Posted: July 16, 2014
A review of Public Philosopher: Selected Letters of Walter Lippmann, edited by John Morton Blum
o other American journalist has reached the Olympian heights scaled by Walter Lippmann (1887-1974). Using the philosophic perspective articulated in his books to interpret everyday political events in his editorials (for The New Republic and The New York World) and syndicated column, Lippmann, in a career spanning the greater part of this century, established himself as the authoritative interpreter of public men and events. His official biographer, Ronald Steel, describes his unparalleled influence with these words: "Lippmann commanded a loyal and powerful constituency, some ten million of the most politically active and articulate people in America. Many of these people literally did not know what they ought to think about the issues of the day until they read what Walter Lippmann had said about them."
Furthermore, Lippmann's influence did not end with his death. Indeed, as I have shown elsewhere, if any man is responsible for our contemporary terms of political discourse (as Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the political language of our first century and a half), that man is Walter Lippmann. Have you ever wondered how politics came to be the handmaiden of something called "the economy"; how public concerns became divided up into "economic" and "social" issues; how the love of peace was transformed into pacifism; and how prudence became "pragmatism," "pragmatism" came to be synonymous with "moderation," and "moderation" synonymous with a preoccupation with "the economy"? If so, you would do well to study the writings of Walter Lippmann. In so doing, you would, I believe, come to understand why Clinton Rossiter and James Lare were guilty of understatement when they proclaimed Lippmann to be "perhaps the most important political thinker of the twentieth century."
The reader who comes to this collection of letters by Walter Lippmann hoping to become better acquainted with the private man behind the celebrated journalist will be disappointed. John Morton Blum has titled the book Public Philosopher,and the first word of the title indicates the fundamental principle of selection employed by Professor Blum in making his compilation. All of the letters, without exception, deal with items of public interest. Since a fine regard for the distinction between public and private things is an essential characteristic of civilized life, Public Philosopher is, in that sense at least, an eminently civilized book.
Of course, one expects civility from any book by or about Walter Lippmann, and especially from a volume the title of which is derived from Lippmann's last book, The Public Philosophy, for The Public Philosophy was an attempt to answer that "poignant question," as Lippmann put it, "whether, and, if so, how modern man could make vital contact with the lost traditions of civility."
But statements like the foregoing reveal much more than Walter Lippmann's concern for civility. By addressing questions confronting "modern man," Lippmann laid claim to the second word in the title of Professor Slum's collection, the word "philosopher." And this collection of letters provides additional evidence, if any were needed, that Lippmann's activity as a "public philosopher" antedates by far The Public Philosophy. Indeed, a quarter century before the publication of that work, we find the following succinct description of himself as political philosopher in a letter from Lippmann to Robert P. Ludlum, an aspiring journalist:
. . . I have learned to realize that what really matters in the long run is not the fate of particular notions that we may have, but the development of the habit and tradition of trying to speak truthfully about public affairs. (January 7, 1931)
That is an admirable ambition, admirably expressed. Not surprisingly, there are many other statements to admire in this collection. Who can argue, for example, with the ideas expressed in the following letter to John M. Avent, a high school principal on Staten Island?
Our social life depends on the presence of enough people who can tell different things apart and discern identities where they exist. It depends, therefore, on people who use words without confusion as to their meaning, to whom the name of this and that is the name of this and that, and not of half a dozen vaguely related things as well. (May 18, 1922)
In these homiletic letters to Ludlum and Avent, we find Lippmann pledging allegiance, as a "public philosopher" should, to Truth in general, and to linguistic precision in particular. Unfortunately, as this collection of correspondence reveals, when Lippmann left the realm of homily and descended into the real world of his own regime, these standards were largely ignored.
Keeping in mind Lippmann's admonition to Avent about "telling different things apart," consider the following letter to Donna M. Reichel, a student activist at the University of Maryland.
The question you are asking yourselves is whether "revolution" is not the only way of achieving the good life. . . . My conclusions have come . . . from a study of the great revolutions of the past, notably the French, the English and the American. These revolutions have always begun with the belief that they would create new men in a new society and none of the revolutions were ever radical enough and creative enough to achieve such a transformation of men and their social world. (December 15, 1969)
These words provide a veritable case study of the fatal effect of linguistic imprecision on truth. By failing to "tell different things apart," Lippmann fails to discern how "radical," and how successful, the American Revolution was. Furthermore, it was successful precisely because of the very characteristic which it did not share with its supposed counterpart, the French Revolution. Where the French aspired to be "creative," to "transform" men and society, we Americans sought to build a new order for the ages on the basis of our status as "creatures" ("created equal"), not "creators."
We begin to see that the Reichel letter is more than merely imprecise, that it points the way to a discovery of the cause of its author's imprecision, for in that letter, Lippmann not only fails to "tell different things apart," he also puts opposite things together and then actually looks at one of those opposites from the point of view of the other. By looking at a revolution inspired by John Locke from the perspective of one guided by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lippmann transforms the truth about our revolution into fiction, while revealing the identity of his ultimate philosophic mentor.
In the Reichel letter, then, we have an imprecise use of words leading inevitably to a subversion of the truth. But in that letter, at least, the exaltation of fiction is implicit, and apparently inadvertent. There is no evidence that Lippmann has abandoned the standard, announced in the Ludlum letter, of speaking "truthfully about public affairs." Other letters do, however, proclaim an intentional and explicit preference for fiction.
Like any journalist worthy of the name, Lippmann opposed prohibition and advocated the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Until the early 1930s, however, prospects for repeal were extremely dim. Lippmann's response to this unsatisfactory state of affairs was to embrace an updated brand of nullification, modeled after the South's heretofore successful attempts to circumvent the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Nullification was necessary, as Lippmann pointed out to a Philadelphia supporter of the Eighteenth Amendment named F. E. Hyslop, because of ". . . a very serious defect in the amending clause of the Constitution." Lippmann went on:
The historic American remedy for such a defect is to nullify, by the use of legal fictions, and I am prepared to go further and argue . . . that one of the most important methods by which our Anglo-American law has grown is by the use of just such fictions. (March 3, 1927)
Lippmann's willingness to resort to "fictions" in order to avert the politically undesirable was not limited to the prohibition controversy. Writing to his former Harvard teacher, the British social critic Graham Wallas, during the Scopes trial, Lippmann observed:
Bryan has, as you know, based his case on the right of the majority of a legislature to determine the character of teaching in the schools for which it votes the money. This is a difficult principle to controvert. Personally, I am pretty well persuaded that it's necessary to controvert it. But in doing so, it will be necessary to invent some sort of constitutional theory under which public education is rendered rather more independent of the legislature than it is at present. . . . It seems to me that majority rule is after all only a limited political device and that where some great interest like education comes into conflict with it, we are justified in trying to set up defenses against the majority.(June 11, 1925)
Legal fictions. Constitutional theories. Majority rule as a limited political device. Let's let some sunshine and fresh air into these discussions by recalling what President Lincoln had to say about the Constitution and majority rule.
. . . no organic law can ever be framed with a provision specifically applicable to every question which may occur in practical administration. No foresight can anticipate, nor any document of reasonable length contain express provisions for all possible questions. . . . From questions of this class spring all our constitutional controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the government must cease. There is no other alternative. . . .
. . . I do not forget the position assumed by some, that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court. . . . [But] the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, . . . the people will have ceased, to be their own rulers, having, to that extent, practically resigned their government, into the hands of that eminent tribunal. (First Inaugural)
Walter Lippmann wrote as if Abraham Lincoln had never lived. Indeed, despite his frequent allusions to "the great traditions of the West," the reader of this volume is left with the strange impression that all human life, certainly all American life, began for Lippmann somewhere around his birthday in 1889. The only members of the Founding generation for whom he has praise are "the authors of the Federalist" (in a January 13, 1939, letter to Arthur N. Holcombe) in general, and Alexander Hamilton in particular. In a letter to the editor of the Rochester (N.Y.) Democratic Chronicle,Lippmann referred to Hamilton as "the greatest constructive statesman that this country has produced" (April 26, 1919).
But for the next half-century, Lippmann wrote as if he were taking his bearings from the Hamilton who inhabited Thomas Jefferson's worst nightmares. Lippmann was content to operate within that twentieth century cliché which views the Constitution as a betrayal of the Revolution, rather than as its fulfillment. The only difference between Lippmann and the original proponents of that view is that they pretended to deplore that fictional betrayal, while he eventually embraced it.
This collection of letters strongly reinforces an unsettling impression that one receives after a careful reading of Walter Lippmann's books. In the most general sense, on the most abstract level, Lippmann says all the right things. He is at his best, for example, when he is delivering fine-sounding lectures on the grave responsibilities of journalists and high school English teachers. But when you look a little closer, when you listen to Lippmann talk about the things which concern the actual citizen of this particular constitutional republic, it is dismaying to discover that the speaker is the mirror-image of what an American public philosopher (or a great American political journalist) should be. Like the figure in the mirror, our "public philosopher" is not only all form and no substance. Worse yet, that form is a perfectly precise inversion of the substance.