who left no footsteps on Vietnam, and everybody thought of him as quite quiet and all of that, would never rock the boat. And yet he gets, you know, immense praise from all quarters for making the principled resignation on, you know, what he could have easily sneaked out of if he hadn’t wanted or resign. Now, I think that, you know, if you have to ask, “Where does that kind of disinterest lie in an individual?” I think Vance is the most recent example of something, you know, and he can now return to the counts on foreign relations and to his law practice and be a person of the establishment, no longer in government.

HEFFNER: You know, what fascinates me about that and what else you write here is the need that it dredges up in me to ask you how sanguine you are about the future of what I think is the past and what you think is the present.

LEONARD SILK: Well, we’ll have to take separate answers. I would say I’m only moderately and anxiously sanguine, if that doesn’t cross-sterilize the whole statement. I want the institutions to survive and to go on and to serve the country, and I want the individuals as part of it. I think that we have been clobbered by events of all sorts, the growing strength of institutions which do not share such views. And I don’t know how hard we’re hit. And I think sometimes the behavior of the institutions themselves or of individuals within them has helped to weaken the institutions. So I don’t know. I’m hopeful, if that’s a fair translation of sanguine, but I’m worried.


MARK SILK: Well, I feel…What I want to say is that people, when they think of the establishment, tend to regard it as some sort of conspiracy to run things which has been foisted off upon them. But really, if you talk to ordinary Americans, you’ll find, I think, that most of them dislike the government, and they also dislike big business. It doesn’t really fit into nice social scientific categories. And because of that, Americans are constantly creating institutions for themselves which serve these sorts of public purposes: Elks clubs and things like that, church groups, which really do exist in this in-between realm between public and private. And I think that at the national level these institutions have come about because of the way the country is and not because of some malignant purposes or just, you know, hungry purposes of a small group.

HEFFNER: Mark, as a historian are you suggesting that you feel that the American people – that’s a large mouthful – but that we generally as a nation would embrace the idea of a presumably disinterested…

MARK SILK: No, no.

HEFFNER: …New York, Boston group?

MARK SILK: They always…You hate it. Americans have always disliked bigness of any form, whether government, business, and I think they like big establishment, too.

LEONARD SILK: Yeah. Well, look Dick, I think that a distinction hast o be made. The thing that Mark said Tocqueville said…He talked about voluntarism as a characteristic of the American people. And Mark was saying that there are local establishments and regional establishments presumably and national establishments, and that this is in the American grain. This is the way a pluralistic society tries to bring things together and tries to resolve conflicts. However, the establishment as such is sometimes called “the liberal eastern establishment”, and it’s a specific establishment. We started out our book the first time, which got changed, saying that as Voltaire said of the Holy Roman Empire, “It is neither holy, nor Roman, nor empire”, that the liberal eastern establishment is neither liberal, nor eastern, nor an establishment. Nevertheless, it is some of those things. And it is a specific thing which people in the southwest and in the far west, and Richard Nixon can identify and attack, and did. But even if this eastern liberal establishment should expire and lose its power to the Sun Belt or to some other group, I think that as long as our country retains its pluralistic nature and its voluntaristic nature, there will be an establishment. Many of the conservatives, neoconservatives, reactionary conservatives are talking these days in terms of a new establishment. They want to take it over. The old establishment, we suggest, will adapt and say, “Why take it over? I mean, why take it away? You can get along with us”. And I think that it does slide. It has slid to the left, to the right, depending on historical circumstances. And it has retained its influence and its dominant position, I’d say, at least as establishments go, by its adaptability. That’s one of the things that’s wrong with it; it’s so slithery and… (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Yeah, but it’s fascinating that Dick Revere did his piece…twenty years ago? Nineteen years ago? The characters…

LEONARD SILK: Very much the same.

HEFFNER: …in the establishment are very much the same. There doesn’t seem to be any room for younger people.

MARK SILK: Oh, I think that’s really untrue.

HEFFNER: Well, where are they? Who are they?

MARK SILK: Well, what about Franklin Thomas, the new president of the Ford Foundation?

HEFFNER: Okay. Fair.

MARK SILK: A young man and a black man.


MARK SILK: You can find…

HEFFNER: Do you want to go on very much further?

LEONARD SILK: What about Zbigniew Brzynski?

HEFFNER: What about?

LEONARD SILK: Well (laughter), not as example of anything noble, but as an example of youth, at least.

MARK SILK: Well, if you look at all the presidents of all the institutions we’ve talked about, I think none of them was the head of that institution at the time when Revere wrote…

LEONARD SILK: Well, yeah, what about Gary Park?

MARK SILK: Gary Park, Bruce McLurie.

HEFFNER: But you know, it’s interesting that you’re talking about people who were there in your establishment because of their positions rather than because of what kinds of character that you identify with some of the older members of the establishment. I don’t mean they didn’t have positions; but they weren’t necessarily presidents of institutions. Sure, you can be vaulted into it by taking the vows and becoming president of Harvard at however tender an age.

LEONARD SILK: Well, but I think that’s the part. You know, nobody’s perfect. And the members of the establishment are just as corruptible or nearly so – we might have had a slight disagreement about that – as anybody else.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “a disagreement”? You mean you think they’re more so?

LEONARD SILK: I think they might be equally corruptible as everybody else; and you may think that they’re a little less. But the point is that it’s the institutional purposes that matter. If an institution does not claim to be a conservative think tank which does embrace that on its logo, but rather aims at, in a professional sense, objectivity and disinterest, those words which, you know, really have suffered a great deal in the past decade, then if it comports itself and if it tries to reach those ideals rather than seeing itself as simply a lobby, then it begins to generate certain kinds of attitudes and behaviors among people who…

HEFFNER: Mark, you’re a historian.

MARK SILK: Uh hum.

HEFFNER: Has this establishment, have the actions of the individual members of the establishment demonstrated a taking of position that runs counter to the interests of those individuals? Disinterested. That covers a multitude of sins. It sounds like patriotism.

MARK SILK: Well, I would say that, you know, the performance has been mixed. Some good, some bad. By and large, you know, I would say that the best, most comprehensible term to describe the behavior of these institutions is really, you know, “enlightened self-interest”. But I think it’s been a little bit more than that. But that’s the term that most people would recognize. They’ve done things. They’ve tried to egg the country in the direction of doing what is going to make the country more stable and continue to be essentially the same kind of country it’s always been.

HEFFNER: Have we picked a good Burkeian word – and with 30 seconds left – that what we’re really talking about is stability, conservatism in the best sense of the word?

MARK SILK: I think we are.

LEONARD SILK: Yeah. I think that’s right. But to go back to the question as to whether it’s patriotism, the answer is “yes”. And if there is no more room in this country for patriotism, then God help us. And if there’s no more room for professionalism which is not just self-seeking, then God help us.

HEFFNER: That’s terrific, but that really wasn’t the question I asked.

LEONARD SILK: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I asked whether you would find a record of patriotism or disinterestedness.

LEONARD SILK: Well, flawed, but not completely lacking.

HEFFNER: Well, we’re all flawed, not completely lacking, and that’s why I have to say that our time is up. And thank you so much Leonard and Mark Silk, for joining me today in this discussion of this extraordinary new book on The American Establishment.

LEONARD SILK: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.