Needed: Moral Information

From The Editors: This week, our historical piece is “Press Against Politics,” Henry Fairlie’s 1976 call to arms for more passion and more conviction from the listless class of political journalists covering the Carter-Ford election. (He was clearly upset: “The fact is that James Reston writes now like a sports columnist on the slope of Olympus. When he gets around to telling us why we should—or should not—vote for Jimmy Carter it is as convincing as the National Zoo telling us why it bought a Bactrian breeding camel with no testicles.”) In this caustic but earnest piece, he argues that journalists should believe in the inherent goodness of the political system and be willing to put their faith in politicians and candidates themselves. “It is as if every journalist is afraid that he might be caught in believing in something or in somebody,” writes Fairlie. “Yet on the whole, the political world in the past 200 years has accomplished a great deal of good for a vast number of people. There is more for it to do.”

At one point between about 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. on the morning of November 3, the voice of Walter Cronkite changed. After hours—and weeks—and months—of talking about Jimmy Carter as a candidate, he suddenly found himself using the words, "the President-elect." There may be no way of hushing the voice of Walter Cronkite, but there is no doubt that his voice becomes hushed by itself in the presence of immanent power. If one can imagine the late Cardinal Cushing at the manger of the infant Jesus—a picture that does require a considerable exercise of imagination—one has some idea of Walter Cronkite in the presence of sudden majesty.

It is only because Walter Cronkite in his ineffable glibness seems to me to summarize the faults of American journalism—print as well as television—that I use him as my object lesson. It is the American journalist's coverage of this election that is my subject.

I need to present one credential before arguing my point. Back in early spring I was the after-dinner speaker at a seminar in Washington, DC. The other speakers at the seminar had included some of the more prominent managers of all the candidates of both parties who were then in the primary races. At the end of my talk, I said that I thought that it was the duty of a political journalist to go out on a limb, to commit his own judgment without the aid of polls or computers; and so I went out on a limb. I said that Ford would defeat Reagan in the primaries, that Carter would defeat all his Democratic rivals, and that in the election Carter would defeat Ford.

There were low whistles from some of the audience; and the managers of Ronald Reagan and Henry Jackson pounced on me after my speech. I was out on my limb, and I will admit that in the intervening eight months there have been moments when I thought that it was being sawn off from under me. It was not really until Walter Cronkite was ready to give his unctuous blessing to the born-again king from Georgia that I could feel satisfied that my long-ago prediction was virginally immaculate.

I do not tell that story to boast; but to suggest that the American press and television news programs were this year guilty of the primary sin of American journalism: lack of commitment. When I say that a political journalist should go out on a limb, I mean that he should commit, not only his judgment, but his faith. He should himself make a choice, and from that commitment develop his own perceptions.

It does not matter whether he is Democrat or Republican—liberal or conservative, for Joe McCarthy or Gene McCarthy—he is worthless unless he cares enough to allow his passion to inform his judgment, his beliefs to discipline his observation. The political journalist ought to be the first into the ballot box; even if he loses. His judgment is useless unless it is regulated by passion. His real task is to uncover for other voters the glimpse of heaven which lies behind their mundane concerns. He cannot be objective. He must lay his hands on the child before it is enthroned in power.

Or withold his hands.

Of all the American columnists and commentators in this year's election, only one stands out as a man of dredging conviction and therefore truth. George Will is some kind of American conservative. He would prefer to have a genuine Republican party in office than a genuine Democratic party. Yet he never moved all year, either in print or on television, from an intellectually impassioned contempt for Gerald Ford. No matter how much of an ass Jimmy Carter sometimes made himself look, no matter how often the Democratic party was still obviously the party which he distrusted, George Will stuck to his own bitter truth about the inadequacy of Gerald Ford.

His advocacy therefore became its own form of accurate observation. What he was saying was that, in the end, by however small a margin of conviction, one simply could not take Gerald Ford for "four more years." If at any point during the election I had read a single sentence of his which suggested that he could stomach Gerald Ford, I would have had my own doubts about the ultimate success of Jimmy Carter. He was telling me something about the attitudes of a conservative mind in this election.

It is this lack of intellectually impassioned conviction that makes another kind of American conservative— James Jackson Kilpatrick—worthless to the point of professional fraudulence. He appears to be very conservative, very right wing; he certainly would have preferred a Reagan to a Ford, if he prefers anything that does not dissolve when touched. But once Ford had defeated Reagan, he was still gung-ho for the Republican party. To be "gung-ho," according to Webster's, is to be "extremely or overly zealous or enthusiastic." That is exactly what happens to the kind of intellectually unimpassioned political journalism that James Jackson Kilpatrick represents. He reaches for the lowest common denominator of political motive in those for whom he so grossly appears to speak. There is no conservatism in his journalism because he reaches always to what is most immediate and vulgar. If he met a saint, he would imagine that he or she was on his level.

And this affects his judgment. To coin a phrase—and it seems to me to be a phrase that is worth the coining— the real duty of the political journalist is to supply moral information from a coherent intellectual position: to supply it to the politicians on the one hand, and to the voters on the other. From a supposed conservative like James Jackson Kilpatrick there comes no moral information at all. There is something terrifyingly wrong in a political journalism that insists on making a sow's ear out of a silk purse.

There is even a perverted kind of worth in the conservative journalism of Robert Novak and Rowland Evans. Sheer malevolence of spirit must have some original value. There is something to be said for a column that allows one to settle over one's breakfast and say, even before one has read it, "Let's see how mean and small we can make the world look today." In fact, there is a kind of moral information in Evans and Novak. As we start to read their revelations of the shoddy—they would have reported the Virgin Birth by saying that in a secret meeting between Joseph and Mary in a Holiday Inn at Nazareth, Joseph had paid a Teamster to make Mary pregnant—we know that we are reading about everything in the political world which is unglorious, unmajestic, unlovely; and therefore turn to meet the day and find that it is not as ugly as they steadily assure us it will be.

What is more, in the moral information which they supply, there is again the kind of information that makes possible a prediction. As I said to a friend about 10 days before the election, "Once Evans and Novak are reduced to scurrying round California to find the evidence that Carter cannot win, one knows that Ford is certain to lose." The real value of their column is not so much that one knows in their hearts they are right. but that they are right in spite of themselves, somewhere down in their bowels.

But it has not been the conservative journalists who have most distorted this year's campaign; it has been the rest. The lack of moral information has been most evident in those who are supposed to be most liberally minded and anxiously concerned. It is not the talents or the worth of the following journalists that I am questioning, but the use to which they put their talents and their worth, their failure to supply moral information either to the candidates or the voters.

The fact is that once Mary McGrory found that there was no candidate this year over which she could break her heart, she stopped using her head.

The fact is that when Joseph Kraft at last came out with a whimper of an endorsement of Jimmy Carter, it was after eight months of almost consistent undermining of Carter's claims to any honesty or decency or intelligence at all. But a slippery endorsement of a candidate whom one has spent one's time making look slippery is perhaps some kind of moral information about the journalist's own perceptions.

The fact is that David Broder, who was once an acutely modest reporter of events, has become an immodest distributor of cynical opinions. He is like a monk who, when he at last has the courage to disrobe himself, finds that his energies have atrophied.

The fact is that James Reston writes now like a sports columnist on the slope of Olympus. When he gets around to telling us why we should—or should not— vote for Jimmy Carter it is as convincing as the National Zoo telling us why it bought a Bactrian breeding camel with no testicles.

The fact is that when Tom Wicker, at last and yet again, bares his soul and says that Carter should be supported, he makes his soul seem so superior to that of the candidates and the voters that one wonders why he does not just say that America is just one great Attica, and he is its warden.

The fact is that Anthony Lewis, after yapping at American society, its politics and politicians, year in and year out, suddenly on the day after the election found nothing less than "amazing grace" in Jimmy Carter's victory, a "special wonder" in Gerald Ford's concession, and a "deep poignance" in the whole process. As a colleague remarked, "It's enough to make one sick." And so one could go on, through the "best and the brightest" of the journalists; and on television it is even worse than in print. The absence of moral information from the Cronkites, the Chancellors and the Reasoners—from the Brinkleys, the Sevareids, and the Smiths—is not only alarming, it is degrading. There comes no word from them to suggest that democracy is the accumulation of the moral aspirations and decisions of vexed but hopeful individuals, and that their task is to reinforce the process with their own intellectual commitment.

Everything about an election is reduced by them to so miserly an estimate of human motives that there can be no sense of the sheer hopefulness of a free people when they vote. Individuals are translated into units: that is all that they now know how to measure, humans as units measured by categories.


Since the journalists whom I am criticizing are among the best journalists we have, it seems to me necessary for us to confront what they will not confront in their situation: that it is not ultimately their own fault, that they are the nerveless victims of a system that is inescapably corrupting. If one really feared democracy, if one really feared the people, one would not waste time discrediting a Democrat as against a Republican, a liberal as against a conservative; one would simply discredit them all, candidates and voters. One would impute base motives to the politicians, and mundane motives to the people. One would teach them to despise themselves; one would instruct them to have contempt for the political process; one would make something— anything—look superior to the political motive: art, movies, sports, pornography, nature. It does not matter what the distraction, as long as it distracts; and always the purpose is the same, to leave the economic realm in command over all others, to explain all human impulse, as it is expressed in the political process, in terms of nothing more than the "acquisitive instinct."

There is no way in which the newspapers and television can ultimately escape from the fact that they are in bondage to an economic view of human aspiration against which they have no defense once the supremacy of the political realm has been surrendered. The individual journalists whom I have mentioned may be at fault, but they are among the best; and their primary fault is not to recognize or acknowledge that their—my—whole profession is trapped in a diminishing concept of human aspiration.

From the funeral oration of Pericles to the profoundly moving and graceful words of Jimmy Carter's acknowledgement of victory on the morning of November 3, the one realm in our existence which has released us to contend with the tyrannies of every other realm that matters to us—not least the economic realm of mere survival—has been the world of politics. It is not in an art gallery, not in a church, not on a stock exchange, not even in bed, that man is whole. It is in the ballot box.

To make my point, I would like to be allowed to be personal. My thesis in The Kennedy Promise has very often been misused. In fact, in its editorial on election day this year, the Washington Star quoted from my "wisdom" in that book to make it seem that I was arguing that the world of politics cannot really achieve very much. That was not my point. I criticized the politics of John Kennedy and, to a lesser extent, of Robert Kennedy, not because 1 think that politics should arouse no expectations, but because I think that they aroused the wrong expectations. I thought that I was defending the world of politics against the Kennedys' misuse of it. That is surely why I said in my conclusion that politics is not just the art of the possible, as is so often slyly said, and certainly is not the art of the impossible, as the Kennedys tried to practice it; but that it is the art of the necessary. There are necessary things to be done which only politics can do.

We have no other defense now against the dominance of the economic realm than the determination of the political world to assert itself. The task of the political journalist—and of the newspapers or television companies which employ him—is to strengthen that assertion. He may criticize an individual politician; he has no right to diminish the political function. He has no more right to do so than an art critic in criticizing an individual artist, has the right to diminish the function of art, or a music critic, in criticizing an individual composer, has the right to diminish the function of music.

Frank Mankiewicz is among the more experienced, more intelligent, more decent, more hoping men who are active in the political world. A few days before this year's election he said that the press and television had made it seem that no candidate ever advocated anything for any other reason than that it would win him votes. He is right. If Jimmy Carter said in Pittsburgh that he wished to reduce unemployment, the television reporter automatically said, "Jimmy Carter made another pitch for the blue-collar vote in the big cities which he needs to carry"; and it was the same if Gerald Ford made a speech about taxation. Of course the politician is aware of the voters: that is one of the purposes of democracy, that the voters should tell the politicians what they want and need and hope. But it is equally true that most politicians are believing and honest men. Carter believes something. Ford believes something; each true to himself.

In fact, it may well be true that our politicians are today among the few who really believe anything at all. I have not reported politics for 31 years in 26 countries to imagine that politicians are innocent and guileless. But equally I have not reported politics for all those years in all those countries without being certain that politicians as such, however many individuals amongst them are venal or stupid, are the most hopeful messengers of a society's will to improve.

Against that will to improve, which is felt as much by the genuine conservative as by the genuine liberal, there today stand many urgings to inaction. The strongest was once established religion; the strongest today is the economic realm.

This realm does not have to "buy" individual newspapers or journalists, television companies and reporters. It no longer has to work through the blackmail of threatening to withdraw its advertising. In fact, it now generously contributes its advertising: life is brought to us "by a grant from Mobil Oil." Its seduction is more sophisticated. It encourages the elevation of every other realm of life above that of politics, so that we are encouraged to believe that no one is more base than the politician, and that it is only from mundane motives that free men go to the polls.

It is not surprising that the economic realm has given so much energy in the past half-century to destroying the popular faith in the political world, because it is only the political world in our societies which has shown that it has the energy to control the economic realm. The economic realm can afford to let people believe in gods and gurus, in art and play, because these are ultimately not threatening to it; in fact it can manipulate them. Over its review of the Rauschenberg exhibition that opened in Washington in election week. The Washington Post put the rather brilliant headline "Goofy and Grand." It is an enticing summary of everything in Rauschenberg that makes his work a pleasure to look at. But the bother is that it is goofy, as well as grand; and that is why even the world of art, without the defense of politics, is a world of culture which the economic realm can manipulate. It can render it harmless, as art has indeed been rendered harmless. The one thing that the economic realm knows about the political world is that it is not goofy. So its only defense against politics is to make it seem less than grand. This is the corruption to which political journalism is at the moment subject. Political journalists have been seduced into believing that politics is probably if not necessarily ignoble.

The moral information which has been lacking in the coverage of this year's election is the conviction that the political world is inherently good. It is as if every journalist is afraid that he might be caught in believing in something or in somebody. Yet on the whole, the political world in the past 200 years has accomplished a great deal of good for a vast number of people. There is more for it to do: the art of the necessary is always in need of redefinition. People whom we did not think of as poor yesterday seem to us to be poor today, because we have redefined our idea of poverty; we have raised the threshold, by the energy of our politics.

What is wrong with Walter Cronkite's laying on of hands, once he is told who has won, is that he is laying his hands on power and not on politics. Jimmy Carter is open to every nit-picking slur until suddenly he has power; and that obeisance to power is just as much a rejection of the political world as the nit-picking at the mere candidate before he has achieved it.

Politics is not primarily about power. It is about the will to power: the will to use the resources of the political world to subdue the other realms when they become overweening. To make my own position clear, there are all kinds of things about Jimmy Carter that make my stomach turn with apprehension. One must remain alert to every cunning and temptation in him, as in all great politicians. But from the beginning he has looked like a great politician, a man who has learned from his own background and his own time; and the one thing that the political world needs today is a great politician to restore its claims to supremacy.

"The pollsters will never go out on a limb," said Jimmy Carter when he realized that he had won, using the phrase with which I began. It is an important remark because if he had ever heeded the polls more than his own judgment, he would never have started on his improbable journey. However many skills, however much ruthlessness, contributed to his victory, they were much less important than his own willingness to go out on a limb, with the deep conviction, as trustworthy as it may be in a priest or an artist of their own worlds, that the political world is there to be used to alter our perceptions and our condition.

If political journalists do not also believe as much, they should get jobs as fashion writers, or movie critics; or abandon journalism altogether and be satisfied to be interior decorators. If revolution is not a picnic, the politics of a free country is not a boutique. The political world today needs an imagery of grandeur equal to its own measure: to excite that imagery may well prove to be Jimmy Carter's most lasting contribution to our times. He should be encouraged to attempt it.


Henry Fairlie was a British political journalist and social critic. He was a contributor to The New RepublicThe AtlanticThe SpectatorThe Washington Post, The New Yorker, and many other papers and magazines. He is the author of, most recently, Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.