Commentary Magazine


Versions of Walter Lippmann

When a military conscription bill finally cleared the U.S. Congress in May 1917, one of the measure’s earliest and warmest advocates in the world of journalism suddenly realized that he himself might very well be called to the colors. The superbly healthy twenty-seven-year-old bachelor thereupon wrote to Newton D. Baker, the Secretary of War, asking for an exemption. After searching his soul as candidly as he knew how, said Walter Lippmann, he had decided that he could better serve the nation in some other way than as a soldier. Worry about his parents—in whose New York City home he still lived—also affected his decision. “My father is dying,” he informed the Secretary, “and my mother is absolutely alone in the world. She does not know what his condition is, and I cannot tell anyone for fear it would become known.”

In Walter Lippmann and the American Century,1 Ronald Steel adds to his account of this episode the passing observation that Lippmann’s father “was not’ to die for another ten years.” As if unaware of the disturbing implications of this tidbit, Steel then drops the subject of Lippmann’s letter to Baker and hastens on to the next item of business on his rapidly unfolding agenda. It apparently did not occur to him that readers interested in the moral history of a moralist might be curious to know the nature of the ailment that Lippmann’s father was suffering from in the spring of 1917, and whether the sick man really did appear to be at death’s door. Why Lippmann wanted Baker to know that he had not told anyone else about his father’s condition is another suspicious point that Steel glides blithely past. As for Lippmann’s expressed compassion for his mother’s loneliness, it, too, raises a question, for Daisy Lippmann was an imperious woman who utterly dominated her husband and who would have dominated her only child as well if he had not contrived to put an emotional distance between them from his boyhood onward. Was the concern about her that Lippmann voiced to Baker the product of a belated guilt feeling, or did it represent a further instance of the letter writer’s effort to manipulate the sympathies of the Secretary of War? Our ability to answer this question would certainly be improved if we knew what, if anything, Lippmann did to ease his mother’s loneliness in 1927 when she finally did lose her husband, but unfortunately Steel has not bothered to investigate this matter either.

It also seems not to have occurred to him to keep reminding us about the letter to Baker in the course of describing the events immediately following. If Lippmann had allowed himself to be drafted, he might have been able to stay on with his parents for several months before his number came up. But the price of his successful attempt to dodge the draft was that he leave home without delay, and he paid it without a qualm. Three days after sending the letter to Baker, he joyfully accepted the Secretary’s answering invitation to join his staff in a civilian capacity. Less than three weeks later, Lippmann was on the train for Washington.

Steel’s failure to deal analytically with the letter to Baker is altogether characteristic of his lack of biographical imagination. Time and again, he misses the chance to confront the complexities of the man he is writing about. No other journalist in our history has ever thought more profoundly or written more beautifully about democracy in America than Lippmann did. At the same time, however, that he dedicated his mind to democratic problems, he defined himself as a superior being to whom the democratic obligations of ordinary citizens did not apply. A similar contradiction marked his career as a moralist. Not content with the authority that accrued to him as the most well-known political commentator of the 20th century, Lippmann sought to be recognized as the conscience of mankind. Yet while he held the conduct of other people to a very high standard indeed, mankind’s self-appointed conscience was himself guilty of conscienceless acts.

Because Steel has been unwilling—or unable—to think about these contradictions, he has very little sense of the personality pattern they help to describe. The strength, such as it is, of his biography lies in its command of the purely external facts of Lippmann’s life.

From the time that he entered Harvard with the famous class of 1910—the class to which T. S. Eliot, John Reed, Robert Edmond Jones, H. V. Kaltenborn, Bronson Cutting, Heywood Broun, and Alan Seeger also belonged—it was clear that Lippmann was one of the most amazing young men in the world. Before he was old enough to vote, the brilliant and the powerful had begun to beat a path to his door, as they would keep on doing for the rest of his life. A literary career that would eventually be marked by a dozen major books, several hundred articles, and several thousand editorials and columns was launched with a series of essays in the Harvard Monthly, one of which so enthralled Professor William James that he sought out Lippmann in his dormitory and congratulated him. The visiting British lecturer Graham Wallas felt so indebted to the ideas of this Wunderkind that after his return to Britain he dedicated a book to him. Professor George Santayana was so impressed by Lippmann’s promise as a philosopher that he invited him to stay on at Harvard as his assistant. When Lincoln Steffens appeared in Cambridge in search of a bright young man to help him with the muckraking pieces he was writing for Everybody’s, everyone he talked to told him to hire Lippmann.

In 1912, the Socialist mayor of Schenectady, George Lunn, succeeded in persuading Lippmann to become his administrative assistant. A year later, Herbert Croly invited him to join the staff of the newly formed New Republic. After the war, Herbert Bayard Swope lured him onto the New York World, and in 1924 Lippmann assumed command of the World’s editorial page. When the World was bought by Scripps-Howard in 1931 and merged with the Telegram, Lippmann chose from the multitudinous offers that poured in on him to become a syndicated columnist for the New York Herald-Tribune. For the next thirty-five years, the column brought him a degree of power that no other newspaper writer has ever matched. On his trips abroad, potentates and sages alike vied for the chance to see him. In Washington, his journalistic influence was in a class by itself.

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But what was Lippmann like as a person? Walter Lippmann and the American Century conspicuously fails to deal with that vital question. Even though Steel is familiar with thousands of details about Lippmann’s career, Lippmann has remained a stranger to him. As a result, he repeatedly gets caught off guard in his narrative by things that Lippmann says or does, and in his confusion all he can think to do is doggedly record them, make a brief statement that pretends to understanding, and move on. Thus when Lippmann decries in his second book, Drift and Mastery (1914), the very mode of analysis that informs his first, A Preface to Politics (1913), Steel weakly says, “If nothing else, Drift and Mastery showed Lippmann’s intellectual flexibility, his willingness to jettison old ideas as soon as new ones were at hand.” But what was it in Lippmann’s make-up that made him so willing to be so flexible—and that would lead him to forswear a staggering number of other enthusiasms in the course of his career? To ascribe his changeableness to intellectual flexibility is simply to restate the problem.

Steel is equally at a loss to account for Lippmann’s attitude toward the Jews in Germany in the 1930′s. This attitude first appeared in a column written in the spring of 1933, not long after the Nazis began making bonfires out of books written by Jews and “liberals.” Hitler is preparing for war, Lippmann warned, and only two factors are holding him in check: fear of the French army and the psychic satisfactions afforded by the pogrom against the Jews. The peculiar implication of the column was that Jewish suffering was protecting the peace of Europe. A week later, Lippmann again addressed himself to events in Germany, this time hailing a speech by Hitler, in which the dictator surprisingly promised that Germany would not seek to settle its political claims by force, as a genuinely statesmanlike address. There will be some who say, wrote Lippmann, that the speech was insincere. “I do not take this view. The truer explanation, I believe, is that we have heard once more, through the fog and the din, the hysteria and the animal passions of a great revolution, the authentic voice of a genuinely civilized people.” Uncivilized deeds were being committed every day in Germany, he admitted, but these atrocities did not reflect the whole nature of the German people:

Who that has studied history and cares for the truth would judge the French people by what went on during the Terror? Or the British people by what happened in Ireland? Or the American people by the hideous record of lynchings? Or the Catholic Church by the Spanish Inquisition? Or Protestantism by the Ku Klux Klan? Or the Jews by their parvenus?

The brutishness of the Nazis, in other words, was a blot on the fair face of civilization, but so was the vulgarity of upstart Jews. Lippmann’s placement of the two phenomena on the same moral plane was outrageous, and so was the accompanying innuendo that some of the Jews in Germany had been so pushy that they had brought their persecution upon themselves. In this column, says his plainly shocked biographer, Lippmann went beyond the “celebrated disinterestedness” of most of his work into a “tortured analysis” that was “deeply revealing.” Presumably Steel means that the column had revealed something about Lippmann himself. But what was it that was revealed? Steel does not say. Earlier in his book he had called attention to Lippmann’s choice of Gentile women as marital partners, to his membership in exclusionistic clubs, and to his steadfast refusal to identify himself with Jewish groups or Jewish causes of any kind, so perhaps we are supposed to guess that the self-revelation in question is that Lippmann was ashamed of being Jewish. But shame does not account for the brutal callousness of Lippmann’s remarks, any more than intellectual flexibility does for his fickle habit of repudiating his previous opinions. Furthermore, the biographer does not ask himself whether the callousness and the fickleness might somehow have been related.

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The Lippmannesque figure who is the central character in Louis Auchincloss’s new novel, The House of the Prophet,2 observes that in order to write a successful biography a writer must know how to pick and choose among the available materials. Having been Lippmann’s lawyer, Auchincloss may very well be in command of as much information about the columnist’s life as Steel possesses. But unlike Steel, Auchincloss has known how to pick and choose, for he has a profound understanding of the man he is writing about. As a result, The House of the Prophet gives us more insight into Lippmann in 275 pages than Walter Lippmann and the American Century does in 600. That comparison, however, is too faint a way to praise Auchincloss’s achievement. In the lights and darks of Lippmann’s life, Auchincloss has at last found a subject that fully challenges his imaginative gifts. The powerful literary portrait he produced a decade and a half ago in The Rector of Justin has now been surpassed both in psychological subtlety and moral significance.

Like The Rector of Justin, The House of the Prophet is a fictional biography, told from several different points of view. The biographer who has solicited recollections of Felix Leitner, the famous columnist, from a number of his admirers and detractors, and who is himself the principal narrator, is the great man’s long-time and utterly adoring research assistant, Roger Cutter. Through the multiple perspectives of its various narratives, the biography asks us to consider whether Leitner was a sort of intellectual saint, whose exalted mission it was to tell the world the political and moral truth, or a monster of self who had pursued what he thought of as the good things in life—public glory, the joy of writing, the ease of wealth—at no matter what cost to others, so long as their pain did not show enough to spoil his fun. On occasions that range from summer walks on Mount Desert Island to Georgetown dinner parties to a barge trip through the south of France, these polar interpretations of the protagonist’s life are expanded and qualified by dramatic illustration and explicit formulation. Perhaps the most penetrating of the many attempts to sum up what made Leitner tick is put forward by his former law partner, Grant Stowe. (Before turning to column writing, Leitner had briefly been a Wall Street lawyer.) Still bitter that his former associate had quickly betrayed the best interests of their firm, Stowe asserts that

the man was an egotist, pure and simple. He was incapable of conforming to any pattern, noble or ignoble. Sooner or later he was bound to separate himself from the team, whatever team it might be, and redefine himself in relation to it in less than complimentary terms. The reason he was so dangerous was that the pleasure that he derived in separating himself from the team was greater than any material or even moral advantage that he might possibly derive from staying with it.

Although Stowe’s analysis is by no means the last word about Leitner, it carries us a long way toward understanding why the columnist was so willing to sever any sort of tie—familial, religious, patriotic, intellectual—that bound him to other people, or even to his own earlier self as expressed in his writings: his extraordinarily self-centered, emotionally stunted personality got a big kick out of betrayals.

Leitner’s dissociation of himself from his Jewish heritage is certainly better explained by this appraisal than by the familiar explanation of Lippmann as a social-climbing snob who was ashamed of being Jewish. Leitner himself is witheringly sarcastic about the snob theory. Appalled by the thought that some day a biographer might be so uncomprehending as to write about “my being ashamed of my Jewish heritage, my denial of my past, my cultivation of Wasp society,” he exclaims, “Oh, it’s too nauseating to think of! Why, in an America that is rapidly approaching classlessness, are our historians and sociologists so obsessed with class distinctions?” Proud Felix Leitner had never been ashamed of anything in his life; if he had decided not to keep up his identity as a Jew, it was for intellectual and spiritual reasons. Yet if the columnist’s scorn is sufficient to demolish the charge that his decision to distance himself from Jewish groups and Jewish causes was governed by shame, it is significant that he does not address himself to the possibility that it was governed by pleasure.

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His egotistical aversion to team play again seems evident in his successful attempt to avoid army service in 1917. And only a man who found a twisted delight in hurting people who were counting on him could have behaved as Leitner does in the central episode of The House of the Prophet, the episode that Leitner’s biographer, Roger Cutter, describes as “the single most important emotional and moral event” of the columnist’s life, the episode in which two marriages are destroyed and a long-term male friendship ends in devastating humiliation.

Steel’s treatment of the parallel episode in Lippmann’s life seems much more fictional, in a sense, than Auchincloss’s, for the romantic details he chooses to play up, and his lack of a critical attitude toward the “hero” and the “heroine,” are the soggy stuff of which stories in magazines like Woman’s Home Companion and Good Housekeeping are made. Walter Lippmann and Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the editor of Foreign Affairs, were as close as Damon and Pythias, Steel tells us, except that the friendship was not equal, for Armstrong worshipped the ground that Lippmann walked on. The two men lunched together once or twice a week at the Century Club; they sat together at meetings of the Council on Foreign Relations; they spoke on the phone nearly every day. Moreover, the two friends and their wives, Faye Albert-son Lippmann and Helen Byrne Armstrong, often dined à quatre in New York and visited each other’s country homes, and in 1934 they went off together for a tour of Egypt and the Mediterranean. Then one afternoon in May 1937, Armstrong phoned Lippmann to say that he was held up at the office. Would Walter mind taking Helen to dinner? Lippmann took her to the Rainbow Room in the newly constructed tower of Rockefeller Center. Over drinks he began to tell Helen how lonely he felt in his marriage. “She listened gravely, asked questions delicately, softly laid her hand on his. They drank more wine than they were used to. They danced on the crowded floor, holding each other closer than they ever had before.”

Onward the narrative oozes. Lippmann and Helen “plunged wildly” into an affair. Armstrong soon found out about it, but was willing “to forgive all.” The lovers then discovered that they could not give one another up, and so Lippmann wrote Faye a letter, informing her that he wanted a divorce. “I do not know,” the letter began, “whether this will seem to you an indirect way of dealing with the affair.” In the one sentence in his account of the scandal that has a critical bite to it, Steel calls the beginning of that letter “a gem of an understatement.” In November 1937, with his own divorce almost final and Helen preparing to go to Reno, Lippmann also wrote a letter to Armstrong. His former friend refused to read it, however, and in the thirty-five years that remained to him as editor of Foreign Affairs he never again permitted Lippmann’s name to appear in the magazine.

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The characters in The House of the Prophet who comment on the affair between Leitner and Gladys Satterlee, the wife of Leitner’s closest friend, the stockbroker Heyward Satterlee, are as impatient with the clichés of romantic love as Steel is content with them. Thus Fiona Satterlee, the daughter of Heyward and Gladys, would have hooted at any account of the affair that did not acknowledge her mother’s manipulativeness. Right from the start, in Fiona’s opinion, Leitner had been “largely Mother’s victim,” a man more to be “deplored . . . for weakness than condemned for housebreaking.” Gladys was an independently wealthy, socially ambitious woman who was willing enough to maintain her first marriage until an internationally famous intellectual came into her lion-hunting sights. Unlike Steel’s book, Auchincloss’s permits us to glimpse the cold calculations that may have underlain a middle-aged woman’s seemingly reckless passion.

But the most searing condemnation of Gladys comes from Roger Cutter, who is horrified by the psychological damage she inflicted on her first husband when she selected his best friend as her lover, whereas Steel lets what Helen Armstrong did to her first husband when she took up with Lippmann go completely unjudged. While Heyward Satterlee has had a much less impressive career than Hamilton Armstrong did, Cutter’s words catch the agony of both men equally well:

Felix’s friendship represented to Heyward the distinguishing aspect of a life otherwise banal, the proof that there could be in a poor stockbroker’s soul something that a genuis could, not only recognize, but value, like the deep red glow that the observer at last begins to make out in the somber grays and black of a Rothko canvas. Heyward could have forgiven Gladys any lover but Felix. For her to take his friend was not simply an act of adultery, it was a kind of murder.

Only Cutter’s uncritical devotion to Leitner prevents him from being able to admit that Leitner was a partner to that crime. There will always be “a relentless few,” Cutter uncomprehendingly complains, who will speak of Felix Leitner as “the man who had betrayed his best friend and then tried to explain it in a beautiful letter.”

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The House of the Prophet, then, does not blink at any of Felix Leitner’s terrible faults. Yet the novel also insists on his greatness. Walking with the columnist through the Carnavalet Museum in Paris, young Fiona Satterlee rejoices in his great personal gift of “making each chapter, even each paragraph, of life complete and interesting in itself.” Once you let his extraordinary intellect encompass your problem, Fiona says on another occasion, he will “bathe you in the sparkling stream of an understanding that is greater than any kindness.” And in contrast to Steel’s life of Lippmann, which never comes close to doing justice to the literary artistry of Lippmann’s columns, The House of the Prophet pays exquisite tribute to Leitner’s journalism. His columns were all the same length, says Roger Cutter,

almost to a word count. They usually fell into three sections: the statement of theme, a marvel of clarity and conciseness; the basic discussion, which contained the essential literary part, sometimes dramatic, sometimes rhetorical, sometimes almost poetic, a brief but exhaustive exercise in alternative arguments and points of view; and finally the conclusion, usually framed in a Leitner paradox. Felix dealt ordinarily with foreign affairs or government news, but he also noticed great events, such as the moon landing or the cure for polio, or the obituaries of famous men, and every six months he would compose a piece on what he once described to me with a dry smile as the “eternal verities.” There was something of La Rochefoucauld in his method; as the great Frenchman strove to catch life in epigrams, so did Felix seek to hammer his columns into reflections of the essence of the political scene.

On the one hand he was an emotional monster; on the other hand he was an intellectual saint. The dichotomy is instructive, but the novel finally goes beyond it. A woman named Julie Pryor, who had acted as Leitner’s hostess in the years after his second divorce, insists in the closing pages of the book that saints—“except perhaps Saint Francis of Assisi, and the tales about him were probably made up, anyway”—are monsters. Leitner’s singleminded devotion to his craft and the celebrated disinterestedness of his judgments were the flip side of his heartlessness.

Through its reconciliation of the light and the dark sides of Leitner, the novel once again deepens our understanding of the historical personality on whom he is modeled. The man who did not hesitate to break the heart of Hamilton Fish Armstrong was also impervious to the blandishments of the most adroit political flatterers of our time. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson were very charming men in their various ways, and they all did their damnedest to put America’s premier columnist in their pockets. They did not succeed. At times, Lippmann’s expressions of disappointment in their political leadership seemed merely willful, as, for example, when he said of Kennedy in the summer of 1961 that he had failed in the role of “popular teacher.” For what was Kennedy if he was not a rhetorical President? The initial failures of his regime had much more to do with his lack of attention to the cloakrooms of Capitol Hill than with any inability to communicate with the people. But far more often than not, Lippmann’s emotional detachment worked in impressive combination with a powerful intellectual analysis. He was both the coolest and the smartest Washington reporter we have ever had.

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Inasmuch as Ronald Steel’s previous work as a writer has been in the realm of political analysis, one would expect that he would be at his best in demonstrating how remarkably well Lippmann’s political commentaries have stood the test of time. Steel, however, is an ideologue whose approach to the issues of 20th-century American politics is as predetermined as Lippmann’s was exploratory. Consequently, the biographer’s admiration for the columnist’s acumen is constantly subject to frost. Whenever a Lippmann opinion conflicts with one of the Left-liberal political myths by which Steel has always sworn, the biographer covertly brings the offending columnist to task by remarking that that opinion was certainly a disappointment at the time to the men of good will among his readers. Where a dispassionate biographer might find cause to praise Lippmann for his independent-mindedness, Steel is moved to disparage him.

In 1927, for instance, the glory of Lippmann’s commentaries on the Sacco-Vanzetti case was that he tried to figure out the facts for himself and refused to hunt with the liberal wolfpack headed by Felix Frankfurter and Heywood Broun. When the three-man review panel appointed by Governor Fuller of Massachusetts and headed by President Lowell of Harvard confirmed the jury’s verdict of guilty and refused to recommend a new trial, the liberal outcry was ferociously ad hominem. Lippmann, however, bravely hailed the panel’s report for its “fairness, consideration, shrewdness, and coolness.” Shortly thereafter, he beat a partial retreat from this position and demanded that the panel show why the prejudice of the trial judge should not require a new trial, but he continued to resist the insistence of the liberal intelligentsia that Sacco and Vanzetti were no more capable of committing murder than Jesus Christ. After the execution, Lippmann again sought a middle ground. While praising Frankfurter and the defense committee for their readiness to uphold the rights of the humblest and the most despised, he also congratulated the Lowell panel for suffering a disagreeable duty bravely and for being willing to face danger to get at the truth. When Steel informs us that some of Lippmann’s liberal friends were “puzzled” by this opinion and that others were “openly contemptuous,” he is letting us know how he himself feels. If, however, Steel had bothered to acquaint himself with the Sacco-Vanzetti scholarship of the last twenty years, he would know that there is increasing support for the view that although Sacco and Vanzetti probably deserved a new trial, they probably were guilty of the crime for which they were executed. Lippmann’s measured opinions, in sum, look a good deal better today than do the passionate intensities of Frankfurter and Broun.

But as the antiquated citations in his footnotes attest, Mr. Steel is not acquainted with recent Sacco-Vanzetti scholarship. Indeed, he is not even conversant with the undisputed facts of the case. The two men, he says, “were picked up in 1920 for distributing anarchist literature and accused of murdering a payroll clerk.” But a guard as well as a paymaster was murdered in the hold-up, and Sacco and Vanzetti were not picked up by the police for distributing anarchist literature. They were arrested while riding on a streetcar and they had no such literature in their possession. What caught the attention of the police was that the men were heavily armed.

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In addition to admonishing Lippmann for his departures from Left-liberal orthodoxy, Steel also tries to make him over, in the final years of his column writing, into a Left-liberal hero. Perhaps the columnist’s “finest hour,” he proclaims, was his opposition to the Vietnam war. But by what criterion was this a finer hour than his refusal to hound the Lowell review panel? Or than his willingness in 1936 to brave the excoriation of the Left and vote for Landon, on the grounds that another Democratic landslide at the polls would be bad for the country and bad for FDR? Even if Lippmann had gone on to prophesy that in the wake of smashing victory a power-drunk President would attempt to pack the Supreme Court, I am quite sure that Steel would still have given his finest-hour award to Lippmann’s columns on Vietnam, and the reason for my confidence is simple. Steel is, first, last, and always, a 60′s writer. No other era in American history bulks as large in his present-centered mind as that turbulent decade. The statement about Lippmann and the Vietnam war is a statement about Steel’s badly delimited and highly ideologized sense of history.

Clearly a proper biography of Walter Lippmann remains to be written, but it will be a long time, I suspect, before anyone undertakes the task. Although Ronald Steel has not done enough work to do justice to his subject, he has done enough to spoil it for other writers. Which is all the more reason to be grateful to Louis Auchincloss for his remarkable novel.


Footnotes

1 Atlantic-Little, Brown, 669 pp., $19.95.

2 Houghton Mifflin, 275 pp., $10.95.

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