Reflections on the 20

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JOHN SHATTUCK: Good evening and welcome to the John F. Kennedy Library. I’m John Shattuck, the CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and on behalf of myself, our Library Director, Tom Putnam, and all of our colleagues here at the Kennedy Library, I’m delighted to welcome you at this very, very special occasion. Tonight we’re using the occasion of President Kennedy’s upcoming ninetieth birthday to reflect on the era he helped shape and look back at the second half of the 20th century, and it’s going to be a thrilling ride.
Before introducing tonight’s discussion, I want to first thank the institutions that make these forums possible, starting with our lead sponsor, Bank of America. We’re also grateful to the Boston Foundation, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Corcoran Jennison Companies, and our media sponsors, the Boston Globe, NECN, and WBUR, which broadcasts all Kennedy Library forums on Sunday evenings at 8:00.
Pundits as diverse as Henry Luce and Hunter Thompson have branded the years 1900-2000 as the American Century. During that time, the U.S. helped win two world wars and a cold war, carried out a civil rights revolution and a revolution in science and technology, pulled the world back from the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and put a man on the moon at the end of the 1960s. The first American president born after 1900 was John F. Kennedy and both chronologically and politically, President Kennedy was at the center of the American Century. In a 1999 poll taken by USA Today, Kennedy ranked third, behind Mother Theresa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the person Americans most admired in the 20th Century. An ABC News poll taken the same year showed that Americans considered the exploration of space, launched during the Kennedy years, to be the single greatest technical achievement of the 20th century. Another poll ranked Kennedy’s inaugural address as the second best oration of the century, behind Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. To remind ourselves again why President Kennedy captured the hopes and aspirations of so many Americans and people around the globe, let’s listen to the challenges he made to the nation and the world on that cold January day in 1961.
[AUDIO - JOHN F. KENNEDY]: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today, at home and around the world. … Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call to battle, though in battle we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, north and south, east and west, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort? … And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
These words reached the ears of Daniel Schorr in Bonn. Dan was on the front lines of the Cold War as the CBS Bureau Chief for Germany and Eastern Europe. He covered the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and 1962, the building of the Berlin Wall and Kennedy’s famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech, which became a major marker of the U.S./Soviet Cold War tensions. After serving as an Army Intelligence Officer during World War II, Dan became a foreign correspondent, first for the Christian Science Monitor, then for the New York Times and finally for CBS News. He conducted the first ever exclusive television interview with a Soviet leader in 1957 when he interviewed Nikita Krushchev in his Kremlin office on “Face the Nation.” Dan’s repeated defiance of Soviet censorship landed him in trouble with the KBG, and he was barred from the Soviet Union at the end of 1957.
Daniel Schorr is a legendary reporter whose stories have literally shaped the way Americans have looked at major events over the last 60 years. His coverage of Watergate, for example, earned him three Emmy awards, as well as a position on Richard Nixon’s enemies list and a White House order that the FBI investigate him, an abuse of power featured in the bill of impeachment on which Nixon would have been tried had he not resigned his presidency. Today, we all know Dan for his trenchant commentaries on National Public Radio. And in his 2001 memoir, Stay Tuned: A Life in Journalism, he tells his story of reporting in the 20th Century in riveting detail. We salute you, Dan, for your many awards, for sharing your birth year with John F. Kennedy and above all, for your honesty and directness in reporting the world the way you’ve seen it for the past six decades.
Jill Ker Conway is one of our nation’s most thoughtful and revered educators and historians. During her tenure as the first woman president of Smith College from 1975 to 1985, she helped transform American higher education by creating academic programs in line with the new realities in women’s lives. Born on a remote Australian sheep farm, Jill was seven before she encountered another girl child, and she lived in the Australian outback until she was eleven. After the death of her father, she moved with her mother and her brothers to the seaport of Sydney, where she was educated and went to university. In 1960, she emigrated to the United States and completed her Ph.D. in History at Harvard in 1969, and as an historian, she became a specialist in American social and intellectual history and the history of American women, teaching at the University of Toronto, Smith College and, most recently, at MIT.
Jill is the author of a moving autobiography, The Road from Coorain, which describes her personal odyssey from Australia to America and True North, which continues her journey to the presidency of Smith College. She’s also the author of many other books, including Modern Feminism and Intellectual History: Written by Herself, an anthology of the changing status of women throughout history; Women Reformers in American Culture: The Politics of Women’s Education; and The Female Experience in 18th and 19th Century America, A Guide to the History of American Women. The Kennedy Library Foundation is honored to count Jill Ker Conway as a member of our Board of Directors and the distinguished chair of our Development Committee, and we welcome you back, Jill, to the stage of the Kennedy Library.
Our third panelist, Tony Lewis, has perhaps done more than any other commentator to illuminate the struggle in the second half of the 20th century to defend and support the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. From the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the civil liberties battles of the 1970s and ‘80s, the human rights revolution of the 1990s, and now the backlash of the 21st century, Tony has helped us understand the legal, political, and human issues at stake and has inspired us to defend our basic values. He began his career with the New York Times in 1948, winning the first of two Pulitzer Prizes in 1955 for a series of stories in the Washington Daily News about the danger to civil liberties of the federal Loyalty Security Program and the way it was administered by the U.S. Navy. From 1955 to 1964, he reported from Washington for the New York Times on the Department of Justice and the government’s handling of the civil rights movement. He won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for his coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court. Tony served as London Bureau Chief for the Times from 1964 to 1969 and then for more than thirty years wrote his famous award-winning column for the Times that became the benchmark for thoughtful commentary on American law and politics. His book, Gideon’s Trumpet, on the right of an indigent defendant to be represented by a lawyer is one of the great classics of legal literature, as is his study of the First Amendment, Make No Law, and his book describing the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, Portrait of a Decade. Tony, we welcome you back to the stage of the Kennedy Library.
To guide our discussion this evening, we’re fortunate to have Scott Simon as our moderator. We all know Scott for his insights and thoughtfulness as the award-winning host of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday. Since joining NPR in 1977, Scott has reported from all fifty states, covered seven presidential campaigns and corresponded on eight wars, and lived to tell the tale. He’s reported from Cuba on the nation’s resistance to change; from Ethiopia on the country’s famine; from the Middle East during the Gulf War; and. from the siege of Sarajevo and the destruction of Kosovo. Among his many awards, Scott has received the Overseas Press Club Award for his coverage of September 11th, the Peabody Award for his weekly radio essays, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for his coverage of racism in a South Philadelphia neighborhood. He’s the author of a number of books, including Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, and a novel, Pretty Birds. So please join me again in welcoming to the stage of the Kennedy Library Daniel Schorr, Jill Ker Conway, Tony Lewis, and Scott Simon. Over to you, Scott.
SCOTT SIMON: I’m definitely the junior partner in this crowd in all ways. And I think, perhaps to take a cue from President Kennedy, it might be best to introduce me as the man who accompanied Daniel Schorr to Boston.
It’s startling once again to see this picture of President Kennedy accepting the oath of office and addressing the American people as President for the first time. I was inevitably reminded of the fact, I was very young at the time, but I do believe between something like the ages of seven to twelve, I spoke with a Boston accent. And I did not stand out because of it. I think you’ll find a lot of us at that age spoke with a Boston accent. Such was the power of President Kennedy.
We have such a distinguished group, I won’t waste much more time but simply get some questions. Dan, can I begin with you? I’m accustomed to that. And maybe if each of you could tell us, in turn, of the things you remember of growing up in the 20th century that are gone now, that we could stand to remember.
DANIEL SCHORR: First, let me say that this extravagant introduction of me leaves me almost, ALMOST speechless. An ego rally, though. I’ve been trying to figure out how one responds in the first place to that lavish praise. I am reminded of one who does it awfully well, and that’s Henry Kissinger who when he received the Nobel Peace Prize was a guest at a huge reception at the State Department, and a woman walked up to him and took his hand in her two hands and said, “Mr. Secretary, I simply wanted to thank you for saving the world.” And he looked back at her and said, “You’re welcome.” [laughter]
To encompass a century, although the century now is almost entirely mined, if you’re 90 years old you really have come to terms with a century and it’s something of a challenge to try to say in those 90 years in this century what typifies it. And the first thing that occurs to me that typifies the century is that people have found different ways of talking to each other, and not only for the better. I happened to see the first experiment in television. I attended the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and RCA had an exhibit there in which there was a camera standing there and people around it, and if you stood in front of the camera, then your friend or girlfriend, whoever, a hundred feet away, could see in a monitor a picture of you. That was the first I ever saw of television. I thought at the time, “This is interesting, probably will be pretty cute as a toy of some kind,” totally underestimating what television would do to our country.
Now that I’ve learned that what television has done, among other things, is to change the whole way we encompass what used to be called the reality of this world. That is to say, I watch younger reporters writing, reporting today. Occasionally there is something missing. That something that’s missing is something we used to call reality. Television has turned communications more or less into a way of seeing beyond what we’d call real things or real information. In the past couple of years you may have noticed that a couple of reporters have gotten into trouble by faking stories, hoaxes to an extent that I never saw before. I mean culminating in Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter, who kept feeding stories every week and they were phony, they were fake. The Republic, for a year or two, had a series of stories by a reporter who made them up.
Now what makes you think that you can make up something? What’s happened to us? And it strikes me that one thing that has happened to us is that we’ve grown up in this age of television. In the age of television, things aren’t the way they used to be any more. And it’s hard to tell how they are. It also, I think, has made us -- I don’t know how even to put it, but television has made us want to run away from reality and find some consolation in something which we will call “kind of” reality. And what that’s done, I think, is to make a different generation of leaders.
The other day, as it happened, I was listening on C-SPAN and they were playing the Nixon-Kennedy Debates of 1960, which I knew very well at the time, but it all came back to me. What came back to me was Kennedy and yes, Nixon, both of them spoke with an understanding of the language, an understanding of the facts that’s hardly present today among our leaders. Our leaders today will learn from those who teach such things, how to present themselves. They’ll tell them how to tell little stories that will make them look good and so on, and we’ve kind of lost the sense of the days in the 20th century of Churchill and people like that.
Let me tell you in passing two stories, both of which I think couldn’t happen the same way today. They both are my favorite stories, both of working in the Soviet Union and of working in the United States. Soviet Union: there was this fellow named Nikita Sergeyevich Krushchev, something of a peasant, roughneck, intelligent at the same time, and somebody you thought you had to deal with because they never knew what he would do or say next. 1956 -- let me be complete -- 1956, in the summer, they were getting ready to fight a war to liberate the Suez Canal -- Britain, France, Israel were going to -- and the Soviet Union warned that there would be trouble, and they might send troops to Egypt if that happened. And with all of that comes October, Krushchev comes back from vacation. There are rumors going around that there are going to be some troops being sent by the Soviet Union or maybe worse. The Soviets have a nuclear bomb and God knows what they will do under these conditions. And I saw Krushchev, whom I used to see mainly at diplomatic receptions, arrive and pick up a glass of champagne. He offered me a glass of champagne, and I asked him how his vacation had been. He told me he’d been hunting and all the rest of it. Finally I said, “Mr. Krushchev, let me ask you something. Do you think that I could go hunting down in the Crimea? He said, “Of course, why not!” and began to motion to somebody to arrange a trip for me. I said, “No, but there’s a problem that I have. Indeed maybe you can help me with my problem. “Yes, of course,” he said. “What is your problem?” “Actually, I was leaving on vacation tomorrow, and my capitalistic bosses back in New York, CBS, have told me I may not go on vacation because of a lot of rumors that there’s going to be an emergency meeting of the Central Committee, and I don’t know what to tell them because nobody will tell me.” “You want to go on vacation when?” “Tomorrow.” “And for how long?” “Two weeks.” “And you are afraid that in those two weeks you may miss a meeting of our Central Committee?” “Yes, exactly right.” He says, “Sure, you can go. I think it’s all right. If absolutely necessary, we’ll have the meeting without you.” And now you get Putin. You don’t get people like that any more.
And then there is the other one who is a man who has put his mark on my career, and that is Nixon. I look back on that as one of the more fascinating periods for me in the 20th century. And it was like this: Nixon didn’t like some of our reporting. That’s all right, lots of people don’t. Nixon didn’t like some of my reporting, and I learned through Bob Haldemann, his secretary, what he wanted to do was to get the FBI to investigate me and come up with something nasty about me. They handled it badly, with the result that the FBI didn’t know what kind of an investigation was being asked for, and so they sent people all over the country, including even to my home, to interview me. And when we found out what this was, it turned out that there had been missed signals between the White House and the FBI. And so they got together and they had their meeting to find out, well, how do we handle this? And finally they decided, well, why don’t we say that he was under consideration for some job and we had to do a check on him. We should have done it before, but there was a mistake, you know, something like that. What else can we say? The Washington Post broke the story that Nixon orders investigation of a CBS correspondent and waits to see what will happen. Well, no one believed it, and when the time came to investigate Nixon for possible impeachment, in the end they drew up a list of impeachment articles, three articles. Article Two was abuse of presidential power and under it they listed “unwarranted FBI investigation of CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr.” There I was for a little piece of history. Well, as you know, Nixon resigned, was pardoned; they like pardons at the White House.
Time passed. Twenty years later Nixon now had written several books, was trying to rehabilitate himself, and twenty years later I was at a dinner where Nixon was the main speaker. And when the dinner was over, we asked and responded to questions. I could not resist going up to him and saying, “Mr. Nixon, you may not remember me, but…” He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Sure, Dan, sure. We hired you once.” [laughter]
Let me say that neither in the Soviet leader of Russia nor in this country do we have that type any more. I suspect that what has happened is that as we enter into this new century, this century has bred a new kind of person who isn’t as interesting as the old one was, and now you find, if you want to find something unusual and interesting, something where nobody censors it, you go to the internet. That is where something new and different is happening in the 21st century.
Let me stop there so I can hear my friends.
SCOTT SIMON: Jill, let me try and strike off on that and turn to you from the singular experience. I know Mr. Shattuck said that you had grown up in a remote sheep ranch in Australia. It occurs to me if you’re a sheep in Australia, Sydney is a remote human settlement. Nothing remote about that place to the sheep, I should think, right? That was home. And particularly as Dan wound up his beginning to talk about the quality of communication, because no place, really, is remote from a certain point of view today. I’ve been on top of the Hindu Cush talking on a satellite phone back to people in the United States instantaneously.
JILL KER CONWAY: Well, as Dan was speaking and as Scott asked us to talk about the things we remember growing up in the 20th century that it would be good to recall today, I recall two extraordinary things, and they both have to do, in part, with the kind of attention you give to events in the world if communication is difficult and you must pay attention.
So I was a child, living in this very remote part of Australia during the years that the United Nations was being created. And one of the things that we could hear around 7:00 in the evening was the debates going on in San Francisco about the charter for the United Nations. And in order to understand the impact of listening to those events, you have to understand that I’m the child of somebody who was an infantryman in France in the 1914-18 war, and all around us lived others who were veterans of that war. So we paid particular attention to both the radio and the print media that brought us information about the war and its progress, but then about the peace. And, of course, for a child of a soldier and somebody who’d grown up with people who had suffered very severe wounds and so forth in the First World War and then watched the young people from my part of the outback who never returned from the Second, the debates in San Francisco symbolized something absolutely unbelievable, because, of course, we were all used to thinking about an international order in which you took for granted or dreaded the millions of dead in 1914-18. And then, of course, we were beginning to learn the total of the more than 40 million who lost their lives in 1939-45. So those deliberations, which represented the hope and the dream of creating another kind of international order, were absolutely transforming events for a child in this remote area. It was very hard to hear. You had to crane over the radio with your ear close to the speaker to catch it through the static, but you could hear it. And I think, as we look around our world today, not only do we not have the statesmen who have the vision, the education, the sense of commitment to the rule of law and to negotiating international conflict, we don’t have, I believe, any longer a citizenry that really is passionately committed to working for that kind of world. So we may think about the 20th century as a century in which there was incredible violence, terrible international conflict, a cold war of a balance of terror. But on the other hand, those experiences led to the creation of institutions I believe we should remember and perhaps try again to create an intense commitment to, because without them we face a future of violence and international conflict that I believe will make the 21st century even worse than the 20th.
So that’s one story of communication. Another one which I’d like to transmit to you just to think about -- during the Second World War, the mail came to our little remote sheep station twice a week. So we got three days of newspapers one day and four the other. And we had no gasoline because Australia at that time hadn’t discovered its oil reserves. The Japanese controlled the Pacific and there was no way to import gasoline, so we had gone back to horse and buggy days. My job was to read to my father the reports of the battles of the Second World War. He thought he was teaching me geography. He would make me look at the maps of the contending forces and describe the topography and the geography and so forth. And now, of course, as Scott says, everybody sees those maps instantaneously, and they are there in the conflict. But I don’t believe that the visual communication of those events now reaches us the way the old print media did, because we’ve become hardened to seeing violence in a way that people had not, except those who had been soldiers in my childhood.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me turn now to Tony Lewis, from whom those of us who’ve read him over the years have learned so much and continue to learn from him. I should add, by the way, in about 20 minutes we’re going to invite your questions. You might begin formulating them now. There are microphones that are placed out in the audience, and Tony, I know you thoughtfully have some ad libs that you’ve scrawled down in advance, which are good, so I want you to have a chance to deliver them, but if we could also try and strike off from something that Jill mentioned and Dan, I think, prefaced as well. There’re so many extraordinary ways of communicating, personally as well as corporately and publicly these days that we have just simply incorporated into our lives. There are extraordinary events that are learned in real time by hundreds of millions, billions of people within the same timeframe, and yet some people would make the argument there is less and less consciousness of some of the import and impact of those events then, for example, Jill, you seemed to have felt during the Second World War. Among your thoughts, Tony, if you had any that went along those lines.

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