Reflections on the 20



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SCOTT SIMON: Let me chance a modest follow-up question about Australia, on the offhand chance that the answer may imply something. Why is it over, it seems to me, the past 20 years when so many film directors want to cast a role as a quintessential American, they wind up choosing an Australian actor?
JILL KER CONWAY: Why does that happen? It is because the stereotype of the Australian male, which Australian film actors often embody -- and I’m naming no names -- but is one that fits with a certain kind of Hollywood movie, the definition of maleness. If you wanted somebody tormented or filled with existential angst, you wouldn’t choose an Australian actor.
Q: Forgive me for this, but I’m wondering if it doesn’t happen in the next two years, I wonder how long it will be before some future panel of our congressional leaders today will be lamenting the failure to bring an article of impeachment against President Bush without embarrassment. How long do you think this will take before we can talk about a failure to bring that article?
ANTHONY LEWIS: I can go ahead, not that I have a very useful answer. Impeachment is not a political reality when you have, just to take the fact that the Senate is almost equally divided between the parties. And the answer to your question, which is a perfectly legitimate question, let’s deal with it just in terms of Iraq, that’s what it’s really about. If things continue to go downhill in Iraq, and they’re not corrected by congressional pressure or some other deus ex machina, then there will be regrets of a kind that you’re talking about. I don’t know if it will be a specific regret about impeachment, which, as I say, is not politically on right now, but there will be a sense of how did we allow this to happen? How did it go on? The war has gone on longer than World War II now, or as long as. It’s simply mad from my point of view. How can we be fighting this war endlessly with no results? I just really don’t understand it, and lots of other people don’t, and there will be very severe regrets unless somehow it’s cured.
Q: I wanted to ask the panel in general -- you asked for people in the 20th century who were perhaps overlooked, but I’d like to ask, from a leadership standpoint, what missed opportunities you look back and see in the 20th century. I mean, I think of people like Henry A. Wallace maybe, or I don’t know. I’d like to hear the panel think of leaders that they knew or knew about or were around and view as a missed opportunity.
SCOTT SIMON: Like the Red Sox not signing Jackie Robinson.
Q: That’s a good one!
SCOTT SIMON: I ran the numbers once. You know, they finished second or third in the seven years that they declined to sign him. You have to think that they would have won at least a couple more pennants if they’d signed Jackie Robinson, but I … missed opportunities in the 20th century. Jill?
JILL KER CONWAY: I’ll talk about one. I think that the efforts during the New Deal to create a variety of different corps of unemployed workers -- young people, artists, musicians, painters, dramatists -- was a kind of government sponsorship of the arts, of melding together a population to be involved in the country as opposed to their particular region, and that they provided an experience that was more than just economic. And when I worked -- I did work now on the problems of inner city schools, school dropouts and so on. I wish that we had some noble notion of how those young people could be employed, educated, pulled out of the situation where they live. That’s a missed opportunity, I think.
DANIEL SCHORR: Let me just add, although it may sound partisan, the difficulty with trying to figure out what to say about missed opportunities is that the fact that they’ve been missed means, in many cases, you don’t know that they were there. For example, one opportunity this country missed in a large part of the past 20, 30 years is not setting out to make sure that there are no hungry children, or that there be schooling, that, how do we know what was missed? You have a sense that we’ve missed an awful lot.
Q: This is a question for the whole panel, in which I will preface it by saying I believe deeply in our country and have great hope to be able to continue to be optimistic that we have a future, but I have been intrigued since the beginning of this conversation that it has never once been mentioned that perhaps part of the great fear and the lack of a solid citizenship feeling that they can do anything is the introduction of the use of atomic warfare, the fact that we were the first nation to drop an atomic bomb, and that the greatest fear, I do believe, that overshadows -- I’m a teacher and I teach young people -- that overshadows everyone’s mind is this tremendous threat, worry, and possibility which often turns into a belief in probability of the use of atomic weaponry, ourselves included.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me try and turn the question just a little bit in that it seemed towards the end of the 20th century, late 80s, early 90s, that the threat of mutual annihilation between the United States and Western Europe and the Soviet Union and Eastern satellite countries, you’d never want to say it was over, but it seemed to be greatly diminished. And now it would seem to be that perhaps the greater fear in the minds of many people around the world is the possibility of an individual device being set off. Anybody have any thoughts about the atomic, now I guess it would not necessarily be just atomic, but nuclear and cobalt specter?
ANTHONY LEWIS: I think the question is a very good question, because we’re not at the stage of fear that gripped this country in -- I forget what the exact dates were -- but there was a time when we were told to dig shelters in the basement and all that. But it’s a reality that there’s reason to fear, and what are the reasons? I think a prime reason is that the great nuclear powers, the United States, Britain, France, Israel -- did I leave out Russia? Yes, Russia -- have not done, well not Israel, but the United States, Britain and Russia promised in the non-proliferation treaty that they would reduce their nuclear arms down to zero. They’ve done nothing of the kind. And as long as this huge weaponry, absolutely overkill weaponry, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these weapons exist, it’s hard psychologically to say that Iran should not be able to build weapons, and it’s hard to get together to stop Osama bin Laden or some other person from having those weapons. Which leads me to say that the question is really, how can we get the world to act together on this? We’re in a time which is different from an earlier period when -- the one that Jill spoke of as she sat listening to the radio in Coorain -- when we thought there was hope in international accord, for international action, for people and countries working together. Now we’re in a unilateral phase when the United States just goes off on its own, when the United States is so dominant a power it has -- I read this in a manuscript the other day -- 700 military bases in 60 countries around the world. It’s just staggering. And we don’t want to pay attention to these other folks. We don’t put collaboration at the top of our list of musts, and you’re not going to be able to deal with the problem you’re talking about until there is collaboration.
DANIEL SCHORR: Not directly responsive to that question, but going back to the overarching theme of this meeting tonight, which has to do with centuries and what happens between centuries. And in thinking about it, it occurred to me that the 19th century was, on the whole, a century of consolidation. There were principalities, there were duchies that came together and they gave us Italy, they gave us Germany, and they gave us [inaudible] and then finally, they gave us a United Nations where, thanks to the United States and the Soviet Union, it was hoped that they would help to police the world.
Well, we’re now in, at least in the latter part of this century, the last century, we’re in an era of disintegration. Countries that were countries are falling apart. Yugoslavia is now, how many countries? Everywhere you look is, we can solve this by partitioning and making a larger thing into a smaller thing. I don’t know if that’s good or not, but I do have a feeling that this country was better off when it was headed toward some kind of union instead of disintegrated into small pieces.
Q: The panel tonight was styled as reflections on the 20th century and, unlike some of our panelists, I’ve only gotten to experience about half of that century, but as I think back on that half century, and I think about 45 years since President Kennedy’s assassination, and I sort of look at the current situation, I say, what would he find most astonishing about what has happened in that 45 years? And I would point to two things in order to ask the question. The first is -- and I may have my facts wrong -- but it’s my impression, having grown up in that period, that the percentage of bright graduates of leading institutions who are interested in careers in public service has absolutely plummeted in the course of 45 years. And the second reflection I have, that what’s really different today from 1963 is the gap in this country, let alone around the world, between the rich and the poor is at a level which is absolutely astounding, and the lack of public discourse or action to do anything about that during my lifetime is absolutely astonishing.
I wonder -- and my question for the panel is -- is this something that will turn around or is this a permanent feature of the American landscape, where people just are satisfied with their ability in a winner-take-all system to make a lot of money and be insulated from that at high levels of public office or will that change, will there be a backlash?

JILL KER CONWAY: Well, I’ll have a go at that. It’s certainly true that the number of college graduates interested in joining government service is at a low point at the moment. It is quite similar to what it was in the 1950s, and it is actually President Kennedy’s call to young Americans to build a better society that changed that and brought a great flood of talented young people to Washington. I believe that the appeal of working for the U.S. government will reassert itself as soon as the young see that there’s something that relates to their ideals and beliefs that they could realize through public service.
You should know that throughout the 19th century it was thought of as really quite strange for anybody of means and education to want to work in government. Theodore Roosevelt was an absolute maverick to everybody who knew him when he decided to become Police Commissioner of New York and eventually to run for the presidency. So it’s a very common theme in American history, with periods of big involvement as occurred during the New Deal and in the Kennedy era.
About the gap between rich and poor, again, this is a global phenomenon; it’s not just the United States. It’s happening in most modernized societies and, of course, it’s always existed in what we call the low income unmodernized societies. So absent some major economic crisis, like the Great Depression, which led to very serious efforts to try and rebalance the distribution of wealth, I don’t see what’s going to change it, because it’s actually a long term trend which is being interrupted at various points as a result of economic disaster.
SCOTT SIMON: I should point out, we had a story on our program recently where some economists expressed the view that one of the biggest contributors, at least in western society -- sounds like a very unpopular thing to say -- towards fostering greater economic inequality is the expansion of the workforce, so that rich people are marrying rich people now. And a couple of generations ago, you tended to marry between economic classes, and now, as I perhaps don’t need to say at the Kennedy Library, Harvard grads are marrying and having families with MIT grads. Very highly trained engineers, President Sommers.
Let’s just take a couple more questions. Yes sir.
Q: I actually have a relatively simple question, but as someone who only experienced the last quarter of the 20th century and is hoping to experience more than a quarter of the 21st century, I just need to ask -- and I think this is to everyone, but in particular to you, Dan Schorr -- if there’s any mitigating factor to your pessimism, if there’s anything that gives you a little glimmer of hope? And sort of related to that, given all of your profound and intimate knowledge of history and experience of history, to what extent do you believe history to be somewhat cyclical? Would this conversation be the same if it was taking place ten years ago, and would it be the same ten years from now?
SCOTT SIMON: Help me out here. What gives people on the panel a glimmer of hope, or more than a glimmer of hope, and an expanding sense of history: are they saying the same things here tonight that they might have been ten years ago and ten years from now. Dan, when you’re back here, when you’re 100, what do you see on the horizon that gives you cause for hope right now, and how do you think your answers might be different in ten years? That’s probably not stating it well.
Q: Or to what extent do you believe history to be cyclical, and are we just at a very bad point right now?
SCOTT SIMON: To what extent is history cyclical and we just happen to be at a certain time now, and ten years from now it’ll look different.
DANIEL SCHORR: Would you think less of me if I say I don’t know?
SCOTT SIMON: I have to tell you, this is a very rare moment. I almost want to mark the position of the planets. A journalist who doesn’t know? That’s treason!
ANTHONY LEWIS: Well, I’d just say yes, I think there’s hope in the system … [inaudible]
JILL KER CONWAY: I can say something which might cheer everyone up. If I think of the quality of leadership of this country from the end of the Civil War to the election of Theodore Roosevelt, it was a series of non-entities, people who were absolutely in the pockets of various kinds of large economic interests, people of undistinguished minds and little command of language. So I wouldn’t think that you should be too worried about what we experience today, because it has changed in the past, and I’m sure it will again.
The second thing I’d like to say is I spend a lot time these days around the philanthropic world, and I’m very impressed by the groups of young people, mainly very highly educated engineers and people with strong finance backgrounds, who are calling themselves New Entrepreneurs. And they want to make money by doing good. And they are trying to invent new styles and modes of business which will produce profit and create wealth but which will solve social problems. They’re a small movement at the moment, but I think they will grow larger, and so that gives me a lot of hope.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me ask our host here, because I know we also have some broadcast times to hit. We’ve got some people lined up: can we take a couple more questions? Sir, you are so gracious. If you want to approach the panel later after sitting down, and ask your question when we’re off the air, by all means. Yes m’am.
Q: I have a question for you, Jill Ker Conway. I’ve read your biography and that of Sandra Day O’Connor. I was very struck by the similarity of the rural ranch isolated life. One, have you met her and talked? And two, do you see that background in any other women leaders?
JILL KER CONWAY: First of all, yes, I do know Sandra Day O’Connor. In fact, we corresponded with one another when she was working on her memoir. There is a great deal of similarity in our backgrounds, and the experience of being a girl growing up in that kind of male world and having to hold your own in it and be as tough as everybody else is an excellent training for life. It’s hard to create it for many women because we can’t duplicate the circumstances.
I think that the other question raised by your query is what are the backgrounds that produce women leaders? What gets them started? And there are four basic things. One is loss of a male relative. A big surge in women’s activism after 1914-18 came for women who had lost fathers or brothers or lovers in the war. And they were living for that person, so they felt entitled to break the rules about being female. The second thing is highly developed intellect at an early age, so that the child gets absolutely obsessed by some subject and doesn’t hear the messages of the society that maybe that’s not something she should be doing. The third thing is the availability of new options. The 20 million dead in the Soviet Union during the Second World War created opportunities for women engineers, women doctors, women lawyers, and so forth, that had never existed before, and it’s part of that change in the workforce and demography of the Soviet Union. And finally, the fourth thing is experiencing great adversity, disruption of family life in some way or another in childhood, so that early the message comes that you gotta do it on your own. So it’s not just in ranching country. There are many kinds of adversity situations where you learn to get mobilized and do things.
Q: I was wondering about, as a person of my age, I guess I’m following suit, I am less than any of the other questioners, Mr. Simon and Mr. Schorr brought up two ideas that are all-important and inescapable for my generation: movies and television. I was wondering about all of your ideas on the impact, not only upon the degradation, perhaps, of our language in America from the use of television, but also on the impact of our citizenry or those things on our ability to be capable citizens, as well as on, perhaps, the arts and humor, which I think humor has been a motif throughout this whole panel, as well as humor being part of that mastery of language which Ms. Conway noted.
SCOTT SIMON: Dan, do you think because of television and perhaps other sources and influence that gathered steam at any rate in the 20th century, or in the case of television, obviously, invented in the 20th century, there has been a degradation in the quality or diminution at any rate in the quality of our language?
DANIEL SCHORR: I hadn’t thought of that. I have nothing to tell you. I’m not sure, I haven’t studied that. One could argue the other way: that you have television on all the time and children are growing up in a living room with television on, that they’re learning words, perhaps. I think I better stop while I’m behind. [laughter]
SCOTT SIMON: You know one thing that I understand from people who’ve [inaudible] over the years that didn’t happen. There were a lot of people who predicted in the 1920s with the rise of radio and then continuing on to television that we would lose our regional accents, and that hasn’t happened, for one reason or another.
JILL KER CONWAY: I should say that because I teach college students and graduate students that we do see there a real decline in people’s grasp of just the basic structures of language: syntax, logic, so on, and a much circumscribed vocabulary. But by creating writing centers, finding new ways to teach people ways to acquire those rules and deploy them effectively, it’s usually possible to correct by the time people get into graduate school. So when I read the papers of my graduate students, I’m blown away by their language and their grasp of syntax and logic and so on. But looking at a freshman paper is always a little occasion for being downcast.
Q: I have to ask again, though, the impact on being citizens, responsible and capable citizens, what is the impact of those media on that?
JILL KER CONWAY: I would just say that the people I teach feel citizens of the world, the most important thing for them is the environment. They don’t look to the U.S. government to help deal with that. They think of that as a global movement that they must be part of. So they’re citizens in a different way.
ANTHONY LEWIS: I must echo that in a word, if I may, just to say that I’ve done teaching, I’ve taught as an avocation for many years part time, and I think the students are wonderful, better than ever, and so I’m very optimistic. If I look at students, it makes me feel happy.
SCOTT SIMON: We have to leave you. Thank you very much for your kind attention. It’s been an honor to be here as part of this panel. Thank you very much.

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