Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin, and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio.
Lewis Lapham and Harper’s Magazine are forever linked. As its editor for nearly 30 years, Lapham began each issue with “Notebook,” an essay written in his beautifully precise prose on the political and cultural climate of our times. He’s been compared to Twain and to Montaigne.
His expensive-looking suits, complete with pocket square, evoke another comparison. To sit across from Lapham you’re struck with a sensation that you’ve stumbled onto some film noir set, and some of the stories he recounts belong to that genre.
Like when he got his first job as a rookie reporter at The San Francisco Examiner.
Lewis Lapham: This is 1957. Reporters would lie around on couches with hats over their faces waiting for news of a murder. And then I, as the cub, would go out to the scene of the murder with the photographer. The photographer had a Speed Graflex camera, wore a sharkskin suit and a loud hand-painted tie and his name was Seymour Snare.
Seymour and I would prowl the lower depths in order to find sensational headlines for the first edition. In those days the paper had six or seven editions and we would do the late-afternoon edition with the murder headline –
Alec Baldwin: How old were you?
Lewis Lapham: I was 22.
Alec Baldwin: So you were a kid.
Lewis Lapham: Entirely a kid.
Alec Baldwin: And this was not the background you came from. You didn’t come from a tough working-class background.
Lewis Lapham: No, no, no. And that’s one of the reasons –
Alec Baldwin: Describe where you came from.
Lewis Lapham: Well, I came out of the affluent, privileged –
Alec Baldwin: San Francisco society.
Lewis Lapham: – San Francisco society. My grandfather was the mayor of the city between 1942 and 1946 during World War II, and he would go out on the launch to meet carriers when they would come in from the Pacific War and I would be piped aboard with the mayor to meet Admiral Nimitz or Admiral Halsey on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Also, as the mayor presided over the charter of the United Nations in 1945 in San Francisco, and he made sure that I was excused from school to attend the plenary sessions.
And then he would give diplomatic cocktail parties – and I can remember at the age of ten passing canapés to Molotov and to Stettinius and to Alger Hiss and John Foster Dulles.
And then I went to boarding school in New England and from there to Yale University and after that to Cambridge, England.
Announcer: At Cambridge Lapham considered becoming a history professor, but decided he wasn’t cut out for the footnotes. Then he briefly toyed with acting but realized he was only good at playing characters to whom he was sympathetic. In the end, journalism called.
Lewis Lapham says he was a precious youth when got back from England and took the job at The San Francisco Examiner. He had a lot to learn.
Lewis Lapham: I can remember, Alec, the first piece I ever wrote for the paper was in Oakland. They sent me to cover a flower show and I went to the flower show and I wrote 4,000 words and with all kinds of wonderful adjectives and –
Alec Baldwin: Sure, alliteration.
Lewis Lapham: – straight out of Henry James. Right. The senior guy on the beat in Oakland was a man named Crowley and he looked at me and he said, ‘Lewis, these are the most beautiful 4,000 words I have ever read.’ He said, ‘There were tears in my eyes.’ But, he said, ‘I tell you what; why don’t you see if you can cut it in half.’ Great pain.
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
Lewis Lapham: I was, you know, destroying –
Alec Baldwin: Your child.
Lewis Lapham: – immortal. I brought it back to Crowley and Crowley looked at it and said, ‘Lewis, I thought the first 4,000 words were truly beautiful but these are even more beautiful, but see if you can cut it in half again.’
And we went through this over a period of – it finally came out as one paragraph.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, God.
Lewis Lapham: And what I learned in the newspaper business was to write on deadline but also to trim and –
Alec Baldwin: Concision.
Lewis Lapham: Concision, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And then when you left –
Lewis Lapham: And the other reason of course to be in the newspaper business was to learn about the American democracy. I mean I didn’t know how the city worked or what politics were or – you know, I’d lived a privileged life in a bubble.
Alec Baldwin: What were some of the first insights you had into the American political system from that vantage point?
Lewis Lapham: It was really about who you knew. I mean it wasn’t the –
Alec Baldwin: Right or wrong.
Lewis Lapham: – it was ‘What was the deal?’ ‘What was the trade?’ ‘Could we both get something out of it?’
It mattered that you could speak well, that you were adroit, also that you liked people.
My sense of most of the politicians I’ve known have been that they have genuine liking for their fellow human beings. I mean there are exceptions
Alec Baldwin: Such as?
Lewis Lapham: Cheney would be a beautiful example. I mean Cheney, I think – and the trouble with so many of the conservative politicians that have been in power over the last 30 years is they don’t have that quality; or at least they don’t seem to me to have that quality. You see, this is the difference between – a democratic society is one in – it is held together by mutual feeling and respect for one’s fellow citizen. I hold my fellow citizen in thoughtful regard, not because he is beautiful or rich or famous, but because he is my fellow citizen.
The kind of a society that gathers around a court, the kind of society that you would see in the court of either Elizabeth I or Louis XIV – a court society is one where it is all about interest, it is all about hanging in the trapeze of one’s connections; it’s very, very cold.
I mean that’s the whole move toward the resort-gated community. I mean the rich in the United States today live in a completely different world.
Alec Baldwin: But do you think it’s always been that way? Meaning, are the wealthy today different from the wealthy two generations ago? Three generations ago?
Lewis Lapham: I think they probably are. I mean there’s always a distinction between – there’s always a class distinction. I mean there’s no society in the history of mankind that hasn’t been organized along some form of class distinction.
I mean we organize it in terms of money. We were doing that pretty much from the beginning. I mean the settlement at Plymouth in 1620 is a venture capital deal. It is. I mean it’s backed by merchant bankers in London.
Alec Baldwin: Well, first of all, when you talk about people aligning themselves from the beginning on the basis of class –
Lewis Lapham: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: – and I’m wondering how you’ve experienced that in your family? What was your father’s politics – to the extent you want to say – and did you differ from your family? Were your politics – cause your politics are pretty – I wouldn’t use the word ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ – but candor is the watchword here I think.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, no –
Alec Baldwin: Were they disappointed in the way you –
Lewis Lapham: No.
Alec Baldwin: No. Was your father a pretty open-minded guy?
Lewis Lapham: Yes. My father had been very strongly in favor of Roosevelt in 1932. And his father – my grandfather, the one that became the mayor – was strongly conservative Republican who thought that FDR was the end of the world.
Alec Baldwin: Sure. Wouldn’t carry a dime in his pocket.
Lewis Lapham: Right. On the other hand by the time grandfather got to be Mayor of San Francisco in 1942 he ran as an Independent. He was very open. I mean he would pick hitchhikers up. He never had a bodyguard, he never had tinted windows –
Alec Baldwin: He was more genuine.
Lewis Lapham: – he used to like to go into the saloons in San Francisco late at night and the – he wanted to get a bond issue passed to replace the street cars on Market Street with busses, and there was some resistance about that, so he put it to a bet. He said, ‘Okay, there will be a race. I will race from the Ferry building to City Hall. I will ride an elephant against a trolley car, and if the elephant beats the trolley car we have the bond issue. If not, not.’
But he was a gambling man so he insisted on a handicap, and the handicap was that the elephant would be allowed to go through red lights. The elephant won. The bond issue passed.
Alec Baldwin: Now when you leave San Francisco, three years during the newspaper, where do you go from there?
Lewis Lapham: I go to New York. I go from The San Francisco Examiner; I come to New York, The Herald Tribune –
Alec Baldwin: How long were you there?
Lewis Lapham: I was there two years.
Alec Baldwin: What did you write about for them?
Lewis Lapham: First of all I was general assignment; cover the city, the mayor, crime…
Alec Baldwin: Who was the mayor?
Lewis Lapham: Wagner, I think.
Alec Baldwin: Robert.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah. Then I was sent to the UN; I became the third correspondent over there. I was at the UN when Khrushchev was there pounding his shoe on the table and when Castro was there carrying the chickens to Harlem.
I was then sent down to write about the Cape Canaveral – the first sub-space shot. So you know, I did a lot of different things.
Alec Baldwin: Right. So after The Herald Tribune what did you do?
Lewis Lapham: There was a new magazine called USA One and I became a staff writer for the new magazine. It folded after six months. I then became a staff writer for The Saturday Evening Post, which was a big deal in 1963.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, they were still going strong.
Lewis Lapham: They were still going strong. I mean in 1960 Life and The Saturday Evening Post were the equivalent of what the networks became by the end of the ‘60’s.
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Lewis Lapham: If the President wanted to talk to the American people, he would either sit down with Joseph or Stewart Alsop for the back-page interview in The Post or with Teddy White in the back-page interview of Life. That was mass media.
Alec Baldwin: Back in the time people also – I remember my grandfather in the early ‘60’s – and he lived in Brooklyn – he would read five newspapers a day. There was a morning paper, there was an evening paper; New York was swimming in newspapers.
Lewis Lapham: Oh, yeah. There were 11 newspapers in New York in 1960 when I came; including The Brooklyn Eagle, which was –
Alec Baldwin: Right. That was the paper he read at night.
Lewis Lapham: – the best newspaper by – in some people’s opinion – in the whole – all of five boroughs.
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Lewis Lapham: So I traveled all over the world for The Saturday Evening Post. I mean I went to – did stories in California, went and spent two weeks with The Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.
Alec Baldwin: What was that experience like? Can you encapsulate that? What was it like hanging out with them in India? Did you get any time with them?
Lewis Lapham: No, not really. I got a little time with them. The – there was something called Transcendental Meditation which was all the rage in 1967 and the Maharishi was giving people mantras and whispering them in their ears and – The Beatles had gone there for a retreat –
Alec Baldwin: They needed to chill-out.
Lewis Lapham: They needed to chill-out.
Alec Baldwin: Being a Beatle was stressful.
Lewis Lapham: Stressful. I mean the pressure –
Alec Baldwin: Signing all those love letters, singing those songs. McCartney told me once that they would record four songs a day; they wanted to keep the studio time down to a minimum, it was expensive. So they’d record two songs in the morning then they’d go have some fish and chips, smoke a cigarette, come back and do two songs in the afternoon. It was a real grind, he said, being a Beatle in the early days.
Lewis Lapham: But by 1967 they’re the biggest thing in the world.
Alec Baldwin: Sure. Now they’re taking a little more time.
Lewis Lapham: I was sent to become – to somehow get into the Ashram; no press, of course, was allowed.
Alec Baldwin: So how would you do that? I mean when someone you’re working for says, ‘Go get into the Ashram,’ how do you do that?
Lewis Lapham: Politics, the –
Alec Baldwin: It’s deal-making.
Lewis Lapham: First of all I studied – I went to California to talk to devotees of the Maharishi –
Alec Baldwin: So you did a little briefing.
Lewis Lapham: – so that when I got to Rishikesh and I got in the cab – and I said to the driver –
Alec Baldwin: To the Ashram.
Lewis Lapham: – I said, ‘To Rishikesh.’ And he said, ‘You go Beatles.’ I said, ‘I go Beatles.’ It was $12.00; 112 miles.
Alec Baldwin: Those were the days.
Lewis Lapham: Those were the days. And then I found out that one of the Maharishi’s main men, Ragvenda – a major domo – would come down once or twice a day to the town to shop, and I struck an acquaintance with Ragvenda – impressed Ragvenda as to my knowledge of –
Alec Baldwin: You dropped a few clever phrases here then?
Lewis Lapham: I understood – he understood –
Alec Baldwin: … transcendental world.
Lewis Lapham: Exactly. Wormed my way into the confidence of Ragvenda, and then explained to him that I was from The Saturday Evening Post, biggest media in America – and the Maharishi was a publicity hound – but believe me it was in no way critical. I was here to gaze into the mysteries of the East and to –
Alec Baldwin: And at the same time make the Maharishi the Martha Stewart of transcendental –
Lewis Lapham: Exactly, exactly.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, you’re going to blow it open for him.
Lewis Lapham: And eventually Ragvenda admitted me to the Ashram; I was allowed through the gate.
Alec Baldwin: Yes.
Lewis Lapham: There must have been 70 mediators present, as well as The Beatles, I mean because he ran this Ashram –
Alec Baldwin: So The Beatles didn’t have a private – they were in a group.
Lewis Lapham: They had a bungalow to themselves, and they also had provisions that were sent in from London because the food that was being served at the common table –
Alec Baldwin: Was wanting.
Lewis Lapham: Yes, very bland.
Alec Baldwin: Yes, some unseasoned dal.
Lewis Lapham: Yes. But I attended some of the open sessions, and I would have an occasional aside with one of The Beatles. I mean McCartney, I thought, was – had a wonderful sense of humor and so did Ringo. I never really got far enough into abstraction to understand Lennon, but there were a lot of other people to write about.
I mean I had a conversation with Mia Farrow– she showed up. The most beautiful model in the world at that time was a girl named Marisa Berenson –
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
Lewis Lapham: – and she showed up with her French boyfriend who had a mink coat. And then The Beach Boys showed up, and Donovan showed up. There was the wife of an Air Force colonel from California that had been living in Beverly Hills, but her husband had left her one night because a UFO had landed on the lawn of their house in Beverly Hills and he had gone with them. There were a lot of characters.
Alec Baldwin: And up until then it’s you and Mr. Snare taking picking in Oakland, and then you come and do the general assignment into covering Wagner, Et al., in New York for The Trib, but would you say there was a time in your writing – was there a moment, and can you track it – was there something happening in the country?
Because I’ll give you in an – a prefatory way, like a story about my dad. My dad turned 40 in 1967, and when he turned 40 he was a school teacher making no money, had six children – back in the day when people had six children on faith, you know, there was those that believed in providence – these Irish Catholics – and in the ensuing 12 months from the fall of 1967 my father who was a staunch Democratic – he was a Democratic committeeman and a very progressive Democrat when I was young.
In the ensuing 12 months King is shot, Kennedy is shot, my father’s political nemesis is resurrected from the dead, the Democratic convention is a debacle in Chicago, Nixon becomes President and his mother dies that October.
So in that 12 months like everything my father held dear just seemed to come crashing down. And I will say that my father was never the same again.
Was there some series of events – was there a period you went through when everything started to get a lot more real to you politically? A period in our history perhaps.
Lewis Lapham: Well, there were several. I mean I said earlier, when I was talking about the Maharishi, it was ’67 – it wasn’t; it was ’68. And that is the same month as Tet, and that’s the same year as Kennedy and –
Alec Baldwin: King.
Lewis Lapham: – King, and –
Alec Baldwin: Chicago and Nixon.
Lewis Lapham: – Chicago and Nixon. On the other hand I was kind of prepared for that because when I was in Cambridge, England – and here I’m still 22 years old and young – and at Yale I have not been a – I wasn’t a white-shoed type guy. I didn’t – I went to one football game my freshman year and then I spent the rest of the weekends in New York because that was wonderful in New York in the ‘50’s.
I mean I had access to an apartment that Auden would sometimes hold forth in down in the village. And my idea of an evening would be to go to listen to Auden hold forth and then go up to Birdland and then listen to Parker play, and the – or Mingus – and – or go over to The White Horse Tavern and watch Dylan Thomas drink himself to death. I mean I was –
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Lewis Lapham: – extreme – I mean I was in love with the poetry –
Alec Baldwin: Very rich time.
Lewis Lapham: I knew I wanted to be a writer; I didn’t know what kind of a writer. But then I go to England – the fall of 1956 is the uprising in Hungary and the Suez Crisis. And a couple of the young Englishmen that I had become friends with went to Hungary to take part in the protest against the Soviets and one of them was killed.
If you remember the history, we had promised – the CIA – had promised to back the Hungarian Revolution, which of course we did not. Then I suddenly was asked to explain the Suez policy of John Foster Dulles, which I couldn’t do because I hadn’t been reading – as an undergraduate – newspapers; I’d been reading Auden or Brecht or – literature.
And I decided when I first came back to America in the summer of 1957 – I went to Washington to apply for jobs. I went and applied to The Washington Post, the White House, to see if I could get some sort of clerk’s job in the basement, and I went to apply for the CIA.
Alec Baldwin: What did you imagine you were going to have to offer the CIA? What were you going to do?
Lewis Lapham: I was going to –
Alec Baldwin: Write?
Lewis Lapham: No, it was totally romantic. It was trench coat, last train to Berlin, blond –
Alec Baldwin: Fighting communism.
Lewis Lapham: Fighting communism. I passed the mental test and I passed the physical and psychological test and then I had the interview with some of – with what they said – ‘some of the younger guys.’ I’m 22 – these guys must have been somewhere between 27 and 30, I mean like that – all Yale.
Looked like, sounded like George W. Bush.
Alec Baldwin: W?
Lewis Lapham: W.
Alec Baldwin: So you’re saying there’s what kind of a demeanor to them? Frat boy demeanor?
Lewis Lapham: Yeah. These were the kind of guys that I had avoided during my entire four years at Yale.
Alec Baldwin: You weren’t at the ball game; you were reading Ionesco.
Lewis Lapham: I’m in New York, right? But I’ve studied for this; I haven’t quit written things on my cuff. But I’m prepared. I mean I know the four roads into the Argonne Forest. I am prepared to talk about The Romanov Dynasty. I know about Stalin’s crimes.
And so I – the first question Alec – and I’m not making this up – ‘You are standing on the 13th tee of The National Golf Links in South Hampden, what club do you hit?’ I got that one right; I’d done that. I knew the answer to that question.
The second question: ‘At 6:00 P.M. last week in August you’re coming in on the final approach to the Yacht Club at Hay Harbor in Fisher’s Island; what tack are you on? I knew that too because I’d done that too.
Alec Baldwin: So you’re doing well.
Lewis Lapham: Two for three. Third: ‘Does Minksy – I can’t remember Minksy’s last name – ‘wear a slip?’ Minksy was the great nymphomaniac of the Ivy League circuit in the ‘50’s, and not to have known Minksy was not to have lived and not to have lived –
Alec Baldwin: Not to have known her wardrobe.
Lewis Lapham: Yes. And I said to them, “Gentlemen, my information is second-hand. I’ve had rumors; French silk, Belgium lace –”
Alec Baldwin: I hear tell.
Lewis Lapham: “– but I – sources are untrustworthy and were usually drunk.” And then I said, “Besides that, I apologize for wasting your time.” And I got up and walked out. I thought, “My God, I mean if this is –”
Alec Baldwin: The fence I’ve got to jump.
Lewis Lapham: I’ve never been surprised since about the blunders of the CIA. I mean the arrogance, the idea, that they –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, ‘We’ll figure out your knowledge of Yugoslavia in history later one – or of that region – are you one of us?’
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, are you fit for the fraternity? Are you the right sort; that was it.
Announcer: Thus, Lewis Lapham tossed aside another career possibility. This is Alec Baldwin; you’re listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio. More in a minute.
Alec Baldwin: Here’s The Thing is supported by The Gathering Ireland 2013; a year-long program of festivals and events throughout Ireland from New Year’s kickoff celebrations through St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin, to the International Coral Festival in Cork, and the Galway Arts Festival in the west of Ireland. More information at DiscoveryIreland.com.
Announcer: This is Alec Baldwin. You’re listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio.
My guest Lewis Lapham’s job at The Saturday Evening Post abruptly ended when the magazine folded in 1969. He was quickly hired at Life Magazine, which then went bust.
In 1970 Lapham joined Harper’s Magazine where excerpt for some intervening years, he stayed until 2006. Lapham started at Harper’s as a contract writer and soon became an editor. He has said he, ‘Edited the Magazine with a sympathy for the writer rather than the editor.’
Lewis Lapham: And as you know, Alec, I mean good writing – good essay writing, good any kind of writing – is an adventure. I mean you really don’t know where you’re going to end up. It’s not a program Alec, it’s not like writing an annual report or writing a baseball score, so over the course of time I taught myself to write essays.
Alec Baldwin: And when did you take over the show over there?
Lewis Lapham: I took over the show in 1975.
Alec Baldwin: And you created "The Harper’s Index," correct?
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, but I do that later. I’m now the editor –‘75 – and then I get fired in 1981 because by this time it’s changed hands; it’s now in the hands of The MacArthur Foundation from Chicago. And the first time I was introduced to the board I knew that it was –
Alec Baldwin: Curtains.
Lewis Lapham: – over. It was not a question of whether I was going to be fired next week or next month, but it was six months later because they didn’t like what I wrote. I mean I was writing essays that were sometimes critical of American policy, politics, culture.
Alec Baldwin: So you said ’81 they gave you the heave-ho.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, ’81.
Alec Baldwin: And then what happens?
Lewis Lapham: Then I spent two years in exile. And then young John MacArthur, heir to the MacArthur Foundation fortune, became a member of the board and I was reinstated.
I said, “Rick, I’ll be happy to go back but only if (A) I can fire all the members of the board that fired me, and (two) that I can completely redesign the magazine.”
Alec Baldwin: And when do you invent "The Index?"
Lewis Lapham: When I come back. I mean I redesign the whole –
Alec Baldwin: But where did you get that idea – and when you say ‘redesign’ it was in order to do what? Just the layout.
Lewis Lapham: Well, yeah, I brought the readings to it, I brought "The Index" –
Alec Baldwin: The notes, reading, yeah. Now when you started your own magazine – when you started The –
Lewis Lapham: Lapham’s Quarterly, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Lapham’s Quarterly – whose idea was that?
Lewis Lapham: Mine. I mean it was something I’d wanted to do for a long, long time. I mean again it goes back to my interest in history. The Quarterly is –
Alec Baldwin: There’s a lot of history in The Quarterly.
Lewis Lapham: What it is is the great books made topical. I mean I take a subject in the news – war, money, politics, nature, medicine – and then assemble texts. My contributors are people like Escalus, Cicero, Gibbon, Machiavelli and Shakespeare. It’s based on my notion that – it’s actually the notion of the German poet Goethe – he’s talking about history and he says, ‘History is our inheritance. The story on the old walls, or printed in the old books, is also our own story.’
And Goethe says, ‘He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand-to-mouth.’ And that’s true.
Alec Baldwin: You find history exhilarating.
Lewis Lapham: I do. I find it –
Alec Baldwin: Essential.
Lewis Lapham: Essential. I find it a great source of energy and hope. I mean –
Alec Baldwin: You have a quote here in which you say, ‘The reading of history damps down the impulse to slander the trend and tenor of the times, instills a sense of humor, lessens our fear about what might happen tomorrow.’
Lewis Lapham: That’s true. When you understand the obstacles that people have had to overcome – nothing that improves man’s condition and circumstance is accomplished without going up against very heavy odds. This is what history teaches you so that you don’t despair of your own time. You don’t say, “God, America is in decline.”
Alec Baldwin: If you look at history then America’s always been in decline.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: If you look at history a golden age was really just the time when they got away with it.
Lewis Lapham: That’s right. History is not what happened 200 or 2,000 years ago; it’s a story about what happened 200 or 2,000 years ago.
Alec Baldwin: Right, it’s what people wrote about what happened to them, yeah, yeah.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, that’s right.
Alec Baldwin: Now, you have how many children?
Lewis Lapham: Three.
Alec Baldwin: And are any of them involved in publishing at all?
Lewis Lapham: No.
Alec Baldwin: Are they deeply-political people? Or they have strong political opinions? Do they share yours for that matter?
Lewis Lapham: My older son does to some degree. My older son –
Alec Baldwin: What does he do for a living, if I may ask?
Lewis Lapham: He’s in the financial business, in private equity, in Toronto in Canada.
Alec Baldwin: Right. How’d he end up up there?
Lewis Lapham: He ended up up there because he married a Canadian girl, and also Toronto’s a pretty good place to live. I mean he has four children; he can provide for them a better life there than he could, say, in New York City.
Alec Baldwin: And what about your other two children?
Lewis Lapham: My daughter is married to an Italian Prince and lives outside Rome. And my younger son is also in the financial business and he is working in a small venture capital firm in Monaco.
Alec Baldwin: Did you ever think you’d have kids and you’d be able to say that you have three kids and all three of them live overseas or out of the country.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, all three of them –
Alec Baldwin: One in Canada, one in Rome, one in Monaco.
Lewis Lapham: Right. And my six grandchildren are all overseas too. Four of them –
Alec Baldwin: Do you travel there all the time?
Lewis Lapham: I travel – not all the time – but I travel –
Alec Baldwin: Enough to keep it warm.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah. And they come here.
Alec Baldwin: Now, you obviously are very keen on history, and that’s imbedded in much of your – all of your writing. And for people who don’t know you you’re a very handsome, very elegant – the pocket square, the crisp suit, the tie – you’re a very handsome devil, you know, and I’m sure that every door has been open to you – for you over the years. You’re the person everyone wants to sit next to at a dinner – and my question becomes I’m going to name five figures from history and I’ll keep naming some until we get it right, because maybe the answer is you never met them and you had no opinion of them – but I’ll name some over the course of American history and you tell me what your assessment of them was – to the extent you’re willing to.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Either John or Robert Kennedy. Did you meet either one of them?
Lewis Lapham: I met them both.
Alec Baldwin: What were the circumstances of meeting John?
Lewis Lapham: It was a party – it’s actually I met them both at the same time – it was a party given for Teddy Kennedy, and it was a birthday party for Teddy, and I – it’s either ’62 or ’63.
Alec Baldwin: South Hampton?
Lewis Lapham: No, New York, Fifth Avenue; they had a big apartment on Fifth Avenue.
Alec Baldwin: Right, right.
Lewis Lapham: I was, at the time, going out with a young lady who was also going out with Bobby. I was a beard at the day – you’re familiar with that term?
Alec Baldwin: Yes.
Lewis Lapham: At the dinner.
Alec Baldwin: You were a contract beard.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: This is ’62.
Lewis Lapham: I think this is ’63.
Alec Baldwin: You’re 27 years old.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, it was either ’62 or ’63.
Alec Baldwin: What did you make of either one of them? What do you make of them in retrospect in history – through the prism of history what do you think about either one of them?
Lewis Lapham: I’m learning to like them more now than I did then. Let’s go back. I’m the UN correspondent for The Herald Tribune when Kennedy is inaugurated. The speech ‘Ask not what America can do for you, what you can do for America’ –
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Lewis Lapham: I’m watching it with the correspondents from – foreign correspondents – and the guy from Le Monde listens to that speech and says, ‘That’s the worst, naïve –’
Alec Baldwin: Treacle.
Lewis Lapham: Treacle. And I almost got into a fight with him, right. I was very gung-ho Kennedy. And I think seeing him in the setup at the –
Alec Baldwin: UN.
Lewis Lapham: – Ed Smith’s – no, Smith’s apartment, was a real disappointment. He seemed like he was a guy who was hounded by demons, and the – you know I also knew something about his relations with women at the time. There was –
Alec Baldwin: So you didn’t think he had his house in order enough to become President.
Lewis Lapham: No, I didn’t think so.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. And what about his brother? Did you get the same feeling?
Lewis Lapham: His brother, I thought, was a bully.
Alec Baldwin: Right. Because many, many people have a very negative assessment of him up until his brother was killed.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Did you meet Nixon?
Lewis Lapham: Yes, I met Nixon once, and I’m trying to remember – I had a – I never liked or trusted Nixon, and I can’t remember where I met him. I met him someplace in California, but at a distance, I mean I was never – you know, I was part of a crowd or something – I –
Alec Baldwin: But isn’t it interesting how people that I know, who are not as astute as you are about history, but they’re students of history – they’re certainly students of American history; they certainly know the political history of this country – and many of my friends who are politically active – and I mean beyond writing checks and that kind of political class where it’s all about giving money – and in that world I’ve heard people say, ‘God, I’d take Nixon back tomorrow compared to these guys, and there was a lot of good with Nixon.’ Do you agree with that?
Lewis Lapham: I don’t know enough to agree or disagree with it. I know that he backed the Environmental Protection Agency. I know that he backed the – what’s the Unemployment Act that if you get hurt?
Alec Baldwin: Workman’s Compensation. There was a lot of good under Nixon.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: What did you think of Romney? And more importantly – inside the question of what you think of Romney, what do you think about, shall we say, the casting department of the Republican Party? They seem to have – because Obama was theirs for the taking, don’t you think?
Lewis Lapham: I think Obama could have been defeated, yeah. I think he was lucky to win, just the way I think he was lucky to win in 2008 when the Republicans put up Sarah Palin. Oh my God.
But the – yes, the – I thought it was a pretty clownish group of primary candidates that were fielded by the Republicans.
My sense of Romney – again, I saw him in a small room once – but, you know, trying to drum up money from some Wall Street guys in New York – he didn’t come off any differently than he did – when you see him on television.
Alec Baldwin: It was almost impossible for Romney to overcome what Gingrich said about him during the primary.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, it –
Alec Baldwin: What do you think about Obama?
Lewis Lapham: I think Obama means well.
Alec Baldwin: Do you think that’s enough these days?
Lewis Lapham: Probably not. Again, how much can a President really accomplish is another problem. And you – I don’t think he’s the – he likes politics in the same way that let’s say Johnson did.
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Lewis Lapham: Johnson really wanted to use the Office of the Presidency to do something, and knew how to make it work, knew that it was political.
I’m never sure that Obama is about anything other than a striking of poses, nor am I sure that that is not what the Office of the Presidency has become.
Why anybody would want to become President of the United States is something that I have – I can’t imagine wanting to do that. Because when you think about it, what is that life like? I mean you’re surrounded by people that are probably lying to you. I mean it’s like a life at court in Queen Elizabeth’s England or Louis XIV’s France; it’s cold-hearted self-interests. It’s not – it required degree of vanity that – you know, I can imagine it but it’s –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Well, we’ve heard that comment before where people have said the type of man or woman that would want to be President now is someone we certainly don’t want to be President.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, probably not. Lincoln wanted to be President. He wouldn’t have wanted to run for – I mean his running for a second term, I mean he was reluctant. I mean, you know, there are people that are happy to leave the office.
Alec Baldwin: To leave the stage.
Lewis Lapham: To leave the stage.
Alec Baldwin: As my one friend who said about one political figure, ‘He just doesn’t know when to leave the stage.’
Lewis Lapham: It’s a thankless task. Really it is.
Alec Baldwin: It’s service.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, it’s –
Alec Baldwin: It’s service. It’s service to your country.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Lewis Lapham continues to serve his country. At 77 he still goes to work every day at Lapham’s Quarterly.
Alec Baldwin: After our conversation I wondered why Lapham hadn’t cultivated more personal relationships with the political leaders of his day. So …
Lewis Lapham: Hello?
Alec Baldwin: It’s Alec Baldwin, calling for Mr. Lapham.
Lewis Lapham: Mr. Lapham speaking.
Alec Baldwin: You know, Lewis when you were here, and we talked about, a number of things, but one thing that stuck in my mind you had this access to all of these political figures, government leaders of their time, you were around them and you were reporting about them, and yet it sounds to me that you didn’t make them intimates of yours.
No I did not.
Alec Baldwin: And I was wondering, why was that case?
Lewis Lapham: Well, because I thought of myself as a journalist and I wanted to be free to say what I thought or report what I thought I’d seen. And I didn’t want to become obligated. I wanted to keep a safe distance.
Alec Baldwin: No no, I appreciate that. Cause that’s a very common thing. You know, when the political leaders started to you know, hang out and party with the press, when they invited them in the door to stay, everything began to change.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah, everything does begin to change. And that’s what begins to happen of course in the 60s. Politics becomes glamorous. Kennedy and Camelot. The heady association with power.
Alec Baldwin: You would ascribe that phenomenon beginning with Kennedy?
Lewis Lapham: Well, that’s when I became aware of it – I’m sure it was true at the court of Louis XIV and Elizabeth I, it’s true of any court society. I once wrote an essay about the American media. The title was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And that’s the way I tend to think of the Washington Press corp.
Alec Baldwin: The struggle for me is that if you, and I don’t mean to sound lofty, but you have kind of a Clinton War Room – Carville-esque approach toward dealing with the media, which is that you put out every fire and you address every issue where your name is dragged in, or you try to remain above the fray and ignored, unless there are real criminal charges at stake, you know that it will dissipate, and I’m wondering if you have any advice for me. Do you think I’m better off – where there is nothing serious involved – do you think I’m better off not engaging and letting it go and it just wafts away like smoke, or do you think that journalism today and the media establishment today is a bull I need to be fighting from time to time?
Lewis Lapham: I don’t think you’ll need to find it, Alec, because you will always lose. Can I tell you my introduction to that?
Alec Baldwin: Yes.
Lewis Lapham: My first lesson in this was the Oakland City Hall Press Room. I mentioned Seymour Snare. The Press Room was in the same building as the Police Department and the Courts and the Mayor’s Office. The head of the Vice Squad was anxious to become a particular friend to the media and of the press so the press would play him as a heroic figure, which the press obligingly did. The vice squad guy also had a girlfriend who was a serious nymphomaniac. He used to make her available to the members of the pressroom on the third Friday of every month.
Lewis Lapham: She was very good looking, but she had only one leg.
Alec Baldwin: She was a beautiful one-legged nymphomaniac who was the paramour of the head of the vice squad.
Lewis Lapham: Exactly. And I being the cub was not invited to the Friday afternoon celebrations. Nor did I want to be. But the day then comes when -- she was married – and the lady’s husband files divorce suit and names the vice squad captain as the co-respondent. I was in the Press Room the day that that announcement was made and suddenly these four guys rise reluctantly to their typewriters and begin to write morally outraged editorials. How can such things be? How can our fair city of Oakland tolerate the behavior of a corrupt police captain? I mean, you see what I mean? They turned on a dime. What I’m telling you is the media is not trustworthy.
Alec Baldwin: It’s Claude Rains closing down the casino.
Lewis Lapham: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: I’m outraged! I’m outraged!
Lewis Lapham: Shocked!
Alec Baldwin: I’m shocked! Shocked that there’s gambling here! You’re winning sir.
Lewis Lapham: Right. Yeah. It’s not good to get involved with the media because they always have the last word.
Alec Baldwin: You want to know something; you’ve just done me a big favor. Your pen is mighty. Your mind and your words are mighty. With a single phone call here, you have you have crushed my public relations apparatus into powder, and I’m grateful to you for it.
Lewis Lapham: Thanks.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin. Here’s The Thing comes from WNYC Radio.