On December 14, 1974, the journalist and political thinker Walter Lippmann died at the age of 85. As the author of a syndicated column that ran for more than three decades, Lippmann was one of the most influential political commentators of the 20th century, and he used his considerable intelligence to contemplate serious questions regarding, for example, the way to strike a balance between democracy and the public good, with insight that continues to be relevant today.
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From the Jewish perspective, however, Lippmann doesn’t come off so well. Even within the familiar context of assimilationist New York German Jewish society, whose leading members often feared being perceived as “too Jewish,” Lippmann was an extreme case.
Not only did he never acknowledge publicly his Jewish heritage – one friend who played Scrabble with him regularly said she knew better than to even use the word “Jew” in the game – but he never spoke out about the fate of European Jewry, neither in the period of the 1930s when the U.S. could still have saved lives by accepting refugees, nor even after the war, when he never commented on the Nazi crimes discovered with the liberation of the concentration camps.
Walter Lippmann was born on September 23, 1889 in New York City. He was the only child of Jacob Lippmann and the former Daisy Baum, both of them the children of Jewish immigrants from Germany. Jacob worked in his family’s garment manufacturing business until Daisy’s inheritance of her father’s substantial estate allowed him to semi-retire, while continuing to support the family in comfort, including a trip to Europe each summer.
He attended Sachs School for Boys, followed by the Sachs Collegiate Institute, private schools for well-off Jewish children, and in 1904 he underwent confirmation at Reform Temple Emanu-El, which preferred that coming-of-age ritual to the bar mitzvah.
After high school graduation in 1907, Walter entered Harvard University, where he studied philosophy and languages, and completed his coursework for a degree in three years. During his sophomore year, he was sought out by philosopher William James, after the latter read an article Walter had written in a student journal, and the two began meeting weekly for conversation. In his fourth year, he worked as an assistant to the historian George Santayana.
Lippmann was part of a group that organized a socialist discussion workshop at Harvard, but by the time he left Cambridge, Massachusetts and moved to New York, where he became an assistant to the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, he had moved from being a revolutionary to a social reformer. In fact, over his life, Lippmann was all over much of the political map, though never on the far right.
In 1913, Lippman was one of the founding editors of The New Republic magazine, though he left that in 1920 to become an editorial writer for the New York World, and the following year began his column “Today and Tomorrow” for the New York Herald Tribune.
During World War I, he had a position in Army Intelligence, and then helped President Woodrow Wilson in the drafting of the Fourteen Points, as part of the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference.
Lippmann wrote more than 20 books, many of them concerned with the problems inherent in democracy, and the role of the press in creating an informed public. Nearly a century ago, he warned about the dangers of the press falling down on the job, and about the human tendency to be influenced by shallow thinking and slogans.
To the extent that he commented on Jewish matters at all, Lippmann suggested that Jews bore a lot of responsibility for anti-Semitism, with their tribalism and ostentation. His biographer Ronald Steel found a 1921 review he wrote of a book about Zionism. He did not condemn Zionism, just said it didn’t interest him, being “one of those assimilated creatures to whom the Jewish past has no very peculiar intimate appeal have no sense of belonging to the Chosen People, and tremble at the suggestion that God has put all his best eggs in one tribal basket.” He withdrew it after submitting it to the Menorah Journal, and it was never published.