On this day (Sept. 23) in 1889, American intellectual, journalist and author Walter Lippmann was born into the second-generation German-Jewish family of Jacob and Daisy Baum Lippmann in New York City.
As the only child in his upper-middle-class family, the precocious Lippmann was given opportunities for education and travel not available to most young boys. In 1906 – at age 17 – Lippmann entered Harvard, where he studied under well-respected philosophers George Santayana and William James.
At Harvard, Lippmann studied philosophy, foreign languages (becoming fluent in German and French) and theoretical socialism.
He graduated in three years with a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key. Soon thereafter, he entered into what became a 60-plus-year career as a newspaper columnist and author.
In 1913, Willard Straight founded the New Republic and hired Lippmann, along with influential journalist Herbert David Croly and writer Walter Weyl to be co-editors and writers for his initially socialist-leaning weekly news magazine. Under the editorship of these three talented journalists, the New Republic soon became one of the most influential, widely read progressive periodicals in America.
In Lippmann’s lifelong crusade to promote what he called “liberal democracy,” he contributed numerous thoughtful and often provocative articles to a wide variety of news and literary magazines and published 26 books, many of which dealt with his views on political philosophy.
His first book (“A Preface to Politics,” 1913) gained for the then-somewhat brash, young writer a reputation as a mild socialist/Marxist – a reputation he somewhat lost with his 1914 anti-Marxist publication “Drift and Mastery.”
Interestingly, in his 1937 publication “The Good Society,” the now mature Lippmann repudiated socialism entirely.
His other noteworthy books include “Public Opinion” (1922) – in which he mildly chastised the American public for its ignorance of public affairs – and “United States Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic” (1943) – in which he vehemently opposed a return to the isolationism of the 1930s.
Although his books were widely read and influential, Lippmann is best remembered as a confidant and adviser to at least two U.S. presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and, especially, Woodrow Wilson) and as a newspaper columnist. As an informal adviser to the D.C. political elite, Lippmann served as an assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker and to Wilson’s close adviser Col. Edward M. House during World War I.
He is given credit for being one of the authors of President Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points speech. More famously, however, Lippmann is remembered for his popular, influential Herald Tribune column, “Today and Tomorrow” (1931-1967). In these columns – syndicated in more than 200 newspapers – Lippmann often was articulately critical of many of the domestic and foreign policies of Washington officials regardless of the political party in power.
For example, he generally supported Roosevelt, a Republican, and Wilson, a Democrat, was mildly anti-FDR and the Democrats in the 1930s, voted for Republicans Alf Landon (1936) and Thomas Dewey (1940), and was vehemently anti-Lyndon Johnson for his Vietnam intervention.
A careful analysis of Lippmann’s vast writings reveal that he was an idealistic political radical in his earlier publications, but slowly evolved politically into a conservative who became profoundly distrustful of “popular democracy.”
The major criticism of Lippmann’s writings seems to be that he was too “Eurocentric,” that he somewhat neglected the obvious growing importance of the “emerging” continents of Africa, Asia and South America.
Despite his inconsistencies and often unpopular stances on public issues, Lippmann, upon his death in New York City on Dec. 14, 1974, was eulogized as the most influential, most widely read, and most profound and articulate political thinker of the 20th century.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.