Walter Lippmann 1889-1974

THE DEATH at 85 this week of Walter Lippmann '10, a decent man whose pretensions to incisive brilliance as a commentator on the news were largely unproven, evoked an outpouring of adulation from journalists across the country. Some of the hyperbole lavished on the retired columnist and author--The Boston Globe's obituary labeled him the dean of American journalism, The New York Times's told of how he'd brought "reason, clarity and ethics to the tumult and intrigue of politics"--may have derived from the respect Lippmann attracted just for surviving so long, for maintaining the same principles and style through ten presidential administrations and dozens of changes of political fashion. But since a lot of the hyperbole focuses on just those aspects of Lippmann's writing that were most questionable, and that exemplified some of the major failings of the newspapers doing the praising, Lippmann's career and these journalists' account of it deserve a closer look.

Lippmann started his public career as president of Harvard's Socialist Club and he finished it by giving qualified support to Richard Nixon; at first glance, it looks as though there were contradictions in the development of his thinking. But unlike most of those one-time socialists who wound up celebrating the American consensus, Lippmann suffered no traumatic disillustionment, no sudden or gradual discovery that led him to discard his earlier views. Right from the beginning, his hopes centered not on revolutionary uproar or change, not on the tumult and intrigue of politics, but on solutions quietly worked out by responsible public officials limited by a strong system of checks and balances, on the reason, clarity and ethics he believed intellectuals like himself could bring to government. From the beginning, Lippmann distrusted an uneducated public for what he considered its lack of enlightenment, and maintained that how a country was governed--by popular assembly or benign bureaucracy--was less important than what its government did. As an intelligent man, Lippmann naturally recognized that how governments worked and who ran them often had an effect on what they did. But his stress was generally on the smoothness and efficiency with which they did things--that was much of what he meant by praising "realism."

The same impulse that led Lippmann to criticize public opinion's stereotypes, and to distrust crowds and disorderly masses of ordinary people generally, led him to write in 1914 of the need, first and foremost, for "exorcising of bogeys." It led him to write in 1920, as millions of people faced hunger, privation and a war that still smoldered, that "the real enemy is ignorance." It led him to reverse himself and accept the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti as soon as a commission headed by Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell endorsed it. And four decades later, Lippmann's opposition to the Vietnam War took the form of incessant cries that the United States could not be "the world's policeman"--an early, influential and important recognition, but still with undertones of regret, as though it was important to maintain a gentlemanly order at home while giving it up abroad.

Lippmann's distrust for ordinary people and events permeated his writing. The simplest matter was likely to set him pontificating about the need for a synthesis between Jeffersonian liberty and Hamiltonian authority, or half-whimsically going back to liberal first principles. And though such an attitude seems particularly silly for a journalist presumably dedicated to letting ordinary readers know about day-to-day events, it's precisely this quality that folks this week were praising

LIPPMANN "had little direct impact on the general public," Richard H. Rovere, The New Yorker's political analyst, wrote, but he was "read with immense respect by presidents and other policymaking officials and much of what he thought and said found its way into the democratic consensus." That newspapers are written for the general public, not presidents and other policymaking officials, didn't bother Rovere, any more than his picture of a "democratic consensus" arrived at by presidents and other policymaking officials, not the general public, seems to. James Reston, The New York Time ex-vice-president who's sometimes regarded as a disciple of Lippmann, carries Lippmann's concern for presidents and other policymaking officials and comparative lack of concern for his ostensible job, reporting news to the public, further than Lippmann--for example, it led him to suppress the news of the American invasion of Cuba. So it's not surprising that Reston followed Rovere in praising Lippmann's detachment from the very daily life which journalists are supposed to write about. Lippmann "merely used the news of the day to illustrate his philosophy of the age," Reston explained.


It's certainly worthwhile for journalists to think about the news, and there's nothing wrong with trying to relate daily events to more long-range, underlying trends, using philosophy to illustrate the news of the day, or even--as another aspiring journalist, Karl Marx, once suggested--undertaking a ruthless criticism of everything existing. But all these things involve an attempt to learn from and about the news of the day and to report on it--not an imparting of wisdom from Olympian heights to those mired in the news's reality. The inadequacy of Lippmann's call for making journalism one of the "liberal professions"--presumably a special estate with responsibilities and privileges all its own, instead of a group of workers doing a job like everyone else--suggests the inadequacies of his own journalism: its elitism, its detachment, its effort to teach people a philosophy not inherent in their lives instead of to let them know what is going on around them. And the praise people like Reston lavished on Lippmann for precisely these qualities--in preference to such things as the ingrained skepticism that kept Lippmann an opponent of McCarthyism or the Vietnam War--speaks sadly, but eloquently, for the state of the American press.