About 100 years ago, an adolescent Henry Luce wrote a letter to his parents, telling them of his desire to become a journalist. Journalism was the way, he said, by which “I can come closest to the heart of the world.” Luce, an earnest boy, was given sometimes to such little exaltations. Born in China, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, he spoke often of “the kingdom of God.” He believed that America was headed in the direction of the kingdom, and that journalism must play an indispensable role in his country’s evolving perfection. He went on to found a great empire of magazines (Time, Fortune, Life, and others) whose mission was to tell Americans who they were, what they were doing, and what they ought to be.
I think of this in connection with the business of Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The comedian—who has the avenging mind of a seventh-grader—delivered a 19-minute monologue much preoccupied with genitals. (The word “p—y” was repeated interminably, and even Paul Ryan’s gonads made an appearance. There was also a giddy endorsement of abortion—“Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.”) Wolf hoped to offend and, in that, she succeeded. She hoped to amuse, but there she failed. Comedy is supposed to be funny. Wolf was not funny.
So I thought, anyway. Others disagreed. I watched on television. There was laughter in the hall, but I did not think much of the people laughing. As I listened to Wolf’s savageries, I imagined that I was sitting with Mary McGrory (1918–2004), a brilliant fixture in the capital from the days of Joe McCarthy through the rest of the twentieth century. Mary was all things lovable and admirable and intelligent about Washington political journalism. I imagined her expressive face, passing, as she listened to Wolf, through stages of discomfort, embarrassment, astonishment, outrage, acceptance, resignation. When Wolf’s performance was over, Mary would have composed herself and said something dry and devastating.
The result of Wolf’s performance was a several-days’ uproar, which has included calls for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to be abolished. Not a bad idea. People have been suggesting that for years now, ever since the correspondents’ employers started inviting their advertisers and friends-in-power to join the tables as guests, and—worse—embellished the lure with celebrities, Hollywood stars, and occasional freaks and oddments in the scandal du jour. The dinner and its lavish satellite parties became a celebration of the Bitch Goddess, and the Bitch God, too, and of lesser bitches and demons and novelties. It became a tent show, the circus arriving every April in a hick town, bringing elephants. Journalism’s motto is supposed to be Truth; Washington journalism’s black-tie evening out came to be contaminated with quite a lot of falsehood. Conde-Nast’s Vanity Fair threw extravagant parties, perfectly though unconsciously modeled upon the empty original—John Bunyan’s Vanity Fair—where, as you will recall, people were mean and venal, and salvation was not to be found.
It seems to me that not only the White House Correspondents’ Association but also journalism itself needs to think about the state of its soul and needs, so to speak, to refresh its theology.
Henry (known as “Harry”) Luce, a religious man, believed that God works in history. Luce admired Reinhold Niebuhr and his ideas on immanence. The Creation did not end on the Sixth Day, after which He rested; rather, the world lives each day, each instant, in the exhilarating and terrifying process of the Ongoing Creation. (Luce believed in using capital letters for Big Ideas). If we live in the Ongoing Creation, then think of the importance—the indispensability—of Journalism: its sacred work is to observe the unfolding facts of the world, to report them accurately, and to help people think about them. Without good Journalism, democracy is impossible. That’s not merely a bromide; it is an urgent truth. (The Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is essentially right, though it should drop the sanctimonious alliteration).
The problem in all this is a misunderstanding of freedom—what we might call the Kristofferson Error. (“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”—one of many fatal errors that the 1960s bequeathed us.) Freedom has nothing to do with individual license. Freedom—serious freedom, anyway—involves the obligation of individuals in a free society to be worthy of the responsibility of the choices that freedom gives them: the responsibility, among other things, to be well informed and to act decently. When individuals stop accepting the responsibility, then freedom dies.
Wolf’s transgressive performance, self-importantly indecent, did serve the purpose of provoking thought about a question: in the bizarre America that we inhabit, who is dragging down whom? People on the left entirely blame people on the right. People on the right entirely blame people on the left. In the physics of our dilemma, both points of view are correct. What’s at work in the Trump era is Balkan logic—blood feud (“I know what I’m doing is horrible, but you should see what they do to us”) and lex talionis. There is a good deal of sheer hysteria in the Left’s reaction to Trump. He knows it, and manipulates it; he plays his enemies’ hysteria like a calliope. The whirlwind is centrifugal. Almost everyone who defended Wolf’s performance did so on the basis that Trump’s awfulness (lies, bad behavior, etc.) justifies any counter-awfulness; in essence, All is Permitted. That includes Wolf’s relentless, Jacobin, mirthless “comedy.” Trump’s enemies do not see that they have been led into a trap. They cannot see it because Americans’ minds have been geared for many years, since the sixties, to the confining and lesser and squalid realm of mere politics—race politics, gender politics, everything-else politics—and as a result, neglect larger and more interesting and more productive worlds of thought.
If God works in history and journalism, then Satan does as well. Luce told this story: at the end of his senior year at Yale, Amos Wilder, father of Luce’s classmate, the playwright Thornton Wilder, sat Luce down in a corner and, “with tears in his eyes,” told him: “Harry, don’t. Don’t go into journalism. It will turn you into a cynic. It will turn your wine into vinegar. You will lose your soul.”
It would be a struggle for Harry Luce to keep his soul during the next 45 years of his life, through times far more dire (Great Depression, World War, dawn of the nuclear age, Cold War) than the disruptive but transient age of Donald Trump. Whether Luce succeeded, I am not sure. But at least he remained at all times a grownup, and self-possessed, and entirely certain of the meaning of the word “uncouth.”