1967 Fellow Edwin Lahey

Chief correspondent, <i>Knight Newspapers</i>, Washington Bureau
 
 
Convocation Address
President Strider, members of the faculty and student body, and guests: It is with a curious mixture of feeling that I appear this evening ... the purpose of my visit to Colby is to accept an honor you bestow in the name of one of your illustrious alumni, a courageous journalist who paid with his life for reminding his neighbors that they could not indefinitely sweep injustice under the rug...
"The critics tell us that the press is materialistic, flabby, anti-intellectual, and unconcerned with injustice."

I'm afraid I bring no credentials for invoking the spirit of Elijah Parish Lovejoy ... who among us has not supped with the devil? ... life for most of us is an untold, unromantic story of quiet compromises, for which the compensation is survival, and not necessarily the loss of your soul if one is prudent... I should be permitted a measure of self-importance this evening...but I'm always afraid of it ... when a notice about this award appeared in the Detroit Free Press, the Michigan state archivist, Mr. Dennis Bodem, wrote for a photograph of me to place in his files... there is a Parish Storrs Lovejoy well remembered in Michigan for his conservation work.. and while the connection seemed remote, Mr. Bodem felt that a picture of a Detroit Free Press man getting a Lovejoy award belonged in his collection ... while this request did make me feel important, I also had to remind myself that but for the grace of God, some other public agency might be numbering and filing my mug shots, front view and profile. . .

It is the story of my life that whenever I am being lifted off to the euphoria of self-importance, some cruel incident occurs to deflate me...

Something like that happened last spring ... I had gone alone to the coffee shop of the Willard hotel in Washington for luncheon, feeling pretty good for myself ... after I had given my food order to a broad shouldered, deep breasted, and assertive woman, I started spraying myself with the mist of self-importance.

I had just been invited to attend the graduation exercises at Miami-Dade Junior College, where a scholarship was to be established in my name... some weeks before I had been the guest of honor at a testimonial dinner in Miami which had inflated my spirit tremendously... before that I had been given a plaque by the Chicago Newspaper Guild for my contribution to journalism, which for all I knew might have been my departure from Chicago years before ... and prior to this event the policemen in Miami gave me a plaque thanking me for having written that the cops frequently were the unsung heroes of civil rights demonstrations...

At about this moment in my reflections, when I had outdone Walter Mitty in my self-portrait, that waitress came by to survey her station. She looked down at me with critical detachment, and said in a loud voice:

"Are you the grilled cheese?"

Since then I nave tried to restrain myself when the temptation toward self-importance starts closing in on me... There is an inevitable flavor of journalism in this convocation ... and I am rounding out 41 years as a reporter... so I assumed that the Lovejoy fellow would be expected to discuss journalism. President Strider informed me, however, that this was not necessarily so ... as a matter of fact, I detected a suggestion that Dr. Strider's world would go steadily on course if he never heard another discussion on journalism. . . so with your permission and your President's outright encouragement, I shall make my comments on journalism brief...

Many years ago, the rather tiresome pattern of criticism of the newspaper industry by intellectuals was set by the late A.J. Liebling. Mr. Liebling performed an important function, if one kept in mind the fact that he once suffered a traumatic emotional experience from which he never recovered. This occurred when the owners killed the New York World, the glamorous newspaper on which Mr. Liebling worked. . . neither Liebling nor the critics who are his intellectual heirs have ever fully accepted the fact that a newspaper, while unique in its role as a business protected by the constitution, is nevertheless a manufacturing process which operates on profit and loss principles. In a private enterprise economy, that's the way it is going to work.

The critics tell us that the press is materialistic, flabby, anti-intellectual, and unconcerned with injustice. In this I think they are as bogged down with clichés as many of our own news writers.

A young colleague of mine, Gene Miller of the Miami Herald, won a Pulitzer prize last season for proving the innocence of a forgotten man doing time in the Florida penitentiary for a murder he did not commit. Miller is now at Cambridge, on a Nieman fellowship.

"The newspaper industry saved me from a life of toil in a railroad yard, and my complaints have always been muted."

Another young associate, Phil Meyer of the Washington bureau of the Knight Newspapers, was a Nieman fellow at Harvard last year and learned the language of the computer. He went to Detroit this summer--for the shooting...Immediately after the riots, Meyer supervised a research crew in drawing up a comprehensive profile of the race rioter... his outstanding job of crash reporting in depth was given the ultimate in awards after the report appeared in the Knight Newspapers---it was reprinted nationally...

But to return to the critics of the press... I'm sure that Gene Miller and Phil Meyer have the same sense of inner assurance when they find themselves in those esoteric discussions about the failure of American newspapers to keep the peasants well informed...

They would both know, as do most young reporters, that there is something about our business that keeps them in it, despite opportunities to make more money in public relations or government... they know that after the bridge column, the Lenten menus, and all the other routine stuff is in type, there will be a little space in the paper to give expression to their enterprise, to their sense of justice, to the Lovejoy tradition, if you will ... it is in this little hole in the form where newspaper people perform what Doris Fleeson describes as the "water treatment" the drop by drop of the printed word until some evil is eroded..

In all honesty, I should concede that I am sentimental about this business.. the newspaper industry saved me from a life of toil in a railroad yard, and my complaints have always been muted ... but I will say, before dropping the subject, that newspapers and the men and women who work on them are not as devoid of social consciousness or the sense of public duty as our more militant critics tell us...

Permit me now to take off on the subject of the "inner ring" mentality, which is an important element of the atmosphere in your capital city of Washington. By the words "inner ring mentality" I mean that inordinate desire for acceptance which sometimes leads us to self-debasement. ..the "inner ring mentality" for a Washington journalist is like this ... if a Senator, or a cabinet member, or a justice of the Supreme court addresses you by your first name, you take this as the equivalent of being in the state of sanctifying grace ... if the President of the United States addresses you in familiar fashion, you are in the stratosphere of "inner ring" acceptance.

After some 27 years in Washington, where the importance of being accepted is so overemphasized, I am convinced that the "inner ring" mentality, the inordinate desire for acceptance, can produce more spiritual corruption than any combination of things put together by the world, the flesh and the devil. The "inner ring" mentality so prevalent in Washington is a very important fact of political life...historians will ignore it only at peril to their work ... As an eyeball witness, I would say that the "inner ring" syndrome played an important part in the history of the administrations of the late President Kennedy and of President Johnson.

The late C.S. Lewis put "the inner ring" in context for me in an address he delivered some years ago to the graduating class at Kings College in London. I have persuaded many young newcomers to Washington to read that address by Dr. Lewis, to get an idea of the spiritual corruption that could be suffered in the pursuit of that nebulous state known as "belonging."

Dr. Lewis told those students in London that many of them would become scoundrels in their desire to belong ... when they entered their professions, they would discover the existence of an "inner ring" in their environment ... they would then proceed to barter their souls and to debase themselves in many ways, to win admission to the "inner ring." ... once inside, they would discover that still another "inner ring" confronted them ... the process of debasing themselves to crack this ring would begin all over... finally, they would come to the end of the line with the realization that life had been one layer of inner rings after another, like an onion, with nothing left when you had finished peeling...

"Dr. Lewis told those students in London that many of them would become scoundrels in their desire to belong ."

I said that the "inner ring" type of thinking could influence national events. let me illustrate... if you remember 1960, John F. Kennedy had a slight touch of "not belonging" about him. . it was the bit about the Boston Irish never having been acceptable to the Boston brahmins ... a great deal was made about the political liability of Kennedy's religion... but these seeming handicaps were exploited beautifully ... a lot of people who suffered from a "don't belong" feeling identified with Kennedy ... and on election day second generation Poles and Italians, Jews and Negroes, Irish and others were voting against the membership committees of every exclusive country club in the United States.

I think it quite reasonable to say, with the close results in mind, that a careful exploitation of the resentments against the "inner ring" probably elected John F. Kennedy President.

The working of the "inner ring" syndrome can be plainly seen in the career of Lyndon B. Johnson ... we see the President on his way up fighting for acceptance, wistful and abrasive in turn, as it eludes him, .and again we see him, as the center of the most powerful and exclusive "inner ring" in the universe, bestowing the blessing of a friendly nod on those striving for acceptance at the White House gate...

Maybe because Mr. Johnson tends to bring out a yawn from me, I never noticed the "inner ring" syndrome at work until I covered him briefly in the campaign of 1964...it then occurred to me that the President's deepest yearning was for universal acceptance ... if you listened to Mr. Johnson plead with a tear in his voice to a crowd at a street rally, you had the feeling that he was directing his remarks at some person hidden behind yonder curtain, who might still be holding out on him...

While observing the President's eagerness to find the man who still might not like him, I could only think of an observation of Henry David Thoreau, when someone asked him the purpose of his life ... Thoreau said, in substance, that he had long ago lost a favorite horse, a pet dog, and a turtle dove... his life was dedicated to finding them ... sometimes a stranger told him of seeing the horse down the road a piece ... sometimes he heard the distant bark of the dog in the woods. ..and sometimes he saw the fleeting figure of the dove disappearing behind a cloud ... he never caught up with them, Thoreau said, but his life was committed to a continuing search...

About a year after noting Mr. Johnson's passionate desire for acceptance, I did some interviewing down in the Johnson country in Texas. It seemed apparent that Lyndon B. Johnson had been nursing a regional inferiority complex for years, and fighting the traditional stereotype of the Texan as a loud-mouthed and uncultured yokel.

There seemed to be no question but that Johnson had for most of his life felt the bitter sense of exclusion from the inner ring ... he had never, in fact, been accepted by the Establishment, until he took the oath of office as President... and by Establishment I mean the men who speak the language of the Bankers Club in lower Manhattan, the language of Long Island, Tuxedo Park, State Street in Boston, Lake Forest in Illinois, Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe in Michigan, the Main Line in Philadelphia, and the Allegheny club in Pittsburgh.

There are some innocent examples of the operation of the "inner ring" mentality in Washington ... the most poignant aspect of retiring, for a couple of newspaper friends I know, was the surrender of their White House press cards to the Secret Service ... all of a sudden they didn't belong...and the day after a cabinet member leaves his job, a man with a screwdriver comes around to his house and removes the White House phone.

The man then feels that he has been cast out of the tribal gates ...

You've all heard of the Washington institution known as the "background" dinner. This is a device for recording the thoughts, if any, of some important man, without attributing his remarks to him...these dinners are greatly overrated as news sources ... but it is generally a crushing experience not to be invited to one, no matter how tedious it is... if you were not invited, you didn't belong that night...and this brings terror to the soul of anyone living in the atmosphere of the "inner ring" mentality.

"If I am to take advantage as an "old boy" of journalism, and offer some advice, I would say belong to the "inner ring" if you must... but first examine closely the hidden charges in the initiation fee."

In my own business, I find an inbred tendency in Washington for reporters to form associations on the "inner ring" principle ... state department correspondents, for some reason I have never been able to determine, have their own group, complete with identification cards in plastic.. all such "inner rings," of course, turn outward, with the members united mainly in a set of principles by which others are to be excluded...

The newspaper guild is about the only association in our business that has reversed this process. Years ago it expanded its jurisdiction to take in not only editorial employees, but business office people, janitors, and others with no intellectual relationship with newsmen ... needless to say, many reporters resented the decisions that put them in the same collective bargaining basket with others in the non-mechanical jobs...

I'd like to wind up with a rousing message about the dangers of the "inner ring" mentality, but I won't ... after all, you are tonight making me a member of an "inner ring" of Lovejoy fellows which increases at the rate of only one a year ... I know of nobody in my "inner ring" world of Washington who would ask for more exclusivity... I want only to say to those with life still ahead of you that you will never be free of the temptation to win acceptance to the "inner ring." If I am to take advantage as an "old boy" of journalism, and offer some advice, I would say belong to the "inner ring" if you must... but first examine closely the hidden charges in the initiation fee.