Walter Lippmann and the American Century 
by Ronald Steel.
Bodley Head, 669 pp., £8.95, February 1981, 0 370 30376 8
Show More
Show More

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was probably the most powerful and famous American journalist of this century, a fact confirmed many times over in Ronald Steel’s extraordinarily fine biography. The only son of very well-off German-Jewish parents, Lippmann had a sheltered and privileged childhood in New York, ‘learning Latin and Greek by gaslight and riding a goat cart in Central Park’ before going off to Harvard, where his classmates included John Reed, T.S. Eliot and Conrad Aiken. From birth to death, Fortune – in the form of knowing nearly everyone who counted and being able to defend at least two sides of every major public issue of his time – always favoured him. The list of his friends, his associates, the things he did (‘worked as a legman for Lincoln Steffens … debated socialism with Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells … became the éminence grise to Woodrow Wilson’s own alter ego, Colonel House’), the presidents, kings and leaders he knew, the great events he witnessed at very close quarters, the papers, books and journals he produced, the careers he espoused or helped, the ideas, issues, problems he encountered and illuminated, is positively awesome, and, as Steel says justly, ‘gave him an enormous power over public opinion’. Yet Lippmann never held office; although substantial, his wealth did not command direct control over industry or finance capital; he had many influential friends, but never a school or movement behind him. The only thing he did (‘only’ being a most inadequate word here) was, as he put it, to assist his American readers in making an ‘adjustment to reality’.

Somewhere fairly close to raw power of the kind generals, captains of industry and politicians have, and well above the vast majority of mankind, was where Lippmann stood. He was in, without being fully of, the American Establishment. One of Steel’s accomplishments is to portray this Establishment, so unlike its European counterparts, with rare skill; compared to the recent The American Establishment by Leonard and Mark Silk, Steel’s portrait is far more effective precisely because, like Lippmann himself, Steel understands that what matters is how it is animated, what a master of its contradictions and conjunctures can manipulate in it, and not only what, stated as if it were something for which a Cook’s Tour could be arranged, it is. Lippmann’s achievements and his eminence derive less from opportunism than from his principled belief in the necessity of balance and realism, which of course are the very code words of American Establishment beliefs. You hold all the cards, ultimately, if you have the power; Rockefellers, Lamonts, Morgans, Roosevelts people the political landscape from right to liberal left; the main thing, therefore, is not simply to exclude or include, but in the final analysis to incorporate all positions even as you make one position dominant, the ‘realistic’ one. And this is what Lippmann rationalised – the appearance, and actually more than that, the conviction, of realism.

Before World War One he was a radical socialist. He dropped that for muckraking journalism. Then he shifted to liberalism, to pragmatism (whose philosophical elements he had picked up while studying under William James), and then finally to national prominence as a pundit who wrote regularly for the New Republic, the New York World, the Herald Tribune, the Washington Post and Newsweek. The keynote of his manner throughout his career was dispassionate impartiality, which was doubtless responsible both for his reputation as a man above politics and for his ‘remarkable facility for not straying too far from the thrust of public opinion’. Here particularly, guiding the reader through the labyrinthine turns of a career intimately connected with US public policy before, during and after World War One, the Depression, the New Deal, World War Two and Vietnam, Steel is masterful. He ferrets out the emotional component in Lippmann’s attitude to issues and to people (his love for Theodore Roosevelt and De Gaulle, his support for and his opposition to Al Smith, F.D.R. and Wilson, his noble disenchantment with L.B.J. over Vietnam, which led him to entertain I.F. Stone at his house), and then clearly outlines Lippmann’s public views, reducing neither his personal commitments to his stated positions, nor his carefully formulated philosophy to his emotional peculiarities.

On the other hand, Steel does seem to be too cautious, given the vastly tempting evidence he puts forward in so scrupulous a way. True, he knew Lippmann and spent many years writing the book, and true also that he is a biographer, after all, not a polemicist. But surely there are explicit connections to be made between Lippmann’s ambivalence towards his own Jewishness and his lesser ambivalence towards authority: this is indirectly exemplified in the way his sympathy for Sacco and Vanzetti was overridden by a need to congratulate President Lowell of Harvard (who with some associates wrote the report that condemned the two men to death) for doing a ‘disagreeable duty bravely’. Similarly, Steel does not sufficiently analyse Lippmann’s notions about the importance of wealth and fame, thereby failing to contrast his celebrated, often-proclaimed journalistic ethic of liberalism and disinterestedness with his record of rarely offending any one of the powerful Establishment figures who patronised him. There are also ellipses in Steel’s otherwise satisfying account of Lippmann’s friendships with Bernard Berenson and Felix Frankfurter, two men whose rise in celebrity and subsequent symbolic value for the largely WASP Establishment parallels Lippmann’s own. Perhaps, too, there could have been more said about Lippmann’s unpleasantly constricted personal life, and about his second wife, who before Lippmann won her had been married to Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of Foreign Affairs, and one of Lippmann’s closest friends, and who quite simply turned away from him during his illnesses: this, Steel says unconvincingly, was an instance of her inability to ‘handle’ suffering. But what might such human lapses, ultimately caused by him and frequently present in the midst of all Lippmann’s closest relationships, tell us about the general aura of coldness, distance and emotional inadequacy radiated by his life and work? Steel does not say.

None of these insufficiently investigated matters is, I believe, merely a detail in the otherwise exemplary career Lippmann fashioned for himself during ‘the American century’. Each with its disturbing significance belongs crucially to some aspect of his biography and of his country, which, as Steel says, acquired dominance in the 20th century. Balance and disinterestedness, for example, derive less from fairness and human concern than from the world-view of a class for whom the Atlantic West and the unquestioned power of privilege and wealth provided the focus of vision, and from a condescending view of humanity at large. Consonant with this, Lippmann upheld the principle of racial quotas in immigration, thought the inhabitants of the Caribbean ‘inferior races’, and was bored and uncomfortable with the Third World. In 1938, European Jews were to him aspects of an ‘over-population’ problem. A ‘surplus’ number (presumably those who were not otherwise to be interned or killed) could be shipped off to Africa, he suggested grandiosely. He considered the idea of interning Japanese-Americans a congenial one, just as (with his friend Berenson) he found Hindu art, like Hindu people, loathsome and terrifying.

Even though Steel is surely correct to say that Lippmann was neither a philosopher nor a system-builder, but a sceptic who ‘could analyse situations with finesse and give off brilliant flashes of illumination’, Lippmann’s painstakingly cultivated public prominence tells an important story about the consistent social role he played. In providing so much material about this as a sort of running accompaniment to the main story, Steel’s book will, I think, be enduringly valuable. Consider, it asks, what it means for a man to make a career out of politics and journalism, yet to appear to have been unsullied by either of them. Consider again the career of a man whose view of the mass audience he wrote for was patronising at best, contemptuous at worst. Or there is the story of a man who was admired by nearly everyone as a towering intellectual, yet who – except for his opposition to the Vietnam War – could not sustain a position which he considered, on grounds of conscience, to be right.

This is an American career best understood initially in Italian terms. Lippmann is Gram-sci’s organic intellectual; he caters to the powers of civil society in the sophisticated manner of Castiglione’s courtier; his social authority is acquired like that of Croce (a lay pope, Gramsci said), whose adroit mastery of disseminative techniques and rhetorical strategies gave him the ascendancy and popularity normally denied so mandarin a figure. Thereafter, the Italian analogies no longer serve and have to be replaced by the appropriately American characteristics that help to explain his successes. Lippmann was in part a secular evangelist representing the cult of expertise and realism. He belongs equally to McLuhan’s media world and to the network of prominent Eastern clubs, universities, corporations and government. Pulsating with compelling tenacity through everything he wrote was the ideological doctrine allowing a lone voice the authority to ‘express America’ with the unanimity of national consensus: the roots of this extend back to the Puritan notion of an errand in the wilderness.

The result in personal terms is extraordinarily depressing to contemplate. Steel’s book is uncompromising in this regard. Few political writers more than Lippmann stripped the self of its ties to community, family and personal loyalty, in order to enhance the claims of a ‘national’ interest. He perfected the idea that democracy was to be celebrated for (rather than by) the masses by people who knew better, experts who were members of a ‘specialised class’, ‘insiders’ who instructed everyone else in what was good or bad. And who better than Lippmann shrouded raw American power in) the mystifying clouds of altruism, realism and moralism, from which the country as a whole has yet to escape, while its unparalleled capacity for good and evil has scarcely begun to be controlled or understood?

Lippmann, in short, was the journalist of consolidation. For him, what mattered was the status quo: he elaborated it, he was tempted by and he succumbed to it, he sacrificed his humanity to it. Childless, shedding and acquiring friends and attitudes with alarming frequency and poise, allowing his writing only very rarely to express the uncertainty and human frailty that Steel convinces us he often felt, Lippmann articulated the ‘national interest’ as if only his insider’s view was responsibly serious. Hence his ultimate public influence and his ultimate superficiality as a commentator on the world. This is Steel’s assessment:

  He believed that America’s cold war policies were essentially defensive, that it had acquired its informal empire by ‘accident’, and that the problem was primarily one of execution rather than of conception. He criticised the policy-makers, but rarely what lay behind their conception. Thus when he returned from India in late 1949 he could write that Asians need not choose sides in the cold war because they could remain sheltered by the world power balance and ‘the tacit protection of a friendly state which dominates the high-ways of the globe in order to protect the peace of the world’. Not for another 15 years [until his disenchantment with Johnson’s Vietnam policy: he would then be 75 years old] would he question whether that dominant state really had such ‘friendly’ motives.

Although it is commonplace to berate radical writers on American politics for their naivety and lack of realism, Steel’s Lippmann is the one who appears unrealistic, even naive. Randolph Bourne, I.F. Stone, H.L. Mencken, C. Wright Mills and Lincoln Steffens had few illusions about power: Lippmann made an early compromise with it, and never again looked at it without at the same time prettifying it, or at least screening it from genuine demystification. This, one surmises, was partly due to vanity, partly to a kind of amazingly self-confident thoughtlessness. Never was he without the appearance of seriousness, however. Even the many vignettes of Lippmann’s personal life provided by Steel show him solemnly preserving himself (worrying about his weight, buying the right kind of suit, seeing the right people, staying at the right hotels, sticking to an inflexible schedule of work, rest and self-improving travel), and almost never exposing himself to the realities on which he was an expert. Wit and irony seem totally absent from his life. His one great emotional experience seems to have been the courting of Helen Armstrong, an episode rendered with great refinement by Steel: thereafter it is the sense of orderly comfort pervading Lippmann’s existence that takes over. When he feuds with L.B.J. over Vietnam – clearly his finest hour for Steel, who endures his subject’s heaviness of bearing with admirable patience – one is grateful for the old man’s spunk, as well as bothered by the fact that Lippmann’s opposition to the garrulous Texan was the result, not only of anger at a reckless military policy, but of personal pique. ‘Seduction and Betrayal’ is Steel’s title for the episode.

On what was Lippmann’s realism based? We must rule out the disenchantment that may come with deep reflection on experience, just as we must rule out serious scholarship or learning. He cannot be said ever to have tried to identify the sources of US foreign policy, or even to have investigated the conceptual framework in which the nation carried on its business at home and abroad. Certainly he did not live politics as someone responsible to a constituency: he never became a technical expert at running a political apparatus, encountering human resistances, fashioning new tactics as a result. No: he was a realist only so far as opinion was concerned. His skill was in using his considerable resources to maintain himself before the public, to gain an impressive social authority and, for fifty years, to keep it. One can respect that achievement, which is a formal and social one, more easily than most of the intellectual or moral ones which have been claimed for him by his admirers.

Lippmann’s career thus exemplifies his country’s choice of the style of reassuring authority over any concrete message or social vision. Why else do people still speak of Walter Cronkite as a Presidential candidate if it is not because of what Lippmann pioneered as a reliable media personality? The important thing for a European to understand about Lippmann is that he had the prestige of an Orwell, a Sartre or a Silone, a much wider audience than all of them together, without at any time actually having an intellectual’s mission.

To consider Lippmann’s case as an instance of the trahison des clercs is to apply canons of judgment where they are not completely pertinent. The relevant attitude is, I think, an investigative one. How did the ever-expanding contemporary information apparatus (of which the mass media are a branch) grow to such an extent as almost to swallow whole the intellectual’s function? How do a career and a status like Lippmann’s get sustained entirely by opinion: without necessary reference to reality or truth (most people, for example, never seemed to test Lippmann and other ‘insiders’ or experts against what really takes place in the world) or to principle? And, finally, what have the Western media done in creating personalities and worlds of opinion operating paradoxically in full, ostensibly free public view according to esoteric laws of their own? Has the modern journalist so effectively become mankind’s unacknowledged legislator?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences