Reflections on the 20

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ANTHONY LEWIS: Well, I’ve been listening to Dan and to Jill and watching that film and, of course, it brought lots of things to mind. I was at the Capitol when Kennedy spoke. I remember the day very well: cold, as John said. I wish in a way you’d included in the film what I think is the best line in the speech, which is very little remembered, if at all, which is the last line: “Asking his blessing, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” I actually find it hard to say that without feeling the loss of Kennedy and the loss of respect for presidents, and the loss of hope. I don’t want to be gloomy, but it’s not a very hopeful time today, is it?
I’d go back farther, because I think communication -- you said Scott, it used to come from within political leaders, and we felt that. I remember listening -- I was old enough -- to the last speech of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 campaign for re-election. As was the habit then of Democratic candidates, the final speech of the campaign was given in the Boston Garden. He had spent the day -- he was, of course, very ill, though none of us knew how ill -- traveling through New England in a touring car, an open car, with no roof, wrapped up in a cape in the pouring rain. And he came into the Boston Garden and said his first words to that crowd, “I’ve had a glorious day here in New England.” You know, it wasn’t the message, it was just the sense of this man who could convey joy and power and hope.
Well we’re supposed to talk about the 20th century, so I want to say a couple of things about that. I mean the best way to say it is the way Dickens said it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was the century in which we began, at last, a very delayed last, to deal with racial discrimination in this country. It was the century which somebody, John, perhaps, just said earlier, in which we began to end discrimination against women. It was a century at the very end in which we just began slowly and with some accumulation to deal with discrimination on account of sexual orientation. I’m talking about our country.
And, of course, there are many other good things that happened. Medicine, the huge increase in lifespan – really, the first real medicine in history, the first medicine that amounted to anything. Wealth unexampled, and so on. And yet we know that it was also the century of Hitler and Stalin. It was, as Hannah Arendt said, this terrible century. It was a terrible century. And in the end, that, I’m afraid, dominates the story for me. Not to be gloomy, but I don’t think you can look at the 20th century without feeling that it exposed the worst of humanity, the worst of human beings in many respects, and not just Hitler and Stalin. I mean, they were dreadful on a giant scale, but there were all kinds of smaller, brutal tyrannies. And the other thing that happened, and I think this is very important to me and I suspect to most of us, is that there was a certain sense of what this country was about, a sense in which I still believe, but it was overcome by awareness of very bad aspects of American history and of American present. It was the century in which we overthrew a government of Iran, a democratically elected government of Iran with terrible consequences; a century in which we overthrew an elected government of Guatemala, with thirty years of pillage and ruin and murder and horror for that country following; it was a century in which we perhaps conspired in, but at least allowed, the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile, with murderous results.
We know that that’s possible, we know that it can happen here and we’re living now, today, not in the 20th century but we’re living in the 21st century with a government that tortures people and holds them prisoner without trial and without proper charges and with no hope of any proper hearing. And that’s being done in our name. I don’t want to make a political speech, but I think Dan used the word “citizens.” It struck me when he said it – citizens -- because all these things speak for us. You know, when the United States government tortures people, they’re doing it in our name and that’s the way the world sees it.
So maybe one last not-very-cheerful thing to say -- my wife is grimacing there -- I’m a great believer in this country and particularly in its political system, which I think of as the Madisonian system. James Madison had this notion that we could have a country, a democracy, a republic as he would have called it, that would last because it had institutions that would check each other. We had three branches of the government that if one overreached and abused power, the others would correct it, and in the end there would be the press that would correct it. Well, we’ve lived through a period in which there were terrible abuses of power, and in which a flabby, indeed enthusiastic Congress did exactly nothing to check those abuses of power in which the judiciary was, if not exactly somnolent, it was very slow to respond and which the press was somnolent, for years, for four or five years. Jill is nodding. I’d be interested in Dan’s reaction to that.

Maybe we’re coming out of that now. And I still believe in the system, I still think this is a wonderful country, the best on earth, but it says something about human beings that the bad things that happened in the 20th century happened, and that bad things are still happening.

SCOTT SIMON: Let me follow up a bit with you, Tony, if I could, not despite, but in fact because we’re at the John F. Kennedy Library and recognizing the important non-partisan nature of this Library as a scholarly institution. You spoke with great affection, I think certainly for John F. Kennedy and for Franklin Roosevelt. There are scholars who would point out that the foreign policy that you mentioned was not markedly different necessarily during those two administrations, that both the Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations authorized foreign intrusions and tried to overthrow regimes. If the Bay of Pigs had worked out differently, it might have been overthrown. I just feel compelled to point that out.
ANTHONY LEWIS: Fair enough. Well, Roosevelt was responding to the most serious …
SCOTT SIMON: I was thinking of Somosa. “He might be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch,” once said of Anastasio Somosa, the dictator of Nicaragua.
ANTHONY LEWIS: True, but after all, Roosevelt’s main place in history on the foreign side is the attempt to rouse this country to resist Hitler, a very difficult operation. I mean, the draft was extended in 1940 by a single vote in the House of Representatives. It was not easy for Roosevelt to rouse this country to resist Hitler.
But you’re quite right about Kennedy. What’s the tragedy of Kennedy is exactly that, after three years as president, he understood the very things that we’re talking about. He gave a speech at American University that was a speech about peace, and I’m sure Dan remembers that, Jill will remember that. And he gave two great speeches in his last year on themes that he hadn’t understood before: one, the necessity for peace, that there’s no escape from the need for peace; and, two, civil rights, his speech about civil rights in June of that year. Because he hadn’t been a great believer in that subject. It was his brother, the Attorney General, who believed in it. But then he saw what was necessary and he said it, and so he learned. And maybe we want presidents who can learn something; that would be good.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me turn to each of our panelists and ask, since a lot of what we’re talking about seems to be the quality of leadership, I must say, in the United States and perhaps beyond, if there is a figure or one or two figures whom you think in the history of the 20th century may have been relatively overlooked. I’m going to try and avoid the obvious names and say if we could, say not a chief of state, perhaps not a Nobel laureate, not someone for whom we have a national holiday, but people who might have been overlooked who nonetheless were absolutely intrinsic to making the 20th century what it was and influencing our lives today.
Everyone seems to be looking at you, Dan.
DANIEL SCHORR: I was hoping not to have to respond to that question, in part because I would have to reveal my innate pessimism. There used to be a time when people shared the responsibility for parts of the world, and now, as you watch the way the environmental game plays out, you begin to say, it is possible that we may lose large parts of the world and it’s not possible, apparently, for people to come together in order to make that not happen. And when it comes to war, I just have to say Iraq. There we are again in a mindless, mad chase into a country, and every day hundreds of people being killed, and we don’t know yet for what. So I hope I could get away with telling you two jokes, but I guess not.
JILL KER CONWAY: I suppose that I think some of the figures of the 20th century in this country who are overlooked or forgotten or thought of as sort of old hat today, are some of the great leaders of the Progressive Party in the 1890s and early part of the 20th century, people who were silenced pretty much by the Great Depression and who as a generation faded out from positions of leadership after the Second World War. But I’m thinking about the great women leaders who created what was called the Settlement Movement and tried to find a way to bring affluent, well-educated Americans together with immigrant communities and who actually created their settlements to live in the slums. Jane Addams is a good example, but there are many others -- Lillian Wald in New York, a wonderful group of people here in Boston who founded one of the earliest settlement houses. There people’s work was transformed into the discipline of social work, and they felt as that happened that their message had been lost, because their way of dealing with poverty and with people who suffered from lack of understanding of their environment were disoriented as immigrants, were now being, their word for it was “processed,” and that their feeling that in a democratic society you lived with and shared the life of poor people and the disabled and so forth, had been replaced by a bureaucratic system in which the feelings were left out.
So Jane Addams actually did win a Nobel Prize, so I didn’t quite comply with Scott’s rule, but those progressive reformers who saw three things about the country: that the development of its industrial cities and its industrial production had the capacity to create a lower class that was dispossessed of many of the benefits of society. They saw that as a challenge, and they devoted their lives to trying to figure out how to make a democratic society not acquiesce in that. The second thing they saw was that Americans of their class and education -- they were all college educated folk -- appropriated being American to themselves and were as prejudiced against immigrants as they were against people of color. And they wanted to try and create another view of what being an American was that subsumed and took in those impoverished populations. And the third thing they saw and tried very hard, unsuccessfully, to bring about was a system of education in which it would be important for young people to live close to people living in poverty and struggling with disabilities. They didn’t succeed in changing the educational system in the slightest. They did succeed, for a while, in their effort to create a new definition of democracy in America. But it was lost during the Great Depression and temporarily revived in parts of the New Deal but disappeared in the affluence of the 50s.
ANTHONY LEWIS: I’m not sure whether they quite qualify for your requirement of being unknown. Well, they’re not unknown but they’re certainly not up at the top of popular knowledge, and that would be two Supreme Court justices, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Brandeis came originally from Louisville, Kentucky but much of his life was here in Boston where he really did, like Jane Addams and company, work for the poor and the less advantaged very successfully. Then he was appointed to the Supreme Court, was confirmed after a very severe battle, sparked in considerable part by anti-Semitism -- the resistance, I mean -- and made an enormous difference in the translation of the Supreme Court from its bad old days to a more enlightened view of freedom.
And Holmes, the one true poet we had on the Supreme Court, who -- well, I’ll quote as best I can from memory one opinion of his that will indicate why I feel as I do about him. The case was called United States against Schwimmer. Rosika Schwimmer was a woman who came from Hungary to this country as an immigrant, and she loved the United States and wanted to become a citizen, but she couldn’t, because at that time the citizenship formula required you to swear that you would take up arms in defense of the country and she was a pacifist, so she wouldn’t swear that. So she sued and the case went up to the Supreme Court, and she lost. Holmes dissented, and he wrote a dissenting opinion in which he said he didn’t agree with her views about war, and he had a very passionate feeling about war. He had fought in the Civil War. Now, we’re talking, this case was decided in 1930, roughly. He fought in the Civil War and was wounded three times, gravely, but he believed in war and in fact, after he died, they found hanging in his closet his Civil War Union Army uniform. But he said, “If there’s any principle of the Constitution that requires adherence more than any other, it is freedom of thought, not freedom for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate. And reverting to the opinion that keeps this petitioner from her citizenship, the Quakers have done their part in making this country what it is, and I had not thought before now that we regretted our inability to expel them, because they believed more than the rest of us in the Sermon on the Mount.”
SCOTT SIMON: As we invite people to step up to the microphones and ask questions. I’m actually going to have the temerity to offer a name myself, which is Jackie Robinson who could have played here in Boston. You know, he had a tryout here five months before he was signed by Brooklyn. Next month will be the 60th anniversary of his arrival in the major leagues, and I was struck over this past weekend as there was the re-enactment of the march across the bridge in Selma, how many of those -- what we think of as the original civil rights marchers in the 1960s -- said they had it in their mind and their heart when they very bravely walked across a bridge the scene of Jackie Robinson walking out into the field when he integrated Major League Baseball and having to put up with the boos and the catcalls and actual physical intimidation. So I’m going to add Jackie Robinson to that list.
We want to invite your questions. Did you want to ask a question, sir? Please, stand. And I might take the license to repeat them for our folks up here.
Q: This question is for any of the panelists who have the courage to deal with it. It’s my impression that in the 20th century a news story, such as the one that I’m saying is not being covered and in which there is a blackout, it seems, in the media, would have been handled quite differently, and that is the fact that the Republican Party now owns most of the voting machines and that there is no accountability about this. The rest of us are supposed to believe in their fairness and decency. I don’t see this very crucial, very fundamental pivotal point addressed in the media anywhere and at any time. There is compelling evidence that Ohio was won by George Bush due to Republican election machine fraud, and why is this never dealt with? That’s my question.
SCOTT SIMON: The Diebold Corporation, I’m not sure they’re owned by the Republican Party. I think a number of investors have also contributed money to the Republican Party, but I don’t mean to pre-empt your question. Is there anybody who had a …
JILL KER CONWAY: I just wanted to comment that I have indeed read two pieces on the question of the ownership of the voting machines in print media over the past couple of weeks, so I do believe it is being reported, though not as Republican ownership of the machines, but influence over the makers of them.
Q: I’d just like to comment that anyone who differentiates between Diebold and the Republican Party is under a delusion.
SCOTT SIMON: Yes, sir.
Q: Thank you. I have a question I think that, by its very nature, may go most directly to Mr. Schorr, but certainly I welcome input from anyone, and that is this -- and I don’t want Mr. Lewis to run away with the idea that he has made me feel negative today -- I came feeling that way because I live in America today. But my question is, you know, what used to be called the fourth branch of government, the press, I’ve heard some pessimism of where we are, so what if anything can be done to move the press in a direction where there is still some semblance of investigative journalism, with all due respect to people on the panel. But I just don’t see the generation after you, Mr. Schorr, that I grew up with, the people who were your peers and colleagues over the years. And to me, you represent the last of that line, which is primarily what brought me here today. What can we do to turn investigative journalism around and get people’s attention about what they need to think about in this country, public affairs.
DANIEL SCHORR: I don’t want to be entirely negative, so let me say this was a good week for me to hear that question. Had it been last week, I would have been stumped for an answer, but this week there is one answer: Walter Reed Hospital. Walter Reed. Investigative journalism still lives. It’s not everywhere, it’s not all the time, but as I look from the promontory of 90 years down on the younger people today, there is still investigative reporting. Don’t lose hope.
ANTHONY LEWIS: I’d just say I agree with Dan. I said earlier in my remarks that the press had slumbered after 9/11 for about three years; it really did slumber. But it came out of that slumber, I think, with the New York Times’ reporting on the secret order from President Bush to the National Security Agency to tape our telephones without, in direct violation of a criminal statute -- shocking to me -- and the Washington Post reporting on the secret CIA prisons overseas. I think both of those were exemplary examples of investigative reporting to which, of course, we would now add what Dan said, Walter Reed, so I don’t think it’s dead.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me just follow up, lest we have a reverie of times gone by. Wasn’t it always a bit of a challenge to get good investigative reporting done? I mean, I don’t recall hearing any stories about major publishers or heads of networks saying oh, a major investigative piece that threatens established powers and our advertisers? Go to it! I mean, hasn’t it always been a bit of a battle? Or wasn’t it always?
DANIEL SCHORR: Now and then you’ll find a case. In Indianapolis, the United Fruit Company -- this goes several years but I’m digging for it. You know the United Fruit story that the reporter was working on, he was told to stop working on it because the United Fruit Company threatened them with some kind of suit. We still see the marvelous examples of what happens, mainly with big newspapers, mainly with big newspapers. I don’t think it’s necessarily what you get countrywide. I do think that in local television stations more often than not, I haven’t heard them very often, but I get the results of that. Very often or not you get a news director saying the thing you want to investigate, how much will it cost us, how many days will you have to spend doing it? Well, maybe three, four, five. We can’t afford that kind of thing. Again, there is an awful lot of that today.
SCOTT SIMON: When you were at the Times, Tony, maybe in your younger days at the Times, wasn’t it a great journalist, Scotty Reston, who had the Bay of Pigs Invasion story and didn’t run it, because he was asked not to by the government?
ANTHONY LEWIS: It’s more complicated than that. But both Cuban stories -- it was Tad Schultz, the Times reporter who learned about the Bay of Pigs invasion, that it was going to happen, and he wrote a story pinpointing the date, lots of detail, and President Kennedy called the Chief of the Washington Bureau, Scotty Reston, and said please don’t run this story, and Reston told him to call the publisher, Orville Dreyfus in New York. Eventually the story ran, but was toned down somewhat and moved down from the top of page one to the bottom of page one. Well, six months later Orville Dreyfus, the publisher, was at a White House reception and President Kennedy said, “I wish you’d run that story the way it was the first time.” Because of course if we had, there wouldn’t have been any Bay of Pigs invasion.
And then the second, I was there, not on that occasion, but I was party to the second story, which was the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Reston was the person who learned about it. He was asked by the President not to run the story because it would spoil what he planned, which was a television address to the nation the next night. And in the end, the Times agreed to hold the story. I think it was right to hold the story.
Q: My question is for Jill Ker Conway. I am interested in your reflections, having a toe, perhaps, still in Australia and living in this country, on what’s happening in the two countries and differences and similarities that you would see between the two countries. And my second question is what are you writing now?
JILL KER CONWAY: Well, first of all, it’s important for people to understand when thinking about Australia and the United States, that they have very similar themes in their history. They are vast land masses settled by a migration of people, dispossessing an indigenous population. And the great difference between Australia and the United States is that Australia has no Mississippi, Ohio, any of the great rivers that were the internal communications of this continent. If you try to imagine how the United States would have been settled without that transportation system, it’s an interesting problem. And, of course, the center of the land mass is arid and a very, very fragile environment.
But Australians are every bit as proud of their Australianness, every bit as chauvinistic, in fact, about distinguishing themselves from other people, very proud of a democracy which has many of the problems that we see today, and, of course, apropos of what Tony was just saying, there has been as a result of migration to Australia of people claiming political asylum, a tremendous abuse of the law. Australia keeps immigrants who have come seeking asylum in concentration camps in the center of Australia. Many families have been there five, six, seven years, children have been born there. So there is the same kind of abuse of the legal system that we’ve seen going on here.
The major difference, I think, is that Australia, having no way of fostering family migration and settlement of a farming population which peopled the North American continent, had to rely on government for many things: the railroads, telephones, these were all state monopolies. And the state today is still the largest employer of Australians. So the ability to create wealth as a family recently arrived from your own labor was much limited, and the land was occupied by very large land grants for pastoral purposes. So, thus, it has a kind of tough agrarian mystique, but it’s of dispossessed people who couldn’t own things and are kept poor by the monopolizing of land and so forth. And that has given Australia its radical political tradition. The longest ruling party since confederation has been the Labor Party, and so on. So that’s the major, major difference, and it’s an economic and geographic one.
To my horror, the Australian political mentality is going exactly in the same direction as the United States. President Bush’s single proudest backslapper is the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, and unfortunately, there is popular support for his treatment of immigrants because Australians are in many senses still racist in attitudes to people with dark skins, people who come from central Asia, people who have different religions, and so on. That’s because it’s been an isolated continent with little contact for many people with the outside world until relatively recently. So there are many, many similarities. And, of course, Australians will never forget that they were rescued from occupation by the Japanese in the 1939-45 war by the Americans, and no Australian Prime Minister probably would last very long who really roughed up a U.S. President. They are a principle source of defense.
If you look for a democracy that’s different, it’s Canada. Canada has this huge neighbor from which it must always differentiate itself so that its political system, its values, and its codes are in many ways formed out of setting themselves off from the United States, and Canadian commitment to peace and so forth also is geographic. If you lived between the United States and the Soviet Union through the Cold War, you need to be a pacifist, because you’re going to be killed anyway if either side starts fighting. So if you’re looking for a democracy that’s a counterpoint to the United States, look to the north, to Canada, and maybe to New Zealand, which is similar.
What am I writing now? I’m writing a book about aging. I’m 73. I’m constantly astonished by the people who say to me, when I see them, you don’t look your age, and I know perfectly well that I do. So I’m interested in what it is they’re saying to me. And I’m interested in the history of how we came to define a population over 60 or 65 or whatever it is as unproductive because of the development of the modern pension system. Bismarck created the pension system in the unification of Germany in order to wed the population to the new German state. Pensions went to citizens who were over 60 but people’s life expectancy was 58, so it wasn’t a big commitment. But it is in Germany at that time that people about 60 were defined as non-productive. And now, we listen constantly to what are supposed problems of Social Security which I think are fake, and the worry about having a small population engaged in productive work and this huge mass of baby boomers who are going to be apparently non-productive. You have Daniel here who is 90, still working hard, and Tony who is 80, still working hard, and so am I, and I think it’s necessary to change people’s definition of this age cohort, and that’s what I’m writing about.

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