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The Mysteries of Mr. Lippmann

Walter Lippmann and the American Century

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

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.

He was one of the first American intellectuals to write in praise of Sigmund Freud. At a time when Freudian theory was a target of mockery, Lippmann used it as a device for social analysis in A Preface to Politics in 1913, and in the New Republic in 1915 wrote that Freud “may rank among the greatest who have contributed to thought” (p. 48). Freud invited him to a meeting of the Psychoanalytic Society in Vienna, and introduced him to Adler and Jung. Lippmann must have understood as well as any layman the role of the unconscious, the importance of emotions in human life. Yet he purged emotion from his own visible makeup so thoroughly that in both his writings and his person he seemed distant, even cold. John Reed, who was a friend at Harvard and afterward until Lippmann forsook socialism and Reed took the path that led to the Kremlin wall, put it in verse:

…But were there one
Who builds a world, and leaves out all the fun—
Who dreams a pageant, gorgeous, infinite,
And then leaves all the color out of it—
Who wants to make the human race, and me,
March to a geometric Q.E.D.—
Who but must laugh, if such a man there be?
Who would not weep, if Walter L. were he?
[p. 55]

But this cold, repressed intellectual had an affair with the wife of his closest friend, and ended his marriage of twenty years to marry her. It is a poignant story as Steel tells it. The friend was Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of Foreign Affairs; they met for lunch once or twice a week and talked on the telephone nearly every day. Then, in 1937, Lippmann and Helen Byrne Armstrong found themselves in love. After weeks of the affair they were discovered when she went to Europe and four of his letters missed her at a hotel in Kitzbühel and were mistakenly forwarded to Armstrong’s office.

After his divorce Lippmann wrote a letter to Armstrong, asking his forgiveness, and had it hand-delivered by Helen’s brother. Armstrong refused to accept it, and as editor of Foreign Affairs for thirty-five years after that he barred any mention of Lippmann’s name from the magazine. When he died in 1973, he left a packet marked “For Helen, on my death.” In it Helen found the four 1937 letters, three of them still sealed; a note from Armstrong said, “I read only the first three lines of one of these” (p. 363).

The social punishment of Lippmann was hard for a time; some old friends dropped him, and he left New York for what he then considered provincial Washington. But Helen and Walter Lippmann had their love, and remained together for thirty-seven years.

When the Herald Tribune began publishing his column, “Today and Tomorrow,” in 1931, it was considered somewhat daring for that Republican paper to take on such a liberal. Lippmann was thought to be the popular philosopher of individualism, of the value of the common man.

But in Lippmann’s writings there was much disdain for the common man. In Public Opinion in 1922 he said the average citizen—the “outsider”—could not possibly be well-enough informed to make an intelligent judgment on policy questions: “The common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class” (p. 182). In The Phantom Public in 1925 he said the public in a democracy had no political function except to choose those capable of deciding: “With the substance of the problem it can do nothing but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically…. Only the insider can make the decisions, not because he is inherently a better man, but because he is so placed that he can understand and can act” (p. 213).

Reviewing the book, Bruce Bliven said it reminded him of H.G. Wells’s “new order of samurai,” “an aristocracy of mind and character whose members are dedicated to making democracy work for the best, whether the populace wants it or not” (p. 214). Lippmann knew and admired Wells. The Public Philosophy in 1955 took the gloomy view that free Western governments were crumbling because uninformed publics had overridden “the judgments of the informed and responsible officials.” We needed stronger executives: “Where mass opinion dominates the government, there is a morbid derangement of the true functions of power” (p. 492). General de Gaulle sent Lippmann an admiring note about the book.

The Great Man theory of government found regular expression in Lippmann. He had a succession of heroes, starting with Teddy Roosevelt, but each proved disappointing in the end and was put aside. Having boosted TR in the New Republic and criticized Wilson, in 1916 he wrote a British friend that Wilson’s was the “most freely speculative mind we’ve had in Washington, and as disinterested as a man could wish. If only so many people didn’t make it their chief business to distort his phrases” (p. 100). He became a strong supporter of Wilson and had a major part, toward the end of the war, in drafting the Fourteen Points. But he broke with Wilson over the peace and bitterly opposed Senate ratification of the Versailles Treaty; later he regretted that and confessed to Learned Hand that “I let irritation against Wilson’s stupidity push me into intransigent opposition to the Treaty” (p. 233).

Before 1933 he dismissed Franklin Roosevelt as a “kind of amiable boy scout” (p. 291). But a week before the inaugural he wrote: “By the greatest good fortune which has befallen this country in many a day, a kindly and intelligent man…” (p. 301). He wanted FDR to have the broadest emergency powers. “Popular government is unworkable,” he wrote, “except under the leadership and discipline of a strong national executive. Any group of 500 men, whether they are called Congressmen or anything else, is an unruly mob unless it comes under the strict control of a single will” (p. 300). Such talk made Roosevelt worry about congressional reaction; at his request Felix Frankfurter wrote Lippmann to warn that harping on the faults of Congress might encourage “the fascist forces.” Lippmann replied that Frankfurter was being “a little hesitant about breaking the eggs to make the omelet” (p. 301). But before long he turned anti-Roosevelt—as FDR had predicted.

Lippmann expressed his opinion on current issues in the New Republic starting in 1914, as assistant and then chief editorial writer of The World, and for thirty-six years starting in 1931 in his column. In hindsight, how perceptive was he?

On questions of civil liberty his record looks dismal. When Amherst’s trustees in 1923 dismissed Alexander Meiklejohn, the great libertarian scholar, as president of the college, Lippmann wrote a World editorial praising Meiklejohn but defending his dismissal. He rushed to approve the report of A. Lawrence Lowell’s committee on the Sacco-Vanzetti Case in 1927—a report upholding the fairness of their trial despite devastating criticism of it by Frankfurter and others—before he read the text. He supported the 1929 Supreme Court decision in the Schwimmer case, denying citizenship to a Canadian-born pacifist because she would not swear to take up arms in the country’s defense—a decision that drew from Justice Holmes a passionate dissent in favor of “freedom for the thought that we hate.” In 1936 he defended the deportation of John Strachey, the British Marxist, for lecturing against capitalism. In 1942, when the Nisei were removed from California and put in “relocation camps,” he was briefed by the author of the plan, General John DeWitt, who was known for his statement, “A Jap’s a Jap”; Lippmann wrote in support of the forced evacuation, saying that the West Coast was in “imminent danger of a combined attack from within and without” (p. 394). He saw no constitutional or moral problem when Robert Oppenheimer, John Paton Davies, and others were removed from government service.

He did write letters to friends criticizing the conduct of the Sacco-Vanzetti case and, years earlier, the excesses of A. Mitchell Palmer’s raids against alleged “Reds.” But there were few brave words on such subjects in his public writings. Steel concludes that Lippmann was “reluctant to cut himself off from respectable, and respected, opinion.” He “cared about justice,” Steel writes, “but it was not an emotional issue for him. He also cared about his influence as a public person. His respect for authority, his fear of being cut off from centers of power, his distaste for too close an association with radicals often muted his voice…. To be effective meant to have the ear of those who made the decisions” (pp. 233-234).

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