“WALTER LIPPMANN AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY”: RONALD STEEL BOOK

May 25, 2010 at 9:35 am | Posted in Books, Globalization, History, Philosophy, USA | Leave a comment

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Walter Lippmann and the American Century

Ronald Steel (Author)

Editorial Reviews

“A marvelously researched and readable biography.”

— Joseph P. Lash, The New York Times Book Review

“An engrossing biography and a splendid primer to six decades of turbulent political life… Required reading for everyone interested in this troubled century.” — Time

“Rare and admirable… exactly, unerringly appropriate to its subject…scrupulous, reflective, balanced, comprehensive, admiring yet never fawning.”

— Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Star
Ronald Steele’s Walter Lippmann and the American Century is everything an historical biography should be and much more because it is also a valuable study in political science that takes the reader deep into the character, thought and impact of perhaps the finest political journalist in American history.

When he was 25, Walter Lippmann was described by Teddy Roosevelt as “the most brilliant young man of his age in all the United States.” He built his global, popular reputation for 36 years in his column, “Today and Tomorrow” written from 1931 to 1962 for the New York Herald Tribune and from 1963 to 1967 for the Washington Post and their respective international syndicates. Lippmann was one of the founders of the New Republic, a columnist for Vanity Fair, editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, the voice of early 20th century America’s liberal conscience, and a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Millions of Americans didn’t decide what to think about an issue until Walter Lippmann published his opinion on it. Steele says he was read not for solutions but for his dispassionate analysis, an intellect of the sort rarely attracted to journalism. English contemporary Van Wyck Brooks said Lippmann’s career was the most brilliant ever devoted to political writing in America.

Lippmann was born in 1889 in New York City, the only child of well-to-do Jewish parents of German heritage. They had inherited wealth from Lippmann’s grandparents, especially from his maternal grandfather who had invested wisely in New York real estate. An exceptionally bright youngster, he was practically ignored by his mother, superficially acknowledged by his father and coddled by his maternal grandmother whom he loved dearly. Lippmann was educated in the demanding curriculum of a prestigious New York City secular Jewish school and spent his summers touring Europe and its museums with his parents. He pursued university studies in philosophy at Harvard where he learned to think under the personal tutelage of William James and George Santayana and to write from the irascible Charles Copeland. Steele says “Copey” shouted blunt criticism at Lippmann and his fellow students while they read their papers aloud in his office. Describing his experience learning to write under Copeland, Lippmann said “you began to feel that out of the darkness all around you long fingers were searching through the layers of fat and fluff to find your bones and muscles.”

His first job of note out of Harvard was as assistant to the muckraking journalist, Lincoln Steffens, “…looking not for the evils of Big Business, but for its anatomy.” Lippmann helped Steffens with a thoroughly researched report showing the secret arrangements between New York banks and the major financial houses on Wall Street. The material Steffens and the young Lippmann dug up helped trigger the Pujo Committee’s investigations that attempted to regulate America‘s big banks through the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. Lippmann’s time with Steffens was formative; he acquired Steffens’ belief that corruption was an inherent part of the system, his skepticism about the inherent goodness of the average man, his insistence on uncluttered writing, his admiration for strong leaders and his faith in science.

Along with thousands of articles, columns and lectures, Lippmann wrote more than a dozen major books. He demonstrated his powerful intellect with his very first, A Preface to History, published in 1913 when he was only 23. Lippmann had worried throughout his studies at Harvard that something was wrong with the way people were taught to think about politics. When he was introduced by a friend to Sigmund Freud’s theories of personality, he saw them immediately as a new analytical tool for political science. A Preface to History was acclaimed by critics for being the first link between psychology and politics. In the book, Lippmann explained what he called the obvious: politics as a system of social interaction had to be governed by the same forces that governed other social behavior. Freud himself was impressed with the young Lippmann; a few years after the book was published, he invited Lippmann to a Vienna meeting of the Psychoanalytic Society and introduced him to Adler and Jung.

Lippmann’s genius was developed on both sides of the journalism – government fault line. He assisted a Schenectady, New York socialist mayor, albeit for only four months before he lost his appetite for petty local politics. He drafted a position paper on labor and management for Teddy Roosevelt. He wrote speeches for President Wilson and led the four-man effort to help draft Wilson‘s Fourteen Points for peace in post-World War I Europe. The first five and the 14th were the President’s; the other eight essentially were Lippmann’s. He even served as a Captain in the U.S. Army for six months as the American representative to the Inter-Allied Propaganda Board in London. With Wilson’s peace plan in mind, Lippmann approached this work as “getting away from propaganda in the sinister sense, and substituting for it a frank campaign of education addressed to the German and Austrian troops, explaining as simply and persuasively as possible the unselfish character of the war, the generosity of our aims and the great hope of mankind which we are trying to realize.”

In 1922, Alfred Harcourt published Lippmann’s most enduring book, Public Opinion. Considered a classic today, it went far beyond the mechanics of political science to scrutinize the democratic process and the citizen whose mind is full of distorted, suppressed facts jumbled together by emotions, habits and prejudices. He said people see and define things according to stereotypes, prejudice and propaganda. What we know as facts are really judgments. While men are willing to admit there are two sides to a question, Lippmann says they do not believe there are two sides to what they regard as a fact. He said this poses a critical political drama for classic democracy “because the pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside.” The result, says Lippmann, is erosion of the foundation of popular government.

Lippmann said the press cannot provide the answer because truth and the news are not the same. He says men “cannot govern society by episodes, incidents and eruptions.” What would he say today about the American news media’s slavish stream of engineered political photo ops, media events and sound bites? Might he have agreed it’s not what we don’t know that’s dangerous, it’s what we know that’s wrong?

Although he never became a sycophant, Lippmann was a high level political insider most of his life. He was always cautious about President Franklin Roosevelt, forming his opinion in 1931 when he wrote, “I am now satisfied that he just doesn’t happen to have a very good mind, that he never really comes to grips with a problem which has any large dimensions and that above all the controlling element in almost every case is political advantage.” Steele says Lippmann thought Truman was an insecure man given to hasty decisions and false bravado to cover his anxieties and called publicly for his resignation. Lippmann was an admirer of President Kennedy while finding fault with several of his administration’s decisions, including those on Cuba, Laos and Vietnam. “I don’t agree with the people who think that we have to go out and shed a little blood to prove we’re virile men … And then behind that all lies a very personal and human feeling – that I don’t think old men ought to promote wars for young men to fight. I don’t like warlike old men.”

One of Lippmann’s journalistic rules stipulated one should not strike the king unless s(he) strikes to kill. He had been a Johnson administration insider, never wavering in his support of President Johnson’s domestic programs. His foreign policy was another matter. Frustrated his advice was being ignored regarding the Vietnam War, Lippmann implicitly relinquished his role as an administration confidant in the spring of 1966, denouncing Johnson over Vietnam. Later that year, he wrote, “There is a growing belief that Johnson’s America is no longer the historic America, that it is a bastard empire which relies on superior force to achieve its purposes, and is no longer an example of the wisdom and humanity of a free society … It is a feeling that the American promise has been betrayed and abandoned.” Fighting back, Johnson rarely missed an opportunity to attack Lippmann as traitorous, irrational or senile. Steele says Lippmann’s break with Johnson and opposition to the Vietnam War was his finest hour.

Lippmann’s last literary effort was a book he wanted to write on how mankind would govern itself in the future. “The absolutely revolutionary invention of our time is the invention of invention itself. It’s also the reason for the moral and psychological difficulties of our time. The supreme question before mankind is how men will be able to make themselves willing and able to save themselves.” Steele reports he was too tired, too weak to do it. Lippmann published his last article in January, 1971, while his final comments flowed to America through interviews as the elder statesman of American political journalism. One comment was predictive but less than optimistic. “Anything that makes the world more humane and more rational is progress; that’s the only measuring stick we can apply to it. But I don’t wish to imply that I think this (the 20th century) is a great progressive age. I don’t. I think it’s going to be a minor Dark Age.” Lippmann died at age 85 on Dec. 14, 1974.

Product Description

Walter Lippmann has been hailed as the greatest journalist of his age. For more than 60 years he exerted an unprecedented influence on American public opinion through his writing. This biography explores the other roles Lippmann fulfilled.

Product Details:

· Paperback: 669 pages

· Publisher: Transaction Publishers

· May 27, 1999

· Language: English

· ISBN-10: 0765804646

· ISBN-13: 978-0765804648

Walter Lippmann and the American Century

Ronald Steel (Author)

Comment: Lippmann’s book “Public Opinion” is discussed in Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent” film.

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