Interview with Lewis Lapham

Interview with Lewis Lapham

Overcoming the national stupidity: Lewis Lapham talks with the Guardian about politics, war, and where we go from here

By Amanda Witherell

In person, Lewis Lapham projects the same professional ease and veteran confidence of the prose he has penned over thirty years as editor of Harper’s Magazine. Dressed in a dark suit, gold cufflinks, and crisp red tie, the San Francisco native looks entirely at home at the apex of Nob Hill, where he met with the Guardian over coffee at Top of the Mark. He was in town speaking about his new book, Pretensions to Empire, a collection of his last two years of editorials at Harper’s that culminates in a call to impeach President George W. Bush.

In “The Case for Impeachment,” Lapham outlines the chain of events that lead to Rep. John Conyers report on the Constitutional basis for ousting the president, and writes, “Before reading the report, I wouldn’t have expected to find myself thinking that such a course of action was either likely or possible; after reading the report, I don’t know why we would run the risk of not impeaching the man.”

Lapham, looking out at the fog-bound neighborhoods, pointed out his old home in Pacific Heights and the Pacific Union building, where his grandfather, former Mayor Roger Lapham, was once a member. When asked if his grandfather were in City Hall today, if he’d have opposed legislation the Board of Supervisors passed to impeach President George W. Bush, Lapham said, “No, I don’t think so. He was a pretty independent minded guy.” He went on to say his grandfather appointed the first Arts Commissioner in the country and beat back his own impeachment twice, once for his unsuccessful attempt to get rid of the cable cars in favor of more buses.

Lapham himself recently relinquished power at Harper’s and is launching a new publication. Lapham’s Quarterly will take an historical perspective on current issues, the point of which, he said, “would be to give it a timeline so we learn that very little of this is new. We can learn from the past.” We discussed the question of impeachment, how democracy’s reputation has changed over the years, and the true meaning of a commonwealth.

SFBG: You’re here on a speaking tour for your new book, Pretensions to Empire, and I’m interested in the question of impeachment. You’ve said that you wrote “The Case for Impeachment” because the question needed to be raised, much as [Rep.] John Conyers said it — to look back and be able to answer to what were you doing and where were you. Now that the question’s been raised, is it time to act, six months later?

LL: Well, I would hope so. Clearly there’s no desire to act on the part of Congress that I can see. It’s a subject that was briefly raised. Conyers came up with his report last year in December, then the word got into the conversation when it was discovered that the administration had been illegally tapping people’s phones. There was a lot on interest in that particular issue. The issue in which it came out in Harper’s magazine — I think that sold more copies of the magazine than any other issue in the last 20 years. And there was a lot of talk on the Internet, but nothing in the official press to speak of. The notion has seemed to have gone out of the news. The focus has been instead on: can the Democrats regain control of the House and the Senate? I don’t sense that there is energy or urgency in this Congress on the constitutional push for impeachment. They seem to be perfectly content with allowing the executive to assume whatever sovereign powers he wishes.

SFBG: His powers have increased significantly.

LL: They have increased significantly. And the cause for impeachment is essentially that: the abuse of power. It’s a constitutional issue. You have here a president who does as he pleases. He doesn’t gain to inform the Congress about what the administration is spending or doing. Just last week he gets Congress to go along with a bill that takes away the privilege of habeas corpus from people suspected of terrorism, allows the president to declare anyone he chooses to be an enemy combatant, including an American citizen, takes the whole question of military justice out of the jurisdiction of the courts — and this goes through with very, very little objection. There was superficial change to the bill, from Senators McCain, Warner and Graham.

SFBG: They changed only the most extreme aspects of it. They didn’t really subdue it.

LL: No, they didn’t. And actually, they’ve given the president more power than he had before the Supreme Court Hamdan ruling last spring. My point is that there’s no objection to this on the constitutional level from the Congress. They go along with the increased appropriations for Iraq. They don’t really subject the administration to hard questioning, even were the administration willing to come forward with the information, which it is not.

SFBG: Why do you think that is? Why do you think Congress has been walking in lockstep with the executive branch?

LL: I think that’s a trend that’s been happening over the course of the last 20 or 30 years. It begins to become evident in the Reagan administration and as the country shifts increasingly toward the right the notion of boisterous democratic government becomes less and less fashionable. People, both Democrats and Republicans, are fundamentally dependent on the same sources of money. John Kerry in 2004 presented himself as hardly any different that Bush — a few minor gestures.

SFBG: He didn’t take a stand.

LL: No, he didn’t take a stand. The Democrats are not taking a stand and they haven’t for years. They don’t really have anything to say. The Republicans have a more or less clear vision of the future, which is America as an upscale golf community resort like Florida or Arizona with a high fence around it and cheap domestic Mexican workers. That’s their utopia. That’s the suburban paradise, which is their bourgeois heaven. That is how Republicans — these are terrible simplifications of course — but by and large that is how they view the world. That is how Bush views the world.

SFBG: Do you think the Democrats have a vision like that? Is that the problem?

LL: They don’t have an alternative. They don’t see democracy as a work in progress, as a freedom of the mind. They see it more or less the same way the Republicans see it. There are a few exceptions, but those are individuals — somebody like [Rep. Dennis] Kucinich possibly, or, despite his name and fortune, Jay Rockefeller. Certainly [Sen.] Ernest Hollings, but he’s no longer there. [Sen. Robert C.] Byrd…

SFBG: Democrats haven’t been able to market an image. The Democratic Party hasn’t been able to get what they stand for out there and get the masses and middle America to buy it.

LL: Essentially, they don’t have one. They stand for pretty much the same things the Republicans stand for, with some softening of an attitude — maybe a little bit more money for the poor, the black, the dispossessed, and a little less money spent on weapons. But they’re not about to change the big corporate windfalls in oil leases in the Gulf. They’re not going to quarrel with the demands of the military industrial complex. They’re not going to argue with the prices charged by the pharmaceutical industry. They’re not going to argue for a single-payer health insurance system. They’re not even going to argue for a minimum wage — not as a national party. There are some state democratic legislatures that’ll do that, but as a national party, there’s nothing.

SFBG: What do you think about Mark Foley’s folly, as it were, and the call for [Speaker of the House J. Dennis] Hastert to stand down?

LL: I think he should stand down, simply because it’s such…he’s a bad leader of the House of Representatives. I mean, here’s a man, a known homosexual, everybody knows that, the committees know that — to put that person in charge of a committee devoted to the protection of children from sexual predators is already an act of disdain. To me, that shows a certain contempt for the American people and the idea of politics.

SFBG: You mean that some of the representatives knew that he had sent illicit messages to pages?

LL: Oh, absolutely…And then when it comes out in the papers, to try to pretend that they didn’t know, it’s just proof of being unaccountable to the office of good politics. I don’t know what you want to call it. I would think the Republicans would do well to get rid of him if they could.

SFBG: And then Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House?

LL: That would be…well, assuming that the Democrats win the house. I would get rid of Hastert before the election, as speaker. It doesn’t mean he can’t get reelected in Illinois, but if the Democrats win, Nancy Pelosi will be the speaker of the House. You probably know more about her than I do.

SFBG: Well, I know that she’s been a weak leader and she hasn’t listened to her constituency in San Francisco very much. She got a lot of boos and hails for impeachment of President Bush at her last town hall meeting here in the city.

LL: Why, what did she do? Did she come out in favor of impeachment?

SFBG: No, she didn’t, although the people in the auditorium were calling for it. She’s been a pushover for the war.

LL: She’s been a typical Democrat. She’s like Kerry and most of the Democrats in the Senate and the House. She’s one of those “go along to get along” people. That’s been true, as we have just said, of the Democratic Party of the last 20 years. She’s characteristic of that. I think Feinstein is too. You asked me about the chance of impeachment….

SFBG: What if George W. Bush was impeached and Nancy Pelosi was in the White House?

LL: Well, that wouldn’t happen. I would not like to see Nancy Pelosi in the White House, if you’re asking me that question, because I don’t think her policies would be that much different from — I don’t think they’d be extreme as Bush — but I don’t think she has at heart the interests of the American people, if that’s what you mean. She’s a servant of the [ruling class] interests, as is Feinstein. I think Barbara Boxer’s got a little more strength, at least that’s the way it seems to me, reading the paper and seeing her on television. But Pelosi and Feinstein are in tremors.

SFBG: Who’s our person for 2008?

LL: I have no idea. No idea, Amanda. You’re going to have to tell me.

SFBG: I wish I could. How are we going to avoid the situation we had last time where we had too many people in the primary, a schism in the party, and we ended up with a lukewarm candidate that didn’t stand up and present himself as a difference. And is that what we need?

LL: Maybe that’s what we want. There was a lively political consciousness, I think it’s fair to say, in the country in the ‘60s, as there was in the ‘30s and in the ‘40s, during World War II, and even in the ‘50s, despite the McCarthy hearings.

SFBG: There was a more genuine patriotism. People were willing to do a lot more for the country besides put yellow bumper stickers on their cars.

LL: Yes, that’s right. And I don’t mean just flag-waving patriotism. I mean a sense of political engagement, a sense that the commonwealth, the public good, was somehow bigger than you were and it was something that was worth giving yourself to. In 1960, the word “public” connoted the public good, the public school, public health, public service. There was in idea of commonwealth to which we, as Americans, belonged and took pride in. It was expressed very well, of course, by Franklin Roosevelt, not only in his Four Freedoms, but in what he called his Second Bill of Rights. I actually think I have a copy of it with me, which is something you ought to look at. It’s what the Democrats ought to be saying now. Roosevelt was saying this in the ‘40s, and not only was he saying it, he believed it, and so did a lot of other people. And the word “private” tended to connote selfishness, greed, the robbing of the public. Public and private had those kinds of meanings, and the meanings have been switched over the last 30 years. Public now connotes slum, colored people, bad housing, corrupt government, squandering of money, and so on. Private is all things bright and beautiful. Private trout stream, private school, private club, private plane, the great heroes of our time are people like Donald Trump. That reversal has brought with it the general assumption that politics are secondary to economics. Money rules. The money makes all the decisions worth making and the politicians are just violin players or accordion players coming out to dinner and making a kind of music that flatters the patrons…So politics has been downgraded, both as an occupation and as a system of thought. And that begins to happen, of course, when you elect Ronald Reagan president of the United States. A third rate actor. It’s been downhill ever since.

SFBG: We have a third-rate actor as governor, now.

LL: Yeah, you have Schwarzenegger as governor and you have Goerge W. Bush as president. The office of the president of the United States has lost altitude.

SFBG: Not in power, but in integrity?

LL: In worth. In the election of 2000, you have Al Gore against George W. Bush, both of them handsome rich kids, children of the Eastern establishment, capable of making the right sorts of gestures. But they were understood to be hood ornaments on the great limousine of American corporate power, right? That’s why less than 50 percent of the people bothered to vote for either of them. The market was at the very top — the technology market was at its zenith, with everybody getting rich — Silicon Valley, China Basin, Oracle, Bill Gates. What has arisen is the notion that we can buy the future instead of earn it, and that notion has taken hold over the last 20 odd years with the rise of prosperity.

SFBG: And we’re seeing all that private money come back into public resources: schools, parks. We have the Presidio now — the only national park in the country that has to be financially self-sufficient because of a mandate. We have gigantic corporations and philanthropic interests starting to control what was formerly controlled by the government and setting policies.

LL: Yes, and they’ve privatized the Army. There’s no reason the Army shouldn’t be wearing the insignia of Citibank or Mobil or Halliburton. I mean, they’re not fighting for us. They’re dying for the United States? They’re dying for Halliburton, the oil companies, and Bush’s duck hunting friends. Increasingly, we’re outsourcing the military. Private contractors are now being paid something like $600 a day in Baghdad to serve as bodyguards for the American ambassador and also for the American generals. American generals are defended by private bodyguards! They’re paying them $600 a day, plus hotel rooms and ammunition to guys who used to work for Pinochet and the South African mercenary. So, they’re really having increasing trouble, the administration, making the war in Iraq sound like a democratic endeavor.

SFBG: There’s been mounting criticism. The Intelligence Estimate Report, Bob Woodward’s new book, Colin Powell, [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman is even becoming more critical…

LL: You know that things are getting bad when Thomas Friedman…I read his column two days ago where he’s talking about what’s at stake is democracy. When even Friedman gets worried it means…

SFBG: The ship’s going down…

LL: (Laughter) Something bad is happening. It’s the same with Woodward. Woodward’s first book on Bush was adoration. Five years later, time has passed, events have changed, Woodward has his finger in the wind and now we see Bush as an incompetent. Bush was an incompetent all along, but the media takes a long time before it will give up its worship of power.

SFBG: Do you think it’s because people don’t like to admit they were wrong? You seem to imply this at the end of “The Case for Impeachment” — that there’s a little bit of pride, and people don’t like to admit they’ve been duped.

LL: No, they don’t. That’s one of the reasons we stayed in Vietnam for so long. People have built careers on the Domino Theory, that if we don’t stop them in the jungles of Southeast Asia they’ll be coming ashore on the beaches of Santa Monica. Entire reputations have been built on those kinds of ideas. [Robert] McNamara is one. It’s also true of press people, although it’s easier for the press people to change their coats than it is for some of the guys in office. But of course as the conviction in the first place becomes increasingly flimsy, they get easier to give up. If your ideas in the beginning have the weight of Kleenex, it’s easier to dispose of them. Friedman’s ideas have about that weight. It’s easy to change those things. They’re disposable.

SFBG: There’s been an argument that we should let them continue to blunder, until it gets really, really bad. But is it getting too critical and dangerous? People are dying, the construction projects we’ve said we’re going to do have failed — there was the report last week that 13 of 14 projects undertaken by the construction firm Parsons have been inadequate. The Intelligence Estimate Report is saying that we’re creating more negative sentiment. Seventy-five percent of Iraqis want us out. So do we let them keep blundering or is it really time to go? Do we have a choice?

LL: I don’t think so. Unless the Congress does something about it — either impeaches Bush or wins the House and the Senate and passes legislation that demands it. But of course, Bush wouldn’t do that. If Bush remains president for the next two years he’s not going to leave Iraq. There’s no question about that. The only other question is does he also attack Iran. There are people, serious people I’ve talked to, who think he might do that. I can’t believe the administration could be that stupid. On the other had, I couldn’t believe that Ronald Reagan could be elected president or we could have been so stupid as to invade Iraq.

SFBG: Do we even have the manpower to go on into Iran, without pulling troops out of Afghanistan, or mentioning the draft?

LL: Well, we’ve got 20 or 30,000 troops in North Korea ready to defend that threat. Clearly, we don’t have the manpower without instituting the draft and they’d have a hell of a hard time putting that one through. But you do have those generals who still talk about air power. There’s another one of those ideas people are very unwilling to give up — what you can accomplish with strategic, tactical airpower. It’s bullshit. That really doesn’t work, but there are lots of generals who still insist it does. They have maps and go to briefings and draw the targets and present it like a video game. It doesn’t work. The Israelis thought they could do that in Lebanon. It didn’t work, but somebody on the staff sold the Israelis on the notion that they could clean this whole thing up in three days with their air force and it doesn’t work. So you would think that we would not go anywhere near Iran. On the other hand, I had dinner three nights ago with George McGovern, who thought it was a distinct possibility.

SFBG: San Francisco and Berkeley both have impeachment on the ballot, this November. We’ll get a chance to vote on it. Do you think that’s the way we should go about it — municipally?

LL: I don’t see why not. I don’t see any other way to go about it. I think that the impetus for any revival for democratic government is going to come, not from a national level, but from a municipal and state level. That is the way we’re going to get better regulation of air pollution. That’s the way we’re going to get more money for schools. It’s conceivably the way we’re going to get some kind of decent health care. I think increasingly that is not going to happen on a national level. All they’re going to do at a national level is horrendous things like No Child Left Behind, which I hope would be overturned at the state. I would be in favor of overturning as much of the national stupidity at the city and state level.

SFBG: Do you think it’s the only way to get the will of the people back into the conversation?

LL: Yes, and also taking power away from the federal government and giving it back to the cities and the states.

SFBG: Do you think there would be any negative impact to the impeachment?

LL: No, where would the negative impact come? You’d have to write the bill so you got rid of Cheney… Conyers bill censures them both.

SFBG: I was listening to an interview with Bill Clinton and thinking — I’m not going to be an apologist for Bill Clinton — but thinking, at least he can speak cogently about issues.

LL: Yes, he can.

SFBG: It made me wonder where’s Bush going to be five years from now.

LL: He’s going to be cutting brush. If he’s lucky, they’ll make him the commissioner of baseball, which is what he would like to be. But he’s certainly not going to be touring the world’s political stages, raising money for international development or answering questions. He’s inarticulate.

Originally published October 10, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian