Over lunch, four powerful men bemoaned the sorry state of the American soul. In 1949, Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS newsman who had branded Americans' imagination with the horrors of the bombing of London; William Paley, the head of that dominant network; a wealthy advertising magnate; and the manager of the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia decided that the nation craved uplift and direction. In the doldrums of a postwar funk, people needed to hear about the country's ideals and the spirit that had fostered unity and creativity so often in the past.
The result of the conversation was "This I Believe," a daily five-minute radio program that spread to newspapers and books, delivering the wisdom and inspiration of the nation's best minds every day from 1951 to 1955, when the show died for lack of funding.
"A lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria," Murrow said in his introduction to the program. "Opinions can be picked up cheap in the marketplace, while such commodities as courage and fortitude and faith are in alarmingly short supply."
Sensing a similar moment in today's media culture, producers Jay Allison and Dan Gediman have revived "This I Believe" on National Public Radio, this time in the form of audio essays that air Mondays on "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered."
The pieces vary enormously in tone and approach. Those solicited from prominent names sometimes seem bland or banal. Anthony Fauci, chief of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, concludes that "I believe that as a physician my goal is to serve humankind." The fallen politician Newt Gingrich says, "I look around at our pretensions and our beliefs -- that we are somehow permanent -- and I am reminded that it is the quality of leaders, the courage of a people, the ability to solve problems that enables us to continue for one more year, and then one more year."
But the best of the essays combine a poetic sensibility with the occasional pearl of wisdom. "I believe in wandering through the stacks and picking out the first thing that strikes me," says the novelist Rick Moody. "I believe in choosing books based on the dust jacket. I believe in reading books because others dislike them or find them dangerous."
Journalist Andrew Sullivan says: "I believe in a system of government that places liberty at the center of its concerns, that enforces the law solely to protect that freedom, that sides with the individual against the claims of family and tribe and church and nation, that sees innocence before guilt and dignity before stigma."
And documentary filmmaker Errol Morris says: "Truth is not relative. It's not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth and the pursuit of truth: trying to figure out what has really happened, trying to figure out how things really are."
In the '50s series, prominent politicians, artists and spiritual leaders, as well as ordinary people, spelled out the rules and ideals that governed their lives.
"I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in human beings," said novelist Pearl Buck.
"What I was able to attain came to be because we put behind us, no matter how slowly, the dogmas of the past," said the pioneering athlete Jackie Robinson.
The 1950s essays were more straightforward and better written. "People were more comfortable with the written word," says producer Gediman. Today, the pay has gone up, from a token $1 in Murrow's time to the standard NPR commentary rate of $200, while the word count has gone down: The public radio essays are three minutes long.
Today's statements of belief are more personal, more revealing. (It's hard to imagine someone today expressing the 1950s reserve of industrialist Jared Ingersoll: "I feel very presumptuous and uncomfortable about trying to explain out loud the things I believe in.") "The rhetoric in the old series is more formal, a little more in the head than from the heart," Gediman says.
That may stem in part from a change in how the essays are solicited. Whereas the 1950s pieces were all the result of invitations from the producers, the NPR series also solicits pieces from prominent figures, but in the spirit of the citizen journalism that has grown out of the Internet, the producers invite listeners to submit their own essays. More than 7,000 people have done so, and about 50 of their pieces have been used.
The producers of the new series see "This I Believe" as a response to the polarization of the nation's political conversation, as a place where people of different religious convictions and political allegiances might find common ground. But can that message get across to a wide swath of Americans on NPR, which reaches an audience that is considerably more affluent and well educated than the nation as a whole?
"From the very beginning, we wanted to get beyond the public radio audience," Gediman says. "We didn't want to hear from just one segment of society." So "This I Believe" pieces also appear as written essays in USA Weekend, the Sunday magazine published by Gannett newspapers, as well as on the NPR Web site and in a forthcoming book. (The essays are available at www.npr.org/thisibelieve.)
The audio essays pack an extra punch, especially those from untrained, unfamiliar voices, the random listeners who felt compelled to share their beliefs with their countrymen. If they sound tentative in their performance, the words and stories carry a rare strength.
The message Americans sent in the original "This I Believe" series was a more confident one. The basic theme of many of the 1950s essays, written in the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb, was "People are innately good and things work out," Gediman says. "It was 'We will prevail as a people and as a nation. We can lick it, whatever it is.' "
This time around, he says, "People are amazed when people behave well. There is a presumption in many of the essays that politicians are corrupt, that people are selfish and self-centered. A main theme of many of the pieces is: Something bad happened, people rose to the occasion and I was amazed -- it renewed my faith in humanity."
The common thread from the '50s to the new series is the belief that ideas are essential, that "I" am important, that voices ought be heard.