Bullish On America

  • submit to reddit

The past four editors of The Economist, Bill Emmott, Andrew Knight, Rupert Pennant-Rea and Alastair Burnet, join Bill Moyers at the Reform Club in London to discuss their perspective on America.


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Tonight from London, the wit and wisdom of The Economist. [on camera] I’m Bill Moyers, and this is The Economist, one of the oldest and most influential magazines in the English-speaking world. I’ve been reading it for 30 years, but The Economist has been around since 1843, giving salty advice to American presidents from John Tyler to Bill Clinton. It’s home is in London, where it was founded to promote free trade. Even then its editor saw America and Americans as the hope for the future of commerce. Today they may be more bullish on us than we are on ourselves. That’s just one reason why over half of its worldwide circulation is in America, and why The Economist has an influence in Washington that’s envied by its American peers, some of whom criticize it as Washington’s new sacred cow, and bristle at what they call “smartypants English attitudes.” Maybe so, but The Economist goes smartly on, and just recently named Pulitzer Prizewinner Marjorie Scardino as the first American and the first woman to be its chief executive.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] That’s Marjorie Scardino right there at one of the London parties thrown by The Economist to mark its big 150th anniversary this fall. And that’s Alastair Burnet. He was editor back in the ’60s when I first started reading The Economist. He moved on to television and became Britain’s Walter Cronkite, only now he’s Sir Alastair, having been knighted for his service to journalism. Eat your heart out, Walter. Andrew Knight became editor in 1974 and stayed for 12 years. Now he helps to run Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire. Rupert Pennant-Rea became editor of The Economist in 1986. He was tapped recently to become deputy governor of the Bank of England. Former Economist editors seem to gravitate toward establishment positions of influence and power. The new editor is 37-year-old Bill Emmott, who had been the magazine’s business editor. He’s only the 15th editor in 150 years, another in the long list of the “Oxford Mafia” who moved on to The Economist after graduation. I invited Bill Emmott and his three living predecessors to meet me around the corner from their office at the Reform Club, which has been a watering hole for politicians and journalists here since 1832. I wanted to talk about how they see us now, 150 years into the Anglo-American connection.

BILL MOYERS: [interviewing] I just went through some of the back issues and looked at the covers on them. ”The old country,” the most recent survey, Ronald Reagan’s Inheritance, “The Third State: A survey of Texas,” “America’s Latin Beat: A survey of south Florida,” “A survey of Wall Street.” When I look at these covers, I ask, why this fascination for America? It’s run throughout your 150 years of existence. Why?

Sir ALASTAIR BURNET, Editor 1967-1974: We’ve always been fascinated by the United States in this country, whether we’ve been getting rid of you or being got rid of, having all sorts of problems all through the 19th century and this century. But I think there has always come the point, when anything has gone wrong, there has been a presumption in this country that the United States and what it’s aiming for has been the proper cause.

ANDREW KNIGHT, Editor 1974-1986: I think it’s because you are a mesmerizing society which we admire, not necessarily as a model, but as a sort of magnificent country which is still experimenting with its own existence.

BILL MOYERS: There was a- one of the lines in one of your editorials, I don’t know who wrote it, but it said that America presents the checkered spectacle of so much gentle churchgoing and so much blood.

BILL EMMOTT, Present Editor: Yes, I think it is a mixture of all those things, but also so much money. It is this- the place that says that the business of itself is business, and yet seems so obsessed by all these other things as well that get in the way of business in so many frustrating ways, the whole politically correct movement and so on. That tension between a place that’s so morally driven and one that’s also so materially driven makes it constantly fascinating. We’re a paper that campaigns for free trade, for the moneymaking spirit, for minimal regulation. America to us, in some ways, is our paragon. America is a marketplace for ideas, open discussion, open debate, think tanks along every street in Washington, people coming out and saying what they think, feeling that they have a right to say what they think. That’s the way we like to run ourselves, actually.

ALASTAIR BURNET: Americans may believe that there’s an enormous left-wing group in this country which is always denigrating the United States, anti-American, and anything it does, it’s wrong. That isn’t so at all.

RUPERT PENNANT-REA, Editor 1986-1993: It is worth saying that we are not uncritical admirers of America, and one of the features that bothers me now about America is that the openness of ideas and arguments is being clouded and, to some degree, closed by this emphasis on political correctness, this unwillingness to call something what it is, to be constantly shading the clarity of the language in order not to give offense. And I think if America persists with that to the point where you can hardly open your mouth without risking offending somebody and therefore you stop opening your mouth, that will be greatly to America’s detriment, and I hope The Economist will continue to shout “Watch it!” at every turn.

BILL MOYERS: Collectively, the four of you have led The Economist through seven American presidents. And you came in, in the early in the mid-’60s, didn’t you?

ALASTAIR BURNET: That’s right, Johnson.

BILL MOYERS: LBJ. And I remember that cover you had of a strong and. authoritative Johnson, and then the last cover of Johnson you had was this sad- yes, like that. And then- and then Nixon.

ALASTAIR BURNET: Oh, it’s been an education, no doubt about that.

BILL MOYERS: In what sense?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Well, in the sense of seeing great, powerful men, like Johnson after his election victory, brought down and unable to face the country again. And the success of Nixon, a president- two time president, and then driven from office, some people would say wrongly, but most people would have said rightly, that there was a failure of-

BILL MOYERS: The Economist said rightly.

ALASTAIR BURNET: The Economist said rightly, at the time, although there was quite a lot of correspondence from the United States saying how wrong we were and how we didn’t know anything about it.

BILL MOYERS: And Carter, you started out tolerant of Carter, if not enthusiastic about him, you thought that he represented a strain of America, morality and principle, and yet you turned away from him. I remember that picture of him on the cover in his raincoat, walking away, looking-

ALASTAIR BURNET: Well, I think the guilty man is there.

ANDREW KNIGHT: Yes, I suppose we probably were fairly tolerant of him, but I must say I don’t think I ever felt comfortable with him as president of the United States.


ANDREW KNIGHT: His whole attitude to foreign policymaking and to policymaking as such was so episodic and so unstructured that I found it- I think several of us found it at the time a very uncomfortable American presidency.

BILL MOYERS: You did a cover last year, I guess, reminding the United States, “Yes, you are the superpower.” Maybe I should say, “Yes, you are the superpower,” or ”Yes, you are the superpower.” And looking at that cover now, I think of the words of- your own words I want to read back to you: ”With an economy barely creeping towards recovery and a $300-billion deficit, America does not feel like the engine of world growth, let alone world peace. With collapsing inner cities, high rates of violence, and a society in danger of being Balkanized by group interests, it’s all too aware of its failure as the chief repository of democratic values. Lastly, America has its own problems with leadership, an impatience with politicians of all stripes, a cynicism about solutions, a preference for the maverick path. This hardly equips it to impose a unifying discipline on others.” And I thought, bingo, The Economist got it. And yet here they are saying, “You are the superpower.” With this litany of symptoms?

ANDREW KNIGHT: What did we say after that?

BILL MOYERS: Well, let me read what you said at the end of that editorial, then: “The strength America had and will have again is not a crudely military one. It lies in the democratic example, in liberal convictions, and in a certain tenderness of conscience. Recover faith in those and true leadership will look after itself. That’s hardly a foreign policy.

ANDREW KNIGHT: No. I think that’s a manifesto for a foreign policy. Foreign policy comes partly from the philosophy, but it also comes from a judgment about particular instances and a pattern that emerges from those judgments, so that people, whether they be allies or whether they be even foes or potential foes, begin to know that you’re dealing with somebody who is formidable, formidable in analysis, formidable in purpose. And that, I think, is really what one is talking about when you talk, and particularly about America’s foreign policy, in today’s much more complicated world.

BILL EMMOTT: I think that’s right, particularly because you can’t look at America’s foreign policy as a crude calculus of interests, how many barrels of oil, how much trade, how much investment. If America’s foreign policy was simply that, then leaders around the world would just simply add up the exposure that America had in a particular area and say, “Well, okay, so they won’t come in if we invade, if we cross the border into Azerbaijan, then they’re not going to come in.” There’s something extra about America’s foreign policy.

ALASTAIR BURNET: You won’t be able to do a Marshall Plan again, you won’t be able to afford it. I mean, I think it’s true the United States carried out the Marshall Plan without any real need to raise taxes. And I think this is the problem, isn’t it, about the future of the former Soviet Union. If you’d had the money, then perhaps you would have intervened in the Soviet Union, perhaps to protect Mr. Yeltsin or something like that, or what appeared to be a democratic process taking place there, if the counterrevolution had succeeded. So it may be quite a good thing that you have four or five years now before such a crisis comes, and the United States can really form its ideas, understand what its position is, and what its powers actually are.

BILL MOYERS: You fellows keep calling on the United States for duties that the United States is not all that eager to perform. I mean, I was struck by this most recent cover, ”The reluctant sheriff.” And when I looked at it I thought, ”What if the United States doesn’t want to be a Gary Cooper at High Noon, or Arnold Schwarzenegger in-

ANDREW KNIGHT: But you didn’t want to come into the Second World War, but thank God you did, for your sake and ours.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, but that was a clean issue.

ALASTAIR BURNET: You were attacked. Well, you will be attacked if you don’t do the peacekeeping where it’s necessary.


ANDREW KNIGHT: Saddam Hussein didn’t need to attack you physically. If he got hold of the Persian Gulf, you wouldn’t have had any oil. That’s what being attacked about in the global village we live in is about. In the Second World War you were 80, 90 percent dependent on your own resources for oil, but if you had allowed Saddam Hussein to take control of Kuwait, to intimidate all the other ones and so on, you wouldn’t have had any oil, nor would the rest of us. It’s one world.

BILL EMMOTT: America doesn’t have to intervene in every conflict in the world to have an effect as a policeman, as a sheriff. A good lawyer, a good prosecutor, doesn’t prosecute every case. He picks the ones in which he thinks he’s going to win on, and that also affects the behavior of other people, who wonder whether in future their case might be the one he picks. But the point about America’s influence around the world is that it’s always the sheriff who maybe is lurking behind the rocks in the valley, it just might be there, and it has to keep on intervening, let’s say one case in five, something like that, in order to keep that thought. The fact is that Bosnia is an extremely complicated problem in which effective, quick intervention just has not proved possible. Now, that has damaged the West’s effectiveness and the West’s image around the world. It has encouraged the Saddam Husseins of the world to think they might get away with things, but there’s still the doubt that in the next case, it will be a clear issue and in will come America.

BILL MOYERS: But if there were no Soviet Union – and there is no Soviet Union- would Ronald Reagan today go into Grenada?

ANDREW KNIGHT: I remember vividly when he did go into Grenada, because it was a day when most of the liberal establishment – using the word liberal in your American sense – the liberal establishment in this country decried what he was doing, and I’m glad to say what The Economist thought that it was actually quite a good thing, what he was doing.

BILL MOYERS: But would you today?

ANDREW KNIGHT: I most certainly would.

ALASTAIR BURNET: Yes. And I would attack Tripoli, and if Qaddafi was- and indeed, the Panama Canal, the Soviet Union was in no sense a threat to any American action there. The United States went in.

BILL EMMOTT: Clearly, we wouldn’t sanction every American action, regardless of the case.

ANDREW KNIGHT: No, exactly.

BILL MOYERS: Public opinion is more or less saying, you know, how can we police the world when we can’t pacify our own cities? Look at the Soviet Union. It learned that being a superpower doesn’t pay if your own house comes down around your head.

ANDREW KNIGHT: But it seems to me to be completely false choices. It’s not a question of “Do we spend our time pacifying” – and we’re talking about time and energy, not just resources- “pacifying New York or Buffalo, whatever it is, or do we spend our time worrying about the Gulf?” We live – as a result of communications, and oil, and other economic factors- we live in one city in this world, and it’s not either or. The world is a single city, it’s a single countryside now, and the way-

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that?

ANDREW KNIGHT: What I mean is that what is happening in the Gulf, what is happening in China, is going to be of vital interest to the survival of the people who are impoverished in- in the worst parts of Los Angeles within our lifetimes. And you can’t just simply say that this political presidency is going to concentrate on one and ignore the other. It’s a false choice.

BILL MOYERS: What should our policy toward the former Soviet Union be? What kind of aid might make a difference? What should the United States be doing?

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: Well, I think the first and most important thing that not just the United States but the European community could and should do is to say to not just the former Soviet Union but all the countries of eastern Europe, “What you need is market certainty, access to markets for your exports, and we will give you that access on a guaranteed basis,” in my view forever, but one could say for a limited period. That would have an enormous galvanizing effect on those economies, because they would be offered the opportunity of the thing that they most lack at the moment, purchasing power, competitive standards, contact with commercial reality on a wide scale, and that would attract a lot of foreign investment into those countries who would see that as a very satisfactory, attractive base for exporting to the rest of the world. If we did that, I think you could say farewell to most of the aid dreams that people have dreamt up, because they wouldn’t be needed.

ALASTAIR BURNET: I think The Economist has actually been rather more careful about the prospects of the Soviet Union, and it has also pointed, if I’m correct, in to say that- say in the Czech republic, and in Hungary, something of the process that Rupert has described is already taking place. Now, it’s that kind of finite example that encourages people, and that’s what’s got to be brought along. I mean, I happen to think that Mr. Clinton has done well with the G7 meeting a few months ago, and I think that that’s going to have an influence. The people that have got to be got hold of, to my mind, are the French, right away, the people in Europe, including in Britain, who actually would want to pull up the drawbridge on the East. That hasn’t happened yet.

BILL MOYERS: Why do they want to do that? It mystifies me.

ALASTAIR BURNET: Because they don’t want to work particularly hard, they have an established position, and they’re not going to have low wages brought in.

BILL EMMOTT: Inevitably, lobby groups, the producers, lobby against trade and for aid, because by keeping out trade they protect their domestic markets by stimulating aid. Actually, what they’re looking for is the sort of aid to the Soviet Union or to anywhere else that is tied to purchases of their goods. So it’s a creation of a lobby group society.

ALASTAIR BURNET: And the way around that, it seems to me, is the way of free trade and of liberalization, and of making it possible for the more beneficent things to start happening.

BILL MOYERS: See, a lot of people won’t see that as beneficent. You go to Michigan, you to go Milwaukee, you go to large American cities where jobs are fleeing, jobs are being [crosstalk].

ALASTAIR BURNET: Same in this- same in this country, absolutely. In this town. But it is an investment. It is the only investment you can make. It’s much better than putting up the shutters.

BILL MOYERS: In one of your most recent issues, “Your company needs you,” says this cover, for the time being, and you go on and point out is that, increasingly, these mobile companies are not only doing away with jobs, not only eliminating jobs, but they are backing away from promises about long-term full employment. What happens when workers have no stake in the prosperity of the firms that they occasionally work for?

ALASTAIR BURNET: But surely we’re in favor of labor mobility. Surely there’s no point in everybody sitting still. We had that in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.

BILL MOYERS: So the family in Detroit gets up and moves to the Mexican border?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Well, I’m Scottish, I live in London. It’s- it’s a thought, but that’s what you have to do if you’re going to get on. I don’t really see that argument. I think, in fact, Bill’s article is a very interesting one indeed, because I think the main thrust of that, if I’m right, is that these are middle-class office workers whose loyalty to their companies has been taken for granted and this has been a different relationship. But I, we cannot have people just sitting where they are now.

ANDREW KNIGHT: Throughout the last 300 years, and the growth of this enormously productive, privately run economy that we have all benefited from, our fathers and ourselves, there have been enormous societal changes, sudden upheavals. I mean, look at the enclosure movement in England at the end of the 18th century, which just threw millions of people off the land into the cities, and then you got the misery which led to Charles Dickens and all those novels, but there was an industrial revolution which increased the wealth of really virtually everybody by the end.

ALASTAIR BURNET: It’s happening in South America today.

ANDREW KNIGHT: Absolutely. And now you have- what’s happening now is that since the invention in the early to mid-1970s of the chip, the silicon chip, and everything that has happened since then, you have a huge depopulation, this time not of the fields, not of the villages, but of the middle reaches of companies, and that means exactly as Bill’s article so rightly says this week, it means that you’ve got companies where immense loyalties – just as those peasants had devised huge loyalties to their local squires and their local farming communities – you’ve now got enormous quantities of white-collar workers who are suddenly finding that now that the computer is so easy, and now- not just the computer, everything that is happening in the modern office and the modern factory, you’ve got this tremendous societal change. It is painful. When was the human race frightened of pain? When was the human race frightened of facing up to pain, finding ways of alleviating it, and then discussing the ways of handling progress and going on to the next thing? The static society was never the answer to anything, was it?

BILL MOYERS: Is it necessary that many people suffer a loss in their standard of living for the long term?

ANDREW KNIGHT: Oh, but Bill, are you saying that America is frightened of internal migration? Surely, internal migration was the making of the United States, wasn’t it?

BILL MOYERS: They’re frightened by – and Ross Perot made a big campaign on this last year, you know, that big “sucking sound” – of jobs disappearing into Mexico. Alastair talks about low- inviting low-wage jobs into your country. That’s what they fear. You talk about the world as a city. What they see is an increasingly international English-speaking business class of elites that are making these judgments without much respect for what happens to people down in the inner city of that.

BILL EMMOTT: You just have to look back and always imagine what the world would have been if it was somehow frozen at one point and say let’s stop trade now. What wouldn’t we have had? What new things would not have been created?

ALASTAIR BURNET: And that was the lesson of the 1930s.

BILL MOYERS: When protectionism created trade wars all over?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Protectionism in your country, especially, made it harder for everyone, made it difficult in western Europe.

BILL MOYERS: Could that happen again?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Brought political repercussions then, and I’ve no doubt could do now. I mean, I think we are drawing a deep breath at the end of the cold war, and we hope at a rising point now, at last, after a very lengthy recession. I don’t think this is a time when people are prepared to be stampeded into simple solutions. What they want to see is certain, specific, small advances. That’s why I quoted the Czech Republic and Hungary for something which is visibly solid happening in the remnants of the eastern European economic system. I think that the slow recovery which is coming now will actually get people to see things slightly less defensively. Politicians who are now running scared, both governments and oppositions, have got no guts to stand up and say anything. I think that’s one of the problems in your country, it’s one of the problems, certainly, in this country. Look at Chancellor Kohl’s problems. Look at what happened in France.

BILL MOYERS: The guts to stand up and say what?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Say things which seem to be unpopular by the people that you are describing, and which we know have been the formula which has actually led to the unprecedented growth in the world since 1945.

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: Which has benefited huge numbers of people far more than the people who have been in some way disadvantaged temporarily by dislocation caused by trade flows.

BILL EMMOTT: The choice is not between a higher standard of living with protection and a lower standard of living with open markets. The choice is between two routes toward lower standards of living, perhaps, but-

BILL MOYERS: But what does a politician do in the meantime, responsive to, not- responsive to very real people hurting on the ground?

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: Yeah, but how much does he listen to the very real people who are consumers, who are concerned about how far their family budget stretches, who should be given the right to buy the best and the cheapest from anywhere in the world? That’s a very important part of economic welfare, and unfortunately, in the political and institutional systems that we have in the West, that voice, the consumer’s voice, is drowned out by the voice of sectional producer interests…

BILL MOYERS: I was struck by your valedictory editorial when you said that after the collapse of communism, the main issue that the democracies face is the power of lobbies. I think you called them organized rowdies, and you said that if lobbying has a shrine, it’s Washington, D.C. What led you to single out lobbies as the-

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: Because I think they stand in the way both of representative government and of efficient government. They are, by their very nature, representative of only very narrow schemes of opinion, well-organizes schemes, well-financed schemes, but almost by definition exclusive schemes which keep out other people. And therefore a politician who is trying to act in the public interest is increasingly unable to determine what that interest is, because he’s been given only particular voices representing particular sectional interests. So they’re unrepresentative, they’re inefficient, or they serve to create inefficiency, because in the end the politician in government gets paralyzed, because for every lobby proposing policy A, there is one who will very quickly come up to oppose it. And in his attempts to try and satisfy too many lobbies, a politician, a president, a prime minister will end up satisfying nobody.

BILL MOYERS: Are lobbies as powerful here as they are in Washington?

ANDREW KNIGHT: They’re less powerful here, but they’re getting more powerful, and I think that’s really the point, that almost everywhere you go you see their power growing. And in some ways it’s a demonstration effect emerging from America that people have seen, organized campaigning by sectional interests carried to a remarkable sophistication in the United States, and they’ve learned those tricks, just as politicians in Europe have learned the tricks about television campaigning and sound bites and other things.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It is from their offices here in central London that The Economist keeps watch on this creeping Americanization of the world.

ANN WROE: You can’t hold back [unintelligible] before, like immigration to America. I think what we’d like to see is the streamlining of the asylum process. But I would like to say let everyone come.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] ”The American Survey,” edited by Ann Wroe, is one of the most popular in the magazine, helping to double U.S. circulation in recent years. Ms. ROE: I’d make the point that rather than staunching the flow of immigration, which is most pending legislation would like to do, the flow ought to be managed somehow.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But covering the global economy while preaching the gospel of free trade has won for The Economist readers the world over and a reputation for knowing and speaking its mind.

ECONOMIST STAFF MEMBER: I guess we need to just mention the possible demise of Mr. Deng Xiaoping.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] For elites, by elites- in the burly-burly world of British journalism, The Economist has an identity all its own.

ANDREW KNIGHT: There isn’t this contentious journalistic atmosphere in the United States that there is here in London. In the United Kingdom, we have 11 national newspapers available to the reader every morning, all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats. That’s from that bit up there to that down there.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you.


BILL MOYERS: All the way from tabloid to-

ANDREW KNIGHT: -and all the way through, and an awful lot of people who read The Financial Times also read The Sun. If you go to which is our mass tabloid newspaper in this country. If you go to the great sort of trading rooms of the merchant banks and things and the investment houses in this country, in London here- I went to Salomon Brothers the other day. There they all were with their Wall Street Journals and their Financial Timeses, and also the Sun and The Daily Mail, you know. They’re all- it’s a very different atmosphere. It’s tremendously rough and tumble and we are a little sort of rather intellectually minded, but nevertheless a little part of that community.

BILL MOYERS: Are there certain things that The Economist won’t do? For example, would you have wanted your correspondent to ask George Bush about an unsubstantiated rumor of an extramarital affair while he was having a press conference with a foreign leader?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Well, I would expect the correspondent to know that, anyway.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, come on. I mean, you know, the complaint today is that we journalists are taking public tastes lower and lower. What do you make of the fact that when you ran that cover last year of Prince Charles and Lady Di, “A royal fudge,” it was a best-seller? What does that say?

ANDREW KNIGHT: We should have done it more often.

BILL MOYERS: Is the royal family becoming anachronistic? When you celebrate your 200th anniversary, will there be a monarchy?

ANDREW KNIGHT: I do hope so, as at least they add a bit of color. I mean, I would be appalled at the idea of an elected president here, or one appointed fJ;”om the ranks of ex-prime ministers.


ANDREW KNIGHT: Pure sentiment. I can’t justify what I’m saying. I think that the royal family is a very important ingredient in our country, and it’s only because the younger generation have found it very difficult to reconcile this tremendous panoply of formal existence that they have with private life, and which is jolly difficult to conduct in this day and age, that the thing has begun to look a bit frayed at the edges recently.

ALASTAIR BURNET: There’s a very poor younger generation in the royal family at the moment. This has happened in the past-

BILL MOYERS: Not economically poor.

ALASTAIR BURNET: -no, they’re of poor quality, and they haven’t been able to live up to the expectations (A), of the country; but (B), of the aspirations of royalty. The royal family in this country, for most of the 20th century, actually attempted to be a model of social life. Now, this was asking a lot anyway, but in the matter of behavior and sexual behavior, that kind of thing, the royal family was setting standards. Religion- setting standards. I think that has gone, and that’s a – that is a generation which has failed. But we can certainly suppose, since generations react against each other, that there may well be a return. I’m not- I’m not too despondent about it. For the moment, the royal family must lie low, perform its constitutional function, and get a better press by actually behaving in such a way.

BILL EMMOTT: Whereas I, as the young person here, disagrees, it’s on sentimental grounds, with Andrew, and that if I was starting from a clean sheet in Britain I would certainly be a republican – with a small r, not a big r- but I would set up a president. However, countries don’t start with clean sheets. They are the outcomes of their history, and we have a monarchy and we need to evolve that monarchy forward. I think it’s- it would be a huge mistake if Britain became obsessed with the monarchy and with the need to change it, because it’s really not a very big issue, it’s not a very important subject for us to deal with. There are a lot of other more important-

BILL MOYERS: It dominates the popular press, doesn’t it?

BILL EMMOTT: It dominates the public.

BILL MOYERS: Broadcasts-:- even public broadcasting will do a documentary about the royal family and get larger ratings than we get when we do whales in the south Arctic.

BILL EMMOTT: Well, it dominates the popular press in the same way as Jurassic Park and Stephen Spielberg and Sharon Stone dominate the popular press in the United States.

BILL MOYERS: It’s a form of entertainment.

BILL EMMOTT: It’s a form of entertainment.

BILL MOYERS: Expensive, $125 million to support the royal family, and this is one of the richest collectives in the world.

ANDREW KNIGHT: I think it’s less than Jurassic Park cost, isn’t it?

BILL MOYERS: Journalists like to say that we cover reality, we do not create it, and yet, in what we choose to cover and how we choose to represent what we cover, we are creating a kind of reality. I’m thinking of all the caricatures that have run in the pages of The Economist over the years about American politicians: Reagan the great communicator, that wonderful caricature of Reagan sitting there with the arrows flying around his head. In this effort to depict what you see, you are creating a kind of reality, are you not?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Oh, yes. Great men depend very much on their caricaturists. Churchill, for example, could have been caricatured in a completely different way exactly. And they have the adventitious aids. They either have a large flower in their buttonhole, or a cigar, or whatever. This, I think, is very important, indeed. So the first thing that you do is not select your press secretary. You select your caricaturist and you make sure that there are schools of them standing by to draft new people in, if required.

BILL MOYERS: The American journalist Walter Lippman said that great men, even during their lifetime, are known to the public only through a fictitious personality. Do you agree with that?

ANDREW KNIGHT: I think that people who are in that profession, who do actually have to run for office, of course they have to create fictitious characters. But I like to think that- I mean, we are the first age since Pericles, aren’t we, I think, where everybody has seen the face of and can have judged in some way, albeit through the medium of the television screen, the person that he or she is voting for. I mean, when Gladstone went on the- you know, on his round of Midlothian speeches and so on, you know, this huge populist campaign, Alastair, how many people would have actually seen him during that campaign, who actually had to vote for his government? I think it’s 3 percent, 1 percent?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Well, relatively few, and the number who heard him would have been very few indeed.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I was reminded in your book that when Franklin Pierce arrived in Washington, nobody knew him. The recently elected president came to town, nobody paid attention. He was able to go to the hotel and start working on his Cabinet.

ANDREW KNIGHT: So I think people see through the fiction in the end, don’t they? I mean, that’s the story ofwhat’s happened to poor Mr. Carter, Mr. Reagan in the end, may happen to Clinton, is that they do have this wonderful opportunity of actually which only the electors in ancient Athens previously probably had, of actually being able to see the guy and judge him as a human being. But equally, by the same token, because he sets up a few fictions, he gets caught out in the end, probably.

BILL MOYERS: Which one of you put Clinton on the cover as “Mr. Fizz”?

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: That was quite shortly after he was elected.

BILL MOYERS: What did you mean by that?

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: And what we meant, I suppose, was somebody who fizzed and sparked in every direction, predictable and unpredictable, and was therefore not somebody with a slow steady burn on a few big issues. And it seems to me, above all, that an American president with so many demands on his time and his energy needs to be very good at ordering his priorities and recognizing that he can only do a few things, and going hard for those few things to the exclusion of lots of other trivia.

ALASTAIR BURNET: The Economist supported Clinton.

BILL EMMOTT: Yes, we supported him. We didn’t support his most extravagant claims, but nevertheless, we saw him as something of a hope for change.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I don’t know who wrote it, again, but one of the final editorials in the end of the Reagan administration said America had turned sour and Reagan’s policies had not helped. Shouldn’t write these things, you know. People do remember them.

ALASTAIR BURNET: Well, the end of any president’s second term is always disillusioning, isn’t it?

BILL EMMOTT: What’s been disillusioning about Clinton is that it’s the beginning of his term that is disillusioning, that here was a man who we are now diminishing, as you say, but who in the run-up to the election and afterwards we were expanding, we were thinking that he was a great hope.

ANDREW KNIGHT: For me, Reagan was a very important turning point in the American presidency, and I hope that Clinton will learn from him, which I think he probably will. Bush, I think, learnt half from him, but not as much.

BILL MOYERS: Was it you who wrote of Bush that he had given a new depth to the meaning of the word shallow?

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: Well, yes, it was. You shouldn’t remember these things.

ANDREW KNIGHT: I think Rupert Pennant-Rea is quite right about Bush, the disappointment of Bush, but Reagan knew something about presidential politics in the modern world, because in this world of lobbyists and in this world where ordinary individuals are so much more knowledgeable and empowered than they ever were before, where there are now 250 million people in the United States, every single one of whom is watching or reading something, every single one of whom is educated to a certain standard of education which was not the case in the ’20s or ’30s, governing a country like that is so much more difficult and so much more complex than it ever had been in, let’s say, Teddy Roosevelt’s time, never mind FDR’s time. That what Reagan understood was that it was- a style of government is probably better conducted when you actually stand back from many, many of the issues. We will never know what Jack Kennedy would have been like as president, but I think – in retrospect, I certainly didn’t think it as a young man at the time, I thought he was absolutely brilliant and wonderful- but in retrospect, I suspect we might have found that Jack Kennedy would have got into the same sort of problems that Johnson got into, and that Carter got into – I except Nixon, who is a strange paradox – and of having got terribly involved in far too much, whereas Reagan, it seems to me, for all his self-evident weaknesses as a man and as a president, nevertheless he understood the main thing, which is when you sit in the White House conducting the affairs of the most important economic and military and political and possibly societal nation in the world, that you cannot govern everything yourself.

BILL MOYERS: Are you fellows bullish on America?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Yes, I am bullish about America, because I think its track record is such that it’s correct to be bullish. I think that the United States has amazing problems. Perhaps you make too much of it. We all have inherited the same kinds of problems. We’ve seen them coming, and we’ve allowed them to happen here. But I do believe that the United States has the intelligence and I think it has the economic power to break through this.

ANDREW KNIGHT: How I see it is that the greatness of America is in its extraordinary mixture of rawness, of spirit, youth, brawn and brashness, combined with wisdom. And it’s a very strange mixture which you sort of see in the Constitution and in the, you know, the Declaration of Independence, even. It sort of goes right back to there. And my concern is that are we in the generation, when America is at last reaching middle age – and three of us are into middle age, Bill isn’t there yet – and the trouble with middle age is I don’t think your wisdom increases, and your rawness disappears. And my concern about America would be if it became too middle-aged too quickly during the rest of our lifetimes.

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: Yeah. I think you’d be very foolish, looking at what America has achieved over a couple of centuries, and more, to say that you’re not bullish about America. I would enter the caveat that I do think that the multiculturalism, mixed with multilingualism, is a very dangerous brew, because it begins to provide a divisive factor which, as we’ve seen in lots of other countries, can be extremely dangerous for a society. That, I suppose, is my biggest concern.

BILL MOYERS: One of your last covers, I think, had a- said “More immigration, please.” That flies in the face of the mood of America, of many Americans today, who look at immigration, multiculturalism, as a source of the fragmentation, ethnic conflict, religious rivalry, racial animosities, and yet there you were saying “More immigration, please,” and we were taping at your editorial session yesterday when you were planning yet another leader or editorial on immigration. Do you still see America as this great welcoming bosom for the world’s peoples?

BILL EMMOTT: Absolutely, we do. I think it’s a model for a liberal approach to immigration. It’s been a great energizer to America. What we were talking about in our editorial meeting was, however, the distinction between the official approach to immigration, which is quite restrictive, and the unofficial approach, which is quite liberal and allows all sorts of illegal immigrants, and what a distortion that produces in America, because it permits huge illegal immigration and therefore a certain amount of exploitation, also, the ability to kick people out very quickly.

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: The only part of the current American practice that I would strongly disagree with is accepting people from all over the world but not expecting them to speak English. I do think that that was, and still could be, a vital glue for America.

BILL MOYERS: The language itself.

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: The language. And to allow multilingualism to grow in America, I think, could well prove to be a very bad mistake. To allow lots of people to come into America has historically been an extremely good thing.

BILL MOYERS: But you know, a bridge can only tolerate so much traffic. No matter how strong it is at any given moment, sooner or later the critical mass of weight shatters the structure. And that’s what a lot of people feel, that how much is enough is the question we’re wrestling with at this moment.

ALASTAIR BURNET: You may be wrestling with it, but we’ve wrestled with it and we’ve been thrown. I mean, the Germans and the French want no immigration. This country has wanted no immigration for a very long time. So my sympathies would be very much with the American people about immigration. I certainly agree with Rupert about the language. You only have on your own doorstep Canada, where you actually have the Quebec people, the habitants, who actually won’t speak English at all and who have virtually disrupted Canada and will continue to do so.

ANDREW KNIGHT: I very much agree with Rupert’s point about the language. I think you need to have a unifying language in America. But, I do think that the one thing that is going to keep America young – and I won’t be popular for saying this to many of your viewers – but the one thing that’s going to keep America young, as it kept us young between the wars, during Hitler’s time, and as it kept America young throughout its history – is immigration, because I think that the immigration that you get from low-wage countries keeps the whole wage structure competitive, and the immigration that you get from China actually is a tremendous leavening process in your brainpower. I’m told that American universities now are almost having to practice reverse discrimination in order to stop the Chinese and other Asiatics getting all the best places in the university and coming out top all the time. And certainly I was fortunate enough to serve on the board of Tandem Computers out in- for a while, out in Silicon Valley, and what I saw in Silicon Valley was a tremendous amount of brainpower coming in from China. So it seems to me that provided you can keep the homogeneity of a language, which is a unifier, and of aspiration and purpose of your society, it’s very good to have this leavening process, because it’ll keep you young. If you become staid, if you become middle-aged, then I think our generation, all four of us, will witness the United States no longer being the great power it was, and I can’t believe that’s going to happen.

BILL MOYERS: Do you see any emergence of a new political framework in the post-cold war era?

RUPERT PENNANT-REA: The issue around which a lot of politics will continue to center is how much power and independence should be given to impersonal market forces, and how much should be taken by deliberate official action. Now, I happen to believe that that argument as set up and caricatured for most of the past 40 years is a terribly confused one. It seems to imply that unless markets can deliver perfect outcomes, government must intervene. Reality has taught us that governments and markets are both imperfect, and the question is where is the greater imperfection? And for my money, looking back at the evidence, there is no doubt at all that when governments try to do things, they make a bigger mess of it than markets ever could, and that, I think, will continue to be a political theme for the next several decades. Whether it’s called left or right, liberal, conservative, I’m not too sure, and I don’t think it really matters. Underneath the labels, that will continue to be a real issue.

BILL EMMOTT: But then, added to that, how you deal with the areas, the individual areas of policy where, actually, markets can’t operate properly, you know, where there are failures, such as in education, to a large extent, where while education can be made subject to market forces, nevertheless, in many ways, the way that the market operates totally freely is to supply less education than the society needs. There is a case for the government supplying some education to supplement a weakness in the market. Now, the problem that that poses, as Rupert says, is if you then give the rights over that supply of education to a bunch of politicians, will they make it even worse? And dealing with that is one of the most important issues of friction in politics from now on. But it would be a mistake to assume that there is a choice between everything in the market and everything in the government. The government has to come in some places, but should steer clear of most of the things.

BILL MOYERS: The Economist has pointed out repeatedly that Britain was the engine of growth in the 19th century, and America the engine of growth in the 20th century. Where do you think the growth will come from in the 21st century?

ANDREW KNIGHT: Asia would be my bet, but I don’t know.

BILL EMMOTT: I think that’s right. A lot of it will still come from the United States, but in terms of going up from a very low base to- very rapidly to reach higher and higher standards of living, it will be in Asia. China is the great unanswered question of our times. Could China be the world’s biggest economy in 2020? The answer is it could. It might not be.

BILL MOYERS: And the fact is, if Russia gets richer and China gets richer and Mexico gets richer, we sell, they buy, we buy, they sell?

BILL EMMOTT: That’s right. Ultimately, trade benefits all of us.

ANDREW KNIGHT: But it’s also surely about the human spirit and the human mind. There are two billion people in India and China. It would seem every time we educate a Chinese or an Indian, he comes top of the class. They are very intelligent people, the Indians, and they are very intelligent people, the Chinese, and there are 10 times as many of them together as there are Americans, so that in our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetime they’re going to count more than they’ve counted before.

BILL MOYERS: Is it too early to say how this last quarter of the 20th century is going to be categorized if it were a cover on The Economist in the year 2001?

ALASTAIR BURNET: Well, I would simply pray one thing, that the next 20 years will be like the last 20 years and every 20 years, an age of transition. I think that’s. safe, I think it’s hopeful, and I think it still shows that there’s something of the old Adam left in the West and its ideas.

BILL MOYERS: Something of the old


BILL MOYERS: But remember, when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, he turned to her and said, “My dear, we live in an age of transition.”

ALASTAIR BURNET: Well, that’s fair enough, and I’m all for encouraging change. I’m all for people getting out of false gardens of Eden and facing again the reality. And many of the questions that you have been asking have been about the- in our society, about the problems of confronting communism. The problems of economic growth did leave an awful lot of ancillary problems, minor problems, perhaps, which now bulk very large in our minds, but I’m perfectly content that we should go on changing, and we won’t reach perfection in any sense. The Economist began by saying that Britain was the workshop of the world and America was the great field which could provide the grain and the resources which would feed, and that interaction, the selling of the cotton goods and so on, was where The Economist began. These are the principles that it has always abided by, and now you’re giving us a new lease on life.

This transcript was entered on April 27, 2015.

  • submit to reddit