Former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham discusses the media, Obama and Wall Street. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham discusses the media, Obama and Wall Street.

Lewis Lapham is a curious survival: a staunch leftist whose knowledge of the classics would have awed William F. Buckley; a writer whose elegant syntax demands careful attention in a soundbite-driven culture. Lapham is the founder of Lapham's Quarterly and spent nearly three decades editing Harper's Magazine, where he created innovative features like the "Harper's Index," a much-imitated statistical snapshot of social trends. The author of numerous books that unmask the pretensions of wealth and empire, Lapham nevertheless once somehow ended up meditating alongside The Beatles.

Lapham speaks at 6 p.m. Thu., Oct. 16 (5 p.m. public reception). GRW Theater, University Center, 414 Wood St., Downtown. Free. Register at

You'll be talking about media and politics. How do you think the media has performed this election?

They've been pretty tame. They should have covered, for example, Ralph Nader or [libertarian candidate Bob] Barr or [Green Party candidate] Cynthia McKinney. We also haven't been very good about covering Obama. From what I can tell, Obama is a centrist Democrat, as beholden to the banks as is Biden. His voting record has been very much along the Republican lines [on issues like] the bankruptcy bill or the wiretapping bill. It's by no means a liberal voting record. By and large, the media has concentrated on the surface flash. They've given much too much attention to Sarah Palin.

Has there been an election where the media has distinguished itself in a positive way?

My memory tends to blur, but I think the debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960 had a great deal of energy. So did the news coverage, because television was new and exciting. People didn't know how to use it, and therefore they used it in reckless ways. We hadn't yet found the form that we've evolved over the last 40-odd years, and also the politicians hadn't yet learned to play the camera for the fool, if you see what I mean. But that could just be my age, or the spirit of the moment, or the New Frontier, or the excitement of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

When did politics begin focusing on "flash" rather than substance?

I think it's most easily seen with the election of Reagan. Reagan was a movie actor who was trying to play the part of a politician; [Bill] Clinton was a politician playing the part of an actor. But they both understood the fundamentally theatrical nature of the performance.

I can remember covering [Lyndon] Johnson, and spending quite a lot of time in the White House press corps in 1964, when Johnson was president. And you got a sense that here was a man who really wanted to use the government as an instrument or a tool. He had experience as a majority leader in the Senate, and he liked the problems of power and the uses of it. A very hands-on kind of politician. Whereas Clinton, Reagan, our own George W. Bush, are people who tend to think of it as gesture rather than as meaningful action. So, that comes along with the increasingly rapidly development of the technology -- television but also the internet.

In fact, you sometimes hear from bloggers who seem convinced that they are the answer to the ills that plague our democracy. Do you look at blogs at all, and what do you think of the role they are playing in the political debate?

I don't look at blogs, and I don't know what kind of role they're playing. Apparently, they've managed to raise a lot of money for Obama and to help his campaign register voters. has been extremely effective in this function. I don't remember the number, but it's some very big number like $75 or $100 million raised through the blog network in small denominations. It's a very effective recruiting device, I think.

But most Americans form their opinions on what they see on the news networks and the cable channels. And also I think from the newspapers. The politicians, when they feel they have to answer something in the press, they're answering something that was said in the Washington Post, or The New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal. Not something on the Drudge Report or more distinguished blogs. I can imagine combined editorials in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times having an effect on an election. But I can't imagine any three blogs having a similar impact.

Salon, Slate, Huffington Post -- I guess those are the three most prominent ones, at least in my mind. I know that the people that count read Slate. And also Huffington Post.

But you don't read them yourself. Why is that?

Well, I read some of them. But I try not to get too trapped into the whole scroll-down, because otherwise that will take the whole day.

There are things blogs can't do, that the major media can. Which is to take the time and money to do the reporting. Take Bloomberg -- they have something like 2,000 correspondents all over the world. And I don't see how the blogs match that. I also don't see how they do the long-form reporting, which can be extremely illuminating if it's done well -- I mean the kind of pieces you could find in the New Yorker, or Harper's, or the Atlantic. I don't know about you, but I'm too old to read anything at length on the computer. I can't do it. I can read something 500 words long, but if I really try to become informed on a subject, that is not very nourishing.

What do you think the future of that long-form stuff is, though? As someone who is working in the field, the audience for longer-form seems to be shrinking. If the media focused more on substance, don't you wonder how many people would pay attention?

Oh, sure. When I did the redesign on Harper's, I put in the Index [and other] short forms, made to [accommodate] the attenuation of the American attention span. I'm doing the same sort of thing with Lapham's Quarterly. The longest piece there is maybe 5 pages. You have to take that into account. The longer stuff is there for people that want to read it. What everyone is looking for is time, so I'm faced with -- do I want to spend an hour reading around in the blogs, or do I want to read a very long piece on the subject in the New Yorker or Harper's. That's a matter of choice, and I agree with you: There are a dwindling number of people who have the patience for that kind of work.

So what should we do about that?

I have no idea. What I did about it was try to combine the two forms in the design of Harper's. But I'm using the shorter form in the Quarterly, and betting on the assumption that people who are truly interested will read the whole book, and suddenly say, "Maybe the time has come to read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," or whatever text we have that might lead a curious reader to go to the longer form.

But I believe that education is something that has to be done by the individual. It can't be given to you. So you're probably talking to a relatively small audience. Even the cable news shows are tiny audiences when compared to the network. But you're always talking to a small audience, I think -- what Freud called the active minority as opposed to the passive majority. Most people -- but this would have been true in the 18th century as well as imperial -- most people want bread and circuses, or public executions.

I was going to ask if you thought the country has always been like this, or whether we've just gotten this dumb in the relatively recent past?

Well, there's always been a strong quotient of stupidity and credulity in the American electorate, as there would be in any electorate -- I don't care whether it's French, British or Italian. On the other hand, it was possible in the 1850s for Lincoln and Douglas to debate at great length. It took several hours to hear both gentlemen express themselves on the issues of the day, and you also had a more coherent leadership class. I think Warren Harding, for example, is not Adlai Stevenson [laughs] but he was a cut above Sarah Palin. The Great Bloviator, they called him.

But you know, I was watching the Palin/Biden debate, and I was struck by how she could tell the moderator flat-out, "I'm not going to answer your questions." And afterwards, all the reporters doing the post-game analysis talked about what a good debater she was -- because she was so skillful about sidestepping the question. Is that the point we're at now, where we reward just poise rather than content? And is there any way back from that?

I don't think so. As long as our major form of communication is television, the emphasis is going to be on the actor, and not the act. We have to learn how to shape an intelligent and substantive politics with the medium of TV and the Internet. For the moment, we're going in the direction of American Idol.

Well, at least they get voters ...

Yeah, they do. And there's no point moaning about it. You work with the circumstances that are presented to you. Harper's has a circulation of 170,000, which is tiny. Lapham's Quarterly has a circulation of 23,000 which is immense by the standards of those kinds of journals. But it is as a mere grain of sand.

The other thing of course is that we're losing vocabulary. I've noticed this because I've edited various collections of Harper's pieces that go back 150 years. And the writers in the 1920s and 1930s -- their vocabulary is just double that of yours and mine. And they're not trying to be pretentious -- that is what they have in their heads. I've seen a statistic somewhere that said in 1940, the average American college freshman had a vocabulary of something like 12,000 words. And now it's 6,000.

There are a couple things you have to say about that. One is that relatively few people went to college then, and two, what they had in their heads was what they had been reading, and not what they had been seeing. I taught at Yale about 15 years ago -- brilliant students, but what they had in their heads was an entire library of images. They could look at a scene in 90210, or a movie, and they would know instantly what the next shot was going to be. They had images, and a lot of them -- film, television, advertising, magazine photographs. Whereas 100 years before that, kids their age would have had all kinds of text, from the Latin and the Greek, and be able to quote long passages out of Kipling or whatever. I have a son, who's 27 years old, and he practically doesn't read at all.

Does he read your columns?


Does that bother you?

No, I'm okay with that. You know, maybe 20 years from now it will occur to him to do that. He reads everything he reads on the screen, and therefore reads in short bursts.

You said a minute ago that it wasn't any good to whine about that sort of thing. So what should a reporter do?

I would simply say you have to become a really good writer -- to not waste words, and write with the same kind of compression that a poet writes with. I've written for television and it's a whole different language -- the sentences have to be short, they have to have subject-verb-object, and you can't back into anything with a clause. Irony doesn't work. [Laughs]. I think you have to invent a new language, almost. And that's very hard to do.

Is there anyone working in journalism now who you think has really nailed it?

There are a couple of them. There's a columnist in the New York Times named Clyde Haberman, who is one of the guys I admire. I admire Maureen Dowd. A lot of people don't.

Yeah, I'm surprised to hear you say that. I've always sort of read her with this inner Lewis Lapham voice in my head: I think she dumbs down the discourse and writes about the invasion of Iraq like as if it were a bad necktie choice — and vice versa.

She does go off the rails often enough. But she is still capable of a broad set of allusions -- being able to make juxtapositions and bringing one part of the culture up against another, and seeing things in a kind of context. She has a clear and concise style. I agree with you; sometimes she's silly. But when she's on, she's capable of sharp insight.

There's a distinction between data and insight. It's very hard to put those things together. And to edit a monthly magazine is a real trick. I mean, I have to write something in the next 10 days about the current calamity in the financial markets, but the piece won't come out until the middle of December.

And I'm sure the problem will be all solved by then!

Yeah, you see what I mean. If you can write something that can stand up that long, then there's a place for the longer written form. If you're just trying to do what can be done better and more quickly by, let's say, Slate, or even the New Yorker or Time, you're in trouble.

So can you give me a preview on what that piece will be like? This financial panic reminds me of how your writing often presumes that everything -- politics, culture, the economy -- is little more than a sort of shadow-play. What's your take on the economic turmoil we're experiencing?

It's a consequence of magical thinking. Reagan once said something like, "The thing that makes an American different is that the American knows what a great place the future is going to be." So it's this "everything is on the way up, it's the best of all possible worlds" [mindset]. Plus you had all the arts of the advertising business [saying], "Send money, we'll take care of you for life."

And they got the market -- prior to, say, 1970, there were relatively few people in the stock market, and the people who were in it were the people who could afford to be. I don't mean that they were very rich, but they knew that the money they were putting into the market was money being put into a gambling casino, and they didn't need it to live on.

Then there's a big PR campaign in the 1980s -- America is going nowhere but up, I don't care whether it's high-tech, or real-estate, or the empire itself. Then you get a lot of people in it who really don't belong in it, and may not even know it -- because their pension fund is in it, or their employer is in it. And they're looking to it as a real source of income. They need the money.

Look, the people on Wall Street are crooks. I asked a friend of mine in investment banking 20 years ago: "Explain to me how investment banking works." He said, "I can explain it in one sentence." And I said, "What is that sentence, O sage?" And he said, "The customers come up in the spring like grass, and we mow them."

That reminds me. I've always wondered: Your writing continually excoriates the elite. So how do you keep getting invited to the upper-crust gatherings you write about?

Well, I've been cut out of quite a lot of loops. I go to the Council on Foreign Relations, and write withering stuff about their view of the world. But you see, they never read it.

So that's the secret?

That's the secret. They don't know you're there, they don't know you've been there.

Back to the financial crisis. Will we get any wiser when we pick our way out of the ashes of this particular disaster?

I think we'll have no choice but to get wiser. The system is broken, it doesn't work. What you've seen in the last couple of weeks is that nobody knows what's going on. [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson has used all the tools in his box, and none of them have worked. Nothing has turned out the way he thought it would. He's had no clue -- as recently as last march, he was saying that all was well. The market isn't going to police itself -- those guys aren't there for that, as I said. So you need some form of rules. And if the market won't do that itself -- if it doesn't know how to do that itself ...

I mean, think of this. You've got a currency market, the biggest market in the world, is $3.5 trillion, moving around the earth 24 hours a day at the speed of light. And the central banks, whether it's the Federal Reserve or the European banks or whoever, have no way of stalling that. They have no way to deal with it. They haven't thought about how to do it. And Paulson hasn't thought about it either. He and [Federal Reserve Chairman Ben] Bernanke are doing it ad hoc. They don't know what they're doing, or what's really wrong. They don't know how large the market in derivatives is, they don't know, when it says "mark to market," they have no idea where that mark is. Paulson's even worse, because he's just trying to help his pals in Goldman Sachs, so the bill that he put through is no good at all to the American people.

That was a disgrace, which Obama and McCain both voted for, I hasten to add, inspiring no confidence at all in either of them, from my point of view.

But a lot of very smart people will have to do some smart thinking. It will take time, but I think that the notion of the unfettered free market is over. The market, if left to its own devices will destroy itself. That's what "creative destruction" means. The market is like a ball bearing -- it has no brains. [Laughs]

I want to ask you briefly about Nader. You mentioned him earlier, and back in 2000, you wrote a piece about him called "A Citizen in Full," and it was a very laudatory piece. But so many of the people who were excited about them have soured on him. I'm curious how you feel about him and his candidacy now.

I like Nader and I admire him enormously. I've given a little money to his campaign, and I've signed letters on his behalf. But I don't think he ought to be running for president. I think he ought to run for Senate in Connecticut. Because he'd be an extraordinarily effective senator, I think. There is no voice in the US Senate that amounts to anything -- maybe Bob Byrd, but not very many of them. But Ralph's doing it in order to try establishing a third party. I think he has no chance with that. The media won't give him the time of day, though he's already on the ballot in 40 states, I think. And I'm going to see him the night before I come to Pittsburgh. This is going to be very amusing: There's a party being given here in to watch the Obama/McCain debate, with Ralph. At least in that room, it will be a three-corner debate, and it will be the most interesting one of the entire campaign. But Wolf Blitzer won't be there to put it on screen.

So why doesn't Nader run for Senate? Clearly there's a guy representing that state whom we could do without ...

I don't know. He thinks he can do more good if he can make himself a figure on the national stage, I guess. That's as far as I ever got with him.

Your criticisms of Obama are well made, but wouldn't we be better off with him in the White House?

Sure. I cannot vote for McCain. Obama, at least there's a chance that he can learn. With McCain, there's no chance. I think McCain is a man of no judgment, and intemperate, convinced of his own rightness. He's as bad as bush; he thinks his ignorance is his virtue. And Obama, despite his being chained to the galley oar of the American corporate ship of state, still could learn. And I think his impulses are good.

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