The Importance of “Deep Involvement in the World of Action”
Walter Lippmann’s brilliant career demonstrates that people outside of the academy can produce important and impactful scholarship. In 1922, Lippmann wrote a fascinating piece for The Annals which he called “Democracy, Foreign Policy, and the Split Personality of the Modern Statesman.” At the time, he was on the editorial staff of the New York World. Based on his regular conversations – and often close friendships – with world leaders, he asserted that statesmen were much more reasonable in private conversations than they were in their public pronouncements. Something that those people close to government leaders often know to be the case, but not something that a scholar would necessarily be able to determine on his own. Lippmann’s piece was made possible because he was deeply involved in the world of action. It also illustrates the importance of research that often grows out of something in one’s personal experience – a phenomenon that I think could be called biography as scholarship.
The road that led me to this fellowship has included stints well outside of academic life, and those experiences have informed much of my teaching and research.
Forty years ago, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy won virtually all of the political primaries. Nevertheless, most of the delegates of that era were selected by party leaders, not by the public, something we are living with today as we think about the role of superdelegates. So the convention that summer selected Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic Party’s nominee. Like many others who had been involved in those campaigns, I felt cheated by the results. I played a key role that summer in organizing something that we pretentiously called “The Commission on the Democratic Selection of Presidential Nominees.” When the convention opened, we issued a pamphlet called The Democratic Choice that Theodore White called the best study of the democratic selection process that we have. At the 1968 convention, our small staff of twenty-somethings wrote a minority report for the credentials committee, lobbied delegates and, in the midst of that tumultuous and bloody convention in Chicago, we succeeded in persuading the delegates to open up the party. They required that year that future delegates would have to be selected through processes “open to full public participation in the calendar year of the election.” In an editorial commentary on the eve of the 1972 convention, Howard K. Smith of ABC said that “young Geoffrey Cowan” had done “more to open up the Democratic Convention than anyone since Andrew Jackson first invented them.” In 1968, our inspiration for reforming party politics was Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign of 1912, the first time that there were presidential primaries. I am now working on research for a book about Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign that will examine the campaign of 1912 and the aftermath of the rules changes of 1968.
The second example: From 1969-1972, a colleague and I wrote the Washington Column for the Village Voicenewspaper. Among other things, we broke the story of the secret CIA program of assassinations of civilian leaders that was called “Operation Phoenix.” Mainstream news organizations avoided the story, either because they did not want to offend the government, because they worried that the story would somehow compromise national security, or because they were convinced by the false denials of the CIA and the Defense Department. Because of my own experiences during those years, the tension between national security and the freedom and responsibility of the press in wartime has always fascinated me. So, for 20 years teaching undergraduates at UCLA, I started a course with the study of the Pentagon Papers case, which so fascinated me that I thought that it would make a wonderful drama, and my friend LeRoy Aarons and I turned it into a play called “Top Secret: the Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” which was broadcast nationally on Public Radio at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. I assumed that would be the end of the “Top Secret” experience, but this year LA Theater Works actually had the play performed in 25 different cities – including Philadelphia. Clearly, the issue of national security and press freedom resonates with audiences today.
One final example: When I was a small child, my father headed the Voice of America from 1943-1945. For years after that, we had a room in our summer home that my father called the “propaganda room” because it was surrounded by academic studies of persuasion and propaganda. In 1994, I became the head of the Voice of America, where I became acutely aware of the absence of academic research into this subject and I felt that it was important that the field be studied. So after 9/11, when Americans started to ask the question, “Why do they hate us?” it occurred to me as Dean of the Annenberg School that we should have a study and the first master’s degree and have a center to look at the issues of public diplomacy. In the process, I started conducting research and writing myself, including serving as the guest editor of the March, 2008, issue of The Annals, which studies public diplomacy in the 21st century. Exactly a month ago, the State Department awarded USC the first ever Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy. The Secretary of State called our new Center on Public Diplomacy “the world’s premier research facility in the field.”
So, on behalf of those who combine personal experience with impactful scholarship of all kinds, thank you for inviting me to join the Academy’s prestigious community of Fellows.
Cowan is the 2008 AAPSS Walter Lippmann Fellow. These remarks were delivered upon accepting his Fellowship on May 8, 2008.
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