Mortimer B. Zuckerman

Gentleman of the Press

VTR Date: November 22, 1986

Guest: Zuckerman, Mortimer B.



HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Whenever I begin a new semester at the university – whether in my seminar or my lecture class – I ask my students first to read Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion…in my opinion the seminal study of what – and who—makes us tick the way we do in contemporary America. Though written in the early 1920’s, Lippmann’s extraordinarily prescient analysis of how and why we come to think the way we think as individuals (and then as a people) provides some real insight, I think into what it is that may have motivated today’s OPEN MIND guest in recent years, in his intriguing movement from merely making money to making and molding opinions (probably not totally unrelated pursuits, of course), form a formidably successful career in real estate to impressive beginnings as a media maven.

A headline in The Wall Street Journal some time back read, “Mort Zuckerman Seeks to Influence Opinion, Not Just Own Land.” And, since someone noted about Mr. Zuckerman that, “He doesn’t want to be remembered as a landlord,” now his ownership of both the Atlantic Monthly and U.S. News and World Reports does give people a lot more to read of him and to ponder over. So that it isn’t totally unfair today to begin THE OPEN MIND by asking Mortimer Zuckerman just what are the basic ideas and convictions that inform his journalistic efforts to influence public opinion. Mr. Zuckerman, what is at the bottom of all this?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, I think, from my own personal point of view, it is a total fascination with the way public policy is made and with the way public policy, in fact, works. My experience in the development business – in which you inevitably work with cities and I had some exposure also as an academic in trying to formulate this in a an intellectual way – gave me, I think, a reason to believe that there would be a wonderful place to spend the rest of my life, and that is in some way involved in public policy. And over the years I think I became convinced that the best way for me to do that was through the media, where you have a chance, I think, to do two things. One is, to think specifically in terms of whatever the public issue is, but to try and develop that thinking against a background of an intellectual or structural framework of what that particular issue pertains to in terms of the country’s interest or the country’s values. So that, to me, has been the fascination of it. And in both the professions which I’ve had I also like the balance of art and commerce that is associated with them. Because what I think what you have to do to be effective in the media is, as you say, to be persuasive and to have people respond to what you are writing or the way you develop the stories. And that is an equally interesting challenge.

HEFFNER: You mean the entrepreneurial aspect of making ideas and making opinions?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, yes. I think…to me, the most fascinating part about articulating public policy is trying to articulate in a way that somehow or other develops a resonance wit the readership. Now we’ve had a number of stories…for example, in The Atlantic, with the story called “the Education of David Stockman,” which was a famous story that gave a great deal of insight into what is happening within the Reagan administration in terms of the way they formulated policy. Now that is a story that, if you read it in its totality, gives you a sense of understanding as to how this policy was developed. Most of the stories, and frankly most of television news limits you to just an awareness of what the policy is. What I’ve hoped for is to be involved in developing, through the media, an understanding of the way the policy develops and what it means and what its impact will be on the citizens of a country.

HEFFNER: But of course, the question comes back to what is the over-arching intellectual structure? Political structure? Ideological structure? I mean, the rest – mechanics. What informs the mechanics in terms of your own philosophy of government?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, my own feeling is that…and it’s interesting to me how the recent experience which I’ve had with Nick Danilov has sort of heightened this for me. The first thing, it seems to me, is a basis of freedom. And by that I don’t mean license. But I think freedom and the opportunities that people have to, in a sense, develop themselves and work to their maximum effort to produce a better life for themselves or for their families or for their next generation, I think is the most extraordinary motivating force in both this country and in sort of the history of democracy. So, in that sense, I am somebody who looks to find ways to expand that kind of freedom. I have become completely convinced, in a sense, of the very limited role that government ought to have in balancing its role against the opportunities that the individuals have. The freedom of individuals, and particularly the freedom of individuals to associate and work in groups which they form voluntarily, is something which I frankly feel very, very supportive of. And therefore I look to a fairly restrictive role of government, rather than an expansion or expansive role for government.

HEFFNER: What happened to that older idea that government is designed to hinder the hindrances in terms of the development of individuals. You talk about liberty, you talk about freedom. And in the role you played in liberating Nick Danilov, that’s terribly important. But what happened to the older notion that government action is required to hinder the hindrances that otherwise would not permit any of us to develop that liberty?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, I think that notion still has validity. But I also think that there is now a record to look at. Wasn’t it Al Smith who said, “Let’s just look at the record?” Now I think for example, that the notion of the role of government, and particularly the activist role of government, in many areas, not just a sort of defense or the police function of a government, or the sense of the protection of the health and welfare and safety through regulation of airplanes or what have you. But to go beyond that in terms of having the government play an activist role – you find, I think, that the secondary consequences of a great deal of what is done turns out, in some way, to be largely unanticipated. And I’ll give you one classic case. I was having a conversation with Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, my home state, and we got to a conversation about campaign funding. Why, I don’t quite know, but I got into a sort of tear about the packs – all these political action committees, and the tremendous amount of money that is now sloshing around the political system that, really in my judgment, tends to really distort the political system to a degree. Not totally, but at least to a degree. And there was a rather embarrassed silence and at the end he said, “I have to tell you…” he said that, “…I was the chairman of the committee that introduced this legislation after Watergate.” He said, “We had every expert that you could imagine testifying about his legislation. Nobody foresaw this. Nobody foresaw this.” And I always remembered that as the perfect, classic case of the attempts on the part of government to get into areas where it really cannot measure the consequences, where it says it can measure the consequences. I’ll give you another one where I think the sort of the domestic concerns have even greater validity, but where a lot of the consequences are not anticipated, and this is in medical care. I was very active in a number of hospitals. And it turned out that the whole Medicare/Medicaid complex, which has done wonders for the health care of a lot of people, is based on a system which inspires the entire health care system to maximize its costs because the government reimburses you on the basis of cost plus. So you don’t care what your costs are. In fact, you try and bury all sorts of things into your costs in order to get a maximum reimbursement from the government. As a result of that, health costs in this country have gone to a percentage of GNP that is probably twice the percentage of GNP of a country like Canada. And there is virtually no control over that. And all I’m saying is that I think a lot of those kinds of consequences are not anticipated, not understood, and, therefore, I think the notion that government can play a much more activist role, while it’s an idealistic notion, does not work well in practice.

HEFFNER: Yes, but what you’re doing, it seems to me, is indicting innocence of any kind. The failure to understand that business’ activities can lead to consequences that we’re not aware of – government’s activities can. The Charles Murray notion, I mean, is very attractive but it almost seems to me…and I wonder what your comment on that would be…that it’s led us down a blind alley, where we’ve said, “Look, we haven’t understood in the past what the consequences of government’s interference, for the good, may be…the bad consequences.” But hasn’t that come to say the hand of a number of people who otherwise would be looking for wise avenues…not unwise avenues, but wise avenues for government activity?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, I think, just to use a specific illustration – the Charles Murray argument – which I have to say, in a lot of ways, I think is misdirected. There was a wonderful series, in fact, in The Atlantic, by a wonderful writer named Nick Lemmon, on the conditions that what he called “the underclass.” And the basic…and wonderful insight that he had was that…when we talk about the underclass, we generally tend to be referring to the ghettos, quote-unquote, within cities that are dominated, principally in terms of residence, by blacks. And what you have is an underclass of the black community which he ways, based on his own research, came about in the following way: that as you got a tremendous amount of migration from the South to the major cities of this country on the part of the blacks, that the middle class blacks, when that immigration crested – really in the 1960s – and by the way, was the largest single immigration within this country – larger than any other ethnic group – that it took place simultaneously, in terms of cresting, at a time that the civil rights movement in the United States finally opened up other areas of the cities for the blacks to move into. So the middle class blacks, in a sense, moved out of the areas where they were previously restricted by race and they now were able to live in other areas. So that the people who were either living there, who remained there, were now restricted not only by race in a certain way, but by class – by their economic and social backgrounds. Now, he traced back this phenomenon of class to the blacks in the South. And it turned out, in a sense that that same culture, in a sense, moved from the South to the North. And without the…as has happened with virtually every immigrant group…where the middle class values, so called, in a sense, change and transform a community. What was left behind was an underclass where there was not the influence of the middle class. So that particular culture became dominant. It’s not that it doesn’t exist among every other group – every other group has their quote-unquote underclass. But virtually exclusive to the black community, the underclass of the black community became dominant in a particular area and so it became a cultural problem. And here we had, from the 1960s until now, the massive infusion of tremendous amounts of money, both from the government and from private and voluntary institutions, and what we’ve had simultaneously with all of that is a tremendous deterioration as you measured in virtually every kind of social index of the conditions of the black community that was in most of these areas. And the question is, what is the role of government here? Well, what he argues is that it’s culture that is much more important than legislation. And in a sense, if you are going to deal with the problems that you now see that are social problems, you have to find some way to become a part of that culture. And that, by in large, is not available to the government. So I think you are appropriately asking, do these government programs work? And Murray, I think, had a different answer. He said, “The government programs, to a large degree, don’t work. It’s not that they don’t work entirely, but they don’t work in relation to the investment that is made.” So his solution is, well, let’s not do anything.

HEFFNER: What’s your solution? That’s the question.

ZUCKERMAN: My solution is, you have to…and this is where the difficult thing comes in – where, I think most governments fail, simply because they can’t understand these kinds of problems and they certainly can’t understand the secondary consequences of them…is you have to work within the culture of that particular community. And I don’t know how to do that, but I know one thing – I know that it can’t be done out of Washington, it can’t be done out of government, it has to be done within the community. I went through, for the Carter Administration, a number of cities to see whether or not they could develop programs for these very communities – whether it was the South Bronx, or Boston, or Chicago, or Detroit. I went to a number of these cities, and those parts of the cities…of these cities that worked, that in a sense developed their own infrastructure, both social and physical in terms of real estate, in terms of housing, in terms of schools, were when local parts of the community, members of local groups, became involved in these things. If you just had a government agency doing it, it just didn’t work, however well intentioned.

HEFFNER: You know, that’s an admirable thought. After the Second World War, Earl Warren in California, Adlai Stevenson in Illinois, both thought in terms of devolution of political power, of economic activity. And granted. But for so many people this seems to mean “hands off all together.” And I gather that is not the notion that you subscribe to on the part of government.

ZUCKERMAN: No, it’s not. But I must say that when you talk about “hands on,” you have to look also at the results of hands on and if the results of hands on in the form at least that it takes, have proven to be really extraordinarily damaging to the community. You have to ask is it the result of the policy or is it some other thing that is involved here?

HEFFNER: And you’re saying that it’s not a matter of the particular hands, and particularly on where, but of the notion of “hands on.”

ZUCKERMAN: Well, I don’t think that “hands on,” particularly as it comes out of government, works in this area. I think there is a whole record now to look back on. So I think myself, that if you assume that there is a way of doing it, and it comes from within the culture – for example, I would, for example, fund a lot of black organizations rather than funding government organizations, if the government was going to do anything, and test out that to see how that works.

HEFFNER: Where does this put you? Where does this intellectual framework put you in terms of the Reagan Administration’s six years plus of activity?


HEFFNER: …What’s your judgment?

ZUCKERMAN: I don’t think that there is a single answer. For example, if I had to pick an area that is central, in my judgment, to what a government does – which is, to some extent, the management of an economy, the fiscal and monetary management of an economy – I think the Reagan Administration has had the single most irresponsible policy of fiscal management of this economy, probably in the history of this country. And that to me was represented by a trillion dollars of additional debt that has been placed on this country in the last five-and-a-half or six years. And I’ve been extremely critical of the unwillingness of the President to work out some kind of compromise with the Houses – both the Senate and the House – to deal with that issue.

HEFFNER: What are the plusses though?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, I think myself that there has been one extraordinary plus, which I think…and I think Mr. Reagan has given the country, for the first time in twenty years, a Presidency that does work and is perceived to have worked – of somebody who is in charge, who is able to run the country as a president, and be a leader for the country, and be a true chief of state. Jimmy Carter, in my judgment, who was a very knowledgeable and intelligent man, was not a chief of state, he was a chief of government and a disaster as a chief of state, and I think diminished the presidency. And I think Walter Mondale, when he ran against President Reagan, came across not only as not a chief of government, but at best a chief of staff. I think Reagan has, once again, given meaning to the phrase, the “chief of state.” And I think that was an important thing for this country.

HEFFNER: As perception or reality?

ZUCKERMAN: Both. I mean, Reagan has a very limited agenda, but he has a clear agenda – he has few ideas, but he knows what they are and he fights for them. He believes in them and he fights for them. And by and large, in many areas, he’s made them work. Not in our areas. And I think that is something that is essential in the role of the Presidency of this country.

HEFFNER: Of course, as we sit taping this show at the end of November 1986, one can look back switching fields a little into the area of foreign policy – look back to the role that you played in bringing Nick Danilov out of the Soviet Union. But since that time, many questions have been raised again about the idea of swapping, of trading off, of getting hostages out – and let’s say, Danilov was a hostage. What do we pay at that time?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, Danilov was a hostage, without question. And he, as you know, was kidnapped by the KGB as a response, primarily, to the fact that one of their spies, Sakharov, was captured red handed in the act of espionage here in this country. Now when Danilov was released it was without question a part of a negotiation. But I think we have to ask, what were the terms of the quote-unquote deal? Every diplomatic negotiation is a deal. What were the terms of the deal? For example, if, in the case of the Iranian negotiations that have just become so controversial, if we had given to the Iranian government medical supplies in exchange for the release of our hostages, I doubt if there would have been the kind of brew-ha-ha that existed. But to give arms to this kind of a government is another thing again. So it becomes very important to look at what the terms are. In the Danilov situation, in my judgment at least, the terms were very favorable to this country. In the first place, Danilov was released without a trial. Sakharov had a trial, pleaded guilty, and then was exchanged directly for Yuri Orlov and his wife. Now Yuri Orlov is a major figure in the whole sort of human rights movement, such as it exists in the Soviet Union. He was the founder of the Helsinki Watch Movement in the Soviet Union, and for those labors he was sent to a prison for the last ten years, treated horribly, but was a major figure. He and Andre Sakharov were the two leading Soviet dissidents. And Sakharov, because he was a Soviet physicist and a Nobel laureate in the discovery of their hydrogen bomb, is not allowed out. But they get Yuri Orlov out – it’s to get a major figure out. In addition to that, other people will be released. Now I would say to you in those terms, that was an acceptable deal because we got Yuri Orlov out, we got his wife out, we got other things, we got a dialogue that was going between the two countries. The two countries gave to each other the feeling that they could work on problems that came up between them.

HEFFNER: So negotiations, that’s okay.

ZUCKERMAN: Negotiations are absolutely essential. Diplomacy must have the time and the space to work – we should not, as a super power, in a nuclear age, risk, a confrontation with either at a regional level or at the super power level without giving diplomacy a full chance to work. That seems to me the absolute obligation of our political leadership in a nuclear era. We simply can’t do anything else!

HEFFNER: Wasn’t it diplomacy at work, in terms of Iran and the arms deal?

ZUCKERMAN: Yes. I think diplomacy was at work. But because diplomacy is at work, it doesn’t mean that it’s good diplomacy. I myself feel that the President and our administration were absolutely right in trying to establish a community of connections or relationships with some faction within Iran. Who they are, I don’t know. How high up they went, I don’t know. But I think I have reason to believe that they were very substantial people, both within and without the government, and a faction that stood an excellent chance to, in a sense, become the dominant faction after Khomeini goes. And Khomeini, after all, is eighty-six years old and is quite ill. So I think, in order to establish some kind of political bonding between our government and whomever those people are, when we think about the critical, strategic role that Iran plays, not only in geographical terms, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, vis-a-vis Afghanistan, vis-à-vis Pakistan, and vis-à-vis the Persian Gulf, but also in terms of the oil – the world of oil – it’s clear that that’s in our national interest. But there is another thing that happened, and that is the terms. There is absolutely no question in my mind that it is unacceptable in moral terms, and we are the most moral country in political terms – in international political terms – that has probably ever existed in terms of any upper power or great power on negotiations — that we will not accept something that offends our fundamental sense of morality. And this did. It’s totally inconsistent with who we are as a country. If we had sent medical supplies or food, it would have been accepted. But arms? I thought that was outrageous and a major error. And how it happened is another whole question.

HEFFNER: Of course, that does raise the question – another one – and that has to do…and I’m so interested in this one in terms of your response, given your interest in public opinion, given the fact that you now own and operate U.S. News and World Report and Atlantic Monthly, the level of flim-flam in American life. There seemed to have been increasing amounts of flim-flam – saying one thing and meaning another – in the last decade or two in our lives, and I wonder if you have any comment about that.

ZUCKERMAN: Well, you know, my fantasy is that politics, to such a large degree, is theater and perception.

HEFFNER: Lie, too?

ZUCKERMAN: No. I’m not sure I would call it a lie in sort of the pejorative sense, but I think there is kind of a technical truth that in human terms we would say, “Wait a minute, you are really putting me on.” But political people are willing to go right up to that line, and sometimes cross that line. And I think that is where the danger comes in in terms of undermining the legitimacy of the government and its credibility. And in fact, I think that’s one of the things that has happened for the first time since Reagan has been President, which is that his own credibility, for the first time, has been undermined. People just simply didn’t believe him. And that I think is a precious asset that a President has – he has to be very careful not to jeopardize that. But do I think for example, that staging of all of these events, in which Reagan was a master…I mean, people have dismissed his theatrical and movie background. Quite the opposite – it was an absolutely perfect background for many of the ceremonial moments that in fact give the impression and dimension of what a President is. And so I think that has been, in fact, extremely valuable to him. But once you get to a point where you actually lie and you can be caught out on it, then I think you risk the whole effectiveness of your Presidency.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting…you say it has been very valuable to him – his theatrical background. How valuable has it been to the nation?

ZUCKERMAN: I also think very valuable to the nation. I mean, the role of the President in our system, as I say, is not only chief of government, it is also the ceremonial role. It’s also the inspirational role.

HEFFNER: You’re quite caught up in that, aren’t you?

ZUCKERMAN: Oh, I think it’s essential to the country. I mean, you know, you look at the role of the Queen in England. Okay? Now, the Queen is a revered figure that, in a sense, binds the country together. The Monarchy has served that purpose. In our country it’s the Presidency. And I think that the inspirational and ceremonial value of the Presidency is an important and an essential role of the Presidency and of the President. It’s not his only role. And ultimately, if there isn’t the substance as well, to back up that, it will not work. But that ceremonial role is itself substantive.

HEFFNER: You commented before…and we just have a couple of minutes left…you commented before about Jimmy Carter’s failure along those lines, and the potential to Walter Mondale’s failure along those lines. Looking now, in 1986-87 to 1988, who looms large as, in your terms, a good combination of the…ceremonial, and I’m sure you want more than the ceremonial. You want people who are not going to just provide us with technical truths but with more than that. Who looks good to you?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, let me just say – who looks good to me ideally and who looks good to me politically are two different questions. But ideally, for example, I think, in the Republican Party, that a Robert Dole or an Alan Simpson, the House Republican Leader and Deputy Leader, were two outstanding legislators and are men of substance and of style and of character and of quality.

HEFFNER: The Senate leaders.

ZUCKERMAN: The Senate leaders for the Republican Party. Now, I think George Bush is an intelligent man and a competent man, but George Bush has a great failing, it seems to me, is that…particularly in the major medium of communication, which is television, instead of giving you the impression which Ronald Reagan gives, of always being in control, George Bush always gives me the impression of never being in control. Every time I see him on television, I have this sort of uneasy feeling that he’s kind of desperately trying to think of something to say and he does not give you the impression that, in fact, you would get from him in personal terms – somebody who knows a great deal about government, a great deal about policy. And yet, I think that’s an essential part of him. Mario Cuomo, here, the Governor of New York, seems to me, has both of those qualities. Now, he may have other problems, but he has both a great sense of substance and a great sense of projecting strong leadership. So I think he is a very strong candidate on the Democratic side. Sam Nunn of Georgia, I think is one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, wise men that we have serving in the government. I don’t think he has that ceremonial, that popular appeal that, in a sense, a President needs in order to rally the country behind his policies.

HEFFNER: How happy are you about that need and making that the basis for perhaps choosing candidates? In twenty seconds!

ZUCKERMAN: Alright. I think it’s absolutely essential in a democracy where you have to have a President to pull the country behind him. The ability to appeal to the people that way is an essential part of the role of the President.

HEFFNER: And I suppose that’s the point at which we end. Thank you very much for joining me today, Mortimer Zuckerman.

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 Lounsbery Foundation, Mr. Lawrence A. Wien, Pfizer, Inc., and The New York Times Company Foundation.