Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham
Blog
The Wish for Kings:  Democracy at Bay
ISBN: 0802114466
The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay
Lewis Lapham discussed the research behind his book, "The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay," published by Grove Press, which examines the federal government in terms of the private idiosyncracies of high officials in recent presidential administrations. He detailed anecdotes in his book which cite the opulent lifestyles and actions taken by government officials in recent years.
Search Audible
TRANSCRIPT
The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay
Program Air Date: August 15, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Lewis H. Lapham, author of The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay, you have a chapter called "Versailles on the Potomac." What's it about?
LEWIS LAPHAM: It's about the splendor of Washington that has been the magnificence of its marble, of its pretensions, of its bureaucratic vastness, so that it has become like a palace at Versailles. It is a court society, a world unto itself, sometimes called "inside-the-Beltway." It's grown and multiplied since the end of the Second World War so that the expense of government, the number of functionaries, of people who serve government in its many facets -- I think there's something like now 100,000 lawyers and lobbyists who work on various degrees of regulation. The staff of the Congress has multiplied to 35,000. It's this sense of a vast Versailles-like court, the Hall of Mirrors in which the various servants of government flatter one another or blame one another, strike poses, issue bills, make announcements, stage pageants of one kind or another -- that's the view of it in that chapter.
LAMB: You have a story in here about Robert Mosbacher, the former secretary of Commerce.
LAPHAM: I do. Mosbacher was appointed by Bush and he came from Houston and he thought that a man of his stature and magnificence should have had more notice by the media, more time on television, more space in the Washington Post and so on, and so he was constantly seeking means of his own self-aggrandizement. He hit upon having a private entrance made for himself at the Department of Commerce on the other side of the building from the entrance in which the mere populace was to come and go. He had the entrance built at great expense with a long awning, sort of like a canopy in front of a night club or a restaurant. I think he wanted to have it red because Jim Baker's canopy at the State Department was blue -- or he wanted it blue because Jim Baker's canopy was red. I can't remember which way it went. But there were only six people allowed to use that entrance. There was Mosbacher himself, his wife, his secretary, his deputy, his lawyer -- for all I know, his valet. Then after he gotten that all together, it still wasn't quite grand enough. He practiced walking in and out of that entrance for a number of weeks, and then he decided that just once he got inside the building there was a distance to go to his own private elevator. But between the entrance and the elevator there were offices, sort of cubicles in which the poor people worked, wearing shirtsleeves. I mean, it was an unseemly display of manual labor. So he had the entire inside of the Department of Commerce -- that part of it anyway -- reconstructed. The offices were moved so that there was a properly open grand space between the entrance and the elevator. I believe there was a table put there with simply a decoration of flowers. But it's that kind of attitude that too often captures people, not only, of course, in Washington, but elsewhere within any organization large enough to sustain its own theory or reality.
LAMB: Nancy Reagan, the color red and a bed?
LAPHAM: She use to have her own bed, or a replica, when she traveled with the president. She would have her own bed or one exactly like it carried a few days before she was going to arrive in some foreign capital. And as you probably well remember, the color red was a passion of hers so that the rooms in which she was to stay, whether she was going to a palace in Venice or a castle in France or a hotel in Hawaii, the room was painted red prior to her arrival. Her bed was placed, the room was painted. Then the mirrors were all dropped because Nancy Reagan was fairly short, and sometimes the mirrors had to be brought down to a level so she saw more than the top of her head, which would otherwise put her in a bad mood for the afternoon.
LAMB: Jack Kent Cooke, who owns the Washington Redskins, you quote as saying, "I'm a Republican, but strangely I have a great many Democratic friends. Dodd, Brzezinski, Greenspan -- he's of indeterminate lineage -- Sam Donaldson -- what's he? -- Gene McCarthy and George McGovern." What's the point here?
LAPHAM: The point is that Jack Kent Cooke is the owner of the Washington Redskins and that one of the most valued places at court in Washington is in Jack Kent Cooke's box at RFK Stadium. It's a large box. I believe there are 50 or 60 places in it. Of course, during the long period of a Republican administration, the box was filled with important Republicans, and shortly after the election of Clinton -- I believe within two days -- suddenly it turned out Cooke discovered all of his Democratic friends. Their seats were changed, and with a new administration the court brings in new courtiers and Cooke was very quick to see that. It's the constant game in Washington, as you know far better than I, of who's in and who's out. I mean, who will come, who will go, who will get to write the senator's speeches or carry the general's shirt or sit in Jack Kent Cooke's box or have a parking space at National Airport? I mean, these are questions of vast weight.
LAMB: You also quote Mr. Cooke as saying, "The box is not used to ingratiate myself with the administration. Please quote me" -- this is the New York Times actual quote -- "please quote me precise on that. I invite people who are good company; happy, cheerful, good humored people who love football."
LAPHAM: It's a great statement. It's worthy of a politician, but I'm sure people who are in Jack Kent Cooke's box are apt to be happy and cheerful and loving football almost of necessity. That would be whether they're Democrats or Republicans.
LAMB: You write about the World Bank and first class versus business class travel. What's the World Bank by the way?
LAPHAM: The World Bank is a large lending institution which arranges loans usually for underdeveloped countries, loans for economic assistance, and most of the funds come from the United States and the headquarters of the World Bank are here in Washington. But it does assemble funds from other countries in the world. So its mission is to the poorer, more hard-pressed countries of the Earth, but it sustains a fairly sizable bureaucracy of its own, a very comfortable one, very highly paid people. One of these people on one of his jaunts to some desolate heath in Africa had it figured out that if he traveled business class instead of first class he would save a great deal of money. He then worked out the equation that if this practice was adopted by other members of the hierarchy of the World Bank, they would save $12 million a year. This is not too great a decline in the accommodation. I mean, we're simply going from first class to business class and saving $12 million. But when this memorandum was passed around within the corridors at the World Bank, it evoked feelings of horror, disbelief, dismay. One of the vice presidents sent back a counter-memo. I can't remember the exact words, but it was to the effect that this sort of suggestion was outrageous and if Mr. Whoever-it-was didn't have more concern for the comfort of his colleagues, he should be dismissed at once and sent to some dark place of exile. But it was the feeling of, how can they take this away from me?
LAMB: You have a story in here about Bob Gray. Who is he and what's his relationship to you?
LAPHAM: Bob Gray was a man -- I first came to Washington in the late 1950s during the Eisenhower administration. I'd come from university, and I was trying to decide what kind of career to follow.
LAMB: What school?
LAPHAM: I'd gone to Yale University in the United States, and then I'd gone to Cambridge University in England. So I came and I talked with a very young man. I approached the CIA, I approached the Washington Post, and I also approached the White House and I was sent to talk to Mr. Gray. Gray eventually became an enormously successful lobbyist and trafficker in influence and patronage. He had his own lobbying firm for many years and is now with Hill and Knowlton. But then he was a young man and he was an aide to Eisenhower. I can remember being interviewed by him. He had very little time. He was hard-pressed, and the interview took place in the basement of the White House in the barber shop. There was a barber chair down there in those days, and the only other place for me to sit was on the toilet. I sat on the toilet and Gray sat in the barber chair, so I was at the level of his shoes, which I remember as being very beautiful shoes. I started to talk about democratic theory -- I was very young, very idealistic -- and Gray waved that all off and sort of said please don't waste anybody's time. He said, "The whole thing about government, about Washington or about power is simply to acquire the right sort of friends and make connections and do what you're told until the great day comes when you can tell others what to do, carry whatever water must be carried," and so on. It was a very realistic assessment and a very clear statement of the principle, which I never forgot. He made it very articulately.
LAMB: What happened to Bob Gray after 1957?
LAPHAM: He then set up his own firm and became very influential as a lobbyist, as a man who'd make introductions, who arranges things, who helps legislation more easily through the channels of the Congress and so on. "Lobbyist," I believe, is the term.
LAMB: What happened to you?
LAPHAM: What happened to me? I went into the newspaper business. I became a newspaper reporter first for the San Francisco Examiner and then for the New York Herald Tribune. Then I became a magazine writer in most of the '60s for the Saturday Evening Post and for Life magazine.
LAMB: And then what?
LAPHAM: Then I became a writer for Harper's magazine in about 1970, and in 1971 I became, by default, a managing editor because there was one of those office politics things that happens in New York magazine offices fairly frequently. The then editor resigned; so did some of the other editors. I didn't agree with their unhappiness, so I stayed and on a Monday I was a writer and on a Tuesday I became a managing editor. I was the managing editor for four years, and then I became the editor in 1976.
LAMB: How long did you stay there?
LAPHAM: Well, I was the editor from 1976 to 1981. Then I was fired and spent two years in exile and rehired in 1983. The glorious return. I was recalled as the editor of the magazine. So I've been the editor twice -- once, 1976 to '81 and again from 1983 until now.
LAMB: You dedicate this book to "John R. MacArthur, who is wary of merchants, let along kings." Who is John R. MacArthur?
LAPHAM: John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's magazine and is related to the large MacArthur family, a well-known family in Chicago, and he became associated with Harper's magazine very early, in 1980 became interested in the magazine. It's a long story, but when the magazine went bankrupt in 1980, it was through his influence that the magazine was rescued first by the John R. MacArthur Foundation and then in turn by the Harper's magazine foundation. He is, first of all, a journalist and has himself written a good book called The Second Front which he published last year. It's his book about the press coverage of the Gulf War. Then he's also the publisher of the magazine, but he's a very good person for me to work for because he encourages freedom of expression. I mean, he is not nervous about offending the powers that be.
LAMB: Where does the MacArthur money come from originally?
LAPHAM: It originally comes from John R. MacArthur's grandfather, who was a man who made a great fortune in real estate and in insurance businesses and began to acquire his fortune in the Depression in the early 1930s.
LAMB: In the middle of that period when you were without a job, you had a dinner that you were invited to with Giscard d'Estaing, the former president of France. Tell that story.
LAPHAM: Again I'm trying to explain that the courtier spirit, the attitude of bowing and scraping that takes place in various large American institutions is true certainly in Washington, but it's also true of quite a few business corporations. It's true within the media. It's true in universities.
LAMB: Define the word courtier?
LAPHAM: A courtier is one who says to a succession of masters, "Make of me what you want. I am what you want me to be." In other words, it's a toady, a dependent, somebody willing to do whatever is asked by his or her boss and lives by making a constantly gracious impression. "Yes-man" would be another phrase for it. Anyway, in 1981 I was the editor of the magazine and I had been asked to a very small dinner at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York for Giscard d'Estaing. I was invited, I believe, on the first of August and then I was fired on the 15th of August and the dinner was on the 15th of September. A few days before the dinner, the Council called me up and wanted to know what title should go after my name on the little piece of paper that's distributed to everybody at the dinner. I, of course, by that time had none. There was this long and ghastly silence, and I finally managed to resolve it by saying that I wrote an occasional article for the Washington Post. I didn't have any permanent employment with the Post, but it was enough to get on the piece of paper.
LAMB: Would they have invited you if you didn't have a job?
LAPHAM: Probably not, no. Again, the notion of the court, the notion of titles, the notion of one is known by one's institutional affiliation, the plain democratic name. It has to have the "of" Mobil Oil Corporation, "of" the New York Times, "of" C-SPAN, "of" Harper's magazine, "of" whatever. We as Americans like to pride ourselves as individualists constantly, and one of the images of ourselves that we like the best is that of the Clint Eastwood figure, the man against the system, the cowboy faring west in the rain. But we, in fact, are people that are very much dependent upon our institutional identities and identifications. I am "of" the bank; I am "of" the paper; I am "of" the studio or whatever. This, of course, is one of the premises or theses of the book, which is as the courtier spirit, which is the accommodating spirit -- the democratic spirit is the one that simply speaks out and says whatever is in its mind, and candor is one of the great democratic political virtues. We're democrats to the extent that we try to tell each other what we know, what we've seen, what we feel. We're courtiers to the extent that we tell each other what each of us wants to hear. The book is saying that as more and more people in this country become more and more dependent on large institutions, whereas in the last part of the 19th century most Americans were self-employed -- something like 80 percent of the population, many of them farmers, obviously, but farmers and small craftsmen and businessmen -- in the 20th century as a large institutional organizations come forward. Now I think only 2 percent of the American people are self-employed. If one depends on an institution for one's whole existence -- I mean, not only medical insurance but clothes allowance, also pension, also place in the world, also business cards and so forth -- then the independent habit of mind tends to give way to the more accommodating habit of mind. That's one of the arguments.
LAMB: Note six in the back of the book, "The story of Kissinger's life is the story of the perfect courtier."
LAPHAM: Kissinger was a man who knew how to play the court world extremely well. He was discovered by Nelson Rockefeller. He'd been an academician at Harvard, a history professor, I believe, and then somehow he managed to get to Nelson Rockefeller. He provided Nelson Rockefeller with whatever theories -- Nelson Rockefeller is then governor of New York and had presidential ambitions -- and he provided him with theories of the Cold War, theories of nuclear disarmament, theories of nuclear exchange. I forget in what succession they came, but Kissinger, again, was a man always willing to arrange the world to fit the desire of his patron, whether it was Rockefeller or Nixon or sometimes important senior columnists in the media. He understood that the world was a world of poses, of the right word at the right time. Whether the theory was actually true of not, whether it had any relation to the facts or not was less important than the way it advanced or failed to advance Kissinger's career.
LAMB: It's a little bit off the subject but it's in your book and it's note number 12. You talk about an advertising executive who had to give an enema to a client once a month, once a week. What in the world is that story?
LAPHAM: That story is I'm saying that as the -- well it's the story about -- I'm trying to put it delicately.
LAMB: Is this new information, by the way, in this book?
LAPHAM: No.
LAMB: Is this the first time it's been published, this little story?
LAPHAM: Yes.
LAMB: You found this out?
LAPHAM: A fellow explained this to me.
LAMB: Well, tell the whole story, if you don't mind.
LAPHAM: Well, again, as people become more dependent on their patrons, more willing to do whatever is necessary to do to get the vote or to get the part or to get the account, people who are in the position of granting those requests begin to have more and more refined desires and appetites. It's a variation on the old story about the Hollywood producer who insists that the young aspiring actress go to bed with him before she can get the part. In this instance it's a story of an ad salesman who is dependent on a client for a very large account, a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year in business for the magazine in question. The client had a weird sexual request which required the advertising fellow to show up, I think, once every two months in a motel somewhere in New Jersey and administer an enema to the gentleman.
LAMB: By the way, you say he had to wear a seersucker suit, a bow tie, either yellow or pink.
LAPHAM: There were certain sartorial requirements. But it happens to be a fairly unhappy example or dismal example, but there are many, many examples like that throughout the society -- people that are in power that have power over their dependents. This essentially was the argument between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. It was the argument about what does the individual in authority, what can he insist upon on the part of his subordinates?
LAMB: You have a letter in here. I'll read just a little bit of it. "Dear Mr. President: Herewith the first run off the press of a book called The Making Of The President 1968, whose hero is Richard M. Nixon." Later on you say this gentleman says, "The campaign that this book tries to describe was the campaign of a man of courage and of conscience and the respect it wrung for me, which I hope is evident, surprised me week by week as I went along." Later this man writes, "There is so much difference between being a reporter and being a citizen" -- and his last line -- "and this president can also call on me as a friend. Sincerely, Teddy White." Why did you put that in this book?
LAPHAM: I put that in because I'm trying to show the relation of the media, the press, to power, which is again the relation of the courtier trying to curry favor among the people whom it describes. In that particular book, White had some rather sharp things to say about Nixon, but he wanted to maintain his place at court. I believe this is true, I don't know if this is in the book, but I've been told and I think it's true that Kay Graham in the Washington Post shortly after Nixon was impeached -- I mean the same month -- sent him a nice note and said, "Don't worry. When it's all over, we'll have dinner." The relation is always to power. If you're out of power nobody can remember your name, and if you're in power everybody's your best friend. Nixon's career is a brilliant demonstration of that -- a man who was considered a used car salesman, impeached. Twenty years ago his name was synonymous with scoundrel and crook, and now his name is synonymous with statesmen and philosopher.
LAMB: The last line of the jacket on your books says, "Several facets of this question come into brilliant focus in this important book by one of our most incisive social critics. No one who cares about the future of our nation should miss reading The Wish For Kings." They're writing about you. The only reason I bring that up is that you then have a note in here that says, The talent for self-promotion is by no means unique to Washington. In New York it is common practice for authors to write the jacket copy for their own books." Did you write the jacket copy for your own book?
LAPHAM: I don't think so. I certainly edited it. What happens is that the publisher writes it and then they submit it to the author, so I'm sure I had a hand in that.
LAMB: Did you worry about the fact that you had a hand in that and then used this footnote. Because you're critical of a guy by the name of Gordon Lish, who wrote the following about himself: "There was no other contemporary figure in the nation's literary community whose presence is as widely or as urgently felt."
LAPHAM: I think it's a question of degree. I thought Lish was a little over the top. I thought the words that the publisher used on my own behalf were fairly clich‚d and familiar.
LAMB: What about this book? It's published by whom?
LAPHAM: By Grove Press.
LAMB: Is that owned by Harper's?
LAPHAM: No. It's owned by the Atlantic Monthly. There is something called the Atlantic Monthly Press and then there was something called Grove Press, and just about the same time that this book was published this spring, Atlantic Monthly Press acquired Grove Press, so now they are a joint publishing company.
LAMB: Why did you want to write this book?
LAPHAM: I wanted to write the book because I was trying to describe what I saw. I was trying to report accurately the circumstance of what I kept encountering. Again, it's not only about government. It's about universities, it's about corporations, about the media, and I don't exempt myself from the conditions that I describe. People constantly go around and say the American democracy is in trouble or the United States is in decline and so forth. It seems to me that may be true, but one of the reasons that is true is there is an absence of democrats, small "d." I mean, something is evolving in this country and has been over the last 20 years away from the notion of democratic self government and, even more to the point, a loss of face in the democratic idea. I mean, freedom is good but it's not enough. Self-government would be wonderful if we had the time and the energy and the resources to practice it, but in the meantime, give us somebody who will take care of us. That's the wish for kings. The wish for kings is a very old wish. It's the wish that brings in Caesar. It's the wish that brings in the man on the white horse, the magical figure that will resolve all one's trouble, and it is antithetical to the democratic notion of discovering one's own future.
LAMB: You write, "I have come across only a small number of people who can talk about any particular book at convincing length."
LAPHAM: That is true in New York. That's a remark, I believe, about the New York literary world where the conversation is much more apt to be about the author's standing in the market. Everybody has read the reviews and everybody knows whether the book is up or down or in or in or out and everybody has something to say about it in a couple of sentences. But I find, at least within the court world of the New York literary scene, that relatively few people have had the time to read all the way through the book. I find that when I travel around the country, that if I'm in California or if I'm in Ohio or Texas, and I run across somebody who has read the book, they're apt to have read the whole thing and are prepared to really talk about it, whereas in New York I get the current opinion.
LAMB: You had a book show on television?
LAPHAM: I did.
LAMB: What was the name of it?
LAPHAM: It was called "Bookmark" and it was on Public Broadcasting and it was on for three years, 1989. '90, '91.
LAMB: What was the format?
LAPHAM: Very similar to this one except it went for half an hour. We'd take a book, just the way we're doing now, and I would play your part and you would play mine, and then often I would have one or two other people in the conversation, usually writers who had thought about or had written about the subject who could add to the conversation and either argue with the writer or provide a different perspective. The object was to try to get a conversation about ideas going in half an hour.
LAMB: If you still had the show and you were playing my role and you had somebody else sitting at the table for this book, what kind of person would you invite?
LAPHAM: I might ask somebody like Hedrick Smith. Hedrick Smith wrote a book called The Power Game, a very interesting book that came out, I think, four years ago, and he's a well-known figure in Washington. Certainly from the Washington side, this would be a familiar topic to him, and he would agree with some of it and argue with some of it. But, again, he's very good on television. I mean, he would have been an interesting presence.
LAMB: What happened to the show?
LAPHAM: The show lost its funding. It was supported by the Bell Atlantic Telephone Company and they supported it for three years, and then the people who had been responsible for that within Bell Atlantic went to other companies. The new people at Bell Atlantic had no interest in it, and I couldn't raise money for it. I tried. It was at that point running in 147 stations. It was beginning to acquire an audience. I went to various corporations, I went to some foundations, but I could never find the money to put it back on.
LAMB: What did you thing of public television, and how does that fit in? You write something about it in The Wish For Kings.
LAPHAM: Public television, in my experience, I thought was very much a part of the court world. In other words, they had certain people I came up against, they had certain set attitudes. I brought the book show first to the station in Washington, and I was simply told, "We here at the station are simply not interested in books. We never want to hear more than three minutes a day of a book review on NPR and we appreciate your concern, but no." This was even with the funding presented to them. I went to that meeting with people from Bell Atlantic. Then we encountered the same thing when we tried to put the show on through Philadelphia. New York was willing to take the show, but only if we dressed it up with production values. So, I encountered hostility to books, to ideas, on the part of PBS. This kind of show would be considered talking heads and therefore not interested, not good for ratings, not show business. I encountered that attitude almost wherever I went within PBS. I think they're wrong because I happen to like talking heads. I think they're interesting, but I also think that the Public Broadcasting System should try to do more of this kind of thing because, as you know, there are a lot of interesting people in the country and they have a lot of interesting things to say and not enough of them appear, certainly not on the networks and not enough on the Public Broadcasting System.
LAMB: I wanted to run a couple of other comments you make in here about some individuals. I just want to read them and get your reactions to why you said it. "The television and publishing media award Alan Dershowitz the reputation of an incomparable trial lawyer in homage to his talent for publicity rather than in recognition of his record in appeals cases, which as of the summer of 1992 stood at 9 wins and 39 losses."
LAPHAM: Yes. The tendency again is to go for the reputation. Dershowitz is a great self-promoter. He has won some spectacular cases but he has lost more than he has won. But people like, I believe, Leona Helmsly and then Mike Tyson both were persuaded by his reputation, and both of them went more or less directly to jail, as I remember. He didn't triumph in their cases. But, again, the media image, the reputation, often is a surrogate for the work itself. Take Kissinger and take Nixon. Both of them have still reputations as prescient statesmen, people who were clear-eyed and saw the shape of the world, and yet if you look back on their record, it's like Dershowitz's record. They were wrong on Vietnam. They couldn't understand the oil crisis of the early '70s. They certainly didn't understand Iran or the Shah. They didn't foresee the change in Russia. Neither of them ever understood the economy. They didn't understand what it would mean to change the gold standard in the early '70s. So the record is based, to a large extent, on image and very little on substance.
LAMB: Elizabeth Taylor. "The media chatter incessantly about the people for whom the society has the least use, about Elizabeth Taylor's wedding or Jay Leno's contract or Maria Shriver's hair, and they take little notice of people or professions on whom the society utterly depends." How come?
LAPHAM: The former figures, the celebrity figures, tend to be more fun. They can be brilliantly illuminated. They provide gossip. They're decorative. To keep celebrities, in a way, is like keeping pets. They're expensive, but they relieve people of their own grief or their own concerns. It's like a great puppet show that takes place or it's like a pageant at court, to get back to that image. It's like a masked ball, and these people are more fun to talk about and with the wonders of the modern technology, with the television, people throughout the country identify with them. The stars of afternoon television soap opera shows receive 100,000 letters a week from fans telling them things that the correspondents would never tell their fathers, wives, husbands. You know, confessionals.
LAMB: You write about a dinner party you were in attendance and you were sitting next to a lady and talking about democracy. Before I ask you about that, let me read this statement you write. "Over the course of the last 20 years and across the span of an extensive acquaintance among the people who enjoy most of the country's advantages -- bond salesmen and politicians, as well as publishers, corporate vice presidents, novelists, lawyers, English professors, and under-secretaries of State -- I have noticed that most of the respondents fear and despise both the theory and the practice of democracy."
LAPHAM: I think that's true. It's the thing I said earlier when I said that if you asked me, why did I write this book, the answer is that I've encountered -- if you ask me, what is the trouble with the American democracy, I will say to you the absence of democrats.
LAMB: They despise it, though?
LAPHAM: I think they fear it and certain people despise it. The despising takes the form of the superior judgment and taste, let's say, of either New York or Washington. We happy few, we here in New York understand it, but they on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains won't understand it. Or we happy few here in Washington know what is meant by it, but they won't know what is meant by it.
LAMB: What about that lady? The lady at the party dovetails with what you just said.
LAPHAM: Yes. I'm not sure which lady we're talking about.
LAMB: "I found myself wondering how it is possible to preserve the democratic spirit in a society distinguished by the absence of democrats. At a dinner in Washington in February I was seated next to a woman who thought that democracy was suppose to be easy, quiet, orderly, peaceful and safe."
LAPHAM: Right. That's true.
LAMB: You didn't name some of these people. They're going to know who they are when they read this.
LAPHAM: I would think so.
LAMB: Are you going to be invited back to these dinners, do you think?
LAPHAM: I have no idea. Maybe. That woman sort of thought in terms of democracy as a 4th of July parade, not as a ceaseless argument. Again the attitude toward, please no confrontation. Democracy is about confrontation. It's about you and I disagreeing with each other. It's not easy, it's not orderly, it's not especially safe. The language of the court, the language of people who despise the vulgarity of too sharp an opinion or too garish a taste, don't want to argue. This woman was amazed to discover that individual property rights could sometimes actually be in conflict with community rights. This came to her as great news. When I say "despise" and when I say "few democrats," then you have to look at the instinct all over the country to sort of withdraw into enclaves. Take the city of Los Angeles, where you have the people in Bel Aire or in Pasadena or in Beverly Hills living behind safe perimeters, behind walls, behind their own police forces, just trying to divorce and distance themselves from the proletarians wandering in the streets. Now that's happening all across the country. The whole advertising business is based on the point of making class distinctions.
LAMB: I think one of the things is that you dish it out to just about everybody in here on both sides, and I want to make sure I get the balance. You say, "Bill Clinton casts himself as a friend of the American victim. The promises he made in the name of a custodial state could easily have been confused with a program of diet and exercise for a generation of lost children. An abbreviated a list of his promises reads as follows," and you go through all of his promises. Earlier you said, "The philosophers of the liberal left, several of whom compose Gov. Clinton's thesis of economic deliverance believe that although money is wicked in the hands of mere individuals, it regains its blessedness in the hands of the state."
LAPHAM: Yes. Both left and right believe that money is wonderful if only properly used. The conservative is apt to think that it's best left to the individual with no government regulation or rules. And the state-ist, the person who says the government knows best and therefore if we spend the money on behalf of others, it's a different use, but in either instance money is blessed only in the hands of the right people, however they happen to be defined.
LAMB: Is there any way to define your own politics at this stage in your life? After writing this book did you conclude anything?
LAPHAM: I conclude that I want to try to learn how to describe the circumstances of the American democracy at this point in time in a language that's more accurate than the one we've been using. One of our difficulties in this country is we don't have a vocabulary yet in which we can accurately tell each other what we want. What are the words to solve, let's say, the health care crisis. There is no solution until we can come to a prior agreement as to what we expect. Otherwise the desire for immortality -- and we now spend $600 billion a year or 7 percent of our GNP -- and that will just continue. We will bankrupt ourselves because of the desire to stay immortal. How are we going to control that desire, that urge, unless we come to some prior agreement as to what we're about?
LAMB: Are you a liberal or a conservative?
LAPHAM: Well, I would say I was culturally a conservative, but I tend to be politically a liberal. I have elements of both in them.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite president?
LAPHAM: You mean other than Lincoln and Jefferson? They're the ones I probably know the most about.
LAMB: What do you think of the Kennedy legacy?
LAPHAM: I think it was part of the wish for kings. I think there was less there than we wished there would be.
LAMB: Lyndon Johnson?
LAPHAM: Johnson, to me, was a fascinating figure. I actually met Johnson. I worked in the White House press corps briefly while he was president. I've read quite a lot of books about Johnson, and I don't have a simple answer. The elements are so mixed in Johnson that I think he's in some ways almost a tragic figure.
LAMB: Jimmy Carter?
LAPHAM: Carter, I think, is much better as an ex-president than he was as a president. I misread Carter at the time, I think. The more I know about Carter, the more impressed I am with him.
LAMB: Ross Perot?
LAPHAM: Perot, I think, is an autocrat. I read him that way. I see him as a man who if he could run the country -- he knows what's wrong, but the way he wants to fix it, to me, is very unclear. I get the uneasy feeling with Perot that he would like the country to be run either as a prison or as a monastery. I mean, he would be the abbot or the warden. I don't think he has much sense of democratic debate.
LAMB: "Reagan taught the country that it wasn't necessary for a president to know anything about law or foreign policy or free speech or trees or black people or whales. Government was a salesman's smile and a gift for a phrase."
LAPHAM: I think that's true of Reagan. I think Reagan was shrewder than many people thought, but I also think he was primarily an actor. He was a man who read a script, and what the words meant, I often think he didn't know nor did he think it was important. Star Wars would be a wonderful example. He was on his way to a budget meeting, the first budget conference, the summit. The night before Jim Baker, who was then the secretary of the Treasury, had given him a briefing book. They get in the limousine to go to the summit the next day, and Baker says to Reagan, "Well, did you have a chance to read the briefing book?" Reagan looked at him in horror and said, "But, Jim, the Sound of Music was on last night." Of course he didn't have time to read it. I don't think he had to be especially well informed on those various heads.
LAMB: Where were you born?
LAPHAM: San Francisco.
LAMB: How long did you live there?
LAPHAM: I lived there until I was about 13 years old, and then my parents moved to New York and I came to New York and went to boarding school and then to college in Connecticut.
LAMB: What professions were your parents in?
LAPHAM: My father had been first in the shipping business and then in the banking business.
LAMB: What impact did Cambridge have on you?
LAPHAM: Cambridge showed me the difference between an American university education and an English university education. I learned to admire C. S. Lewis who was then at Cambridge and E. M. Forester, who was then at Cambridge, and so I was allowed into the presence of men whom I thought exemplary in many ways.
LAMB: Were you concerned when you wrote this book that you were stepping on a lot of toes and that you might not be welcome in some places that you use to go to?
LAPHAM: No, because writing a monthly column for Harper's magazine for a number of years, I've already stepped on quite a few toes, so I don't expect any new doors will be closed.
LAMB: Has there been any different reaction to this book, say, than the magazine? Are people buying this book that don't normally buy Harper's?
LAPHAM: I think so. I think so. I'm beginning to get letters from people who aren't familiar with what I've written, and it's very encouraging.
LAMB: How's it selling?
LAPHAM: I think it's selling quite well.
LAMB: What does that mean to you?
LAPHAM: All that means is my publisher tells me that it's doing well. I don't know what that means, but I also know that people go and ask for it in book stores and it's already been sold out and they've had to order another 20 copies.
LAMB: What's the circulation of Harper's?
LAPHAM: 210,000.
LAMB: Is it making money?
LAPHAM: No. Harper's last year had its best year since 1962. We only lost $67,000.
LAMB: How long are you going to keep it up?
LAPHAM: I think we could keep up that loss for quite a long time.
LAMB: How about you? How long are you going to stay the editor?
LAPHAM: As long as I can get up in the morning and think that it's fun to go down to work.
LAMB: The next book?
LAPHAM: The next book is about Yale University.
LAMB: When?
LAPHAM: Published the fall of 1995.
LAMB: Our guest has been Lewis Lapham. He's the editor of Harper's and this is what the book looks like. The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay. Thank you very much.
LAPHAM: Thank you, Brian.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.