Most journalism historians consider Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889-December 14, 1974) to be the premier political analyst of twentieth century journalism. A prolific columnist, editor, and author of magazine articles and books, he influenced presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon and did as much as any newspaper columnist to inform public opinion. At the peak of his career, many readers considered Lippmann's column to be the most important political commentary in print. Regardless of whether or not one agreed with him, Lippmann was required reading for anyone who was serious about politics or foreign affairs.
Lippmann's early life seemed to place him on the track to academia rather than a career in journalism. He was born in New York City on September 23, 1889, the only child of a successful clothing manufacturer. In his boyhood, Lippmann developed what would become a lifelong appreciation for strong leaders, such as Theodore Roosevelt, who acted decisively to attain their goals. He attended private schools in New York and enrolled in Harvard in 1906. There he encountered some of the leading intellectuals of the day, including George Santayana and William James, and took an active part in the academic community of the campus. At Harvard he developed a keen sense of social responsibility and leaned toward non-radical socialism. He organized a reading group that quickly turned into an activist organization working for social and educational reform on campus. Lippmann also honed his skill as a writer by publishing articles in college magazines and came to believe that he could have the greatest impact in the world of ideas through his mastery of the written word.
Bored with academic life, he turned down the opportunity to attend graduate school at Harvard and instead took a job as a cub reporter for the Boston Common. He also worked for a short time as a research assistant to the muckraker Lincoln Steffens. In 1913 he published his first book, A Preface to Politics, which drew on Freudian theory and the application of the principles of scientific management to political organization while arguing for a strong government and active regulation of business. In 1914, Lippmann was one of the intellectuals and writers who established the New Republic, a moderate leftist magazine that featured some of the most astute political commentary of the time. Lippmann's writing on foreign policy attracted the attention of readers like President Wilson and further enhanced his growing reputation. His second book, Drift and Mastery, published in 1914, announced his break with socialism and signaled his disillusionment with his radical circle.
The First World War shaped many of Lippmann's early attitudes about human nature and the role of mass communication in society. Believing that American national interests were threatened by German aggression, he wrote interventionist editorials and pressed Wilson to be more forceful. When the United States entered the war, Lippmann became an assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker. In 1917 he worked on a committee that prepared strategies for postwar negotiations, including what would become President Wilson's Fourteen Points. The experience heightened his interest in geopolitical strategy and diplomacy and established him as an insider in the highest levels of government for the first time. Lippmann also worked on the American propaganda offensive and interviewed German prisoners of war to help study the effect of propaganda on troop morale.
He found that few of the captives could articulate the causes of the war or the German war aims, a discovery that led him to question the capacity of the public to understand the complexity of modern society. The wartime suppression of dissent, the failure of the Paris peace negotiations and the postwar Red Scare distressed Lippmann and forced him to reconsider some of his core beliefs about government and the public. His 1920 book, Liberty and the News, co-written with Charles Merz, severely criticized the New York Times for emotional and inaccurate coverage of the recent war. Rather than providing facts, the authors wrote, the Times's stories reflected the values of the paper's owners to the detriment of public understanding.
Lippmann returned to the New Republic for a time after the war, but he felt uncomfortable with the magazine's ideology and quarreled with some of the other writers. In the fall of 1921, he was offered a job as assistant director of the editorial page at Ralph Pulitzer's New York World, what many regarded as the city's best liberal daily. Lippmann was attracted to the paper's crusading editorial page and the potential to reach a much wider audience; the salary of $12,500 a year was enticing too. He accepted the position and agreed to begin in January, 1922.
Several free months before starting at the World gave him the opportunity to complete his next book, an analysis of the formation of public opinion and the role of communication in society. Public Opinion, published in 1922, reflected Lippmann's lost faith in traditional democratic theory in the face of the modern world. Rather than making rational decisions based on facts, Lippmann believed that most people responded with emotion and personal bias, the “pictures in their heads” as he phrased it. At the same time, the press failed to present a comprehensive and accurate account of the issues of the day; “truth” and “news” were not the same thing. In Public Opinion, he called for an expert class who would have the time and intellectual capacity to study current affairs and recommend policies that would ensure effective governance. This conclusion left Lippmann open to charges of being elitist and anti-democratic, but the book remains one of the classics of public opinion theory.
Lippmann's reputation continued to grow during his years in the editorial department at the World. Although the World was traditionally a Democratic organ, Lippmann maintained some influence with the Republican administrations of the 1920s. He joined the New York Herald-Tribune in 1931 and began writing the “Today and Tomorrow” column that would be his primary vehicle for most of the rest of his career. The column was an instant success and Lippmann became a household name; at its peak the column was syndicated in more than two hundred papers. Lippmann initially underestimated Franklin D. Roosevelt, but later, recognizing the need for strong governmental action to end the Great Depression, he supported the New Deal. Despite his increasing conservatism, Lippmann understood that a new approach was necessary to rescue capitalism and believed that Roosevelt's programs were good for the country. As war threatened in Europe, Lippmann urged armed neutrality and a realistic assessment of the nation's true strategic interests. By 1941 he was an interventionist and argued for increased aid to Great Britain. He visited England and France as a war correspondent.
Lippmann's 1943 book U.S. Foreign Policy outlined his new belief, one that would carry though the Cold War, in military power, realism, and the rejection of his earlier Wilsonian internationalism. Where many early Cold Warriors wanted to challenge the Soviet Union on every front, he accepted the idea of a postwar Soviet sphere of influence and believed that the two powers could coexist, though he continued to support a strong military and preparedness. The Soviet position, to Lippmann, was essentially one of defense. He argued that America's true interest was in a strong Europe and disdained the tendency to fight proxy wars in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Lippmann was an early critic of Senator Joseph McCarthy and similar anti-Communist crusaders, but he never brought the full weight of his reputation to bear against them. Although he rarely watched television and held the medium in low regard, the aging writer was a surprise ratings hit in a series of CBS interviews aired between 1960 and 1965. Lippmann signed a new contract and moved his column to the Washington Post and Newsweek in 1963.
The 1960s saw Lippmann back firmly in the Democratic fold. He admired John F. Kennedy's energy and talent, though he was willing to be critical of the young President's missteps. Lyndon B. Johnson actively courted Lippmann's favor and the columnist responded with initially positive commentary. The social welfare legislation in Johnson's Great Society program appealed to him and the new civil rights laws were a step toward alleviating the racial discrimination that had somewhat belatedly come to his attention. His respect for Johnson was destroyed, however, when he came to believe that the President was deceiving him about his plans to escalate the Vietnam War. Lippmann saw the war in southeast Asia as a diversion that undermined the nation's real interests and a distraction that weakened the push for social reform at home. In the final years of his career, Lippmann was an ardent critic of Johnson's war and engaged in a semi-public sniping match with the President. Lippmann was so disillusioned with the Democrats and the chaos of America in the late 1960s that he endorsed Richard Nixon in the 1968 election. Failing health forced Lippmann to stop writing in 1971, although he continued to travel and visit friends when he could. He died of a heart attack in New York on December 14, 1974. Lippmann was married twice and had no children.
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