THE AMERICAN ESTABLISHMENT by Leonard & Mark Silk Silk

THE AMERICAN ESTABLISHMENT

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The American Establishment, according to the Silks, is alive and well-with-us and best left to pursue its ""disinterested"" interests unobserved! Leonard Silk is the New York Times economics columnist; Mark Silk, his historian son, is a teaching fellow at Harvard. But surely that daft, hands-off conclusion is not explained by their affiliation with two leading Establishment institutions. Neither, however, has it much to do with the rest of this quasi-academic, mostly journalistic pastiche. First comes some sketchy background--tracing the Establishment to the established Unitarian church of Massachusetts and Unitarian Harvard, identifying Charles W. Eliot and Walter Lippmann as its ""forefathers,"" citing Lippmann's 1929 call for a ""disinterested"" leadership as its credo. On the question of what, if anything, distinguishes this new Establishment from the old Northeastern elite, the authors are mum. The bulk of the book then consists of patchwork pieces (some history, some reportage, some commentary) on five Establishment institutions: Harvard, the New York Times, the Ford Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations. Highlight of the Harvard piece is some telling scuttlebut on the School of Public Administration/Kennedy School of Government, its ""technocratic"" nature and its preemption of public-policy study. The Times' section has a frisson too: publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger's ouster of editorial page chief John Oakes for his perceived anti-business stand (and Sulzberger's imperious endorsement of Daniel Moynihan for the Senate). But in neither case are these disclosures seen to be significant. We learn how, gingerly, the Ford Foundation embarked on its Gray Areas demonstration projects, the model for Great Society programs, and then launched, in Bed-Stuy, the non-adversarial Community Development Corporation. Can the Foundation, now in partnership with business, continue to function as a social catalyst? No comment. We're apprised of the beginnings of Brookings as a social-science think-tank and its relations with successive administrations; but not of how its fellows are selected, how much of their research is commissioned or independent, etc. We learn much more, proportionately, about the select, banker-dominated Council on Foreign Relations--enough to be somewhat wary, as indeed the Silks are, of its new public presence. But then--surveying the relations between the Establishment and Business and the Establishment and Government--they decide (instancing JFK) that ""the Establishment can be useful to a strong leader, but rarely can it lead."" A skeptic might feel (especially in light of some of the insider gossip here) that the truth is far more complicated--and that today's Establishment, far from being a single, ""disinterested"" entity, is a shifting alliance of overlapping, quite specific and influential interests. No substance as a serious study, but not altogether a dud--some of what those august institutions are up to does, profitably, emerge.

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 1980
Publisher: Basic Books