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E.J. Dionne, Jr
E.J. Dionne, Jr
Why Americans Hate Politics
ISBN: 0671778773
Why Americans Hate Politics
Mr. Dionne was raised in Fall River, Mass. and attended Harvard University. He did his doctorate study at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He worked for The New York Times, and later, for The Washington Post. His book Why Americans Hate Politics deals with apathy among the American electorate due to dissatisfaction with the political process. In the interview, he describes the origins of post-World War II conservatism from libertarianism and traditionalism, and he discusses the problems of both conservatism and liberalism.
Why Americans Hate Politics
Program Air Date: August 25, 1991

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: E. J. Dionne, Jr., the last line in your book is, "A nation that hates politics will not long survive as a democracy." Why not?
E. J. DIONNE, AUTHOR, "WHY AMERICANS HATE POLITICS": I think that politics is really the essence of the democratic process, that what politics ought to be about is solving problems and resolving disputes. That, I think, is what people out there sense that politics used to be about, and I think they've come to hate politics now because it's not about that anymore. I think people have a sense that they're supposed to want to be part of the process, but they don't feel that this particular process is the one they want to be part of.
LAMB: How do you know they hate politics?
DIONNE: Well, a couple of ways one can know. One, obviously, is the opinion polls which have shown a persistent decline in confidence in government or in political campaigns or in what is said in them. The 1988 campaign got the worst rating from the voters themselves in terms of being boring, in terms of being nasty and all of that. Then the other measure, obviously, is that fewer and fewer people are going to the polls. Our turn-out the last time and a statistic often repeated on C-SPAN was the lowest turn out that we had since 1924, so something is happening out there that is making an awful lot of Americans flee from the political process.
LAMB: In your acknowledgements you say at the end of this very long list of people that you wanted to thank, "The one person I find impossible to thank is Mary Boyle." Who is she?
DIONNE: She's my fiancee and she came up with the title of the book. We were actually taking her mom out to dinner -- her mom was visiting us down here -- and I had been racking my brain for a subtitle. This was originally the subtitle, and I couldn't figure it out and we were in a car and I was talking and talking. She said, "What do you think the book is about?" I was going on. She finally said, "Why Americans hate politics." And that was it. Simon & Schuster liked the subtitle so much they said, "Why don't you make it the title," and I said, "Sure."
LAMB: Has it gotten the attention of people because it's so strong?
DIONNE: I think the title has helped a lot. I think the title has helped because there are an awful lot of -- first of all, talk shows all across America whose hosts for one reason or another hate the way politics is going and whose listeners hate the way politics is going, and so it's been a good way to open up a discussion of the whole book. So, I like the title a lot.
LAMB: "The 1988 campaign left Americans with ashes in their mouth over the state of their political process. It had been a brutish, backward-looking, decisive campaign. Most of the issues America really cared about had gone largely undiscussed, and finally the future had gone undebated. Our politics was still trapped in the past and the voters hated what they saw." Again, how do you know?
DIONNE: Again, I would just point to all the polling evidence. I think that the reason the 1988 campaign was so unsatisfactory to people is, first of all, if you looked at what the country faced after George Bush became president -- the collapse of Communism, the problems in the Middle East, the savings and loan crisis, just to pick three issues -- those were among the most important issues we faced since that campaign. They went largely undiscussed in 1988. Secondly, I think that Americans have always had a sense that it's possible to use politics and government to solve problems. People have looked to government, not to solve everything, not to create a utopian situation -- Americans are wisely anti-utopian -- but that government could do some discreet things.

We didn't really talk very much in 1988 about what government might be able to do to make the way of the average middle-class person a little easier. In the book, I say that my favorite social program is the G.I. Bill. The reason I like the G.I. Bill so much is because it did two things simultaneously. On the one hand, it said that government can help people achieve the basics of middle-class life, which were a college education and a chance to own a home. At the same time, it linked those benefits to a sense of responsibility. The people we gave those benefits to were people who'd served the country in World War II.

Now, I think that the way we need to discuss social policy again is in the spirit of the G.I. Bill, so one of the things I talk about is we ought not to have a situation where families, middle class or poor, have to worry forever about whether their kids -- if they can get into college -- are going to be able to go. I think there should be non-extortionate loan programs for those kids. At the same time, I think that Americans would feel good about the idea that we'd encourage people to pay back these loans, not just with money, but with time -- three years as a cop, three years as a teacher, three years as a doctor in a poor neighborhood or a rural area. That sense of linking rights and responsibilities, which I think a people sense comes to them neither from liberals nor from conservatives, is what people are looking for, I think, in the '90s and they haven't been getting it so far.
LAMB: Where did this book start?
DIONNE: I had been wanting for some time to do a kind of history of political and ideological movements in America. My friend, Peter Steinfels, who's a reporter now on the New York Times, wrote a book called "The Neo-Conservatives" back in the late '70s and I always loved the book. I thought he showed that a history of a political intellectual movement could actually be exciting. What I had always wanted to do was to say isn't it possible for somebody to write a history that would say how did liberals become the way they are now and how did conservatives become the way they are now. So that was sort of where the book started.

I had a long series of conversations with my editor at Simon & Schuster, Alice Mayhew, who had a very similar idea. She had also wanted such a book at some point, and so we talked about it and that was sort of where the seeds of the idea were planted. Then as 1988 went on, it became clearer and clearer that what liberalism and conservatism had become was increasingly unsatisfactory to an awful lot of people, so that the book, in a sense, in my own head became more critical as the 1988 campaign went on. The other source of it is I wrote a Ph.D. thesis on racial politics in Britain and the United States, and I was dissatisfied with the way liberals had handled their mission. That liberals, on the one had, deserved credit for carrying the message of racial tolerance and for trying to achieve the civil rights break-throughs, but I felt that they had mishandled the politics of it and had actually turned an awful lot of lower middle-class white people into conservatives when they didn't have to. I've always been interested in exploring those failures, so that also went into writing this book.
LAMB: Is it your first book?
DIONNE: It's my first book.
LAMB: How did you become even a candidate for writing a book? How did that process work?
DIONNE: I don't know. Essentially I had been writing for the New York Times for 14 years and had been writing for magazines like Commonweal and the New Republic here and there and had sort of a whole circle -- like all of us do -- of political friends, people you talk about politics with, and Alice Mayhew at Simon & Schuster was one of the friends whom I'd been talking to about politics long before I ever thought of writing a book. So I think it came out of these other things that I had done. I had done a lot of work on the Vatican when I was in Rome for the New York Times. Actually the first book idea that came my way was a book about the Catholic Church, which someday I would like to do. But that's sort of partly how I got into thinking about this.
LAMB: Do you have a contract to write more than one book?
DIONNE: I certainly want to write more than one book. I don't think I have a formal contract at the moment on that, but we've talked about it already.
LAMB: How long has this book been on the market?
DIONNE: Actually, the first time it appeared in a bookstore was on my late father's birthday, which was May 2. Actually the publication date was the end of May.
LAMB: What's the most satisfying thing that's happened since this book came out for you?
DIONNE: I think it's just watching people actually debate it. When you put a book out there, as you know from all the folks you've talked to, you have absolutely no idea how it's going to be received, and so, obviously, the reviews have been very gratifying. People have been very generous. I joke that people have tended more to read their own politics into the book than not, so I have not been at all maligned, but often aligned. That's been an interesting process. But I guess it's the notion that at least some people who are directly involved in the political debate, either in politics directly or among my colleagues, have sort of picked up on some of the ideas and run with them and started arguing about them. On a recent C-SPAN show, Governor [Bill] Clinton was quoting the book, and other people have been out there. So the notion that somehow I might contribute something to the political debate is probably the most satisfying thing about it.
LAMB: There's an obscure line -- I'm sure this individual's not obscure -- in the book that I tried to find somewhere else in the book where you would go back to further explain this and I didn't find it. Help me. You thank your wife-to-be for introducing you to a Cass Sunstein's ideas about civic republicanism. Who is that person?
DIONNE: Cass Sunstein is a very bright man who teaches at the University of Chicago. He teaches in the law school. At one point, he was in the book and I when I was doing cutting and changing, the part where I talked in detail about Sunstein ended up getting cut out. But what's powerful about Sunstein, and it sort of shaped my way of viewing American politics, is that he thinks that we have to look at all of American political history through the lens of the fights between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists back at the beginning of the republic.

Sunstein views the most useful organizing ideas -- an alternative free market capitalism, civic republicanism. It's not socialism, it's not about government ownership of everything, but it implies that there can be a kind of common good in politics and that what politics is about is not only competing interests fighting each other in order to have one triumph over another, it's also something in the old town meeting sense of democracy where people of different points of view and with different interests sit down and try to reason their way, not only toward a result, but toward a result that in some way would represent the common interest and the common good. A lot of Americans have in the back of their heads an idea that there is such a thing as the common good, that politics is not only about "I get mine, you get yours," but also that there is a solution which is good for the country. Sunstein is a very powerful exponent of this idea.
LAMB: You've met him?
DIONNE: I've talked to him on the telephone, actually. I've interviewed him a few times for the Post. I've quoted him a few times and read him whenever I see his writing anywhere.
LAMB: You also thank the people who created the Metro system here in Washington. Why?
DIONNE: Because that's where I met Mary Boyle on an Easter Sunday afternoon.
LAMB: Just waiting for the subway?
DIONNE: The subway there has a very, very long escalator, and so we were just on the escalator. It was Easter Sunday, and actually I was going into the New York Times to finish the piece I wrote about Gary Hart. I always tell people, "I'm the guy to whom Gary Hart said follow me around and didn't," and I was on my way to finish that and Mary had just come back from seeing her family and had checked on a friend's house -- he had been out of town -- and so we met on the escalator.
LAMB: Who is she?
DIONNE: Mary worked on the Hill. She worked actually for the Asia subcommittee, which is chaired by Steve Solarz, and she went back to law school about three years ago. In fact, most of this book was written out in Charlottesville. She was at the University of Virginia, and I found a little cottage on a wonderful farm with a nice family, three dogs and a horse named Hank. I sort of sat out there about 50 miles out of Charlottesville writing the book while she was finishing up in law school.
LAMB: One of the things that you gather from both the book, and also in the back where the notes are and you refer back to where you got all this, is there are lots and lots of people who write theory for a living that you quote and you go to. It would be helpful to get a better understanding of who your favorites are. I can name them, but before I name some of these people in the back, tell me who you like to read the most on political theory.
DIONNE: I suppose, in some ways, my very favorite is a man named Michael Walzer, whom I took two courses from in college, one a sort of straight political theory course. He wrote a book with the wonderful subtitle, "Reflections of an Unreconstructed democrat", small "d." I think he has a really good sense of what democracy is supposed to be about. He's also one of the authors of one of my favorite lines about why people flee from political participation. He cites a passage in Marx where Marx talked about the man who would hunt in the morning and fish in the afternoon and criticize in the evening.

Walzer points out that before he got to hunt, he'd probably have to go to a meeting of the hunters' collective and then he'd have to go to a meeting at a fisherman's union and by the time he was finished with all this, he'd be tired of doing anything. Walzer went on to quote Oscar Wilde who said that the problem with socialism is that it would require too many evenings. I think the same can be said of democracy, that the problem with democracy for a lot of people is that it requires too many evenings. So Walzer would be one.

There is an obscure essay that I quote in the book, which I think is still a brilliant essay on libertarianism, the people on the right who are against government all across the board, whether in the bedroom or regulating the market, named Jeff Riggenbach. He wrote a wonderful essay, which I'd love to see anthologized somewhere called In Praise of Decadence. I think what Riggenbach understood that few others have is that the '60s were not simply a move left -- we think of the New Left in the '60s as being associated with socialism and Vietcong flags and all that. But what Riggenbach understood earlier than most is that an awful lot of the rebellion that went on in the 1960s was against authority of all kinds and that there was a leave-us-alone quality to the 1960s. A friend of mine likes to say that it was not surprising that the counter-culture became the over-the-counter culture. I think he understood that. There are a lot of other people I cite in the book whom I could go on about.
LAMB: I think you see Jeff Riggenbach from time to time in USA Today.
DIONNE: That's right. He's a libertarian writer. He's been an editorial writer. He used to be an editor of a magazine called the Libertarian Review, which came out in the late '70s and early '80s. I think it ended somewhere in the 1980s.
LAMB: Lives out on the West Coast?
DIONNE: He lives on the West Coast. He's basically a libertarian polemicist and a very bright, very funny man.
LAMB: Then you have another libertarian that wrote in Ramparts magazine an article.
DIONNE: Murray Rothbard, who's a very important figure, I think, in intellectual circles where the Right ended up. Murray Rothbard was old Taft Republican who basically discovered the New Left in the 1960s as potential allies. He was on the same line as Riggenbach, and he wrote an article in Ramparts in which he said something like, "I am what I have always been, a Taft Republican. I don't believe in intervention abroad. I believe in free markets. I believe in black power. I used to be thought of as a reactionary and now I'm thought of as a radical and I haven't changed my views a bit," he said.
LAMB: Robert Taft, a former senator from Ohio and a candidate for president in what year?
DIONNE: Taft tried to get the Republican nomination in 1940, '44, '48 and '52.
LAMB: Played a role in your family.
DIONNE: Right. My dad was an ardent Taft Republican. Taft in our household was kind of like Adlai Stevenson was in a lot of liberal households. My dad's politics were interesting because he was a veteran. He was in the Army all during World War II, but he basically mistrusted government across the board, which meant he didn't like foreign intervention very much, either. So he was a fairly early opponent of the Vietnam War as a conservative Republican, and it was for him very consistent.
LAMB: Is there somebody today that would be called a Taft Republican in politics?
DIONNE: It's hard to say. I think Tom Campbell, who's running for the senate in California as a Republican, in some ways represents that tradition because he is anti-interventionist in foreign policy. He's fairly tolerant, liberal, on social issues, and he is quite against government intervention in the marketplace. So Campbell might be. Oddly enough, he's viewed as a moderate now because of this mix of views, but I think that he has some loyalty to that tradition.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
DIONNE: I grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, a wonderful, old factory town about 50 miles south of Boston.
LAMB: You dedicate this book to "my mother and father with love." You said your father's deceased now?
DIONNE: Yes, he died in 1968.
LAMB: And what about your mother?
DIONNE: My mom is a retired librarian and, as I told you at the beginning of the show, your biggest fan in America.
LAMB: Where was she a librarian?
DIONNE: She was a librarian in Fall River. When she retired, she was running a branch library -- it was a storefront library -- and her great joy in life was getting kids to read. She loved to spend time reading to little kids and encouraging kids in grade school and high school to read.
LAMB: In the acknowledgements you say, "To begin at the beginning, I learned to love politics from my parents, who encouraged my sister and me very early on to read, listen and argue and then go back to read and listen again." What was the atmosphere like at home?
DIONNE: We just loved politics. I mean, my dad loved to argue. My dad actually taught me a kind of tolerant politics because he believed that political argument was a good thing and believed people should confront each other and have a great time doing it and not hold political positions against each other. So my dad and I would constantly argue over two things. One is politics and the other is why were the Red Sox losing. They were always very spirited but very warm arguments. It was never personal. It was just that we loved politics and loved arguing about it. Each of us would usually assume positions well to the right or left of where we were just for the sake of our argument.
LAMB: What age did you start reading?
DIONNE: Oh, probably very young. I would imagine at 5, 6, 7. My mom was a teacher and a librarian, so there were always books around the house.
LAMB: Where did you go to university?
DIONNE: I went to Harvard and graduated in 1973.
LAMB: In what area?
DIONNE: I studied something they have up there called social studies, which is a very interesting department. It sort of was a mixture of politics and social theory and economics, if you wanted, or history if you wanted. You had a very intensive theoretical background. You had to read a lot Marx, Weber, Freud, Durkheim. Tocqueville was sort of the core program and then you could sort of branch out from there.
LAMB: Again, going through the book, you keep bringing up to the average person some fairly obscure people. They're the foundation for so many of these movements. One name I wanted to ask you about is a fellow by the name of [Ludwig] von Mises.
DIONNE: Right. He and others were the people after World War II who really helped found modern conservatism. If I could step back for a second, the whole theory of this book is captured in the headline, the chapter title, "Ideas Have Consequences." The kind of book I wanted to write was a book which would try to bring together the rough and tumble of politics -- what happened in campaigns, what poll takers do, what advertising people do -- with what people who were serious about ideas do.

I think one of the criticisms that's often made of those of us in the press is that we often don't pay enough attention to the ideas underlying politics, so my book in a way was a modest effort to make a contribution to saying you really can write about ideas in a way which I hope is comprehensible and interesting, and at the same time show that these things really are important to our politics, that they are the basis of so much of what we do, even though we don't talk about them that much on the surface.

There are a lot of undercurrents in our politics that we really don't talk about that much. So von Mises really led the revolt against the state from the right after World War II. The conservatives at the end of World War II really felt very isolated. FDR had been reelected four times. The government emerged from that war very strong. You had not only had the New Deal, but you had also had the enormous interventions in the economy created by the needs of war. That, in fact, gave liberals an awfully strong position in our politics because government looked awfully good to most Americans at that point. We forget in this anti-government period that government was then seen as the solution to the problem of the Depression, that government intervention at the time of the war really helped build up an awful lot of our industry. So conservatives, who had always been skeptical of this kind of government intervention, felt very isolated and the voices like von Mises were to them sort of prophets in the wilderness saying, "This stuff that the country has come to believe is all wrong."
LAMB: Who was that man?
DIONNE: He was an Austrian economist, an emigre. John Kenneth Galbraith, the great liberal economist, liked to joke that the revenge of the Austrian empire for our intervention against them in World War I was to export their economists to our shores and have them fight for this free market doctrine.
LAMB: There's a chapter here -- or at least a subhead here -- on libertarianism. Because there's a group that we cover all the time, I wanted to see if we could get to the basis of where they came from, the Cato Institute.
DIONNE: The Cato is a very interesting operation. William F. Buckley, Jr., is somebody who plays a very big role in this book in that really conservatism was founded by trying to bring together two political tendencies under the same umbrella -- essentially libertarians, who are people who believe that the state should be as small as possible, should intervene as little as possible in both individual lives and the economy, and traditionalists, people whose politics are rooted either often in Christianity, sometimes in the traditions of the Greeks, who really don't care that much about capitalism, but care about traditional values, traditional ways of understanding things, hierarchy, that sort of thing.

Buckley basically took these two tendencies and brought them together and then, if you will, sanctified them in the name of anti-communism. The key fight for the Right from the end of World War II on was rolling back communism. A lot of people on the Right felt that Buckley had taken the right away from them, and those were the libertarians and people who never like an interventionist foreign policy, who didn't think that the rise of communism was enough to justify a large military establishment, and also who didn't like the government intervening on moral matters, either. So those folks were pretty isolated through the 1960s. The Buckley movement really became the dominant voice of American conservatism. They went off and finally founded their own political party, the Libertarian Party.

In 1972, I guess, they ran their first campaign and actually their candidate, John Hospers, got one electoral vote from a dissident Nixon elector. The Libertarian Party essentially provided the basis for the Cato Institute. There are a lot of the people who came out of the Libertarian Party. They did quite well as a third party in the 1980 campaign. They got almost a million votes. Some people like Ed Crane, who is now president of Cato, and David Boaz and others felt that they needed a new way of doing this, that the party itself was not the way to do it, that doing it through ideas, trying to engage both Democrats and Republicans with a think tank was a better way to get their ideas out. They've actually done quite well.
LAMB: You have some other things in here, kind of code words that trigger questions. You say Charles Koch's personal wealth led to the creation of the Cato Institute and that he was a former member of the John Birch Society.
DIONNE: Yes. He essentially was someone who was anti-communist, for free markets and all the rest and read the Austrian economists and was impressed by the idea that the real enemy was not communism abroad, but the state in general. So he switched his focus from waging war primarily on communism to waging war on the state, including here at home.
LAMB: And you mentioned Ed Crane, who you say left a business career?
DIONNE: Yes. I believe he was at Arco. He had been drawn to Ed Clark, who was the Libertarian candidate for president in 1980, and just ended up liking politics so much and liking this sort of intellectual entrepreneurship that he's been up to that he stayed at that instead.
LAMB: The reason I'm kind of wandering all over here is looking at this whole business of ideas that you bring up, can the individual have impact on the creation of ideas and discussion? If you're on the liberal side, who would you be following?
DIONNE: I think one of the interesting things about a focus on ideas is that it, in fact, shows that people from almost anywhere can actually have a big impact on the political process. If you looked at how the modern American Right was put together, Bill Buckley and all the people who gathered around him at National Review in the 1950s, a lot of these folks were very obscure. They were smart, they were committed, but they were very obscure and most Americans had never heard of them. By the sheer force of argument -- circumstances weren't in their favor, but they basically held up a banner and eventually people came to them. I think the same is true now of liberals.

One of the interesting developments in liberal intellectual life, I think, is the creation of a new magazine called The American Prospect by Bob Kuttner, who's up in Boston, and Paul Starr who's an academic at Princeton, where I really think that they are trying to do -- and I think with some success for liberals -- what some of these magazines did for conservatives, which is to say we can have a broad debate among liberals. We can argue with each other in a constructive way as opposed to a destructive way, and that there are some ideas we hold in common as liberals, they say, which are still valid. I think that one of the biggest tasks before liberals right now is to give Americans faith again that government can do things.

I think that when all is said and done, the most harmful development to liberals in the last 15 years is that average Americans, middle-class Americans, no longer think that the government can intervene on their side, can no longer do things in a way that's efficient or that will help them. I think liberals have missed the boat in not constantly trying to bring the argument back, not to cultural issues, which I think are divisive and not what the country wants to argue about, but about what specific things can government do to help average people. I think the debate is changing, though, and I think liberals are starting to make inroads. I think it's changing because we're starting to talk about health care, which I think is an issue all Americans want us to talk about. We're starting to talk about how the tax system has become unfair, in particular to one group, which is middle-income parents with children. After all of this pro-family talk, if you look at what's happened to the tax system over 40 years, the people who have been hit hardest are middle-income families with kids. So I think that there is an opening for liberals to bring the argument back to basics -- as I call it in the book -- and sort of get people again to believe maybe government can do some things well. Until people believe that, liberals are not going to make any progress.
LAMB: Just for purposes of giving our audience some sense of how you put this book together, you have an introduction and then three parts. The introduction is "Living in the Past: How Liberals and Conservatives are Failing America." Both are failing America?
DIONNE: The basic argument of the book is that liberals and conservatives are casting problems as a series of false choices. For example, most Americans don't think you have to choose between being for equality between the genders or being for the family. Most Americans are for both. The example I use a lot in talking about the book and that I use in the course of writing the book is what happens to the person in a family -- who in our society is usually the woman -- who takes time off from work for a few years to raise kids. That's something we're supposed to be for in this society -- people being good parents. Yet when that person returns to work, she will usually find her chances of promotion are less than someone else's. Now, is it pro-family or pro-feminist to say that's unfair? Well, I think it's both pro-family and pro-feminist. I don't think most Americans care what you call it. They would like to do something about that.

There are a whole series of other false choices. We cast compassion as an enemy of self-reliance. You look at the polls and most Americans will say, "We're against welfare." In the same group you'll have the vast majority saying, "We want to help the poor." They're not being inconsistent, in my view. What they're trying to say is that they want to help poor people and they want to help poor people become self-sufficient, and our welfare system, as we have set it up so far, has not done a good job of that. I think it's a false choice, again, to have to choose between compassion and self-reliance. I think in a whole series of issues, we have had to face these false choices, and most voters understand that they're false choices and they don't want to make them and our political debate keeps focusing on them.
LAMB: You have the three parts. After you get through the introduction, there's "The Failures of Liberalism." How did you go about identifying the failures?
DIONNE: In the book itself, I talk about two ideological movements, the New Left and neo-conservatives, whom I think did between them a very good wrecking job on liberalism. I talk a lot about race and about feminism and the family. The feminism and the family part is very much about some of the things I just talked about. The chapter on race talks about why is it that liberals' most noble achievement, which was civil rights, turned on them with such a vengeance later on. At the heart of my argument is a view that liberals were right about civil rights, and because they were right, they fell victim to the characteristic sin of people who are on the right side of history, which is moralism. I think liberal moralism blinded them to some of the legitimate concerns of white middle-class people. When some people -- not only white middle-class, but black middle-class -- complained about crime, whenever the issue of crime came up, a lot of liberals were inclined to say, "That must be a racist issue." Or when people complained about taxes going up -- and in fact, middle income people did face big tax increases for a whole lot of reasons including the great inflation -- a lot of liberals were inclined to say, "You must be stingy." I think by casting issues in this way, by withdrawing themselves from the middle class, they actually were partly responsible for losing that possibility of creating what Dr. King called the "benevolent community." I think that it was the liberal task to bring blacks and whites together, and I think they did a terrible job by failing to address what were the legitimate concerns of the middle-class in that period.
LAMB: In Part Two you do "The Conservative Impasse." What impasse?
DIONNE: I think conservatives took advantage of these liberal failures -- sometimes shamelessly as in the case with very racially oriented, divisive campaigns -- but really haven't answered the concerns of the voters who voted for them. A couple of problems I think the conservatives face. First of all, if you look at how the Reagan coalition got put together, it was really of two basic parts. On the one side were the traditional Republicans, people who were for small government and low taxes and really didn't like the New Deal or the Great Society or any of it.

What Ronald Reagan did is he brought a whole series of new people who were mainly moderate- to low-income people, mainly white. We called them Reagan Democrats in shorthand. These were folks who also felt they were overtaxed and wanted their taxes cut, but they actually liked most of the New Deal, certainly Social Security, most of the Fair Deal and a lot of the Great Society, notably Medicare. What Reagan found when he was in office is that he could do just fine cutting taxes, but there was no way he could cut the size of government without blowing this coalition apart. So I think the deficit's causes are entirely political and the result of this impasse within conservatism. The other problem goes back to the establishment of conservatism back in the 1950s. Essentially you've always had this war between more libertarian-inclined conservatives. They tend to be better off, better educated. They want the government out of everything. Bob Teeter, President Bush's poll taker, calls them pro-choice on everything.

At the same time, you had all these other voters -- again a lot of them among the Reagan Democrats -- who were evangelical Christians. They were unhappy about the moral course that the country was on. They really liked it when Ronald Reagan talked about family, work and neighborhood. These two constituencies are totally at odds with each other also, which is one reason why so many Republicans hate to hear the word abortion come up at all because abortion has the potential of just blowing those two constituencies apart. I think that's why President Bush could face some real problems if the Supreme Court in 1992 threw out Roe v. Wade.
LAMB: And, finally, Part Three is "Curing the Mischiefs of Ideology." What's mischievous about ideologues?
DIONNE: I think there's something specifically mischievous about the kind of ideological debate we've had. I really think that we are_ all of us, left and right -- kind of stuck in the 1960s, that we have so many arguments that were rooted in those old arguments around race and sexuality, gender equality and all that sort of thing, when most of us have really made our peace with those issues and we've actually learned from each other in the course of this debate. One of the things I've tried to get back to in the book is that democratic countries don't have political debates for 30 years for the purpose of staying in the same place they were when they started. We've learned a lot of things. I think a lot of conservatives are more liberal on racial issues than they were 30 years ago. The word sexism is used not only on the left but on the right. All of us have changed a lot in 30 years.

At the same time, I think a lot of liberals understand now that certain things that were called traditional values are, in fact, functional. That the two-parent intact family is a much more important institution than we realized and that shoring it up and helping out two-parent families is a legitimate goal of government. So we've learned from each other. When I talk about curing mischiefs of ideology, really what I'm talking about is, isn't it possible for liberals and conservatives to settle some of these issues and move on. That's what I'm hoping if I'm lucky that the book might contribute to, that we can actually learn some things from this debate.
LAMB: Do you think there will ever be a book that you could write that would ask the question or make the statement, "Why Americans love politics?"
DIONNE: I hope so. I think that to some degree one will never be able to write that book in America and for good reason. We have a long history of being mistrustful of centralized power. We worry about the state accumulating too much power. We are all to some degree profound individualists and in a lot of ways that's a very good part of our character. We'll always have a certain mistrust of politics. But I certainly hope I could write a book saying why Americans like politics a lot better than they used to. It would be a terrible title, but that would be the theme.
LAMB: Do you consider yourself a centrist?
DIONNE: I sort of play with titles for myself. Sometimes I like to say I represent the radical center -- radical in the sense that I believe in change. Sometimes I think of myself as a kind of pragmatic liberal, and every once in a while I'll call myself a bleeding-heart conservative, that wonderful term coined by Jack Kemp. I suppose most people would categorize me as a kind of moderate liberal or centrist liberal.
LAMB: You started your professional life at the New York Times?
DIONNE: I did.
LAMB: How did you get a job there?
DIONNE: Actually I was hired to help set up what we at the Times used to call the New York Times-CBS Poll -- or what they call at CBS the CBS-New York Times Poll. What had happened is that when I was in college, some friends of mine, including Bill Schneider, who's appeared on C-SPAN quite a lot, who's now working with CNN and also writes a column for the L.A. Times, was a professor at Harvard and he and another professor and an old friend named Rick Weil and I -- Rick and I were both undergraduates -- reanalyzed all the polls that the Times had done with Time magazine in the 1972 election. We were doing it for academic purposes, but we were also doing it to talk to them about what they might do. What we suggested is they start their own poll. In the meantime, I was at Oxford in graduate school and worked off and on for the Paris bureau. Growing up as a French-Canadian in New England, I spoke French before I spoke English, so I always had French back there. I was kind of a stringer in the Paris bureau, and finally the Times decided that it would be a good idea to start its own poll, but they did it with CBS, so I was hired to help get that thing set up.
LAMB: You give a lot of people credit in the back for helping start your career including Bob Kaiser, who did a "Booknotes" here a few weeks ago. You say that, "Bob Kaiser, who persuaded me it would be a good idea to come over and as a man of his word and lots of good ideas. . ." What do you mean by all that? Come over where?
DIONNE: In the fall of 1989, I decided to go over to the Post, and Bob was the main person who set that up -- Bob and an old friend named Dave Ignatius, who was foreign editor, who actually has a good thriller out on the market right now. Bob is just a brilliant guy and just so much fun to talk to and argue with. In fact, we have the same publisher and both of our books have begin with the word "why." His is "Why Gorbachev Happened" and mine is "Why Americans Hate Politics." I used to joke that some papers have a lot of wise guys and this is the only paper that have why guys, which is a miserable joke, but we laughed anyway.
LAMB: When did you make the switch from the Times to the Post?
DIONNE: Well, I made the decision to switch in the fall of 1989, but I didn't start working at the Post until April of 1990 because I was off in Charlottesville writing the book. Bob, in fact, who has written a number of books himself, urged me to take as much time as I wanted in that period and to get a draft done because he said, rightly I think, that it's very hard. It's the ultimate busman's holiday. You wake up in the morning if you write for a living and write all day and then you get home and you're really going to be relaxed by writing some more. So I was very glad I took his advice and got a draft done. Then most of what I was doing was rewriting and cobbling and that sort of thing.
LAMB: A mother who taught school and was a librarian, graduate of Harvard, Oxford, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Of all those institutions, which one has had the most impact on you?
DIONNE: I think, like everyone, I'd have to say my family and my hometown probably were the most important things. I grew up in a town that was so totally political that a friend of mine once said there were only three kinds of people in Fall River -- people running for office, people getting ready to run for office and people recovering from running for office. Politics, both in our own home and also in the town, was just a part of life the way baseball was or football or any other sport. Everyone was interested in it all the time. I suppose that one of the reasons that it makes me uneasy that the country has become so angry at politics is that I grew up believing that politics was not only a good thing and an important thing, but that it was fun. I think we've lost that sense. I would have to say that it's my family and my home-town more than these institutions I've been lucky enough to be part of.
LAMB: In recent years, Margaret Heckler and Barney Frank represented that area?
DIONNE: Yes. Margaret Heckler had most of the district, and when they did the reapportionment in 1982, some of Barney Frank's towns, including his hometown were moved in, and so it was about a two-thirds Heckler district and one-third Frank district, but Barney won the seat.
LAMB: Harvard, Oxford. What about those two institutions? How are they different? How are they the same? What impact did they have on you?
DIONNE: First of all, there is a difference between getting to a place when you're 17 and when you're 21. I loved both places. My experience at Harvard was different from how people sometimes view the place. I found an awful lot of professors very accessible. They liked to talk to students. You know, people like Bill Schneider. Marty Peretz, who's the editor of the New Republic, gave a seminar on McCarthyism, which was great fun. Marty was also somebody who loved to argue. And Michael Walzer. There were all kinds of people there whom I found both great teachers and also just spent a lot of time with students and really cared about them.

It was a very political time when I was there. The Vietnam War was going on, and I was very active. I've always had this odd political position. I described myself at that time as being on the right wing of the left wing. I was very much against the Vietnam War like most of my friends were, but was always kind of suspicious of what some people on the far left were doing. I always tried to bring them down to Fall River and to say, "These are the folks you're trying to convince and you're not going to convince them by doing some of the things you're doing." I would always argue with them that at the time the country really turn against the Vietnam War. Most Americans supported the troops but not the war, and they wanted us to get out, they wanted the thing ended, but they sure weren't going to identify with people who burn the American flag. In fact, I have a line in the book where I say, of course it's ridiculous that so much of our politics has turned off and on, on the issue of burning the American flag, but I think the '60s left has something to answer for for doing that sort of thing. It really created a whole issue for their enemies that they just didn't have to create. As I say in the book, even the Communist Party used to drape their meetings with American flags. Why in the world did we back in the '60s have to have that sort of politics?
LAMB: Oxford.
DIONNE: Oxford was a great experience because I had never been to Europe until I went there. When I was at Oxford, I used the occasion to really discover Europe. As I said, I worked in the Paris bureau. I traveled in the Middle East. I traveled pretty much all over Europe and all over England. In fact, at the time I was there, there were not only two general elections, but also a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the Common Market. Basically during the elections, a friend and I just took off from Oxford and became political tourists around the country and just went all over the country visiting different kinds of constituencies. We had the idea of writing something. I wrote a little something out of it, but mainly we just had a great time discovering Britain and discovering politics simultaneously.

I think that one of the reasons I've always liked politics and election campaigns is that they're a time when people are very open, ready to talk and to talk about things that matter to them. One of the things we discovered traveling around is that politics was a great way into all kinds of things. You could use the fact that an election was going on to talk to people about all kinds of issues, including personal issues and the like. We had a great time wondering around, so that's the most important thing.. I finally finished my Ph.D. thesis after I left, many years later. In fact, the first acknowledgement in my Ph.D. thesis is to the pressman's union of the New York Times for going on strike back in 1978, I guess that was. That's when I sat down and said, "I've got this time. Let me see if I can put this thesis together." That's when I started it.
LAMB: And then the New York Times. Fourteen years?
LAMB: What's the difference between the New York Times and the Washington Post?
DIONNE: You know, everybody asks me that, and I think it's going to take me about 10 years before I come up with a really good answer. The first thing I always say is that in some ways the two papers are more alike than anyone would think or that either of them would think. They're both serious, good papers. They're both very competitive papers. They're both very concerned with what each other has the next morning and what other papers have the next morning. The difference that I can see -- and I think some of this comes from having come in later on in my career -- the Post is partly almost an academic institution. I once told Ben Bradlee, who's now retiring as executive editor, that the Post should rename itself the Washington Post Institute because there are so many books pouring out of the Washington Post these days, you would think that it's an academic institution. At least for me so far, having been there for such a short time, they're very impressive about giving people time to do books, to talk about books, and they really like the idea. So I think the Post is particularly encouraging of people to do that sort of thing.
LAMB: You have a quote up front in the book by Vaclav Havel to the United States Congress. Let me read it. "As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always be no more than an ideal. One may approach it as one would the horizon in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense, you, too, are merely approaching democracy." How did you discover that quote?
DIONNE: I somehow knew in my gut that I wanted Havel at the beginning of the book. I am like an awful lot of people throughout the West in having an enormous admiration for Havel as a person of real integrity and as a person who understands paradox. If there were two words that appear in this book more often than any others, other than perhaps the word politics, it's the words irony and paradox. I think that Havel has a good sense of how the struggle for freedom and the struggle for democracy involves a lot of steps forward and a lot of steps back. He has a very good view of human nature. He is definitely not a utopian. He doesn't believe that we will create a new heaven and a new earth tomorrow morning. One of the reasons I liked that quote so much is because it suggested that to believe in democracy is not to believe that you will create a perfect state any time in the short term.

Democracy is really a process through which you constantly try to approximate a better society, a good society, and that is a constant struggle. If you are a small "d" democrat, you tend to be suspicious of absolutes. You tend to be suspicious of people who say that equality always matters more than liberty or that community always matters more than equality and so on. You tend to accept the fact that what you're trying to do always in a free society is juggle different goods, and that at different points, at different times, one good may be more important than the other good. But by accepting that all these things are good things and struggling to get the balance right, I think you have a little bit of modesty about what you do. I think that anyone who approaches politics and especially anyone who wants to run the government ought to have a certain modesty about their own capacities and our capacities as human beings. I think Havel brilliantly exemplifies that sort of modesty.
LAMB: Back on page 352, you say, "But the argument that the Eastern European experience proves that all bureaucracies and all governments are doomed to the same kinds of inefficiencies is simply wrong. This view, now popular on the Right, assumes that all governments and all bureaucracies are more or less the same and that the public endeavor is always inferior to private endeavor."
DIONNE: Right. I think that with the collapse of communism, a lot of my conservative friends were saying, "See, this is what happens when you have bureaucracy. All bureaucracy, all government is going to come to the same end." My argument with them is really quite deep because I don't think all bureaucracies are created equal. I think there is a profound difference between a democracy and a dictatorship. I think the biggest crime of communism is not that they produced economies that didn't work. Their biggest crimes were against human rights, against the environment and against the kind of public institutions they created. We ought to be proud of our democratic public institutions -- and that includes our bureaucracies. Bureaucracy needn't be bureaucratic. Bureaucracy needn't be inefficient.

The example I use right after that passage is that if you want to know the difference between our democracy and their communist dictatorship, it's that in our side, the bureaucrats, the people at the Environmental Protection Agency, were the people who help clean up the environment. On their side, bureaucrats completely free from public pressure or democratic institutions were the people who really fouled up the environment. So I think we ought not always to be running down the public sector and public life. I think things can happen that are good things through and in the public sector.
LAMB: If you're going to have a dinner party and you're going to put a bunch of people around a table who you consider to be the most interesting thinkers, the most interesting people today in elected public life . . .
DIONNE: In elected?
LAMB: Yes, I'm not talking about people that you want to be president or anything like that, but people you'd put around that table who are in elected public life today. Who would you name?
DIONNE: For starters, right at the end of the book I thank a rather odd collection of people. I thank Newt Gingrich right next to Barney Frank. I thank Steve Solarz and Chuck Schumer, and I thank Jim Cooper, the congressman from Tennessee. Solarz and Schumer are Democrats from New York. I think among the other people I might add to that table would be David Price, Democratic congressman from North Carolina, Paul Henry, a Republican congressman from Michigan, Vin Weber, a Republican congressman from Minnesota, Chris Cox, a very conservative Republican from California is very interesting. I could go on.
LAMB: What about members of the Senate?
DIONNE: Members of the Senate -- well, I've always found Al Gore to be a very interesting person to talk to. I always found him much more at ease off the record than on the record, more than almost any other politician I've ever run into. He can be very funny when he speaks off the record, and he's very formal when he's on the record. I think Gore is an interesting man. Who else would I put in that category? Tim Wirth of Colorado is an interesting person to talk to. I think Nancy Kassebaum is an interesting character. Bob Kerrey from Nebraska is certainly a fun guy to talk and argue with.
LAMB: How about contemporaries who write for a living around another table? People that are stimulating thought -- books, philosophers, political consultants. You know, type of people if you had an evening you want to go pick a book off the shelf and they're alive today and were involved and listening to them.
DIONNE: See, you're asking me to offend all the friends I'm going to forget. In fact, one of the hardest things I found in the book was writing the acknowledgements. It was also the most fun because I knew that once I decided to go the long route on the acknowledgements instead of the short route, I would forget somebody I should have remembered. I would say some of the National Review circle, whether William F. Buckley himself, their guy in Washington is a character to talk and argue with. I think Leon Wieseltier, the whole crowd at the New Republic. There are a lot of interesting folks there -- Leon Wieseltier, Sid Blumenthal, Rick Hertzberg, Marty Peretz and many other people there that are very good thinkers. Victor Navasky at The Nation is always a fun person to talk to. I think Bob Kuttner and Paul Starr. Michael Walzer, whom I mentioned earlier is somebody else. Todd Gitlin, who wrote a book called The Sixties about the 1960s, who teaches out at the University of California at Berkeley, is, I think, one of the smartest social critics in the country.
LAMB: When you come back to do a call-in show some day, we'll let you bring another list.
DIONNE: I would like that, just to be fair to everybody else.
LAMB: A couple of other things in the acknowledgements. "Jack Rosenthal, a great friend who got me into journalism." Who's Jack Rosenthal?
DIONNE: Jack Rosenthal is now the editorial page editor of the New York Times. Jack, I got to know when we were doing this polling project and Jack had written the polling stories in 1972. In fact, there are a couple of stories he wrote back then that I still think are quite prophetic including a story on race, "The Dirty Little Secret of the 1972 Election." He saw very early on the power of the race issue to keep rolling forward. But Jack was somebody I got to know when I was doing this polling stuff in college. I went to see him one day when I was going to be at Oxford, and I wanted to stay there during the summer because I just wanted to get some kind of job in Europe so I could see more of Europe. I was talking to Jack and Jack asked me what I was going to do and I said I'd probably try to find a job with some publication. He looked at me and said, "Why not work for the best?" I didn't ask him what he meant and I said, "Oh, sure." Then he wrote some letters ahead to Paris and London and then Flora Lewis in Paris, who was then the bureau chief. I came over on the night boat train for 25 bucks to be interviewed by Flora, and I worked a week actually as a stringer during the French election in 1974. Flora was always great to me and she hired me and so that's how I ended up there.
LAMB: "Fred Siegel and Jan Rosenberg who understand things that most of us don't."
DIONNE: Fred and Jan are both academics. Fred teachers at Cooper-Union in New York. Jan teaches, I believe, at Long Island University. They write some of the best stuff. First of all, they're lovely human beings. Secondly, they write some of the best stuff on sort of family politics and the relationship between public and private and what can the public sector do to improve the family without intruding. They have a kind of balance. Their view is balanced in a way that you find in few other writers. I find them so impressive in the way they think, and they're good friends.
LAMB: Next book. What will it be about?
DIONNE: The answer is I know what I want to write a third book about. I don't know what I want to write the next book about.
LAMB: What's the third?
DIONNE: The third book is about the Catholic Church. I would really like to write a book about the meaning of John Paul's papacy. For the Times, I covered Rome and Italy and the Vatican in the mid '80s, and I was there at a very good time when an awful lot of issues -- you know, the fight over liberation, theology, and Marxism, the battles with the American church over sexuality and all of that -- were going on, and you had what was going on in Eastern Europe. So I think this period is going to be a very, very interesting period in Catholic history. We're going to see it that way for a long time to come, so that's something I'd like to write a book on. I would like to write another political book. I haven't exactly figured out what the focus is going to be. I think what I'll discover is all the questions I left unanswered here, I will try to take on in the next one.
LAMB: If you look closely at this cover, you can see that there are the eyes and mouth and nose of some famous politicians. The title of this book is "Why Americans Hate Politics" by E. J. Dionne, Jr. Thank you very much for joining us.
DIONNE: Thank you so much for having me.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1991. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.