E.J. Dionne, Jr., Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Ideas Matter in Politics: Conversation with E.J. Dionne, Jr., Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; and columnist for the Washington Post; 3/8/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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E.J., welcome to Berkeley.

Good to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

I was actually born in a hospital in Boston, but I was raised in a place called Fall River, Massachusetts, which is a factory town about fifty miles south of Boston. A lot of people go through my hometown on the way to Cape Cod. I love my hometown; I've spent time up there. My mom died a few years back; I get up a little less. It was a very political town. A friend of mine once said that there were three kinds of people in Fall River: people running for office, people getting ready to run for office, and people recovering from running for office. I think you got interested in politics just by breathing the air.

How did your parents shape your character, do you think, in retrospect?

In a lot of different ways. My mom was a teacher and a librarian most of her life. She worked and retired at age 75. And so I got to love books and book learning through her. My dad was a dentist who loved newspapers and politics. I'm totally, and happily so, a creature of my upbringing. My dad would get four Sunday newspapers. He loved to argue politics, my whole family loved to argue politics. My dad and I argued all the time about a) politics, and b) why the Red Sox were losing.

In these arguments you often would take positions that you might not have held, but you were forced to think about them and argue.

Right. My dad had a wonderful idea, which I hope I stick to. He thought it was a good thing for kids to argue with their parents. He thought it was a good thing to sharpen your mind, and have to come to terms with whatever you were arguing about.

My dad was a conservative, but I always say he was a compassionate conservative before compassion and conservatism was cool. He was also very independent minded, so he was against the Vietnam War before I was, which is very much the reverse of what happened with a lot of people at that time. But he would usually take a position well to the right of his own, and I would often taken a position to the left of my own, and we would go at it. My dad's family was a very large family, and that was a very political time with Vietnam, and every family event was a political argument. It was a politically diverse family, and what it taught me is you can disagree with someone and love them all the same; that argument, itself, is not a bad thing.

To me, civility, which is a very popular word these days, is not about being mushy or not disagreeing on anything or pretending that you have a consensus when it doesn't exist. Civility is respecting the person you disagree with. And that's what's in short supply, assuming that the person you disagree with is not Al Capone or Hitler or some character like that.

The key in this, I guess, is listening to the other. With the respect goes the notion that you actually listen to what they're saying, and that you might possibly learn from what the other side is saying.

There's a philosopher at Boston University named Glen Tinder, and he has a wonderful idea. He says that what we need to create is what he calls the "attentive society." He says the attentive society is a place where we all acknowledge that we need to give and receive help on the road to truth. I love that idea. And, also, Chris Rolash talked about argument in a similar way, where he said "If you really engage in argument, you're actually putting your own views at risk, because you really have to enter imaginatively into the ideas of the other person." That's a lot more fun than just yelling at somebody, I think.

You said in one interview, "I grew up believing that politics was not only a good thing and an important thing, but that it was fun."

Right. Again, this is a product of Massachusetts, and Fall River in particular. Mary McGrory, the great columnist, once said that every baby born in Massachusetts is born with a campaign-managing gene. There's a lot of truth to that. People were very involved from the lowest level to the highest level. We had great mayors' races and city council races. For a kid, this isn't always the best model for politics, but it is part of it-- there's a kind of competition in politics, as there is in sports. And when you look at it, it's actually an interesting endeavor that people are engaged in.

I also think you're a product of where you came from, you're also the product of the time you grew up in. I grew up at a time when politics was held in very high esteem in the country. It was the Eisenhower era.

What years?

Eisenhower was president. I was born in 1952, and was eight years old when John Kennedy was elected. And what you had there were two models, different kinds of leadership, but people whom Americans respected. We were coming off the Depression period and World War II, where people felt government, and if you will, collective endeavor, actually accomplished good things. So that's my view, and I'm going to stick with it! It's shaped me, and it sort of pains me when I look at the experience kids have now of politics. We went through a long period of disengagement, scandal, and the like, and it creates a whole new, different attitude for completely understandable reasons toward public endeavor.

Let's talk about that in a minute, but one element I want to add here is your education. You went to Harvard. And then you went on to be a Rhodes Scholar in England. So I'm curious how this civic culture you acquired in Fall River was influenced by your education.

If I can link the two, one of the good things about going to Harvard was that it was close to my home town. It was about fifty miles away. I was there from '69 to '73, and it was a time of a lot of anti-war activity. There was a wonderful man in my hometown who is very, very important to me. He's like a second father. My dad died when I was sixteen. His name was Burt Jaffee, and he ran for Congress in 1970 as an anti-war Democrat. I always say the good news is that we ran 50,000 votes better than the previous Democrat; the bad news is that we lost by 45,000 votes. But he was a fabulous guy. I used to bring down lots of my friends to work on various political campaigns in Fall River. That was a time when there were a lot of people who were Marxist or claiming to be Marxist, and I always told them it was about time they actually met the working class that they talk about so much. I said, "You'll actually like them when you meet them."

Sometimes people go to college and, for understandable reasons, separate from their hometown. For me, it was really good going to Harvard. I had enough distance, it was fifty miles away, and yet it was close enough that I felt the two came together.

There are several different things that I think of now that I took away from that experience, academically. One was that I got interested in political philosophy and social theory. One of the best courses I ever took, will ever take, was a debate between Michael Walzer, the great democratic socialist and political philosopher, and Robert Nozick, the libertarian political philosopher. They gave a class called Capitalism and Socialism. And to watch these guys hammer it out! I mean, first of all, for a kid to see what philosophical argument is about, and what philosophical examples are -- Nozick was particularly brilliant at finding the right example to make his libertarian point. And Walzer was one of the people who very much shaped my view. There are some other folks, Marty Peretz, who like Walzer also went to Brandeis University as an undergraduate, as you noted earlier.

Then on the practical level, I learned a lot about computers, polling, and that sort of thing. Bill Schneider was one of my teachers who got me into journalism. So that was a set of technical skills that served me well. My first real job was helping set up the New York Times/CBS polls, so that's another piece.

The time I was [at Harvard] was when they had first opened up the Divinity School to undergraduates. I have always had this interest -- partly, again, we're a creature of where we come from -- my parents were seriously religious and not overly pious, which is a good combination. So I took courses with Harvey Cox up at the Divinity School. I always tell students never to assume that a course you want to take will be professionally useless. It turned out that one of the most professionally useful courses I took was the one on the transcript that looks least useful. It was called "Eschatology and Politics." Harvey Cox was very engaged with the liberation theologians in Latin America, and sometimes we'd get stuff to read that were Xeroxes coming up from Chile -- it wasn't even Xeroxes then, it was mimeograph. Many years later, here I am covering the Vatican, where the central issue is liberation theology. So intellectually, those were critical experiences. And then, obviously, a lot of friends. I still have friends that I stay in touch with from those times.

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