John Brademas

The Life of the Mind

VTR Date: July 29, 1990

Guest: Brademas, John


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Brademas
Title: The Life of the Mind
VTR: 7/29/1990

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My first program with today’s guest came a decade ago, just before he was inaugurated as President of New York University. This program comes before his retirement in 1992, as perhaps the most successful, the most achieving leader of any major university, public or private, in the United States.

Before moving from Washington DC to Washington Square, where NYU is located in New York, John Brademas was known as “Mr. Education” in the United States Congress, where for 22 years, where he so well represented the 3rd district of Indiana in the House of Representatives.

A Harvard graduate and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Dr. Brademas played an unforgettable, profoundly important and decisive congressional role in the creation of most of this nation’s permanent federal legislation relating to education to the arts and to the humanities. Little wonder, then, that so many persons concerned with the fate of these essential areas of democratic life hope fervently that perhaps now he will consider reversing the process of a decade ago and go back from Washington Square to Washington DC, perhaps indeed, to the United States Senate. Well, of course, in whatever direction John Brademas does turn his enormous talents in next year or the year after, when he becomes NYU’s President Emeritus, today I want to ask him for something of an overview of the life of the mind in our nation during this past decade of his university tenure. Dr. Brademas?

BRADEMAS: Thank you very much, Richard, for those generous comments, and thank you, I think, for some of what you had to say. In any event, I think we’ve made great headway in the last ten years, certainly in respect of colleges and universities to single out those citadels of the life of the mind, if you will, in our country. I think it’s fair to say that American higher education is the envy of the rest of the world. Nonetheless, we have a long way to go. And in the respect of most of the major challenges facing our country at home and abroad, my own view is that the country does not yet fully appreciate the central role that universities and colleges play in dealing with these problems. I rattle off several to make my point: First, the economy. We obviously have some serious economic challenges here at home and they’re all the more difficult given that the global economy is much more competitive than it was a decade ago. Second, we have pressing problems in what one might call the category of quality of life issues. I speak of the environment, of health, our primary and secondary school systems. We still have much more distance to go to create a genuine society of opportunity because there are still racial divisions that trouble our society. And finally, I suppose, and in a sense in some ways keyed everything I’ve been saying there are profound ethical value challenges in the American society to which I think our universities and other institutions of learning have to make a contribution. So we’ve done a lot. We’re still the most powerful country in the world economically, militarily. But we have some problems at home and the world is changing abroad, and those of us whose responsibility it is to lead institutions that develop the mind have our work cut out for us.

HEFFNER: It seems to me that you’ve addressed yourself eloquently to the institutional aspect of the answer I’m looking for. Dr. Brademas, what about the nation as a whole, in terms of its…we talked about values…of its attitudes toward values it holds to it, what I call the “life of the mind”? Toward the arts, toward culture?

BRADEMAS: It’s a mixed bag. It’s easy to understand that in a country with over 250 million people and all sorts of conditions of men and women…I think we’re schizophrenic in terms of our attitude towards men and women of ideas, toward the arts, toward culture. We, for example, have a superb system of colleges and universities, as I’ve said, but our elementary and secondary schools are in serious trouble in many parts of the country. And we’re not willing yet to match our resources to our rhetoric. We like to say that we care about children in our society, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t do very much about providing for early childhood development, an issue that concerned me twenty years ago when I was a member of Congress, and is now beginning to be of interest. We do as we allocate our federal budget; for example, give a lot more resources to older persons than we do to younger persons. But older folks vote and little children don’t. And having run for Congress fourteen times, I think I understand that the, the demography of electoral behavior. That helps explain that. But in a sense we don’t face up to the fact that as Senator Moynihan has pointed out, our senior senator, we have lots of children in serious trouble in this country. When it comes to institutions of culture we have to fight very hard to keep our arts organizations flourishing in this society. Lots of theaters are in trouble. Symphony orchestras are in trouble. I happen to be occupied right now with a fight that’s going on in Washington, as you might know, in respect to the National Arts Endowment. If you recall, I was one of the original sponsors of that legislation, and with Leonard Garment, who served President Nixon in the White House, and co-chairing the independent commission to look at the whole issue of the procedures of the National Arts Endowment. And there again, though it’s occasioned a lot of intense rhetoric, we don’t really expend all that much money. I think it’s one-tenth of one percent of the entire federal budget goes for the NEA. I think the problem of health, for example, is another instance of failing to match our resources to our values. We say we care about providing a first-class health care system in this country, but there’s some, what, 35, 37 million people in this country, the United States, that don’t have health insurance. And our health care system continues to be, something which…an answer eludes even the most thoughtful of people. The question of the environment is something that I think we’ve made a lot of headway in the last decade. There’s much more ecological consciousness now than was the case twenty years ago when I opened hearings in my environmental sub-committee on an Environmental Education Act, which I fear, President Reagan allowed to die – and I was amused earlier this month to see it was being introduced in a new guise. Let me take another issue that has concerned me greatly, that’s the issue of drug abuse. Richard, in 1969 – I didn’t say ’79 or ’89 – I opened hearings in my sub-committee on the Drug Abuse Education Act, because my colleagues and I felt it important to teach young people in schools and adults at the community level about the dangers of the abuse of illegal drugs. Then we expanded it four years later to include alcohol abuse. Well, presidents of neither party and congress failed to put much money into that. And again, when Mr. Reagan came into office he allowed that program to die. And yet, I think that if you talk to most police officers that deal with the drug problem today they will agree that it’s not sufficient simply to…I don’t say simply, but solely…to deal with the criminal enforcement of the laws for drugs, we have to increase demand for education. Those are some of the issues I’m suggesting represent how in the American society, as we go into the last decade of this century, our investment of our resources does not yet match the rhetoric that we articulate about our values, what we really care about.

HEFFNER: Well, doesn’t that seem to you to really mean that we Americans don’t really give quite that much of a damn about these things?

BRADEMAS: That’s right. And that though we have a society in which both the public and private sectors obviously are essential, my own judgment is – and perhaps because I served in public office for a long time – but as I watched what’s been happening in our country for the last ten years, I believe that part of the difficulty here, a major part of the difficulty is we’ve not had effective leadership in our nation’s capitol. And here I direct my criticism not only to Republican presidents of the last decade, but to my fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill. We’ve not had effective enough leadership in either direction, and I, I guess I would have to say, not simply to be partisan about it, because that’s the way I feel about it…I think that in the final analysis we do have to have articulate leadership from the chief executive officer of our country, who is the President of the United States.

HEFFNER: But we, we the people choose that man or woman. We make the choices. We have in the decade you talked about; we have since 1969 when you set the date of your committee hearings. Yet, we make choices that would seem to me, again and again, that we’re not ready to bite the bullet and deal with these ideas.

BRADEMAS: I think there’s truth in that, and I think that we’ve allowed ourselves, in many respects, to turn a blind eye to what the facts are. Now let’s take the federal budget deficit. There’s a good example of what I’m talking about. And now President Bush and leaders of Congress are now wrestling…I hope they’re wrestling at the summit…with the budget deficit, a very serious problem. And some people like me have been saying so for the last ten years. The fact that we have not got a handle on the budget deficit has paralyzed our government from effective action in dealing with that whole litany of dealing with domestic problems that I just recited; has frustrated us in our capacity to be more powerful competitively in the globalized economy, because we have had to depend so much on the Japanese and the Germans to lend us the money with which to pay our bills; and has also, in my judgment, crippled our capacity to respond in a creative way to opportunities in the field of foreign policy. Look at what’s going on in the Soviet Union and in Eastern and Central Europe. There is a certain sense in which the United States has been standing on the sidelines while the leadership has been coming from Germany. It is, I think, a symbol of what I’m saying, that Chancellor Kohl of the Federal Republic of Germany and President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union sat down in the caucuses a few weeks ago and made some judgments about what was going to happen in respect of a role of a unified Germany in NATO while the President of the United States was not even on the scene. You and I know that Europe will be uniting, as it were, in 1992. We see the Japanese becoming ever more powerful economically. We see, I think, great opportunities for leadership in respect of what’s happening in the Soviet Union, and in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. But because we have not got a handle on the budget deficit, the President of the United States has to say, “I’m terribly sorry that we’re broke. There’s not much we can do to be helpful”. And if over the last ten years we’ve been told, “Don’t worry about the deficit. It’s no big deal”, now all of a sudden, I guess the president has suddenly realized this is a very serious matter. And he’d better get on top of it. So I’m pleased at the president, and I commend President Bush for as it were, changing his posture, to put it as gently as possible. And I hope getting down to work to see if we can get on top of that deficit. The budget deficit is, after all, a spelling out on the part of the government of the United States of our priorities as a people, our priorities as a nation, because the President and Congress make a judgment as to where we will invest our resources and where we will not invest our resources. And I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think we’ve been doing a very good job of it.

And that brings me to one other point that you caused me to reflect on. You said, “We the people elect our leaders”, true. I’ve been troubled by what I’d call a sense of disconnectedness between the citizenry and the political process. There’s been a kind of cynicism that’s grown up in our country within the last decade that I find very troubling as one who believes that public service is a noble vocation and that believes that political service is a noble, if indeed not the noblest of vocations.

HEFFNER: John, you know, you can take the guy out of Washington, you can take him out of the third district in Indiana, but you can’t take away from him that focus on the bread and butter issues, and I respect that. When I talk about the life of the mind I really wonder what your observation would be about the role of ideas in our society as contrasted to interest. What you’re talking about are interests. We seem to be in a giant battle of them and ideas seem to have no role, affective role in our lives any longer.

BRADEMAS: Ideas are central. Very often, whether we articulate our concepts as self-conscious ideas or not, what we think shapes what we do.

HEFFNER: Wait, wait, let me ask you something. At this table someone once said “Where you stand depends upon where you sit.” I wonder if you have reversed that and I wonder whether you are right in reversing it. Doesn’t it really go the other way? What you perceive to be – and I don’t mean you – what one perceives to be in America at the twilight of the twentieth century determines what ideas one has or entertains, or rejects, or whatever.

BRADEMAS: Well, clearly, where one is affects the way in which one sees the world. But I’m not – and I don’t suggest by your question that you are – of the view that we are determined by the social forces around us. You remember that in his inaugural address President Bush said “We have more will than wallet”. I don’t agree with it. We have the wallet. We’re the richest country in human history. What we lack is the will. And the will can be the product of our minds and of our hearts, of our spirits, and of our character. What is it we really care about? Do we care about the fact that we have a terrific drug abuse problem in this country, that we have a problem of homelessness, that we have a school system that’s not doing all it should, that we have inadequate health care? Do we really care about those problems? If so, then we have to get our brains working. We have to get our minds working. We have to get ideas. What are the right ideas with which to cope with the drug problem, for example? Well, I think there are some, but I don’t think we’ve been using our minds. So in respect to every one of those problems that I recited at the start of our discussion, I believe that men and women who think for a living must be engaged, otherwise we’re not going to be able to deal with these problems. What has always fascinated me as a working politician, as a legislator, as a congressman for, as you said, twenty-two years, and fascinates me still now as a university president, is the nexus between ideas and values, and then translating both into some sort of viable action…and you do the translation through both the private sector…and in respect of many of these problems I’ve been reciting, there’s an indispensable role for the public. That is to say the political sector. So I’m arguing that we must have first some sense of what our values are, what we care about. That’s a moral posture, if you will. Then we have to bring in ideas, our minds. And then we have to get our political sensibilities to work, and then say “How can we translate our ideas and values into some sort of effective action?”

HEFFNER: Yah, but let’s get back to this “more will than wallet”.


HEFFNER: It may be your will and my will, and let’s grant that it’s the President’s will…wish, desire…but the wallet is the function of the people who are saying “Don’t tax me more”.


HEFFNER: And when the governor of New Jersey says “More taxes” to pay for more of the ideas that you are talking about, there is, the beginning at least, of a tax rebellion.

BRADEMAS: The function of a first-class political leader, in my judgment, is to persuade people to support policies and actions that by and large, perhaps, they would rather not do, because it means a sacrifice for them. But if they understand the rationale for them they will support. And that is what I think characterized the presidency of a man like Harry Truman, let us say, when he articulated the Marshall Plan; the Marshall Plan which saved Western Europe, saved human freedom, really, in that part of the world. Most Americans didn’t like the idea of having to send their hard-earned tax dollars off to help other countries of the world, but President Truman, I believe, explained why this was essential. I think Governor Florio, and I completely understand how unpopular some of his decisions are…we served together in Congress…he is a man of great intelligence and integrity, and essentially he is taking a gamble. If he is doing what he believes to be the right thing for people in his state, he will in time be able to persuade the people of his state that this is in their interest. And if I may say so, that’s what President Bush has done also. When President Bush said, in effect, “I’ve changed my mind. I made a mistake. Now I see that if we’re going to get ahead on the budget deficit, that part of the package, in addition to some of the entitlement programs, and we do some defense spending, must see increased taxes”. President Bush was, in effect, taking a gamble just as Governor Florio to New Jersey, that he could persuade the American people that this is in, the long run, the best interest of our country.

HEFFNER: John, I want to ask you this question…


HEFFNER: …How persuadable are the American people today? We’re not now talking about the Great Persuader Ronald Reagan…


HEFFNER: …or Franklin Roosevelt…


HEFFNER: …or Harry Truman. I’m talking about Americans in 1990. How persuadable are they after a decade, two decades of living high off the hog, of caring less and less about their brethren and more and more about themselves?

BRADEMAS: Well, you’ve articulated in characteristically succinct fashion of the heart of the matter, the heart of what American politics will be about in the next congressional and presidential races. You’re talking, really, in a sense, about the soul of the country. And I believe the American people are persuadable. I believe in the democratic process with a small “d”. And I think that if the facts are there and if they’re put forward by articulate political leaders; and not only political leaders, but by people outside the realm of public office, that the people will respond. I believe that. My criticism is, as I’ve said, I don’t think we’ve had effective articulation of that attitude on the part of leaders of either political party in the last several years.

HEFFNER: What makes you think that we’re going to see it now? It’s payoff not to present that leadership…

BRADEMAS: That’s why I say that. I think the problems…the chickens are going to come home to roost. They’re doing so now. You and I know that when the Department of Commerce just got its latest figures out, they said that for the last quarter we had a 1.2% increase in GNP, and warned of the possibility of a recession. I hope there’s not a recession. But you also would agree with me, I’m sure, that the economy is rather stagnant right now. It’s not moving ahead in a vigorous fashion. But when you get the economy slowing down, when you have an intensification of the drug problem, when the homeless issue does not go away, when Europe comes on line as a community in 1992, and when we see the Germans and the Soviets coming together in a more cooperative fashion, when we see the Japanese continue to compete effectively against us; all of those developments in the world and in our own country are going to have an impact in the daily lives of Americans. They’re going to feel it. They’re going to lose jobs. They’re not going to have the same standard of living that they had ten years ago. They’re going to feel the pinch of this huge debt that we’ve been running up. We’re going to be spending, according to Chuck Bowsher, the Comptroller General of the United States, in 1995, unless we change policies, one billion dollars a day on interest on the national debt. How do you like that? And if you looked at the New York Times a few days ago, you’ll see that the deficit has now taken over from drugs as a matter of deep concern for the American people. So I think that all of these factors are coming to bear and are going to shake the American people. And in fact, I must say, having been in politics much of my life, one of the reasons, one of the central reasons that President Bush changed his mind on taxes is that he’s well aware that if he doesn’t get a handle on the budget deficit, that his own re-election in 1992 could be gravely imperiled – because the cost of interest will keep rising in the United States and that will have a very threatening impact on the American economy. So he knows what he’s doing in terms of the poker chips, in terms of presidential politics. So I think for all those reasons attention must be paid, as the playwright said.

HEFFNER: Well, Arthur Miller, not to the contrary, but to support that point of view…we have 30 seconds left…I want to ask you, and I know what the answer is…How optimistic are you that that leadership will present itself?

BRADEMAS: I believe leadership will come. I see encouraging signs as I move around the city and around the country. I’m one of those who believes that Americans can achieve what we determine to achieve. And what we need is some articulate, effective leaders who will speak truth to the American people and I think they will respond.

HEFFNER: Well, when you give up that academic cap, I hope you’re going to be one of them. John Brademas, thank you so much for joining me today.

BRADEMAS: Thank you Richard.

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, please write: 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 another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

Continuing production of THE OPEN MIND has 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 Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.