Richard Brookhiser
Richard Brookhiser
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The Way of the WASP: How it Made America and How It Can Save It ...So to Speak
ISBN: 0029047226
The Way of the WASP
Mr. Brookhiser talked about his book The Way of the WASP: How it Made America and How It Can Save It...So To Speak, published by Free Press. It is meant to show where America has come from and thereby discover where the country might be going. In the book, Mr. Brookhiser argues that the ethics of the WASPs formed American character and that progressive politics are a bad influence. The author adds that without the ideals of the WASPs, America will lose its way. He talked about the prevalence of WASP ideals and the current national inclination to return to the values of personal modesty, public service, and quiet steadfastness. He said that the perception of WASPs, though, is of a "pale, bloodless elite." According to Mr. Brookhiser, WASPs have influenced American life in virtually all areas such as culture, education, business, and religion.
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TRANSCRIPT
The Way of the WASP
Program Air Date: March 24, 1991

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Richard Brookhiser, author of "The Way of the WASP: How It Made America and How It Can Save It . . . So To Speak," why do we need this book?
RICHARD BROOKHISER, AUTHOR, "The Way of the WASP: How it Made America and How It Can Save It ...So to Speak": Well, I think countries need to understand where they've come from and if they know that, they can know where they might go. I don't think countries can pick virtues out of thin air or just off a tree. The character traits a country has are given to it by its history, and the character type a country has is, therefore, also given to it by its history. Ours, I think, America's, was put in place by WASPs, by White Anglo Saxon Protestants, 200 and 300 years ago, and that's the hand history has dealt us, and it behooves us to study it and understand it.
LAMB: You start out with a special note upfront and you say, "Since in this book I will be making a number of un-WASPily blunt identifications, in the interest of WASPy fair play, I shall begin by identifying myself." First thing you say is, "The Brookhisers were German Catholics." Why are you doing this by the way?
BROOKHISER: Well, partly for the fun of it. I think it's a sort of a wicked thing to do because no one does it. I mean, people are, I think very, very chary of stepping out and talking about their backgrounds unless they have some ax to grind, unless one belongs to a victim group, and there's some advantage in identifying yourself. People are polite, which is a WASP virtue, so we all sort of obey that. But I figured since I was going to come out and write this book and then beat the drums for a particular set of values, I thought it would be only fair to show where I was coming from.
LAMB: Let's go through as much of it as possible. Again, "The Brookhisers were German Catholics. My father's mother's maiden name was Gleason, which wasn't Irish but a respelling of Claesgens, another German name. They tried to Anglicize it, evidently, and didn't get it quite right. My mother's maiden name was Stark, that's English. Her mother's was Quilhot, French Protestant." What are we getting in Richard Brookhiser's . . .
BROOKHISER: Well, all I was trying to prove there was that I'm not writing this as an WASP myself. I mean, I'm not an Andover, Harvard, Porcellian Club graduate who's just writing about what he grew up with all his life. Like most of the people in this country -- like the overwhelming majority of people in this country -- I'm not a WASP. I'm half; I'm not a full fledged one, literally speaking, although I think if you look at the way I live or the way I was raised, again, like the overwhelming majority of people in this country, I am a WASP by behavior, which is the most important thing about WASPs. It's not who they are any longer, who they are literally. It's how they behaved 200 and 300 years ago and how that still affects us today.
LAMB: The rest of this is, "I was raised in the Methodist church from which I have lapsed."
BROOKHISER: Well, I'm not going to boast about that, but it's true.
LAMB: What does that mean? You're just no longer a Methodist?
BROOKHISER: Right. No longer an active one.
LAMB: "I grew up in middle-middle class suburbs and went to Yale." Getting close, though, on this.
BROOKHISER: Maybe I was on the outskirts a little bit.
LAMB: "My wife's maiden name, which she has kept, is Safer, Russian Jew." What happens to someone with your background when you marry someone who's Jewish? What does that do the combination of ...?
BROOKHISER: Oh, it's fun. Well, I eat better.
LAMB: What are the children? Do you have kids?
BROOKHISER: No. This is something everybody has to work out and, obviously, it's a very difficult thing or it can be. I mean if either or both of the parents care about their religious background, it's quite a difficult thing. But we don't have kids, so we haven't faced that.
LAMB: Let me finish this off. "For 13 years, I worked at National Review, Catholic." Why did you say that?
BROOKHISER: Not that National Review is officially a Catholic magazine because it isn't, but just because Bill Buckley and so many of the other editors over the years have been Catholic.
LAMB: "In the whole city of New York, I know two Protestants; rather ex-Protestants. One of them is Japanese." Now what's that all about?
BROOKHISER: A little hyperbole there. I probably know more than two Protestants but I was looking at my very closest friends. New York is not a city that has lots of WASPs running around in it.
LAMB: Why is that?
BROOKHISER: Well, New York is the great portal for immigration. This is where so many of the steamship lines ended, so if you were coming from Germany or Ireland or Odessa or Sicily or Naples or wherever all through the 19th century, you would quite likely have arrived in New York or maybe Baltimore, but New York had a majority of people coming there. Even today, people from Europe and from the Third World stream into New York. It's the historic gateway of immigration and of the first steps of Americanization.
LAMB: Now if you go back and study the 13 original colonies and the makeup of the people, what would it have been like?
BROOKHISER: Well, you would find that although there have always been people in the United States and what became the United States who weren't White English Protestants -- by the way, Anglo Saxon just means English in terms of this discussion. I don't like the phrase Anglo Saxon. I think it's vague but it's what were stuck with in the acronym. But, I'll use it so long as we understand what I mean by it is White English Protestant.
LAMB: When I read this, I circled a number of things including Anglo Saxon which you describe, and then right above it, you tell us what White means and then in the next page, you tell us what Protestant means.
BROOKHISER: Even though you always had people who weren't White Anglo Saxon Protestants, you had lots of German Amish in Pennsylvania. They're still there today, they still speak German, they've done it for 300 years. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of the people in the 13 colonies were White English Protestants, and not surprisingly so since they were or became English colonies. They were also Englishmen and Protestants of a certain kind. The English character is more complicated than the American character. There's more to it and we didn't get all of it. We got people who politically were Whigs or liberal in terms of the day, libertarians, believers in egalitarian, non-hierarchical governments. We also got Protestants of a certain kind. There were Anglicans who lived in the 13 colonies but they were less establishmentarian than the Anglicans who stayed home. There was never an Anglican Bishop for the 13 colonies. Vestries did a lot of the work that curates did in England. The overwhelming majority of the Protestants, apart from the Anglicans, were Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists -- people of a very low church sort of Protestantism. The combination of that libertarian style of politics and that low church style of religion had very important effects on the institutions and the behavior of Americans.
LAMB: Under the Protestant section, you say, "Early America was a country of Protestants in 1785. Out of a total population of three million ..."
BROOKHISER: Approximately three million.
LAMB: "... there were 24,500 Roman Catholics, white and black, fewer than Quakers, and no more than 3,000 Jews, a tenth of one per cent of the population." It's changed, though.
BROOKHISER: Oh, sure. The largest denomination in the United States now is the Roman Catholic church. That's been the case since 1850 actually. That's when the Catholic church became the largest single denomination in this country. Now there still are more Protestants than Catholics. It's about 2-to-1 and there are problems with counting, but it seems to be about 2-to-1, and the percentage of Jews, of course, has risen because of the great immigrations from Eastern Europe at the end of the last century. But, even so, Protestantism remains a majority, but more important than that is that the non-Protestant religions in this country adopted a lot of the church-state notions that the first Protestants had put in place. Jews in America, Catholics in America, Americanized themselves very quickly, and they did it because they saw it was in their interests to do so.

It was in their interests politically and religiously to adopt the American attitude toward churchstate relations, and when they did, they flourished. This caused a lot of puzzlement back home, especially for Catholics. Throughout the 19th century, on into the 20th, time and time and again, Rome would sometimes scratch its head at what was going on over here and wonder what its flock over here was doing. Well, what they were doing was they were settling into a situation which was unusual in the history of the Catholic church, which is to say they were living in a country which had a majority of non-Catholics but which did not persecute Catholics. And so, they discovered quite soon that this was a good thing. They wanted to be a part of it and they became so.
LAMB: Let me ask you some things about yourself. First, politically, can you describe yourself politically?
BROOKHISER: Oh, sure, I'm conservative.
LAMB: What kind of a conservative?
BROOKHISER: Paleo. I was for Goldwater in '64. I was nine years old, so who cares? But, you know, I was. That probably locates me. Obviously, I think that shaped the approach I took in this book, but this isn't just a conservative's look at this situation. I think WASP values can go in a number of different political directions. Over time, there have been WASPs who were isolationists and WASPs who were imperialists. There have been WASPs who were social Darwinists, free marketeers of the most rigorous sort, and there were WASPs who were prairie socialists. WASP ideals can form different varieties of society. However, they're all within certain limits. There are certain types of society you're not going to get in a WASP country.
LAMB: Who is your favorite president in history?
BROOKHISER: George Washington.
LAMB: Why?
BROOKHISER: No question. Well, not only what he did but, as important, what he didn't do. What he did was to win the war of independence and to guide the country during its deliberations over its Constitution and then to embody those ideals as the first president. That's what he did do. What he didn't do was to become a man on horseback -- to become a dictator, to identify the state with himself. After he served two terms, he stepped down. It's an interesting thing. George Washington's favorite play was a Roman costume drama by the English playwright John Addison. It was called Cato. And the two most famous lines in Cato are: "'Tis not in mortals to command success, but we'll do more, Sempronius; we'll deserve it." Washington must have been familiar with those lines, since it was his favorite play, and I think that's a key to a lot of Washington's behavior and very WASPy kinds of sentiments, I think.
LAMB: Second American president on your list.
BROOKHISER: Lincoln. This is not a startling list. I'm not going to pull out Millard Fillmore or Chester Arthur. Lincoln because Lincoln had to deal with the great sin that WASPs committed, the great crime that WASPs committed historically, which was slavery. Now, this was a crime, I think doubly so, in the first place because it is wrong and immoral to own slaves; in the second place, because it really is a violation of WASP approaches to politics. The best thing you can say in defense of WASPs is that all the time there were slaves in this country or in the colonies, owned by WASPs in most cases, there were also WASPs, White English Protestants, who recognized that slavery was wrong and that it should end.

Jefferson, who was a slave owner, nevertheless wrote the Declaration of Independence and the rhetoric of freedom which became the basis, the justification, for abolition. Washington, even though he was a slave owner, when he died, he freed his slaves. It wasn't a matter in those days of just doing it. You had to have to set aside X amount of money for each slave so he could set himself up in some sort of profession. Washington planned for that, and he did it when he died. And then on up to the Civil War when Lincoln preeminently made the case against slavery and brought it to fruition.
LAMB: Third.
BROOKHISER: Third, ah, now you're pushing. No, no third. Washington first, Lincoln second, the rest behind.
LAMB: What did you think of Ronald Reagan?
BROOKHISER: Oh, I liked him. I was for him in '76, and I think he did important things -- important things in terms of the world, certainly. I think a lot of the liberation in Eastern Europe would not have happened but for Reagan's convincing the Soviets that they couldn't keep on the way they had been going under Brezhnev and Chernenko, Andropov and those people, that there had to be glasnost and perestroika. That's a major achievement. But, in terms of our own history, I think you have to say Washington, Lincoln, and then the rest are not nowhere but . . .
LAMB: How many of the presidents have been WASPs?
BROOKHISER: Well, the one who clearly wasn't, and, in fact, there was a question whether it would be an issue, was Jack Kennedy, and he was Catholic -- the first Catholic to be elected president, only one. All the others were either literal WASPs or people who were so assimilated for a long, long time that they might as well have been. Roosevelt and Van Buren are Dutch names, but the Dutch had been in New York, rubbing shoulders with WASPs for hundreds of years, so it kind of didn't count. Eisenhower and Hoover were German surnames, but their families had been here since the 18th century. They were very assimilated. But even in the case of Jack Kennedy, who was a Catholic, his father sent him to Choate and to Harvard, and when he went in the service, he went in the Navy, very sort of blue blood service to pick. So, he was being deliberately directed by Joe Kennedy to get a Brahmin, upper crust Eastern seaboard WASP education and upbringing.

This is what has happened to non-WASPs over and over again in American history. It's assimilation. You know, when the WASPs realized that they weren't going to continue to be the majority in this country, which was very clear that they couldn't possibly be, what happened was new WASPs were created, and they were created out of all these millions of people who came here with an inkling that it was going to be better. Then as they intuited why it was better then where they'd come from, they WASPified.
LAMB: You write for the New York Observer?
BROOKHISER: Yes.
LAMB: What is it?
BROOKHISER: That's a weekly paper in New York City.
LAMB: What kind? Does it have an idealogy?
BROOKHISER: It's very heterogeneous. You've got me and you've got regular columnists for the Nation and you've got Hilton Kramer doing the arts, the neo-conservative voice.
LAMB: Who buys it?
BROOKHISER: I suppose people who like a lot of yelling.
LAMB: Is it mostly New Yorkers who buy it?
BROOKHISER: Yes, it's New York.
LAMB: You also write "Talk of the Town" sometimes for the New Yorker?
BROOKHISER: Right.
LAMB: Now what's the idealogy or the politics of the New Yorker magazine?
BROOKHISER: Well, I don't write the political stuff for "Talk of the Town." I write about New York events and local things and happenings, so I don't get into the politics.
LAMB: Your name doesn't go on it though when you write it. BROOKHISER; Well, those are all unsigned, so, no it doesn't, but they're a lot of fun.
LAMB: Is that a hard thing to do, an unsigned piece?
BROOKHISER: That's the style. They're fun to do, and it's always a thrill being in the New Yorker, so I have a great time.
LAMB: Thirteen years with the National Review. How come the attraction to the National Review? What is special about the publication?
BROOKHISER: Well, gee, our family subscribed to it since I was like 12 years old. It was just sort of the air, and it was a lot of fun to read. It seemed to be correct, but also it was correct in a fun and interesting way.
LAMB: How has it changing that Bill Buckley's no longer directly involved every day, or is he?
BROOKHISER: No, the editor now is John O'Sullivan. I think the main difference is that the magazine is more journalistic now, perhaps, than it once was. Part of the reason for that is there's no longer such a need to make the ideological case for this issue or that issue. A lot of that's been done. You know, Ronald Reagan was elected president, so some of our efforts have come to fruit. You don't have to keep hammering away at the same old things over and over again, so you can afford to be more journalistic, more interested in day-to-day events or week-to-week, month-to-month sorts of stories, and so the magazine is.
LAMB: Where'd you grow up?
BROOKHISER: Rochester, N.Y., upstate New York, so I have made the biggest cultural shift it is possible in this country to make -- to move to New York City. Listeners out there in Kansas or Alaska or Hawaii, you may think it would be a big shift to go and move to New York, but I must tell you that upstate New York is the part of the United States which feels itself most alien from New York City because we're in the same state. We were always thinking about it, how they were taking our taxes and whatnot. The one time I went to New York as a little boy was for the World's Fair in '64-'65. I remember just walking down a sidewalk and a guy was hawking a tabloid, and there was a headline in big letters, "Rips Out Heart, Stomps on It." I thought, they don't run headlines like that in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. So, it was a shift.
LAMB: Parents still alive?
BROOKHISER: Yes, yes.
LAMB: Still working?
BROOKHISER: No, retired.
LAMB: What did they do?
BROOKHISER: My dad worked for Eastman Kodak, which is in Rochester, the major employer in Rochester, and my mom worked for the school system.
LAMB: Who got you interested in education?
BROOKHISER: Well, they'd both been to college and they sent my older brother to Yale, and so it was not even an option not to do it.
LAMB: Was Yale something that you thought about when you were in high school?
BROOKHISER: Yes, because my older brother was there. He was the first person in my family to go, but . . .
LAMB: Why Yale?
BROOKHISER: Good school and, for me, my older brother was there, so I went to football games and stuff and it seemed natural.
LAMB: What impact did Yale have on you? Bill Buckley went there.
BROOKHISER: Yes, but he'd been gone a long time. At Yale, the two impacts were there were a number of excellent teachers, mostly in the English Department, but I had some others in other fields. Also, at Yale, there were a number of very active and intelligent and contrary conservatives. Yale has a political union which is divided into parties across the political spectrum. I joined the party of the right, and this was a very fraternal, independent sort of organization, and a lot of the friends I made there I still have, still work with them.
LAMB: Was there a club?
BROOKHISER: Well, it wasn't a literal club, but it had a lot of club-like aspects to it.
LAMB: Are you a traditional conservative, interested in social issues, or are you a libertarian conservative?
BROOKHISER: Half and half. I really couldn't put myself in either camp. I wouldn't want to lose the other one.
LAMB: If somebody asked you to write a definitive paper of 500 words about a conservative ideological issue that meant the most to you, what would you write about?
BROOKHISER: Well, until 1989, it would have been defense of the country against possible menace from the Soviet Union. I don't think that's such a big deal anymore. Now, it would be taxes. Taxes, number one; abortion maybe number two.
LAMB: Feel strongly about abortion?
BROOKHISER: Yes.
LAMB: Position?
BROOKHISER: Against.
LAMB: A hundred percent against or rape, incest ...?
BROOKHISER: Well, this is something I didn't come to for strong religious reasons. I'm not Catholic nor am I a fundamentalist, so I don't have that impulse. But it just seemed that if fetuses were not human, what were they? What else could they be? And if they were not living, why were such measures necessary to prevent their continued existence? So, therefore, they must be live and in some sense human and, therefore, it must not be right.
LAMB: Where did you go after Yale?
BROOKHISER: National Review.
LAMB: First job?
BROOKHISER: First job.
LAMB: Your book "The Way of the WASP", some of the liner notes are the most interesting way, I think, maybe to get you to talk more about the book. Where did the term WASP come from?
BROOKHISER: It was popularized in 1964. There was a book called The Protestant Establishment by a man named E. Digby Baltzell. He's still alive. He's a professor emeritus of sociology at Penn, and I actually interviewed him for this book. I said, "Why did you make up the acronym? Why did you turn White Anglo Saxon Protestant into WASP?" He said, "Well, White Anglo Saxon Protestant wouldn't fit on a chart. Too big to fit on a chart." I think he was pulling my leg because the fact is if the acronym had spelled out crickets or ants or some insect that people kind of like, it wouldn't have caught on. The fact that it spelled out an insect that stings, that doesn't make honey, that's mean-tempered, that's unpredictable, that's why people grabbed it, because it was a hostile term.
LAMB: What is Professor Baltzell's background?
BROOKHISER: He must be a WASP. I think he's a Philadelphia gentleman by upbringing.
LAMB: Does he like WASPs?
BROOKHISER: He's ambivalent. He thinks they have their good points and their bad points.
LAMB: What's he think about the fact that he coined the phrase?
BROOKHISER: Oh, he's pleased with it. It's like every time anyone uses it, a figurative nickel goes in his intellectual royalty account.
LAMB: This book is a small book.
BROOKHISER: That's right. It is a long essay, really, but dense. Small but dense.
LAMB: It's published by Free Press. Did you go to them or did they come to you?
BROOKHISER: Oh, I went all around, and they were the ones who bit.
LAMB: What was the thing that you remember them saying that they liked about the idea?
BROOKHISER: I'll tell you how the idea developed. Coming up to the end of '87 -- this is my second book. My first book was about the '84 election, so I thought, rather unimaginatively, let me write a second election book. I know George Bush is going to be the next president, so let's focus in on him. I went around to publishers with this idea, and no one was going to take it. In part, not only did they not think George Bush was going to win the election, they didn't even think he was going to win the nomination. This was like end of '87. They thought Dole was going to get the nomination. I just thought that was crazy, but I began to think why is Bush having this hard time? You'll remember, end of '87, Newsweek had this cover, "Bush Battles the Wimp Factor." There was a photograph of Bush in a yacht off the coast of Maine, and this was the headline over his head. So I began to think why is Bush having this hard time? It became clear to me it wasn't because of anything he was saying or doing or that he had said or that he had done. It was because of who and what he was. George Bush was a wimp because of the way he'd been brought up. Therefore, he was a wimp because he was a WASP. I mean, this was the implicit equation that was going on. Then, having realized that, I began to generalize. I realized this critique of WASP mores was not invented for George Bush's benefit. This has a history here. I began to think about it and look at it, and so the idea developed.
LAMB: It's already been reviewed by several people. What's the worst thing they've said about it?
BROOKHISER: The worst thing, one reviewer who shall remain nameless, said that I wrote a whole chapter just to mention the fact that I had been a temporary member of the Council on Foreign Relations for five years. He thought I had written an entire chapter on secretaries of state from Wall Street just to boast about this. I wrote him a note and I said, "Dear Mr. Jones: As luck would have it, your review came out the day after your name came up at the CFR for membership. Naturally, I asked Henry to blackball you."
LAMB: Why do people get so upset about people who are members of the CFR, Council on Foreign Relations?
BROOKHISER: Well, it's concrete thinking. It's people who are upset with the foreign policy of the United States for the last few decades, and there are reasons for being upset with it. But, then they think that the reason it's been askew is because there is this organization which has turned out a lot of people in the State Department and so on, and they think that that's the source of their mistaken opinions. I think the mistaken opinions come from climates of opinion, from the way people are raised, and what they were taught and the way they think. It's not because they're in an organization which puts its cooties on them, and then they do crazy things when they get in power. So, it's a very concrete . . .
LAMB: Why were you a member?
BROOKHISER: I was a member for five years. I joined in 1980 because this was the first round for Solidarity. They were active and they had not yet been repressed. Jarazelski hadn't yet put them down, and I could see Eastern Europe unraveling. I was a little early as it turned out, but it looked like this was the end game here. I thought, well, maybe if I'm in this group, I can learn something about this.
LAMB: Can anyone join?
BROOKHISER: No. You have to get two people who are members to sponsor you and then they pass on you.
LAMB: Does it cost you some money?
BROOKHISER: No.
LAMB: What are the privileges of membership?
BROOKHISER: Well, the privileges of membership were to go to a lot of meetings and hear the ambassador from Belgium, if he was in town, give a little talk or the junior assistant under secretary of state for banking development give a talk if he was in town. The most interesting meeting I went to was Maurice Bishop, the dictator of Grenada, who gave a talk not very long before he died. I remember he came with little bodyguards, and they were kids. They were like 17 years old, these kids in these uniforms with very fierce expressions checking everyone out. Here we all were drinking tea out of our little pink-and-green tea cups, and I said to the guy next to me, "Don't reach for your pen quick or we're going to down in a hail of lead."
LAMB: Why did you get out?
BROOKHISER: If you're younger than a certain age -- and I think when I was in it it was 35 and maybe now the age is 40 or it was 30, then switched to 35 -- but if you were younger than a certain age, you could only belong for five years temporary membership and my thing ran out. So, therefore, I was out.
LAMB: Is there anything to the conspiracy suspicions of conservatives in this country that the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations are all a part of pushing toward a one-world government?
BROOKHISER: Look, I don't think so but how can I be trusted, right?
LAMB: Well, you're no longer a member.
BROOKHISER: Well, yes, but I was. I mean the mark of the beast is on me. That's what they would say.
LAMB: Did anybody throw their subscription to National Review away because you were a member?
BROOKHISER: Well, if they were so disposed, they would have done it long ago because Bill Buckley got in it long before I did, so people who were unhappy about that would have left.
LAMB: Is there any thing to the theory that rubbing elbows with all that group leads to some kind of governance that people ought to be suspicious about?
BROOKHISER: Here's what there is to it, which is that obviously people are influenced by the people they know and by the talk they hear all the time. I think it is true, and I look at this in the chapter in "The Way of the WASP" which is on Wall Street and the fact that for decades many of our diplomats and secretaries of state came from Wall Street. This was a very common thing. You get someone on Wall Street, a lawyer or whatever, and he'd do his time there and make his bundle, and then he'd go to Washington and maybe he'd go back and forth and you saw this a lot. Charles Evans Hughes, Elihu Root, Henry Stimpson -- they were all Wall Street people who went to Washington. I think it is true that at the end of that period -- I think that period has ended.

The last Wall Street secretary of state was Cyrus Vance. They don't churn them out anymore, and I think there are reasons for it. But at the end of that period, I think the blood was running thin. There was the big book about the wise men that came out a few years ago -- about Dean Acheson and Averell Harriman and John McCloy and all those people -- and they were sort of the culminating generation of this type of man. I think, on the one hand, they did a lot of things that were very good and effective. On the other hand, there were some problems in their leadership. I think that is one symptom of WASP blood running thin. I believe, by the way, that the way of the WASP, the WASP ideals are in trouble in this country and have been in trouble for a number of decades. They are no longer as influential as they once were or as effective as social forces. I think the reason for that is not that we've had lots of immigration and that there are lots of non-WASPs in America, and it's not because people who are non-WASPs have attacked WASP ideals. I think it's because too many WASPs, themselves, have lost their nerve, and they have let us down. So this book is, in part, a plea to WASPs and to non-WASPs, to say, "Look, here are these values. They're on the shelf, they're on the rack. Anyone can use them, and we should."
LAMB: Dedicated "For Jeanne."
BROOKHISER: Jeannie, my wife.
LAMB: Who did you dedicate the first book to?
BROOKHISER: My parents. And my third book will be dedicated to my brother.
LAMB: What's it going to be?
BROOKHISER: I don't know.
LAMB: Next page you have a quote. I'm going to read the quote. It's a quote from George Orwell who was ...?
BROOKHISER: English journalist. Left wing anti-Communist journalist.
LAMB: "I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a WASP. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention; merely went on with his meal while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him." George Orwell.
BROOKHISER: Well, now, of course, there's a pun there. He was writing about the insect, and I've used this to introduce a book about the ethnic group. But the reason I picked that is just what I was saying. I think there has been a loss of nerve among WASPs and that it has had bad effects on their way of life and bad effects on this country. I think it goes back for decades in many cases. I think one of the great problems has been a schism in the Protestant churches in America, which I think has been going on for a hundred years. Another very bad symptom was the career of Woodrow Wilson who, I think, was very influential in changing the way Americans think about politics and what politics should be about, and he changed it for the worse. We suffer today from the effects from both those events.
LAMB: I don't know how far we can get with this, but I'd like to try it. On the acknowledgements page, you list a lot of people and you just give their names. If you could give me a quick read on who they are. You say, "Many people agreed to sit down and talk with me, including Ken Auletta."
BROOKHISER: A journalist in New York.
LAMB: Why did you pick him?
BROOKHISER: He's written about Wall Street.
LAMB: Martha Bayles.
BROOKHISER: She's writing a book about rock 'n' roll, which is going to come out in a couple of years.
LAMB: Why is that relevant?
BROOKHISER: Well, it was just about the culture of the '60s, which was kind of a gaudy fulfillment of a lot of attacks on WASPs, and people see that as the beginning of the end. I don't see it as the beginning of the end. I think the beginning of the end was much further back, but the '60s is sort of a ...
LAMB: Are all these people conservatives?
BROOKHISER: Not all of them.
LAMB: Is Ken Auletta?
BROOKHISER: I think he'd say he was a moderate.
LAMB: David Brooks.
BROOKHISER: Conservative journalist, Wall Street Journal in Brussels now.
LAMB: What did he have to do with the book?
BROOKHISER: He was a movie reviewer for many years, and I wanted to just check some of my notions of popular culture against him.
LAMB: Jack Cuddihy.
BROOKHISER: He wrote some very interesting books on Jewish assimilation in America.
LAMB: Evan Galbraith.
BROOKHISER: Van Galbraith works on Wall Street and talked me through that.
LAMB: George Gilder.
BROOKHISER: Well, conservative intellectual, thinks about anything under the sun, so I wanted to pick his brain.
LAMB: Campbell Gibson.
BROOKHISER: He works with the Census Bureau. I went to the Census Bureau in Suitland, Maryland, to just see what statistics there might be on WASPs. It's hard to get them. One problem is the census has no religious information. It is against the law for the census to ask any question about religion. There's ethnic data. You can find how many English people of English descent there are, not religion.
LAMB: Jeffrey Hart.
BROOKHISER: A colleague of mine, National Review for many years and knows everything.
LAMB: Conservative?
BROOKHISER: Oh, yes.
LAMB: What's he do besides write for National Review?
BROOKHISER: Professor at Dartmouth.
LAMB: Charles Kesler.
BROOKHISER: Former colleague of mine. He's chairman of the Political Science Department at Claremont College.
LAMB: In California.
BROOKHISER: California. But he's an expert on Wilson among other things.
LAMB: Irving Kristol.
BROOKHISER: Neo-conservative thinker.
LAMB: John Lukacs?
BROOKHISER: John Lukacs, he's a historian. Mostly writes about World War II, but also about America.
LAMB: Conservative?
BROOKHISER: No, he's denied that he is one. He's by himself.
LAMB: Where does he live?
BROOKHISER: Pennsylvania.
LAMB: Richard Neuhaus.
BROOKHISER: Former Lutheran minister, now converted to Catholicism. A student of American religion.
LAMB: And what did you talk to him about? Religion?
BROOKHISER: Right.
LAMB: Terry Teachout.
BROOKHISER: Works for the Daily News, young conservative journalist working on a biography of H. L. Mencken.
LAMB: In New York?
BROOKHISER: In New York.
LAMB: You mention Mencken a lot in the book. Why?
BROOKHISER: Well, I mention Mencken because he's sort of the great enemy of WASP values. He loathed WASPs and he loathed their values, and he was a very eloquent critic of them.
LAMB: Ernest van den Haag.
BROOKHISER: Long time contributor to National Review, economist, professor -- another person who knows everything.
LAMB: "My thanks to them all. Rich Vigilante has been telling me what to write and think for 16 years. Why should he stop now?"
BROOKHISER: My dearest friend. Early on in the book I tell a little story about George Bush to show how he was raised. When he was a kid and when he would play baseball and come home having hit a home run, he would tell his mother. He'd burst in and want to tell her, "Oh, I hit a home run." His mother, Dorothy, would always say, "How did the team do, dear?" I told this story to my wife, Jeanne, who's Jewish, and to Rich, my dearest friend, who's Italian, and when they heard that, they'd reacted like she'd beaten him with a coat hanger. How could you possibly do this to your kid? You know, he wants to brag about his home run. What are you doing, lady? Well, all right, maybe it was squelching, but it was also trying to instill teamwork into young George.
LAMB: Matter of fact, your first chapter -- "Bush Bashing, WASP Bashing" is the title of it. First sentence, "If America needs saving and if only a return to White Anglo Saxon Protestant behavior and ideals will save it, then aren't we lucky to have George Bush in the White House?"
BROOKHISER: Well, of course, this was written long before Operation Desert Storm.
LAMB: When was it finished, by the way?
BROOKHISER: Oh, gee, I finished it in the spring of '90, so this was months before. At that point in the book when I ask the question, it's ironic because then I go immediately into the flack he was getting in '87 and early '88 which we just talked about -- how everybody was saying he's such a wimp, he's so ineffective, he's vague, he's never done anything, he never could do anything. His background was something he had to surmount. It was not an unalloyed benefit to him.
LAMB: Did you get caught having written about George Bush a lot and then finding that he turned around and did unWASPish things?
BROOKHISER: Well, no, I think his behavior during the course of the war was sort of WASPish values at their best. A lot of the bad rap he was getting was based on misapprehensions and hostile depictions of WASP traits which I think are distorted. The notion that, you know, WASPs are unimaginative, they can't create anything -- well, that may be true as far as art or good food is concerned. It's not true as far as constitutions are concerned. WASPs have been pretty good at that. The notion that WASPs just have a lot of money and this is how they run everything, well, not every WASP has a lot of money. There are plenty of WASPs in this country who drive pickups with gun racks, and they live in Kentucky and West Virginia and are not upper class by any stretch. The second point is those WASPs who do have money, it's because they or some ancestor of theirs went out and worked 12 hours, 14 hours a day for it. This is a value that a lot of other cultures have, too, not just ours. But it is certainly a WASP value and certainly one that immigrants were happy to assimilate to.
LAMB: Maureen Dowd, in her review of your book in the New York Times, talks about having been invited to the White House for a buffet with George Bush. I think there were movies, and Mrs. Bush was there and when she arrived all the ...
BROOKHISER: She was hungry.
LAMB: She was hungry, yes. All that she found was, what, some strawberries and some cream or something like that and some tea.
BROOKHISER: I can top that. I gave a talk last month to a very WASPy group. I don't want to say who they were because they were very nice to me. When it came time for dinner, the dinner was very good. But, before the dinner, there was a cocktail party, and there were two tables. There was a refreshments table and a drinks table, and the drinks table was great. It was filled with bottles. There was liquor, there was soda, there was anything you could desire. The refreshments table had four little bowls, about this big [indicates 4" diameter], with pretzels and potato chips in them, and they weren't empty. There were 50 people at this cocktail party and they didn't empty those four little bowls.
LAMB: Is there something about WASPs and food?
BROOKHISER: Well, I thought there were six WASP character traits. The one this relates to is anti-sensuality. The whole six are industry and success, anti-sensuality and use, and civic-mindedness and conscience. WASPs place a high value on industry and success. They place a low value on things which are sensual or not obviously useful. Socially they are civic minded, and personally they are driven by conscience. You can find those traits in other cultures in the world. You can find a culture which has one or two or three of those, but I think the combination of all six and the way that they play off against each other is probably uniquely WASP.
LAMB: What would have been different about this country, say, if -- well, you can name any other group.
BROOKHISER: Well, all right, let's take a possible alternative. Suppose the Spanish empire had made this part of North America its own -- not likely, but not inconceivable. I mean, they had Florida and they owned the Louisiana territories, at one point. We can look at Latin America to see what we might have become. We might have developed a mercantilist economy, a very stagnated one, tightly controlled by bureaucracies and by a few families who were well positioned, an underclass composed of peons that had great trouble rising out of that status. Another thing about the Latin American example is it's interesting that the immigrants from Europe who went to Latin America rather than to America turned into Latin Americans. My ethnic group is a good example. I'm German-American on my father's side. Lots of Germans came to this country. Lots of Germans also went to Buenos Aries and became Argentineans and Paraguayans and what-not. Once they arrived in Argentina, they turned into Argentineans. They assimilated to that social model with the blessings and the bad things about it. People assimilate to what they're confronted with, what they're presented with. I'm lucky that my ancestors came here rather than there.
LAMB: Page 149 -- there are 171 pages in this book including the index -- "There is a group of Americans that needs WASPifying even more desperately than immigrants. That is the urban poor." What do you mean by that?
BROOKHISER: We have a class of people which is called the underclass in this country. They are the locus of a lot of our drug problems and a lot of the problems with illegitimacy and family breakdown and things of that kind. What would be the best, most effective way to help them? There are programs you might think of that could improve their lot in various ways and tax packages or benefits or welfare or whatnot. But it seems to me that the best way to help these people is to instill into them the same sort of ethic that Americans have had instilled to them over the last three centuries which succeeded in turning a lot of people who came here poor from poor societies, from very degraded societies culturally, gave them a chance to work, to succeed, and to raise themselves. That's what I mean by that.
LAMB: "The poor and the not so poor have a drug problem" -- this is the same page. "Since the WASPs' last bright idea for handling a drug problem was Prohibition, their guidance may be considered suspect."
BROOKHISER: Right. I'm not saying that WASPs got everything right. We're talking about a human construct, so obviously it's flawed. We talked about slavery, and this is another thing I think was a WASP error. The notion that the drinking problem, which the United States had -- still has but it was worse at the turn of the century and on up to the '20s -- the notion that the way to solve that was to make liquor illegal turned out not to be the way to solve it. This was a failure, and it's a failure that the WASPs probably preeminently foisted upon us. It's one of the things on their debit side, historically.
LAMB: On the jacket, this is from the first chapter: "Here then is how White Anglo Saxon Protestants and their history and habits are actually written and thought about these days. They didn't have as much impact on this country as we've always been led to believe, but what they had was unfortunate. They give everyone else a hard time, an offense mitigated -- if it is mitigated -- only by the hard time they give themselves. They're bad dancers and lousy lovers." Why is that in there?
BROOKHISER: Well, go on. This is the hostile critique.
LAMB: "Their upper classes can still win presidential elections, but they can't hit baseballs. Their lower classes profess religions that are a little better than voodoo and a lot less fun. This is a broad consensus of literary gents, some eminent, many popular, of experts and would-be experts in the field, of purveyors of mass culture that also happens to be wrong."
BROOKHISER: OK, what you just read, except for the last sentence, that's what people think if you buttonhole them and say, if you take them on the street and say, "Well, what do you think about WASPs?" They'll say that kind of thing. Maybe they'll be a little more polite, maybe they'll only say, "Well, you know, they have money and they've had a lot of it in their family and they're sort of boring." That would be the most polite form of the stereotype, and it can get quite ugly as that indicates. I think this is wrong. This is the hostile view of the character type which, in fact, was the American character type for decades and decades. Unless we understand where we came from, we're not going to know what we might become. We're not going to have realistic notions of what we could become because you just can't improve a culture by going down a laundry list or a Chinese menu of characteristics and saying, "I want one from Column A and one from Column B and C and these all look like good ideas and we'll have that." No. You have to begin with what you've, in fact, been dealt. I think what America has been dealt by its history and by the people who first came here is a pretty good setup, and I think we have to know what that was and build on that.
LAMB: We only have about four minutes. If you were to pick a philosopher, a political philosopher or a political scientist off the shelf for late night reading, who would you pick first and second?
BROOKHISER: Well, start with the Declaration of Independence and then do the Federalist Papers. They're old, but they're damned good.
LAMB: Which of the Federalist Papers writers -- John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton -- would you prefer to read?
BROOKHISER: Well, I think Madison wrote the papers that are now thought to be the most essential. Jay wrote only three, but Hamilton also contributed some good stuff.
LAMB: Who's your favorite of the three?
BROOKHISER: Well, the most important of those documents is the Declaration, I believe. I think the Federalist Papers are the commentary on the Constitution, which is really a way of effectuating the ideals of the Declaration. This is one problem that WASPs have. They are very good at thinking, but they only do it in bursts. There are lightening flashes of brilliance and then decades of darkness before the next one. The attitude is, "All right, we already thought of that. What's the good of keeping on thinking?"
LAMB: Who are your favorite world figures?
BROOKHISER: World figures. Well, I just came from a lunch addressed by Margaret Thatcher. She's no longer prime minister, but she was an awfully good one.
LAMB: What about in history? Would you put her up there high in history?
BROOKHISER: Lower than some. I would say of world leaders of the last 200 years, the best would be George Washington. I would maintain that against Napoleon or Churchill or Pitt or Bismarck, whoever. I would give the pomp to Washington.
LAMB: We really haven't talked much about George Bush? What do you think of him?
BROOKHISER: His foreign policy has had some stunning successes. I think the Gulf, obviously. I think his understanding of taxes and budgets leaves much to be desired.
LAMB: In the future, who are your stars in the conservative political circles?
BROOKHISER: Well, my No. 1 choice for '88 was Jack Kemp. He is not an old man, so he has years ahead of him.
LAMB: Who else?
BROOKHISER: Pete du Pont, possibly.
LAMB: What about on the Democratic side?
BROOKHISER: Not a lot. Fewer people to pick from there from my point of view.
LAMB: Anybody at all that gets your attention?
BROOKHISER: No. I mean, they all get my attention, but in terms of who I like, no.
LAMB: The name of the book is "The Way of the WASP." The author is Richard Brookhiser and, among other things, he's a senior editor with National Review. This is what the book looks like, and we thank you for joining us.
BROOKHISER: Thank you.
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