The Grace of Humility at the Top of the World
Jude Wanniski
March 21, 2005


Memo: To President Bush and Condoleezza Rice
From Jude Wanniski
Re: Advice from Walter Lippmann, September 24, 1957

In their 1965 collection of his writings, “The Essential Lippmann, A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy,” the historians Clinton Rossiter & James Lare described the treasury of his writings over 50 years as “a witness to our conviction that he is perhaps the most important American political thinker in the twentieth century.” A column by Michael Kinsley in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times mentioned Lippmann, who died in 1974 and has been pretty much been out of my mind ever since. But the prodding by Kinsley led me to the book in my office library and for some reason I decided to check the index to see if anything he had written about the United Nations had been included. There was only one reference, in his “Today and Tomorrow” syndicated column of September 27, 1957.

It could almost have been written today, for me to pass on to the two of you, for it really was addressed at that time to the President, Dwight Eisenhower, and the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. It might not have occurred to me to send it to you, but for this note on the book cover by Adlai Stevenson: “A wise man once said that the trouble with this generation of Americans is ‘they haven’t read the minutes of the previous meeting.’ If now they read The Essential Lippmann, they will have read the essential minutes, and they will have learned something of the truth that is the might of our destiny.”

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“The Grace of Humility,” Today and Tomorrow, September 24, 1957

What with Little Rock, Cyprus, Algeria, Kashmir, and so forth, the work of the American propagandist is not at present a happy one. It is hard to keep bright and convincing the image of America as the leader of the free nations and the liberator of the captive. For we are a long way short of having learned to practice all that we preach. Yet we preach incessantly about justice and freedom, law and order.

At home, there is start fact that there exists among us a caste system based on the color of a man’s skin. It mocks us and haunts us whenever we become eloquent and indignant in the United Nations. It mocks us and haunts us when we sprinkle our speeches and writings with advice and warnings and exhortations. There is no use fooling ourselves. The caste system in this country, particularly when as in Little Rock it is maintained by troops, is an enormous, indeed an almost insuperable, obstacle to our leadership in the cause of freedom and human equality.

Abroad, we find ourselves caught in a series of dilemmas – France and the Arabs, Israel and the Arabs, Pakistan and India – where we are damned if we choose and damned if we shrink from choosing and where neither alternative is so noble and so fine as we like our position to be.

My own view is that much of this, though not the whole of it, is, so to speak, in the nature of things, and beyond our control. It is one of the facts of live that no country, which is as powerful and as rich as is the United States, can expect not to be feared, distrusted, envied, and widely disliked. But I think also that all this is much worse than it needs to be. It is more damaging than it would be if those who represent us, particularly the President and the Secretary of State, displayed more of the wisdom that should direct, and of the grace that should sweeten, the possession of great power and great wealth.

There exists a remedy, though not a cure, for the excess of our unpopularity and for the abnormal dislike that exists abroad for Mr. Dulles. The remedy is a strong and, for those who need it, a bitter medicine. It calls for a change in the moral posture which the President and Secretary Dulles habitually adopt when they address mankind. It is a change which would require on their part a humility, that is now lacking, about our moral grandeur, and a new candor. For our faults and our sins seem all the bigger when they are seen by the world against the excessively self-righteous picture that is our official version of ourselves.

In their speeches and press conferences, the President and the Secretary are too noble about our ideals, and never humble at all about our human, our very human, failures and faults. This alienates, indeed enrages, those who are by national interest our friends and allies, at least the prouder ones among them, who do not in the hope of favors to come, lick our boots. For with great power, which is always suspect, there should go a decent humility and there should be no pretense, no intimation, no implied assumption, not a whisper or a nod that we are not only stronger and richer than our neighbors but quite a bit better.

The President himself is not an arrogant or a proud man. But he is a naïve man in that he believes sincerely that the enunciation or moral ideals will somehow bring about the realization of those ideals. Not long ago he came very near to saying that is was his mission to express the aspirations of this country, leaving it to Mr. Dulles to adjust those aspirations to the realities. This is a novel conception of what it means to be the head of government. The net practical effect has been to make the world think that the President preaches one thing and that Mr. Dulles does something else.

Mr. Dulles is in action a tough and realistic operator in the realm of expediency. But in speech he is a moralizer, the invariable and confident exponent of all that is righteous. His great handicap, which might be removed by a searching of soul, is that he lays down the moral law without humor and humility, as one of the righteous speaking down to the unrighteous.

This lack of the grace of humility does not make for affection or understanding, or even charity, as when in Little Rock we like other nations, fall far short of our professed ideals. It makes, rather, for a kind of unholy satisfaction, human nature being what it is, that we who have not been humble, have been humiliated, and that we who have held our heads too stiffly and too high, have stumbled and fallen on our faces.

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Yes, Mr. President, Little Rock is behind us, and the mere presence of the second consecutive African-American serving as Secretary of State is witness to how far we have come since Lippmann wrote these words in 1965. On the other hand, please bear in mind that of all the countries in the world, ours now has the highest prison population on earth. As recently as 1999, we were second to Russia, but now are at the top of that world, according to the Prison Index. There are 8,750,000 people in prisons on the planet and 22% of them are in the United States, although we have only 4.6% of the world population. Of every 100,000 Americans, 686 are in prison. In France, by contrast, there are only 85 incarcerated, in Japan only 48. A bit of humility is still in order, Mr. Lippmann would advise.

My best wishes, as always Mr. President,