Ronald Steel

Walter Lippmann

VTR Date: November 4, 1980

Guest: Steel, Ronald


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ronald Steel
Title: “Walter Lippmann”
VTR: 11/4/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I’m also a teacher; privileged, in other words. Privileged in that I can, each new academic term, bring to my new classes of still somewhat open and inquiring minds the insights and understanding of those I believe to be the seminal thinkers of our times, of all time. I trust that I exercise this privilege reasonably and responsibly, and I know that I have done so with at least one note of consistency over more than three decades. That is, each semester I ask my students, each and every one of them, to read Walter Lippmann’s now classic Public Opinion, for it remains for me the most provocative and illuminating study of how we come to think what we think about public issues and of how frightening that phenomenon is for those who believe that they believe in government not just for the people but of the people and by the people as well. So that I start off today’s program with something of a bias, and I suspect so too does my guest, Mr. Ronald Steel, who has now written the most extraordinary and best written and, I think most intellectually satisfying biography I believe I’ve ever read: Walter Lippmann and the American Century, published by Atlantic, Little, Brown.

Thanks for joining me today, Mr. Steel.

STEEL: A pleasure to be here. Thank you.

HEFFNER: I wonder if I could strike a little personal note. We had hoped that James Reston was going to join us today, and I went back and dug up an old review that I had written, a review I had written some years back of a book that he had written called Sketches in the Sand. And he had taken that title form something Walter Lippmann had said about people who scribble, journalists, writers. He called the writer “A puzzled man”, the journalist, “A puzzled man making notes, drawing sketches in the sand, which the sea will wash away”. And I wonder if you feel, because you make reference to the same notion in your extraordinary biography, whether you feel that, as some of the reviewers of your book do, that the sands will be washed away in terms of the writings of Walter Lippmann and what will be left will be an activist?

STEEL: Well, I think what Walter Lippmann meant, first of all, by that phrase, which is so often quoted, is contained in what precedes it, which he says, “Why are you so cautious?” He said, “Why do you assume that your words are written on graven stone?” He said, “You have to take chances”. He said, “After all, what you write are just sketches in the sand which the sea will wash away, do don’t worry about it. Don’t be afraid to take chances”. And it comes across as a bit diffident. I think a little more diffident than he meant. Walter Lippmann was only 24 when he wrote those words, too, which I thought was quite interesting. I personally don’t think that what he wrote will be washed away. I think that something we’ve already seen happen is that the words of a columnist tend to be washed away. I think that the comments on the day’s events tend to disappear from the public view as the event recedes into the past. Lippmann, I think, well be safe from that largely because of his books, because of books like Public Opinion, that you mentioned, because he also had his eye, as he once said, “On a longer past and a longer future”. That he was not only a commentator on the day’s events. Being a commentator on the day’s events is, in a sense, a bit like being a congressman, if you will, that there is something ephemeral and temporary about that. But he did have his eye on a longer past and a longer future. I think that’s what will make him last.

HEFFNER: And yet I’m fascinated to note again that in at least two reviews of your book, Alfred Kazan’s and Murray Kempton’s, they say something very much along those lines. Kazan writes, “Reading Lippmann today” – and I admit he doesn’t say, “Reading his books”, but ”Reading Lippmann” – “Reading Lippmann today, one seems to hear these chill, disinterested, self-consciously elegant phrases being delivered at some exclusive dinner party. Is it possible that Lippmann will be remembered more for the life he led in American history than for anything he said about it?” And Murray Kempton says, “The chances are that very little about Walter Lippmann will endure as long as this biography”; your biography. “The life was simply more awesome than the works”.

STEEL: Uh hum. Well, in a sense, I don’t want to take too much issue with Murray Kempton, because it was very flattering to hear such remarks. On the other hand, I don’t entirely agree. I think that the life was an extraordinary one, and so much of his influence rested upon his activism, on the way in which he was able to integrate his life and his work with the work of the country and the life of politicians. He was an extraordinarily agile and involved person. He obliterated that line between journalists and politicians that he always warned should be kept rather firm, this air space between journalists and politicians he said was so important. He ignored it. And I think that’s what made him both so important and also gave him this definition of an activist, if you will. But I was enormously impressed by the quality of the writing in these books. I think that there are two Walter Lippmanns. He once said himself, he said, “I live two lives: one as a journalist, and one as a writer of books.” And they overlapped in the sense that the books were the way in which he put together what he laid out in the laboratory. The columns were his laboratory. He was also a man, for reasons of his own personality, didn’t want to retire to an ivory tower and write books. And I think that’s what is also quite fascinating about this kind of a person, is that he could have been an academic, he could have been “a public philosopher”, to use one of his own phrases. He could have detached himself, as he does in these books, and look upon the human drama and comment on it. But he was somebody who cared a lot about being part of the action. And that’s what he did in his columns. And so he did lead these two lives. But each did feed on the other. And I think that the books are alive, and I think that a book like Public Opinion, as you mentioned, written in 1922, almost 60 years ago, is still very meaningful to you and to me and to your students, I think, and to my students, because it tells us something very fundamental about: How do you live in a democratic society? How do you make sense of it? How do individuals make an impact on government? What is the purpose of government? I think this is a much wider issue. So I would not entirely agree, by any means, with some of these criticisms of him.

HEFFNER: This air space, this air space, this necessary air space between the scribbler, the journalist, and the politician, how did he manage so easily, so readily to obliterate it?

STEEL: Well, it was easy for him to do it, I think, in the sense that there is a symbiotic relationship between journalists and politicians. Each needs the other, each feeds upon the other. Politicians need journalists to publicize their views; and journalists need politicians to find out what’s happening. There’s a great danger in that. (Muffled noise)

HEFFNER: Can you just pin that back on? We’ll not only see you but hear you. Go ahead.

STEEL: There is a great danger in that relationship, because the journalist can be co-opted by politicians. And Lippmann was very aware of that. He often gave warnings and speeches to his colleagues saying, “Cronyism is the curse of journalism”, he said. “Beware of getting too close to princes”, he said, “because they will corrupt you”. And he said, “Journalists can be corrupted not by money passed under the table, but by being too close to politicians, and you’ll convey what they want you to convey”. And he had good reason to give that warning, because he was often courted. And I think, as somebody who was enormously attracted to power, he sometimes got much too close to the flame himself. He had been burned by politicians. But he always returned too, because he was absolutely fascinated by that. So, I think, when he gave these warnings he was, in a sense, talking about his own experience; warning himself a little bit too. His most ardent warnings came in the late 1960s, during this period when he and Lyndon Johnson were having a monumental fight over Vietnam. And Lippmann had grown much too close to Johnson. And later on, he became very angry at Johnson, and even bitter. He said, with a note of great finality, he said, “Johnson misled me”. As though these were two heads of state almost; how dare he do such a thing? And I always thought that one of the reasons why he was so angry at Johnson was that he had trusted too much, he had drawn too close.

HEFFNER: Trusted too much and drawn too close, or assumed too much? Which do you really think? Because you talk about him seeing himself almost as a fellow head of state.

STEEL: Yes. Yes, I think he assumed, fair enough, that he was in a special category, that because of his long career and his eminence, if you will, that he deserved to be treated squarely, that Johnson should level with him, that a president should level with him. He wasn’t going to divulge any secrets. He was somebody who really went out of his way not to float trial balloons or give leaks. And here was somebody who treated him like a journalist, if you will, like any other journalist.

HEFFNER: Instead of another chief of state?

STEEL: Instead of another chief of state. I think so.

HEFFNER: He had burned himself before? Or was this the only one?

STEEL: Oh, many times. Lippmann was a person who was enormously attracted to power, who was attracted to strong men; but strong men who had a certain kind of vision. He wasn’t attracted to Mussolini or to Hitler, but rather to men who had a kind of vision of democracy, of America’s role in the world, who were constructive leaders. And his first hero was Theodore Roosevelt. And he drew too close to Theodore Roosevelt. He said, “Worshipped T.R. as a very young man”. Lippmann was in his early twenties when he met Theodore Roosevelt, and immediately went to work for him. And William Allan White once said that, at the 1912 convention, where T.R. was running on the bullmoose ticket, he said, “T.R. bit me and I went mad”. And many people, many young intellectuals went mad when T.R. bit them. And Lippmann did too. And T.R. was a politician like many others, better than most; but he disillusioned Lippmann, and Lippmann turned against him. And then he transferred his affections to other people, to Woodrow Wilson. And he idealized Woodrow Wilson. And then came the Versailles Settlement, which very much disillusioned Lippmann; he turned against Wilson, turned against Versailles. This happened to him a number of times during his career. He was cautious about FDR, never was close to Truman, never to Eisenhower, a little too close to Kennedy, and then, near the end of his life, was much too close to Johnson. But he had other heroes who remained untarnished heroes. Churchill was one, and De Gaulle was another. And why these two? Well, because they were wonderful articulators of their policy. They were intellectuals in politics. They were men of action who were also men of thought. They wrote books, like Theodore Roosevelt. He could identify with them. And he never lost his admiration of them. But I always thought because he never had to live under them either.

HEFFNER: I just wondered whether it wasn’t distance that made that possible.

STEEL: Absolutely. I’m convinced of it. He never saw them up close. He never saw their warts. He never saw their domestic policy. He admired them for their vision of the world.

HEFFNER: Are you concerned ever – and this is not to go off on a tangent – are you concerned ever, as many people express their concerns, with the power of the press, the power of the journalist in our own times?

STEEL: Well, the trouble is that that power is so diffuse, it’s so disorganized, it’s hard to measure that power. I hear these assertions all the time about the power of the press. I’m not convinced that it’s anything more than sporadic. I’m not eve sure how real it is. Is the press able to influence over the long haul the way that people feel about issues? I think in a totalitarian society, under authoritarian society, obviously it’s possible to channel opinion. Although, look at the events in Poland recently. We have a controlled press, and even there people act in ways that the press under government control would not want them to act. I don’t see that the press has been able to significantly influence public opinion in this country in any way.

HEFFNER: And yet that seems to run counter to what our hero, Walter Lippmann, indicated in his book on public opinion: that the press is able to set an agenda in many instances, and that he was so concerned with the misinformation of the press.

STEEL: Well, yeah. In that, that was certainly an aspect of it, that the press acts like a beacon of a searchlight. “The searchlight”, he said. And it can focus on certain issues. But it focuses on them very sporadically. The thing is that also there are different parts of the press. To speak about “The press”, is already, I think, a misnomer. What he signaled in that book, I think, so dramatically, was that it’s very hard for any of us to k now what to think about anything when we haven’t had direct experience with it. And that undercuts, of course, the whole theory of democracy. That we find that the news, the information to which we are exposed is contaminated at the source, it’s subject for high propaganda. Propaganda is one element of it. Distorted news is one element of it. But our own prejudices, as he pointed out in that book, are another element of it. That you see what you want to see. That two different people seeing the same event will respond to it in very different ways because they’re looking for different things. And so I don’t know if the press as a big part in that. It is an element.

HEFFNER: Well, I was wondering, when you indicate what he had said, well, in his chapter on stereotypes in Public Opinion, “Each of us lives and works on a small part of the earth’s surface, moves in a small circle, and of these acquaintances knows only a few intimately. Of any public event that has wide effects, we see at best only a phase and an aspect. This is as true of the eminent insiders who draft treaties, make laws and issue orders as it is of those who have treaties framed for them, laws promulgated to them, orders given at them”. You said, suggested, that that observation in a sense undercuts so much of democratic theory. What happened to Lippmann’s belief then in democracy?

STEEL: Well, poor Lippmann, I think he tired to deal with this problem in a lot of different ways. He said that even the insider, as you just quoted, is hampered in his view of reality by how the material is presented to him.


STEEL: …extraordinary. He goes, he spends three or four hundred pages saying why democracy, in effect, is impossible, because, at least in the classic sense, because people cannot be expected to understand a complicated world to which they’re not directly exposed. How could we be asked to vote on an MX missile when we don’t even know what it means or how it works and all these complicated things of targeting? It’s beyond our capacity. So what does democracy mean? And in the end of the book is his affirmation. He said, “But if you don’t believe in democracy, if you don’t believe that people can make a difference, Lord Help you”. That, I think, he first, he lost his faith in the news. And that was a direct result of having worked in the propaganda machine during the First World War. He realized how the news could be manipulated. Then he lost his faith in the people, because the people often chose the worst part. So he was somebody who, although he believed in democracy, also was convinced that you had to have restraints on majorities; the Supreme Court, the Senate, what have you. And then ultimately he lost his faith in the experts as well. The experts often behaved foolishly, venally. The Vietnam War is a classic example of experts who did everything wrong. And it was interesting that at the end of his life he came full circle, because the only way to draw reign on the experts to prevent or stop a disastrous policy was to return to the people.

HEFFNER: You know, you comment on Public Opinion as favorably as I do and have over the years. Yet before, I had the feeling when you said, you were talking about how long-lasting the impact of his writings, other than the columns, had been. You referred to Public Opinion and said, “You feel this way; I feel this way”. I wonder if you and I don’t make up the total class, because I must admit that it’s not Walter who…But Walter Lippmann other than as a columnist, I think is probably not as well known as you and I would both like to believe.

STEEL: Well, I think that’s no doubt true. But, and it’s very hard to say what posterity will value. I think that had he been only a columnist, we’d probably think if him as one of those people in the Pantheon of journalism like Reynard Nerr or Heywood Brune, or somebody who was more involved, maybe more active, with a little more clout, more thoughtful, if you will, but a historical figure. Because columns are yesterday’s newspaper. That’s what you wrap the fish in. But I think the books last. And books are revived. H.L. Mencken is going through a great revival now, not because of his columns. Nobody knows his columns. Nobody, or very few people today remember H.L. Mencken as a columnist. But you go back and you read those books and you touch a whole new audience, and new sensibilities, I think, are aroused, are influenced, are touched.

HEFFNER: Of course, Kazan and Kempton, among others, are no slouches intellectually. And yet they have, they seem to put their, to involve themselves, as far as Lippmann is concerned, in your biographical account.

STEEL: But look, here’s somebody about whom many people feel very strongly. They don’t like a lot of his opinions. They disagree with him. They don’t like what he represented.

HEFFNER: What did he represent?

STEEL: I read a review that – I love to read the reviews because I learn a lot about my own books. Sometimes people tell me what I mean to write but didn’t, and it’s sort of fascinating to see that – but Gary Wills, who’s somebody I respect enormously, said that he thought it was a wonderful book, but he was just so horrified by Lippmann coming to terms with them, and he said that ”Walter Lippmann was deeply despicable”, he said. And I don’t feel that. But what he means is he both finds some of the opinions offensive, he disagrees with some of the opinions, and he doesn’t like maybe the kind of life that he had. Maybe he was too close to power. Maybe he cared too much about being with the great. Maybe he was too much of a snob. But I think he’s somebody about whom it’s very difficult to feel neutral. Some people swore by him; others swore at him.

HEFFNER: Certainly a number of the reviewers picked up your comments of Lippmann and his relationship to his Jewishness. This seems to come up again and again and again. Why?

STEEL: Well, I think it’s an interesting aspect of his character. I think it has a particular resonance for people today. Lippmann grew up in a time when to be cosmopolitan was good; to be ethnic was bad. That was the mentality before the First World War. Even Justice Brandeis, for example, who was a great Zionist later on, was a cosmopolitan. He wanted to play down his Jewishness. And times have changed. Now it’s good to be ethnic; it’s bad to be not ethnic. It’s bad to be cosmopolitan. Lippmann, I think, was somebody who decided at a – if you can decide these things by an act of intellect – that he wasn’t going to be partisan, that, in effect, he wasn’t going to be bound by his Jewishness. That being Jewish was no more important to him that being Baptist might have been to somebody else. At least that’s how he described it intellectually. But I think that it was a much more complicated thing that that. And a lot of people find and believe – and I believe that myself – that this was something that he consciously suppressed. I think he looked upon it as a kind of impediment in his life. That it limited his ability to maneuver among the movers and the shakers.

HEFFNER: This question of cosmopolitanism certainly rings true. Yet there were so many Jews who lost their cosmopolitanism thanks to Adolph Hitler, thanks to what happened in Germany. It didn’t seem to affect Walter Lippmann.

STEEL: No. I’m not going to try to defend Lippmann on that…


STEEL: …because I was, frankly, surprised and a little bit shocked that he didn’t choose ever to write about the internment of the Jews, the concentration camps, and ultimately the death camps. Lippmann always stood back. He saw himself as somebody who was not a partisan. I think he wanted to be considered an observer of events, that he wasn’t going to write about these events because he was a Jew. I think he found it…That was the intellectual grounds. On the other hand, I think that there were emotional grounds as well. I think that he felt a kind of vulnerability about denying that aspect of himself, and that made it all the more important to stand back. And I think he was a detached person. He extolled disinterestedness, if you will, as a means of protection. Here was somebody who was one of the most brilliant students at Harvard, who couldn’t get in the Harvard clubs. He suffered anti-Semitism at a very early age. Now, there are two ways to react to that. Either you challenge it and you become somebody who defies power or you can be like John Reed, who wasn’t Jewish but who became a rebel. You can become a Zionist. Or you assimilate. It’s like the old saying that there are only two ways to deal with power; you’re either a servant of power or you’re a challenger of power. And I think that Lippmann, in a sense, decided to become a servant of power. He became an assimilator.

HEFFNER: That’s a strange word for you to use about Lippmann: “A servant of power”. Do you want to…

STEEL: I think he believed in power. I think he believed in the necessity for leadership. I think he believed in the need to explain what they purveyors of power were doing to the public. I think he believed that people needed direction. He was not, let’s say, like his colleague, Heywood Brune, somebody who was an outsider. It was absolutely essential for him to be an insider. He often wrote about that business of insiders and outsiders. And in fact, at a very early age, when he was in his mid-twenties, he had been in a circle of bohemians in New York, in Mabel Dodge’s radical chic Salon for Psychoanalysis, and anarchism and what have you was discussed and practiced, and free love, and what have you. And Eugene O’Neill and Robert Edmond Jones and Alfred Stieglitz and all these great radicals of the time and artistic radicals as well. And when he was about 25 he turned against that. He wrote an article, a number of articles damning the rebels. He said that they were really just in love with their own rebellion. And I think at that point the chose to turn his back on the rebels. That this was a kind of romantic self-delusion. That if you’re going to be responsible, you have to talk to the people in power. When he was 24 and he had taken a trip to Europe – I found something in his diaries – and he said, “It’s very important to get to know the people who are in power. That influence depends upon accessibility to these people who are in power. Because that’s the way you understand the way the world operates, and that’s what you have to know to be able to influence the world”. He chose to be an insider rather than an outsider.

HEFFNER: We have about 30 seconds left. Let me ask, did the real insiders, the presidents he knew, did they treat him as such, or did they make use of him, in your estimate, as…

STEEL: I think both. I think they treated him as an insider, but I think they also tried to make use of him. Some did. I think he made use of them, to a degree. And I think that there was a constant tension in his relations with presidents, which is why he broke with every leader that he’d ever been close to.

HEFFNER: Why was he so naïve about Lyndon Johnson?

STEEL: Well, I think he wanted to believe the best. He admired a lot about Johnson: admired his energy, admired his domestic program. Johnson was an incredible seducer. He seduced everybody, even Walter Lippmann.

HEFFNER: Thanks. I think that’s the point of seduction at which we should end the program. Thanks so much for joining me today, Mr. Steel…

STEEL: Thank you.

HEFFNER: …talking about Walter Lippmann. 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”.