Walter Lippmann. How to explain Walter Lippmann to 1980?
If you're under 30, chances are Walter Lippmann is that guy they talk about when they say they don't make them like Walter Lippmann anymore.
The Hot Tub generation is not big on Olympian detachment, after all. It's experience, not truth, that counts, and a pair of good cowboy boots gets you as far as a degree from Harvard.
This isn't Walter Lippmann's kind of world.
He died six years ago and it might as well be 60.
"It's fascinating to me how he could cease to write his column and then cease to exist as a public figure," says Ronald Steel, who has just done a much-praised job of politico-pulmonary resuscitation in a biography titled "Walter Lippmann and the American Century."
Walter Lippmann wrote some of the greatest political analysis columns in history. He invented the form, back in 1931. He sipped tea with William James at Harvard, raked muck for Lincoln Steffens in an investigation of Wall Street, and helped found The New Republic, all by the age of 25, when Teddy Roosevelt called him "the most brilliant young man of his age in all the United States."
And it didn't stop for Walter Lippmann. He was pundit, sage, mentor, savant, power broker -- thr royal smart person and Mr. Know-It-All. He wasn't always right -- he ignored the plight of the Jews under Hitler, and supported the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, for instance -- but he was always there.
His greatest hours and columns may have come in his 70s, when he took a strong and early stand against the war in Vietnam -- strong enough that Lyndon Johnson had a squad of underlings trying to dig up enough dirt to bury Lippmann under.
Yesterday's news. How soon we forget.
But how long it took Steel to put all the memories together.
Steel is 49 now, a veteran of stints in the Army and the Foreign Service, a graduate of Northwestern who spent a year as a graduate student at Harvard, "which was long enough to show me I hated academia."
So he wound up in that intellectual halfway house of journalism, and is now the author of four books, and an occasional professor at Yale, Wellesley, Rutgers and the University of Texas, where he just spent the summer.
"I met Lippmann in 1968," he says, quick-gestured and intense in an armchair in his hotel room: "He'd read a book of mine called 'Pax Americana' and liked it. Richard Rovere [the late author and contributor to The New Yorker] had been asked to do a biography of Lippmann, but had decided there were too many papers to go through. He introduced me to Lippmann, whom I'd been reading all through the '60s in the Herald Tribune while I was living in Europe.
"I ended up with sole access to the Lippmann papers, and sole control over the project -- I'd seen the problems William Manchester had with the Kennedys. I started out with a three-year contract to do the book.
"I had no idea what I was getting into. There were 100,00 letters to read. He'd been writing three columns a week since 1931. He'd written 22 books. And as I researched I realized that his personal involvement in politics was beyond anything I'd known. He'd known everybody and been a critical and articulate observer of this country since 1912."
The problem was that Lippmann, well documented as he was, wouldn't talk about his personal life. "He hated talking about the past. He didn't see the point in it."
Except for one affair in his late 40s, leading to divorce and remarriage, there had been little of significant interest in the private Lippmann, Steel says. He had been a public figure since his freshman year at Harvard, interested solely, it seemed at times, in public issues.
Steel says: "When he fell in love and decided to get married, Learned Hand wrote him a letter twitting him about the fact that he could have emotions, too." (Said Hand: "Tiens, tiens, ce Walter , he is like the rest of us after all.")
"I don't know that anybody could do what Lippmann did, again," Steel says.
"we don't want gurus now. We're more suspicious of journalists.He'd probably become an academic today. Academia offers you access to the great -- the shuttle between Boston and Washington. Harvard is full of academics who love to give advice."
As did Walter Lippmann, with a style that was a model of clarity and precision, and opinions that were often totally unpredictable -- he could support Johnson's intervention in Santo Domingo while condemning it in Vietnam.
Says Steel: "When I read other columnists I always know what they're going to say. George Will is going to be a wisea--, and I sometimes find myself wishing Tom Wicker weren't so sentimental, and I don't bother with Kilpatrick.
"Lippmann was solidly in the middle. He was trying to tell people what things meant."
Or, as Steel writes in the biography: "A man whose childhood had been spent learning Latin anf Greek by gaslight and riding a goat cart in Central Park lived through the revolutions of psychoanalysis, bolshevism and fascism, nuclear fissiion, and frenzied nationalism. He spent his life trying to understand those revolutions and to help his country men make the 'adjustment to reality.'"
By the end of his career, however Americans weren't just adjusting to reality, they were devouring it, going with the flow and for the gusto, getting it while they could because you only go around once and why not do it as a blond?
Tom Wolfe, prophet of the new barbarianism, wrote in 1973: "For 35 years Lippmann seemed to do nothing more than ingest the Times every morning turn it over in his ponderous cud for a few days, and then methodically egest it in the form of a drop of mush on the foreheads of several hundred thousand readers of other newspapers in the days thereafter."
"He loved being an activist and a power broker," Steel says, "but he wasn't a reporter. He had no interest in that. Back in the early '60s, when the French paratroopers were about to stage a coup d'etat over the Algeria policy, he was in Paris. The coup was supposed to come one night. It didn't but Paris was still in tumult. Lippmann left in the middle of it and flew back to America because that was his schedule. He never changed his schedule. One time Khrushchev wanted to change the date of an interview, and Lippmann refused."
James M. Cain, a contemporary of Lippmann's, and his employe on the editorial page at The New York World, wrote in a memoir for the Washington Post Magazine: "I don't think, far from being a Socialist, Liberal, Democrat, Republican, or whatever his employment seemed to call for, that he was ever anything ."."
"He was unpredictable," Steel admits, "but there were some constant beliefs. He believed in spheres of influence, restraints on majority rule . . ."
Beliefs! Intellectual positions! How quaint and arcane such things seem nowadays. They were once the marks of a gentleman, in an age in which there were gentlemen.
If it weren't for Steel, we might not know the other side of Lippmann.
"Inside him was always a romantic struggling to get out. You see it in his love letters, of course, and you see it in his columns about Amelia Earhart or H.G. Wells."
Lippmann wrote of Earhart and other adventurers: "They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by men. And they prove . . .that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky."
Steel says that if Lippmann took Olympian detachment too far in the 1950s, "he redeemed himself in the '60s. Here was Walter Lippmann, pillar of the establishment, writing against the war, arguing for values rather than power, attacking what he called Johnson's 'messianic megalomania.' I wouldn't have written the book if he hadn't done that. He went out the way he came in, at Harvard, full of passion."
And this was why Steel chose to remember him with the biography.
If the rest of us had to remember him for his enlightened reason and intent, we wouldn't. Who would?
In an essaay he wrote in 1920 on H.G. Wells' "Outline of History," Lippmann predicted a future in which "a race of men . . . willl not remember who strutted the best, or shouted the loudest, or was so magnificent as to put out your eye."
He was wrong, or at least it hasn't happened by 1980, but it's the kind of thing you like to remember Walter Lippmann for.