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Tuesday, May 7, 2019


I am now eighty-five years old, and save for a wanderjahr in Europe as a student and a number of short overseas trips, I have spent all those years in the United States.  Despite my unflagging interest in politics, I have in my long life never actually met [or seen in person] a sitting Senator, although I did meet Elizabeth Warren for ninety seconds when she was still a law professor [my son, Tobias, knew her.]  I met my Congressional Representative once in Western Mass, John Olver, because I bought four and a half acres from him so that Susie and I could build a house after we got married.  And I met David Price once, the safely and regularly reelected Representative from Chapel Hill.  I have also never met a sitting Governor, or any member of any Cabinet, and as for the media, I once shook hands with E. J. Dionne at a Harvard Social Studies reunion.  And that is it!

So I often wonder what all these important people are really like, what they really think, how they describe the world in private, when they are speaking openly.  This morning, as I was walking, I recalled an experience I had almost sixty years ago that might offer a clue to answering those questions.

It happened either in 1959-60 or 1960-61 at Harvard, where I was a young Instructor.  Those of you old enough to recall those days may remember something called the Pugwash Conferences.  These were annual unofficial international gatherings of bigwigs of various political persuasions who came together to discuss the threats to peace and survival posed by nuclear weapons.  They were organized by Bertrand Russell [whom I had met], among others, and were named after the tiny shoreline town in Nova Scotia where the first conference was held.

I had gotten to know Richard Barnet, a disarmament expert who was then at the Harvard Russian Research Institute.  Dick shortly afterward teamed up with Marc Raskin to form the Institute for Policy Studies, a leftwing DC think tank that still exists.  When Walt Rostow got back from the Pugwash Conference that year, he appeared on TV and made a number of bellicose statements about the Soviet threat that seemed to me totally unconnected to reality.  Then Dick told me that Rostow was going to give a private briefing on the Conference to the Institute regulars, and asked whether I wanted to go along as his guest.

I jumped at the chance.  Now I would get to find out what Rostow really thought.  So I went along and sat quietly in the back, observing.  [This from my Autobiography]  Everyone was there - Alex Inkeles, Adam Ulam, Zbigniev Brzeszinski, all the hotshots.  I listened with dismay as Rostow used the same hackneyed jargon that had characterized his public appearances.  Worse still, the responses from the experts were couched as well in cold war boilerplate.  It dawned on me that this was the way they actually thought.  There was no real insider story that they shared only with fellow experts.  They actually believed the nonsense they shoveled out to the public.

In the immortal words of Gertrude Stein describing Oakland, CA, there was no there there.  Or to invoke an even more famous line from Maya Angelou, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

From these two wise women and my own experience from long ago, I draw the conclusion that the Clintons and Schumers and Bidens of the world are just the bought and paid for Wall Street flacks that they seem to be.

It is going to be a long hot summer.


s. wallerstein said...

I met Michelle Bachelet, who was twice elected Chilean president and is now UN Human Rights Commissioner when she was a pediatrician. We took our then baby son Pablo to see her several times, without of course the slightest notion that she would become famous and politically significant. She was a no-nonsense pediatrician, none of that "how cute your baby is" posing that so many pediatricians engage in and very practical, not the kind of doctor who sends you for hundreds of unnecessary lab tests.

I really liked her. I liked her so much that I still support her politically in spite of her weakness and many political inconsistencies as president. In fact, although her policies sucked in many respects, I'll still stand up for her. Which all goes to show you how gut-feelings influence many of us, maybe all of us…..

Anonymous said...

Milan Kundera has a nice comment about a USA Senator in the second half of the Unbearable Lightness of Being--in a section about kitsch..

David Palmeter said...

When I was a senior at Syracuse, Harry Truman came to speak. I was invited to the lunch for him in my capacity as editor of the student newspaper. A friend was waiting on tables and, during the set-up, switched name place cards with some dignitary and put me at the table for eight with Truman and the chancellor of the university. I was totally intimidated. The chancellor sat at a 45 degree angle to my right and Truman was next to him.

That was the time (1960) when George Wallace was blocking school house doors and shouting “segregation forever.” Someone at the table asked Truman what he thought about Wallace. He used the “N” word in reply. He said, “Wallace thinks Ns aren’t as good as white people, and he’s going to learn the hard way that they are.”

I was struck then, and am still struck, by the disconnect between the word and the sentiment.

Dean said...

Speaking of Oakland, CA, several years ago my wife and I attended a choral concert in a church near downtown Oakland, a performance of (iirc) Mary Lou Williams' Black Christ of the Andes by a local choir and ensemble. One our walk back to the BART station around 10:00pm we passed a lone, suited, middle-aged man. It was the city's mayor at the time, Jerry Brown. "Hi, Mayor Brown," I said. He replied, "Hello." Of course, he had already served as California's governor long before. Should I have greeted him accordingly? That wouldn't have made sense.

LFC said...

Walt Rostow was a true-believing archetypal Cold War liberal who really thought that there was a Soviet threat (a belief in which, of course, he was not alone). Had I been old enough to be politically conscious in c. 1960, I don't think I would have expected him to say anything very different on this subject behind closed doors than he did in public. (Btw, David Milne's book on Rostow and Vietnam is quite good not only on that topic but on Rostow in general.)

LFC said...

So, to make the point more explicit, what is noteworthy and/or surprising in this story is, arguably, not that Rostow said the same thing in a private "insider" setting that he did in public, but that RPW expected him to say something substantially different in the insider setting.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But all the other people there did the same thing. And they weren't all fire-breathing war mongers. By the way, I was 26 at the time.

s. wallerstein said...

I believe I understand why Professor Wolff expected Rostow to say something different in private than in public.

I recall that during the Viet Nam War I would watch LBJ, McNamara and Co. speak on TV about the war and I would ask if they really believed what they were saying. I genuinely could not understand that seemingly intelligent people, with more practical knowledge of political affairs than I had, could say such delusionary things.

It took me a long time to realize that yes, they really believed that "we" were winning the war, that the Vietnamese people saw "us" as fighting for their freedom, that with more arms and a new "clean" general the South Vietnamese army would begin to beat the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Sure, they lied about the details and about the atrocities that "we" and the South Vietnamese Army committed, but in general, they really believed their own bullshit.

s. wallerstein said...


You're younger than I am, I believe and perhaps you don't understand the psychological process involved.

The U.S. came out of World War 2, triumphant and optimistic about itself, and when I was growing up in the 50's, everyone I knew shared that optimism which was coupled with a faith in our leadership, who it was believed were honest, truthful and statesmanlike.

Sure, there was segregation in the south and McCarthyism, but outside of very small radical groups such as the Communist Party almost no one let that get in the way of our faith in the U.S. as the "good guy" and in our leaders as the "best and the brightest".

When Kennedy was elected in 1960, the idea of our leaders as the "best and the brightest" was even more "self-evident" as JFK surrounded himself with smart people and intellectuals from Harvard and other elite schools and once again, no one or almost no one questioned that those elite schools were the best on earth and taught the "truth, nothing but the truth".

That shared consensus (aka collective delusion) fell apart with the Viet Nam War, as we saw that the "best and the brightest" not only lied to us again and again, but also weren't particularly bright when it came to our foreign policy. However, the irony of the phrase "the best and the brightest" only makes sense if it is true that many people did consider them to be the "best and the brightest" until far into the Viet Nam War.

Now 50 years later very few believe in the honesty of the U.S. government and post Trump absolutely no one will.

Once again, the myth of the U.S. as the " universal good guy" and of our leaders as the "best and the brightest" was so strong that it took many of us years to free ourselves of it.

If RPW freed himself of it in 1960, he was far ahead of the game, since most of us didn't free ourselves of it until, say, 1967 or 1968.

Danny said...

'Everyone was there - Alex Inkeles, Adam Ulam, Zbigniev Brzeszinski, all the hotshots.'

Alex Inkeles, U.S. sociologist.

Adam B. Ulam, a Harvard historian.

Zbigniev Brzeszinski, American political scientist and public official -- national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

All the hotshots.

Charles Pigden said...

It makes a difference living in a small country such as New Zealand. I have met (and indeed knew quite well) Jim Anderton, Deputy Prime Minister in the first phase of the Helen Clark’s administration and Minister of Economic Development thereafter (Clark was Prime Minister from 1999-2008). I also knew several Cabinet Ministers belonging to my Party (in which I was a fairly prominent activist) when it was in Coalition with Labour from 1999-2002 when it imploded. I’ve met the Finance Minster and the Deputy Prime Minister in the second phase of Clark’s administration, Sir Michael Cullen. I’ve me the last Prime Minister, Bill English at a graduation ceremony at Otago where one of my daughters and one of his were both graduating. And nowadays several of my students have prominent roles within the public service as senior advisors within the various ministries. I have not met our current Prime Minster, though it is perfectly possible that I might do so and I would not be particularly surprised to find myself across the dinner table from her or at any rate browsing at the same buffet.

But I am a little surprised that Professor Wolff has not met more prominent politicians given that he is after all a Harvard man and has been something of an activist for most of his career. Going to an elite university tends to give you the entree even in a much more populous country than New Zealand. For example one of my greatest friends at Cambridge in England was the son, nephew and grandson of prominent government minsters and also the son of a famous actress. I never actually met any of them, but still that’s only one degree of separation.

On the substantial point, I agree with professor Wolff. Although I have, of course, experienced a certain amount of hypocrisy and deception in political life, my experience of politicians is that they are not very different on the public platform from the way they appear in private, though the right wing ones are sometimes a little bit nicer than you might expect. (However New Zealand’s political right is a lot less obnoxious than America’s political right; witness their readiness to go along with strict gun control laws in wake of the Christchurch shooting. Parliament was virtually unanimous in banning automatics. )

Charles Pigden said...

The radical socialists Mr and Mrs Rostow must have been a little disappointed at the way Walt Whitman and Eugene Victor turned out.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yes, Charles Pigden, especially since little Eugene Victor was originally Eugene Victor Debs Rostow!!

LFC said...

On the particular issue of Vietnam, McNamara's public statements and private views increasingly diverged as he became more and more disillusioned with Johnson's policies. Rostow and McNamara differed in a number of ways, and in the 90s McNamara said in writing that he had been wrong originally on Vietnam. Rostow by contrast defended the war to the end. The battery is low in my phone so I can't go on, but for various reasons I don't, with due respect, feel that I need a lecture (or what feels like a lecture) from you on matters on which I am reasonably well informed.

s. wallerstein said...


I have no doubt that you know more about the respective careers of Rostow and McNamara than I do and about the details of U.S. foreign policy in general.

My comments above, what you refer to as my lecture, in no way question your general knowledge of U.S. policy in Viet Nam, but are directed towards your puzzlement about the fact that it was not obvious to RPW in 1960 or 1961 that Rostow (and the others he mentions in his original post) would repeat the same empty cold war rhetoric in private as in public and that the fact that they did repeat the same empty cold war rhetoric led RPW at the time to realize that "there is no there there", an insight on his part which he still recalls almost 60 years later.

I tried to summon up, perhaps unsuccessfully, the general political climate in the U.S. in 1960, a climate which is hard to empathize with if one did not experience it oneself, as are all by-gone political climates. I did that because many things are all too obvious with hindsight, but at the time are so alien to hegemonic common sense that seeing through them takes special intellectual creativity, as RPW exhibited back then.

As you can imagine, my purpose was not to lecture you on the obvious. I am aware of your intellectual abilities and you may recall that I even have complemented you on them from time to time in this blog.

LFC said...

P.s. I think we've had this whole discussion before, ie the last time this Rostow story came up here. I do get the psychology, s.w., and I get that RPW was a young man at the time. I get that. And perhaps I am reading back in time what is now known about Rostow but wasn't necessarily so clear then. So I'm sorry I said anything. Probably the best thing is to let RPW tell and re-tell his stories and not comment on them.

LFC said...

Pps Wrote the above before seeing your comment. Yes, I was 3 years old in 1960 and did not experience that political climate first hand, so in that respect I take yr point.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

With the caveat that it has been a long, long time since I read Rostow, I recall nothing that would lead me to believe that he ever held any doubt or managed to ever be self-reflective about anything, let alone that capitalism is an unmitigated good, and communism inherently evil.

The only time I thought about public/private personalities. Barney Frank's persona had a lot of sharp edges and I couldn't help but think that he dulled them when speaking publicly. That lead me to consider he might be a pretty nasty guy in private.

howard b said...

Your encounter with Rowstow may still have counted as front stage in Goffmann's system and not back stage: so he might not have let his guard down entirely.
What do you suppose?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Interesting suggestion, Howard B.

Anonymous said...

In the first month at my first job in Wash D.C., I was invited to have breakfast with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. This was after I wrote to him about national infrastructure at the time when he was rewriting the national highway transportation bill. He was polite, but very firm in his questions. He cut off people when they veered off in their responses. When my turn came, I gave him very terse responses. He liked that very much.

Tom Hickey said...

What you see is what you get, but only for the most part.

Very few people are absolutely honest all the time, even with themselves — or maybe especially with themselves. Honesty is one of the most difficult of the virtues, especially when self-interest is involved. And then there is also the noble lie, as well as paternalism, which those behaving on this basis regard as only on as sufficient justification but also a duty.

It's complicated.

Some are willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, while some hold that were people profit from their positions, there is always the suspicion of self-interest prevailing over character, going on to add that if so-called experts are wrong about things that are evident or should be evident, then the cause is not merely ignorance, but culpable ignorance.

The question is whether we are ruled more by morons or by thugs — or maybe both.

howard b said...

Tom, then there is this little known application of quantum physics called by experts at Fermi Lab as the moron/thug duality- it's like the opposite of a rainbow when all of life's splendors shine- its primary cause is Fox news, and it makes our current moment so scary and unpredictable- and it can only be rid of in the ballot box- it dogs thinkers as damnably as the Grand Unification theory- and stumped Hawkings though he was more disturbed by Brexit, and besides England is dead and is another country