Walter Lippmann, the editors say, “deserves to be ranked with such men as John Dewey, Thorsten Veblen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles A. Beard, H. L. Mencken, Eugene O’Neill, Robert Frost, Lewis Mumford, Roscoe Pound, and Reinhold Niebuhr as a major contributor to the American way of life and thought.” This may be one way of placing him, though it is not, I think, a very helpful one. For myself, I would bench some of these players and send in others—Mr. Justice Holmes, certainly, and Lippmann’s old teacher Santayana, and, replacing Lewis Mumford at left tackle, Edmund Wilson. But this is playing the editors’ game. They are determined to find chic companions for Lippmann. Locke and Hobbes and Mill are mentioned, along with Machiavelli and Rousseau, and, of course, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Calhoun. Back among the quick, Lippmann is appointed chairman of a board of intellectual directors that includes David Riesman, Erich Fromm, Herbert Agar, Harold Lasswell, and a few others. A phantom board, thank God!
If I sound irritated, that is how I feel. Lippmann deserves better than to be served up in this fashion—“For the first time in one volume: a comprehensive selection from Walter Lippmann’s writings.” What on earth is a “comprehensive selection”? The editors tell us that they have “labored hard to separate the wheat of contemplation from the chaff of interpretation.” This seems a pointless kind of threshing. In any case, their hard labor has not given me, a Lippmannite, anything that I recognize as the “essential” Lippmann. Indeed, this book-merchant’s word seems in itself offensive—particularly in a work whose editors tell us that, in the first place, they have limited their selections to “political philosophy” and beyond that have favored books out of print over books in print, later books over earlier books, and “the column of 1962 (over) the column of 1932.” What they have produced is 535 pages by the Lippmann who sounds most like a follower of Clinton Rossiter.
I do not know how one could get the “essential” Lippmann into a “treasury” (another of the editors’ words) or even if it ought to be tried. I do know that the Lippmann some of us value the most is hard to find in this ponderous volume with its pol. sci. rubrics (“The Tensions of Constitutionalism…The Dilemma of Liberal Democracy…The Role of Government”) and its obliteration of time by topic. In a general way, the editors were no doubt sound in sticking to Lippmann’s concern with politics. It is the world of policy and polity that has engaged most of his time and his intellectual energies over the years. But what makes Lippmann tower above his contemporaries is the range of his cultivation, and the liveliness of his interest in many other thngs. “What do you love?” Mabel Dodge once asked him. “The living world,” Lippmann answered. This Lippmann is now and then encountered in this book—but only now and then—and never in so arresting a fashion as the man who came to life in a 1959 volume of reminiscences and appraisals by friends and colleagues, a book called Walter Lippmann and His Times, edited by Marquis W. Childs and James Reston. One of the finest of Lippmann’s own books is Men of Destiny, published in 1927, with some wonderful drawings by Rollin Kirby. It contains portraits, shimmering with wit and truth and malice and enjoyment, of Bryan, Wilson, Mencken, Al Smith, Coolidge, and others, along with a disparaging essay on Sinclair Lewis which was written in the year that Elmer Gantry appeared and which is every bit as perceptive as anything any professional literary critic has since done and is, besides, very funny. Either the editors have never heard of this book or they have ruled it non-essential. (Probably the latter, since it is full of “interpretation,” or “chaff.”) Rossiter and Lare have little interest in the Lippmann who has eyes and ears and a sharp, unstatesmanlike tongue.
The Essential Lippmann, they tell us, “is a witness to our conviction that (Lippmann) is perhaps the most important American political thinker of the twentieth century.” The “perhaps” is unsettling. Where’s the competition? Are the editors going to do a series of “essentials”? What anyone can say is that Lippmann is absolutely first-rate, that we are terribly lucky to have him, and that we are greatly envied our possession of him by Englishmen and Frenchmen and others who have no comparable institution. The principal service he has rendered, particularly in the last two decades, is the examination of public issues in the manner commended by Marcus Aurelius when he said, “Make for thyself a definition or a description of the thing which is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what kind of thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell thyself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded and into which it will be resolved.” Lippmann goes at this work with a splendidly trained and controlled intellect, an unfailing command of the language, a sturdy faith in the power of human reason, and an integrity that is not so much a moral stance as it is a product of true disinterestedness.
Rossiter and Lare have their own way of accounting for Lippmann’s preeminence. The foundation, they say, is Lippmann’s conviction that the democratic dogma is at the root of our difficulties and his belief that what we need most is a revival of Natural Law—or what he calls, in what he regards as its political manifestations, “the public philosophy” and the “tradition of civility.” Their “selection” comes fairly close to being “comprehensive” in giving us this side of Lippmann. That it is an important side I would not for a moment deny. He has held to it from the start, and it has provided him with many of his most brilliant insights. But it is a disservice to him, it seems to me, to make it appear so large and basic an aspect of his work. The nature of the disservice seemed evident a few weeks back when Sidney Hook, reviewing The Essential Lippmann in the Times, felt constrained to write of Lippmann as though he was a misguided critic of Jacobinism and nothing more. That the man who speaks of “the Decline of the West, under the misrule of the people” is not the “essential” one is, I think, easily demonstrable. The fact is that one can be a fairly close follower of Lippmann without believing that there has been any “Decline of the West” or without believing that, in Lippmann’s sense, the people either rule or misrule. In his criticisms of American diplomacy, Lippmann’s guiding principle is the need to keep power and commitment in reasonable balance and to avoid what Denis Brogan once called “the illusion of American omnipotence.” One need not hold with him that “direct democracy” is bringing us low to follow him in this. (The root disagreement, actually, is over whether “direct democracy” has ever existed or functioned in the way that Lippmann understands it to exist and function.”) The processes and institutions he found admirable in The Good Society can be admired by those who read modern history in ways very different from his. But his present editors give one the impression of wishing to narrow the routes of access to him.
September 26, 1963