Lewis Lapham Interview
May 2006 Issue
I spoke with Lewis Lapham in New York City on the eve of his departure, after nearly thirty years, as the legendary editor of Harper’s Magazine. We met for drinks at the Noho Star on Bleecker Street, around the corner from the Harper’s offices. It was a Sunday evening, and Lapham had been in the office all day, laboring over his “Notebook” column.
“I desperately want to get out of here,” he said on the phone. When I arrived, he was sitting in the corner of the bar, wearing his trademark suit, tie, and silk pocket square. His deadline looming, he still wasn’t done with his column, and he was scratching some notes on a memo pad.
“I don’t write quickly,” he explained.
Lapham’s precise and beautiful prose (BusinessWeek called him “a connoisseur of the perfect word”) earned him the 1995 National Magazine Award for essays and criticism. He has written countless wry and witty essays on the American cultural and political scene. His many books include Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy, Money and Class in America, The Wish for Kings, and 30 Satires.
He has also written a screenplay, The American Ruling Class, which debuted in Washington, D.C., a few days after I spoke with him.
For all his accomplishments and erudition, Lapham is warm and accessible and generous with his time. We spoke for more than an hour and a half, and when we walked out of the bar, Lapham lit up before hailing a taxi. “Cigarettes are life itself,” he said. He offered to share a cab uptown, and on the ride I elicited his opinions on Russ Feingold: “I would certainly vote for him hands down, going away, over these other self-serving politicians.” And Hillary Clinton: “I don’t have any respect or regard or hope for Hillary. You remember when the Clintons left the White House, they had an eighteen-wheel truck pull up outside. They looted the place. That’s who they are—bandits. Fine. Good. But don’t have any illusions about them. That’s their métier. Tell Hillary to bring her truck.”
At seventy-one, Lapham seems gleefully at ease to be out of step with the political and journalistic Establishment.
Q: What has the response been to your essay calling for the President’s impeachment?
Lewis Lapham: The response has been very favorable. It’s heartening. From what I can tell, there is a lot more feeling in favor of impeaching Bush than one would be led to believe by reading the mainstream media coverage. The attitude that comes out of The New York Times or The Washington Post is one of condescension. They say it is impossible, it will never happen, it’s naïve, and merely aiding and abetting the Republicans who can now go into the November elections promoting Bush as a thwarted hero.
Q: What do you make of the Times’s editorial that said calls for impeachment and even Senator Feingold’s censure bill will only embolden the right?
Lapham: Well, the right doesn’t need emboldening. The right is perfectly happy to lie, cheat, steal, say anything that comes conveniently to mind. If you make your politics a matter of waiting to see what the other fellow will do, you have already lost the argument, or the election. And it is this kind of pussyfooting on the part of the Democratic Party that has led us into this morass.
We presumably elect members of Congress to look out for the interests of the American citizen, to protect and uphold the Constitution. Here we have the executive trampling on the legislature and on the judiciary, and it is up to the Congress to correct that condition. Because that is a fouling of the constitutional form of government.
Q: What’s to be done now?
Lapham: In the short term, it’s trying to get the Democratic Party in the forthcoming election to take control of at least one of the houses of Congress. And if the Democrats fail to win control of either the House or Senate in November, then they are utterly useless and must be replaced with a third party.
We also need an awakening on the part of large numbers of people, both Democrat and Republican, of a political consciousness that has been dormant for the better part of the last thirty years. We have to change the notion that politics isn’t important, that what’s important is the economy and money, and that politicians serve at the pleasure of their corporate sponsors. They might as well be hired accordion players at a hospitality tent at a golf tournament.
I graduated from Yale in the 1950s, and the word “public” was still a good word. Public meant public health, public service, public school, commonwealth. And “private” suggested greed, selfishness, and so on. Those words have been turned around. That was the great triumph of the Reagan Revolution. By the time we hit the end of the Reagan Administration, “public” had become a dirty word, a synonym for slum, poor school, incompetent government, all things destructive. And “private” had become glorious: private club, private trout stream, private airplane.
Q: You say you recognize the particular kind of venality of this Administration because of your background. Can you explain what you mean?
Lapham: I know the ethos of the American oligarchy of which young Bush is a servant. It was a tempting subject for discussion and commentary. He’s an agent of the selfish greed that usually overtakes a fat and stupid oligarchy. Aristotle makes this point in his Politics. He has a circle. At one point you have an oligarchy, and it becomes rancid with its own wealth and stupidity. That in turn gives way to tyranny. Then, after a period of time, tyranny turns into anarchy, and out of that comes some form of democracy, which then deteriorates into oligarchy, and you go around the circle again.
Q: I can’t tell if you’re hopeful or if you just see an inexorable decline.
Lapham: Well, I’m open to surprise. Political change is always possible. But you can’t depend on mercenaries and foreign loans forever.
Q: What was your family like?
Lapham: My father started out in life as a newspaper reporter and then went into the family business, which was shipping, in the 1930s. Then he became a banker. But he had a wonderful prose style. And he was deeply interested in history and in writing. He was a fine man. And so was my grandfather. My grandfather was an overseer of Harvard. My great, great, great grandfather was the Secretary of War in the Jefferson Administration.
I grew up as an idealist. I was ten years old in 1945 and my grandfather was the mayor of San Francisco. That year, the United Nations charter was written in the San Francisco opera house, and I was excused from school to attend all the plenary sessions. So at the age of ten I was passing canapés to Jack Kennedy and Molotov and Alger Hiss.
Q: Did you always want to be a journalist?
Lapham: I started out wanting to be a history professor. After Yale, I went to Cambridge, England. At Cambridge I found out I didn’t really have the patience or temperament for footnotes and scholarship. So I became a journalist and an editor. But I like to read history. I wouldn’t know how to make sense of the newspapers unless I had a sense of history, a sense of context. Let us say that all of us are embarked on the human story that starts however many thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. And here we are in Chapter 498, and unless we know what happened in the first 497 chapters, we are at a loss. We then become subject to magical thinking.
You see that in the Bush Administration. This is a form of magical thinking: the idea that you can transform the Middle East and make the deserts of Iraq bloom with small New England towns built on the model of Greenwich, Connecticut. Anyone with a sense of history knows that was unlikely.
Q: We on the left have been admonished that Bush is not stupid, just intellectually incurious.
Lapham: Bush is clever, I assume, in a somewhat limited way. I mean he’s incompetent in a way that a lot of corporate CEOs are incompetent. You could put him in a class with Bernie Ebbers or Ken Lay. But he makes a virtue of his ignorance: Don’t confuse me with qualms or history; I have the will to change the world.
He wants power. Whereas somebody like Kerry doesn’t want power and wouldn’t know what to do with it if he got it. And Kerry does not have the strength of his own supposed convictions. That’s why Bush got elected. I knew a lot of people who disagreed with him but who voted for him. They said, “At least the man knows what he thinks, and he’s not afraid to act.” Whereas Kerry, who knows what he thinks? He’s somewhere on a surfboard in a plastic suit.
Q: How do you deride people in Harper’s who support Bush without alienating them?
Lapham: Well, obviously I alienate a lot of them.
Q: But you act as a kind of translator or spy—conveying the conversations of the upper crust to the reader who would otherwise never be privy to them.
Lapham: Well, the true idea of democracy is that we learn from people with whom we don’t agree. Societies perish when they become afraid of differences of opinion. So it’s not personal with me. I’m perfectly happy to sit down at breakfast with Newt Gingrich and listen to him present himself as a teacher of civilization.
Q: You write a lot about class.
Lapham: America is about class. To pretend that it isn’t is very ignorant. No society has ever existed without some kind of a ruling class. I don’t care whether you’re in Athens in 400 BC or in France in the 1770s or in America in the 1920s. At Yale for 100 years the class rankings were based on the wealth of the student; the richest kid in the class was the first student in the class.
Q: You have described these nervous, callow college students who come to see you about getting jobs in New York. You wrote that they don’t quote poetry or talk about ideas anymore. Instead, they want to know how to get a corporate job and fit in. Is that still your perception?
Lapham: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I have a film opening in Washington called The American Ruling Class, and it begins in the courtyard of Calhoun College at Yale on graduation day three years ago. And there are two kids—one rich, the other not so rich. One is the Groton blond crew-team guy, and the other is the hard-knocks intellectual from Brooklyn. And both of them tell me there is no such thing in America as class. And I say, “Why do you think your parents sent you here for $40,000 a year? They really didn’t send you here to read the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, right?”
“No, no,” they say. “Classless society.”
I say, “OK, if you change your mind, come and see me.”
They come and see me in New York, and they say they want to meet the ruling class. So I play Virgil to their Dante. I take them to see Arthur Sulzberger at The New York Times, I take them to see Larry Summers, Bill Bradley, Pete Peterson at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mike Medavoy in Hollywood, Robert Altman, Jim Baker in Houston. Finally, they both get the point—and go to work for Goldman Sachs.
Q: Ugh! That’s such a depressing ending to the story!
Q: Because that’s not my hope for my own kids, and for what America looks like. I come from the Midwest, where it feels a little more egalitarian. There’s less of that stark feeling of class that is so much more evident here on the East Coast.
Lapham: Yes, that is true. You’re right. Most of the editors of Harper’s Magazine going back to 1850 have been people from west of the Alleghenies. Our biggest circulation is in the West, and it has been for at least 100 years. And that’s good, I like that, because if you were to ask me what is the bias of Harper’s Magazine, I would say to you it is the bias of the old Midwestern progressive La Follette.
Q: How did you edit Harper’s?
Lapham: I always edited the magazine with a sympathy for the writer rather than the editor. I never told a writer, “We have to have an essay on the black woman question.” I would say, “What is it you care about? What do you think you want to say?” My concern at Harper’s Magazine was to find writers who were unafraid to speak in their own voices on the basis of what they themselves saw, knew, thought.
Q: Whom do you admire?
Lapham: I admire Ralph Nader. I wish in 2004 he had run for the Senate. His Presidential campaign was mistimed. But I admire almost anybody that tries to speak up for himself or herself. I admire writers.
Any political regeneration comes out of a better concern for the language. This is Orwell’s point in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He says it is the foolish and awful and thoughtless use of language that allows us to not think. And unless we pay attention to the meaning of words, we are subject to dealers in quack religion and political chicane.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.
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