An apology and an explanation by way of beginning. The apology is for my presumption in taking on this topic in this group and in this setting. I’m well aware that American institutions–and especially American private universities–are late arrivals in thinking about–or in any case doing something about–public perceptions of the arts and humanities. Those of you in public institutions–and especially you Australians–have by definition and tradition had to be conscious of how the public perceived you, your mission, and the academic disciplines you represent because your funding and very livelihood have always depended on it, whereas those of us in private institutions in North America have enjoyed an insulation from such direct concern and influence. But in the past five years or so–ever since the congressional debate that severely cut funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and that left the National Endowment for the Arts hanging by a thread–just about everyone has become more concerned about how the public thinks of us and what we do. Even American humanists–with proper olfactory encouragement–can wake up and smell the coffee. So in recent months, many of us have been trying to do something about it institutionally, using especially the platform of our centers or institutes as a way of beginning to address the issue of public perception of the arts and humanities.
When I became director of what was then called the Chicago Humanities Institute in 1996, we had two major agenda directions: first to provide research time and encouragement to the University of Chicago’s faculty and selected graduate students, mainly by providing space and a contemplative atmosphere in which to encourage innovative, primarily interdisciplinary scholarship, and (second) to develop a campus atmosphere of experimentation, interaction, discussion and debate, mainly by creating symposia, colloquia, conferences, workshops, curricular initiatives, and opportunities for visiting scholars. I then set a third agenda item for us, involving public awareness and social support; we have now made progress on that (details in a minute)–enough so that our three aims of research, interdisciplinary discussion, and public awareness have begun subtly to merge into an almost seamless program. I think of the public part of our agenda as “going downtown”: if we were in Washington, we might call it “climbing the hill” or if in a state capital something like “capital steps,” but I actually prefer the sense of direction that downtown connotes in several ways. Hence the note of explanation I promised.
If you are a basketball fan (and I know that the NBA and the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan are–or were–not exactly unknown here) you may not need this footnote. But in addition to the phrase “downtown” suggesting–still, in spite of the suburban revolution–where the action is (the seat of both financial commerce and the exchange of ideas, and especially a sense of leadership shared among a relatively few opinion makers), a phrase has crept into American language from basketball, NBA style. The phrase seems to have originated in the unceasing palaver of an especially rabid and loudmouthed television announcer to describe daring long shots, usually after quick moves to get an unobstructed view and a clean shot–sudden moves toward the basket by an aggressive guard; it was in fact Michael Jordan’s master footwork and quick body moves that inspired the phrase when he faked his defenders in multiple ways and then put up quick points. That was Going Downtown, a bold move going straight for a quick score. It was immediate, direct, efficient and goal-oriented–designed to stun, frustrate, and dishearten the opposition, making them feel in more senses than one pointless.
I have that phrase in mind in my title and the local programs it summarily describes, along with the older connotation of going where the crowds are, finding out about prevailing trends and tastes, and responding to popular needs and desires. I want both the sense of market energy and the idea of hard-driving determination to achieve a result. But I want to add, quickly but firmly, that to translate these concerns and ideas hastily into funding schemes would miss the point, for I think that terms like “market” and “result” need to be thought of in somewhat more subtle and gradual terms than the immediacy of money suggests. Maybe this is just the private-institution model floating at the top of my brain, but I want to make the case that the central problem of public perception is a far deeper one than that of sponsorship and funding and that to address the perception issue at its base may involve setting aside for the moment the direct goals of funding in favor of less visible ones of social value and cultural support.
Let me describe four programs we now have in place or immediate prospect. The first involves visiting journalists, the second involves our faculty talking to prominent Chicagoans about humanistic and institutional issues in a monthly downtown Chicago setting, the third involves an initiative to do serious policy studies about the arts and humanities locally and nationally, studies that include a concern with corporate, foundation, and University sponsorship, as well as governmental agencies and projects, and the fourth involves, well, our faculty talking to each other–not something you might normally call “public” perception, but I want to make the case that it is.
Our “Journalists and Scholars Project” began this spring with three journalists in residence for a full eleven-week term. Their only “duty” at the Institute was to join, in a weekly seminar, three faculty members who had been matched with them because of their common interest and expertise in a particular topic–this year, visual literacy. We chose heavy hitters from the faculty, all chaired professors: Barbara Stafford, an art historian who has written extensively on visual thinking, W. J. T. Mitchell, editor of Critical Inquiry and author of several theoretical studies about the visual/verbal axis, and Neil Harris, a distinguished American social historian who is now thinking extensively about architectural spaces and their relationship to thought processes. The journalists were chosen by their employers who had entered into partnership with us–meaning that they agreed to continue to pay salaries while the journalists were in residence. They were David Dunlap, real estate and architecture reporter for the New York Times, Richard Lacayo, photography critic and political reporter for Time magazine, and Blair Kamin, architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune. In addition to the seminar, we offered the journalists a chance to take any university courses they wanted, introduced them to Chicago faculty or other people in Chicago they wanted access to, and provided them with an office and a luxurious high-rise apartment in the neighborhood. (Our sponsor for the program–besides the journalistic partners at the Tribune, Time Inc. and the New York Times–was a local real estate entrepreneur (Regents Park) who provided the apartments and a grant for modest stipends to the faculty, dislocation allowances for the journalists, and incidental expenses.
What we wanted from the program was to get journalists and academics to talk with each other and to respect their separate kinds of knowledge and expertise. What seemed important to us was that everyone had a sense of common purpose and that there was no suggestion that we were tutoring the journalists or inviting them back to school for updating or further training. We expected faculty to gain as much from the experience as the journalists, and we purposely chose the title of the program–journalists and scholars instead of journalists and academics–to doubly suggest that all the participants were both, on the one hand, scholars with expertise and an archive, and (on the other) journalists who had to write for a specific and changing and developing audience.
In this first year, the project worked beyond our wildest hopes. It may have helped that one of the journalists, Blair Kamin (the local from the Chicago Tribune), in the second week of the term won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, and if there was any lingering doubt among our faculty that they were paired with stars the doubt disappeared fast. But the main thing was that each separate professional group quickly developed a strong respect for each other’s expertise; the journalists entirely held their own in the discussions (as neutral observers might expect, but as academics might not necessarily), and very soon a camaraderie developed that meant productive excursions to local sites of common interest–museums in the Chicago area, experimental architectural sites, innovative schools, all kinds of places where the journalists had long wished to do stories. We took risks–having one weekly session, for example, with the University’s architect who had just presented a University master plan for the twenty-first century–and the fact that the University was going through an administrative crisis could not be disguised.
But the spinoff–immediate and long-term–was gratifying, and in both directions. It turned out that the six people really liked each other (a miracle of chemistry and good luck), and the final meetings were almost love-ins. The journalists, none of whom had any previous connection to the University of Chicago (though one, the Times reporter, had grown up in Chicago), all thought the University was very special and raved about classes and the general openness of the campus to access, evaluation from outside, and general criticism. And the faculty could not have been more impressed to discover how much reporters knew–not necessarily what they had expected. Of course the faculty was, generally speaking, more theoretical, and the journalists more pragmatic; and their sense of time, and especially deadlines, was dramatically different. And by the end there was enormous good-natured teasing of what technical terms could be used in the daily or weekly press and about what style faculty members dared use: I well remember the day when the Times reporter announced proudly that he had gotten the term “simulacrum” past his editor and it actually appeared in the paper the next day to everyone’s wonder and delight.
Now, what the results will be in the long run we cannot yet say. We do know this: the journalists came away with a deepened sense of what academics are up to–and the fear of pretension and theory disappeared rapidly. And the academics one by one proudly announced how much respect they had gained for the process of communicating with the public more generally–perhaps my secret agenda in the project all along. Next year of course it will be a new game–with a new theme, new individuals, and new news partners, this time perhaps with a broadcast journalist and a new pressure on the sense of time and posterity. But we feel that we have helped bridge the gap between two worlds, and the amount of faculty and student interest in the project was demonstrated in the final “public” event–of three–when all the participants reported on the project to the University community. We more than packed the room, and students lingered to asked questions for more than an hour after the formal program. Now we have new challenges: the students want to be more of a part of the program early on, and the faculty want a chance at larger audiences. We will see what emerges both in our new versions of the program and in the outcomes of this one. At the very least, the University made new influential friends and the faculty found itself with an enhanced sense of audience outreach.
The second project begins next Fall, after more than two years of community preparation. In October we begin a series of monthly, late afternoon sessions designed to catch downtown people on their way home from work.(1) I won’t bore you with details of how we prepared trustees, members of various University visiting committees, and prominent alums with plans and asked them to prepare to bring friends, neighbors, and unbelievers. But now we are ready to provide a challenge: a thirty-minute talk by one of our faculty members designed not for other academics but for bright, educated, and unprepared people on a subject of some controversy. Ultimately, we hope to use the series as a lure for prospective students and we will open it to parents of enrolled and prospective students, as well as alumni and our most interested patrons. Because we are holding it in the University’s Gleacher Center, which is literally downtown and where a lot of teaching of older and professional students takes place, we expect to get a fair amount of spinoff from those engaged right now with University outreach programs. And, yes, ultimately, we think that the Institute and the University may profit directly and financially from the fact that people in the downtown community become convinced that we are up to serious cultural and social as well as intellectual projects, but our aim is to make the community aware that we are doing serious thinking, that the University is not simply a hothouse for rare plants but also a place with a vested interest in practical social and cultural outcomes. Risks? Of course. You can’t invite journalists or intelligent citizens into your thinking without expecting some questioning, doubting, and disagreement, but the potential is enormous. We will of course have our faculty deal with controversial topics that are often popularly misunderstood–curricular change, canon formation, expansions of the idea of what American and Western may mean, the culture wars, the teaching of values–but we will also tackle the much harder issues involving the importance of Humanities research; we will risk having faculty explain why they do what they do in their research, something that is widely misunderstood and underappreciated in our own culture and perhaps in others worldwide.(2)
The third program involves collaboration with the social sciences division of the university, the law school, and (especially) the University’s relatively new Harris School of Public Policy. It began with a conference this past January on “The Arts and Humanities in Public Life”–a three-day symposium keynoted by Robert Hughes that brought together 200 people with all kinds of scholarly, programmatic, and quotidian interests in how different societies and communities think about and plan the systematic encouragement of the arts and humanities. The guiding principle from the first has been a sense that no one is yet paying enough attention to the systems by which arts and humanities activities in any culture are being encouraged, cultivated, and shaped. Sometimes we get energized or exercised about specific ventures–the NEA or the NEH, for example–and sometimes we call public attention to levels of encouragement or lack of it–though usually we tend to notice only what happens at the federal level. But we know that state and local governments, not to mention foundations and more local institutions like universities and schools and museums and historical societies, impact what actually happens programmatically much more directly than do “national” or international policy discussions, and we know that the amount of reliable research on what goes on, at least in the US, is minimal. The conference began to scratch surfaces on what we know and need to know, and now our humanities institute (now renamed the Franke Institute for the Humanities after our major benefactor) is trying to institutionalize some followup from the conference. Our first efforts involve modest pilot grants to encourage faculty to turn their attention to this burgeoning research area, and we are also beginning to think about what kinds of mechanisms might be brought to bear to encourage research, recruit faculty into planning efforts, and (perhaps, with the practical assistance of our public policy school) develop a curriculum that would ultimately ensure that arts and humanities efforts were not just one-by-one, isolated initiatives.
The fourth program involves weekly lunches within the center in which our faculty talk to each other about continuing work. We provide, every week except the first and last weeks of each term, a free lunch for all faculty and selected graduate students in the Humanities Division at which one of our own faculty members talks about his or her own research. (One slight variation involves presentations on the directions of particular disciplines.) We have been gratified, not to say astounded, that in a relatively small division, we have averaged an attendance of about 40 at each of these sessions over the past two years. The quality of presentation has been very high, not surprising given the quality of our faculty, and the level of questioning and discussion also very gratifying. And the results–in terms of knowing what kind of thinking is going on within our own campus–have been very important both to an awareness of our local contributions and to a sense of what the Humanities disciplines are up to globally. We’ve made a special effort to include speakers such as deans and the provost and other visible campus people whose work is generally known locally by the position they hold rather than as toiling scholars, and we’ve tried to pass the podium around so that lesser known disciplines get a say and scholars in more esoteric fields become visible. I think it is safe to say that these weekly luncheons have done more than any other single thing to broaden our Humanistic sense of what kind of work is going forward and to broaden the base of the Institute among faculty. At Chicago–and this may well be different in different locations where the problems of sharing are different–we have perhaps almost too many people coming through from other institutions to participate in conferences or give lectures, and the danger is that we lose track of our own developing contributions and fail to draw on the ferment that locally can be lively and enhancing.
I would argue that this too is “outreach,” for we seldom think of ourselves as part of the audience problem, but we are–centrally. One of the biggest problems in explaining ourselves to the “outside” world is that we seldom take the trouble to explain ourselves to other academics. And if we don’t have an idea what is going on in related disciplines even within the Humanities–not to mention ones further away–how in the world can we expect members of the general public to understand or even get interested? Being willing and patient to explain our directions to those most vitally concerned with related intellectual interests seems basic to the range of communication necessary to a sense of a larger intellectual public sphere, and we have to begin on this project at home. I have watched, during the past two years, my colleagues sweat for hours over their presentations to colleagues in a way they hadn’t dreamed of before. It is a challenge for a linguist to explain herself to a historian or a literary critic to make persuasive good sense to a philosopher, and it is healthy for all of us to try to rise to the challenge. Moreover, I have been able to see who can do it and who cannot, for (as Henry Fielding once said) “all things are not in the power of all”; and if we are going to go downtown and try to explain eloquently what we do to the educated general public, we have got to pick our spokespeople carefully. And so I have used the “Every Wednesday” series of faculty presentations as, among other things, auditions for choosing those who will represent us to the public at large, figuring that someone who can explain him- or herself across disciplines can talk with lawyers and doctors and engineers as well. I used to say that the function of the Institute was to get people talking across disciplinary or departmental lines, but I have now come to think of the issue as, instead, getting people to talk with those they don’t usually talk to: sometimes that means individuals or groups in their own departments, and sometimes it means speaking to those in other professions or in other national and ethnic traditions or those with different expectations and values–trustees, neighbors, potential donors, skeptical bystanders, daughters and sons and uncles and grandmothers, deans, or the parents of a seventeen-year-old who may or may not be about to become your student.
What I have been implying about the value of communicating our interests and values to those outside the academic world is, if not patently obvious, important enough practically that it probably needs no justification, and what I have offered so far are some practical examples of how programs may address some more or less agreed upon needs for the survival of our craft and values. I believe firmly in the virtues of such projects and am willing to put my money and efforts where my internal commitments are. But there are some built-in hazards of taking our case to the people, and briefly I want to suggest the risks of going downtown as well, for when you put up a downtown shot with five defenders trying to keep you from scoring–or when you risk the give and take and pushing and shoving of the marketplace–you may not only fail but you may also make subsequent tries harder. So for a few minutes let me draw on my own academic specialty–eighteenth-century British literature and cultural history and especially the history of satire–to suggest that well-meaning but ill-considered plans have the potential not only to improve things but also to make existing matters worse.
Consider the case of Alexander Pope and his contemporaries in the 1720s and 1730s in London. From my perspective, Pope was one of the most talented commentators ever to address public issues (either as a literary figure or public speaker or yet as a commentator of any sort on matters of public social and cultural concern). And he operated in an age when literary figures still claimed their right to comment directly–and influence their high-placed friends accordingly–on matters of public interest. Literary figures then still mostly felt a part of the power structure, although they often predictably complained that things were not as good as they had been in previous ages. Pope felt his right to influence powerfully and exercised it frequently, sometimes in poems of praise and congratulation but more often in satirical and didactic works that addressed flaws in the system or the foibles and vices of individual or collective movers and shakers. He was daring, articulate, and talented as a satirist, and he was unafraid to attack the great. He seldom pulled punches and–if human and fallible, often biased and sometimes wrongheaded–he did not often miss targets of cultural opportunity. He cared deeply, studied his culture like an ancient text, and he wrote with passion, perception, and eloquence.
But his career was a mess. The harsh things I am going to say about him here are not the things he is usually criticized for now when not all of his individual opinions or strategies go down well with the attitudes and values of our own age. My concern is not that he is not one of us in our modern, evolved codes of values, and much as I may differ from him in assumptions about class or religion or economics or a variety of social and moral matters, I do not wish to ask him to step beyond his personal and temporal history to satisfy my own standards and needs. In fact I find most of his political and social stances to be remarkably sensible on the whole and (most of all) broadly compassionate and just.
But I think that as a man of his time he made a terrible career mistake, one I think we still pay for. And it involved the way he projected his personal and private worries–and especially his sense of what was literary and what was not–into the public sphere. For one of the great unexplored issues of the Habermas thesis about the developing public sphere involves the way writers got their own personal and professional concerns as writers enmeshed into, and tangled with, public discussion in ways that were not only counterproductive toward broad public understanding of the ways that government and public policy worked, but that also elicited concern and debate among wide segments of the populace over issues that were more complex than they knew. Fighting the culture wars in the streets of public opinion may not always be the best way. Fools do sometimes rush in–and sometimes the rushers-in are not fools, but just people who care too much about a particular issue.
In the late 1720s, Pope and his closest friends achieved what perhaps has never before or since been achieved literarily in so intense or lasting a way. In 1726, Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels, arguably the most persistently read and lasting satire in the English language, a work that has permeated popular culture, film, television, and even the nursery. The year 1728 saw the production of The Beggar’s Opera, a John Gay ballad opera that had an almost unprecedented first run of more than forty nights and that continues to be the single most often produced eighteenth-century English play, as well as a kind of motherlode for imitations and adaptations such as Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. In its initial run it provoked audiences to imagine extraordinary parallels between the criminal world and the world of politics and achieved a literary intrusion into politics that built upon the associative implications suggested obtrusively by Swift. In the same year, Pope published two of the most powerful literary satires in the English tradition: one, The Art of Sinking in Poetry or Peri Bathous, a wonderful spoof on bad poetic achievements and literary theory and a forerunner of such wonderful works as The Stuffed Owl, and (two) the first version of The Dunciad, his account–representational and prophetic–of the literary issues and quarrels of his time. In the next year Pope produced a more lavish, elaborated, footnoted, and illustrated “variorum” version which persuaded nearly everyone in London and many in parts of the nation more remote from contemporary literary feuds that they knew a great deal about the particulars of literary and political battles over cultural value. And in that same year, Gay tried to produce a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera called Polly, only to find that the government had grown tired of seeing itself held up to public scorn and refused permission for performance. And in the following year, the career of another budding young political satirist, Henry Fielding, got jumpstarted when he forsook relatively bland comic plots about social habits for a biting literary and political satire called Tom Thumb the Great, in which (as in Gulliver’s Travels) jokes of size, miniaturization and magnification, became the vehicle for both political and literary satire.
Thus in less than five years England produced some of its greatest literary and dramatic treasures. The late 1720s were certainly the golden moment of the eighteenth century and may be as concentrated a period of literary achievement as any in the English tradition with the possible exception of the turn of the seventeenth century when Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe, Sidney, and Hall were at or near the peak of their powers. I bow to no one in my admiration of Pope and his friends in these years in which texts concentrating on the public sphere reached perhaps their most evolved form. But something was also beginning to go very wrong at that moment in terms of public perceptions of the arts and humanities: the situation might be described as a hubris of overreaching or as insufficient attention to questions of media saturation. For the public quickly became satiated with literary quarrels and feuds and revolted at the sight of literary figures they still regarded as their cultural guardians bashing each other crudely in what seemed a Lilliputian quest for public stature. The literary quest for writerly recognition simply turned into a kind of public civil war–quite uncivil really–among writers, and their energetic and incessant mud-slinging at each other, in the bid for one faction to displace another, became the coin of literature, a coin the public either had to accept as legal tender or reject as the unfortunate material product (or scatological byproduct) of textual production.
Let me be very clear here about what the worry is and what it is not. I am not talking about the satires on politics or the political ramifications of satire. Reactions to political satire in the period were in fact quick and brutal on the part of the government, and one might trace a host of repressive events and measures–the appointment of the toady Colley Cibber as poet laureate for example, or the passing of the Licensing Act of 1737 which effectively ended for a while satire as performance. But political satire is always by nature subject to legal and authoritarian repression, and responses then were much of a piece with others earlier and later. And the public then seemed to understand, as other publics have done, that whether or not it liked the politics of the literature it only resisted political satire in the usual ways, being outraged by attacks on its favorites and pleased by the fun made of its enemies. But what I am isolating is the unprecedented way that literature went after itself and its practitioners. This was literature against itself, authoritatively dividing texts into sheep and goat texts, fighting about who was a wit and who was not, quarreling over the custody of the right values, asking readers to hate and despise and condemn other writers thought to hold the wrong values and employ inferior strategies. Writers have always quarreled among themselves of course and to some extent taken their concerns to that marketplace, but this was an unprecedented living out of one’s rivalries and angers. And the public did react–with revulsion. It was too much and too unpleasant. People did not stop reading, but over the next generation their reading patterns altered radically. The attempt to create an acceptable canon of literature by separating the serious from the discardable backfired into a broad rejection of reading about public issues; the turn was from public poetry to biography, history, poems about less controversial matters, and novels of private life. The public sphere may have, as the Habermas thesis has it, won in the long run, but writers with literary ambitions meanwhile became the victims of their ambition, their rivalries, their hubris. And literature, especially poetry, but also artistic and human values generally, suffered seriously.
One could make a case that the Dunciad of 1728 was the key document in taking literary differences downtown. It contains, after all, flagrant attacks on recognizable figures, savage contemporary portraits, and demeaning if hilarious portrayals of patrons, booksellers, and writers competing for their place through tickling and pissing and mud-diving contests and scatological sprints through the public streets. And it was an immediately successful and lasting text–quite possibly the best poem as poem in the entire century. But Pope did not do it by himself; the process was well underway long before he decided to even some scores with opponents. Sorting texts like MacFlecknoe a half century earlier had set the tone for radical divisions between serious writers–picking up from the virtual street quarrels of city writers a century earlier–and the battles of the wits at the beginning of the eighteenth century–in which both sides tried to defrock and decertify any writings of the literary opposition–had already taken literature literally into not just coffee-house debates but the streets themselves. And Pope was provoked. If he was a finer master of lampoon and abuse than his detractors–and if he often turned personal fury into larger literary and ideological occasions–he took his cues from the ways enemies set on him: he was regularly vilified libelously and portrayed in poems and pamphlets, prose and illustrations, as (among other things) a monster, a satyr, a wasp, an ape, a toad, an ass, a turncoat, a shapeshifter, a sexual pervert. He was self-righteous, ungrateful, untrustworthy, disloyal; he was a Catholic, a Jacobite, a national traitor, a liar, a plagiarist, a libeler, a literary and national disgrace.
Pope was some of these things and his enemies were others. The issue, at least for me, here, does not involve sorting out what truths were on what side, or even in deciding the blame for the fact that literary disagreements became matters of public record and public spectacle. There is plenty of blame to go round. Pope was not the ugliest of the calumniators, but he was one of the most effective public projectionists; the problem was not individual initiative but the whole process of making the private and the professional public in a way that made all the combatants look bad and that, in the process, substantially lowered the cultural potential of the literary and artistic community, at least for a time. One might even argue that it was finally this particular move into the public sphere that led first to the fact that politics and ideology went largely underground in most of the poetry of the second half of the century, then to the Romantic revolution that separated and isolated, apparently forever, writers and artists from public responsibility and the public power structure. You may think of this result in a variety of ways–as a boon to the arts community, as boondockery of the most yokel-serving sort which left the public sphere to philistines and thugs, or as a boondoggle of its ideological own. But however you evaluate the long-term result, there is a moral there somewhere about the dangers of public exhibition.
Now I have shifted quickly from the celebratory to the cautionary–riskily I think–and I don’t want to dampen our enthusiasms, just suggest that good intentions are not always in themselves enough. History’s proper uses are, I think, cautionary but need not be discouraging; they don’t tell us how to act but do provide dramatic instances of mistakes that don’t have to be remade. I can offer no formula for avoiding catastrophe, just a reminder that, in our just desires to be a player downtown and to raise our reputation with the public at large, there are huge risks because it is easy to slip into in-fighting, competitor-bashing, petty preoccupation with our hobbyhorses, and a tenacious grasping of small issues that can be distracting. Going downtown is utterly necessary, a matter of survival. It is also dangerous, and survival is not guaranteed
I’m not a big fan of performance politics, but during the Kennedy administration in the States I loved the witty press conferences that JFK held, which were always charming even when the president was being dogmatic and evasive. One of my favorite reporters in those days was Mae Craig of the Portland Press-Herald, an eccentric, irreverent, and dogged questioner whose physical trademark was funny hats and who, as a fellow New Englander but a fierce Republican was determined to keep Kennedy always on the spot. One day, when the president was under a good bit of fire for keeping reporters in the dark about an issue, she went after him hard: Mr. President, she said, a lot of people these days accuse you of ‘managing the news.’ First would you respond to that charge and then tell us your definition of managing the news.
“Well Mrs. Craig,” Kennedy replied drily, “you’ve accused me of something, and then you’ve asked me to define what it is you are accusing me of.” Very few of us are that good at disarming challengers, and we can’t in any circumstance manage the news. When we go downtown and put our business on the line with the public, we risk a lot–disagreement, misunderstanding, sometimes even people correctly understanding what we are up to more fully than we want them to. But we can be careful in how we present ourselves, the tones we take, the way we treat opposing views. Self-pity doesn’t get us far, nor does self-righteousness, and small in-house feuds don’t, as we say in Illinois, play well in Peoria. We don’t have to call opponents names, or caricature other views, or artificially elevate our issues beyond proportion, or divide the world artificially into good and evil. There is plenty to celebrate in what we do and what we represent and no need to be provincial–geographically, disciplinarily, or academically. I have no formula for deciding how to decide what is properly public, but while I celebrate our desire, ability, and necessity to go downtown, I also think we should head the cautions of history and not imagine that our concerns are exactly those of members of the public we seek to address.