The Mysteries of Mr. Lippmann

Walter Lippmann and the American Century

by Ronald Steel
Little, Brown/Atlantic Monthly Press, 669 pp., $19.95

Walter Lippmann
Walter Lippmann; drawing by David Levine

Statesmanship, Walter Lippmann wrote in 1929, “requires the courage which is possible only in a mind that is detached from the agitations of the moment. It requires the insight which comes only from an objective and discerning knowledge of the facts, and a high and imperturbable disinterestedness” (p. 518). He could have been—he may have been—writing about himself.

Through more than fifty years as an editor and columnist, Lippmann seemed almost priestly in his detachment. To other journalists especially he was awesome. He had risen above the feelings and personal attachments that pulled on the rest of us: a high and imperturbable figure indeed. Toward the end of his working life he warned specifically against the dangers of being “on good terms with the powerful.” Speaking to the International Press Institute, he said: “The most important forms of corruption in the modern journalist’s world are the many guises and disguises of social climbing on the pyramids of power. The temptations are many…. Only a constant awareness of them offers protection” (p. 572).

But this symbol of detachment knew and revered Theodore Roosevelt, wrote speeches for Woodrow Wilson and personally campaigned for him, was part of Al Smith’s brain trust, worked with the stop-Roosevelt forces at the 1932 Democratic convention, advised Wendell Willkie in the 1940 campaign, told Harry Hopkins before the 1944 convention that Henry Wallace had to go as vice president, worked with George Kennan on how to organize and sell to the public what became the Marshall Plan, sent memoranda to John Foster Dulles when in 1948 he seemed about to become secretary of state, drafted a foreign policy speech for Thomas E. Dewey that same year, worked with eastern Republican leaders in 1952 on how to get General Eisenhower into the race, advised the Adlai Stevenson campaign in 1956 on how to beat Eisenhower, and was consulted by John F. Kennedy on whom to pick as secretary of state. (McGeorge Bundy, Lippmann suggested, or Senator J.W. Fulbright; Dean Rusk was “a profound conformist” [p. 523].) And his intimacy with the great was not limited to politicians. He was a companion of Thomas Lamont and other men of high finance, on the golf course and on European tours. In 1931 his friend William Allen White, the Kansas editor, warned him: “Watch your step. Don’t let the Bankers get you” (p. 282).

A man of astonishing contradictions: that is the Lippmann who emerges from Ronald Steel’s important biography. Long in preparation, it has turned out in a way an unexpected book. We knew that Lippmann in his long life had often intersected history, and all of that is drawn on a large canvas. But the greater interest lies in the man. The drama is more internal than external.

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