WALTER LIPPMANN AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ronald Steel
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WALTER LIPPMANN AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A difficult subject has found a conscientious exponent--as regards columnist Lippmann and postwar U.S. foreign policy, an incisive, even eloquent one. Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was a Harvard wunderkind drawn into socialism (Steel posits) as a Jewish outsider. In short order he worked as Lincoln Steffens' legman, as an aide to the Socialist mayor of Schenectady, as an editorialist for the Masses and the Call; at 23 he produced A Preface to Politics, the first application of Freudian concepts (of human drives and sublimation) to political thought. His reputation made, he became an editor of the new New Republic, a writer/ advisor to TR, a favorite of eminent elders (Louis Brandeis, Learned Hand), the author--most strikingly--of several of Wilson's Fourteen Points; and, meanwhile, an ex-Socialist. It was the first of many shifts--in Lippmann's theorizing, his attitude toward public figures, his position on public issues. Steel cites the discrepancies, lauds Lippmann's ""intellectual flexibility,"" never comes to grips with the problem of inconsistency in a professional pundit--such as Lippmann became on the New Republic and remained as a columnist for the World (1922-31) and the Herald-Tribune (1931-1967). Neither--in noting that Lippmann was silent on the Nazi persecution of Jews (after a ""deeply offensive"" 1933 column), that he clamored for Japanese expulsion from the West Coast in World War II--does he face the incongruity of this behavior in the author of books of moral philosophy. The result, here, is that the interwar years lack force or focus: seeing the complexity, we seek more than Steel's narrow psychological interpretation. But as World War II progresses, as Lippmann--the golfing partner of moguls-becomes the voice of reason against mindless anti-communism, Cold War militancy, American messianism, McCarthy, and finally the Vietnam War, his pragmatism becomes principle; and Steel, expert in these events, cuts through to the quick of them. If the book has a dramatic climax, it's the presence of radical journalist I. F. Stone at the Lippmanns' annual mint julep garden party in 1966. Lippmann's private life and personal habits we learn about incidentally--save for the ""scandal"" of his affair with (and subsequent marriage to) the wife of his best friend, related here as she told it to the author. (The episode is more chilling than otherwise--Lippmann asked his father-in-law to break the news to his wife, and he never saw or spoke to her again.) He was not a lovable man and perhaps not an admirable one; one might even wonder whether he deserves to be called ""without doubt the nation's greatest journalist."" But he changed great events by his participation in them or his opinions on them--and it makes for a momentous story.

Pub Date: Sept. 4th, 1980
ISBN: 0765804646
Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown