Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's moral principles and political leadership -- and what the era of Lincoln can teach us about the state of our democracy today.
Guest Host: Katty Kay
In the history of American journalism, Lincoln Steffens has a secure place among the field’s most influential figures. One of the earliest “muckrakers,” Steffens and his brethren exposed political malfeasance and passionately advocated for social reform. The author of a new biography of Steffens says the journalist chased “revolutions, elections and corruption at the highest levels.” In the end, his was a life well-lived, if not always wisely so. We’ll talk with the biographer about Steffens’ life, his legacy and what today’s generation of reporters could learn from him.
- Peter Hartshorn Author of "James Joyce and Trieste" and professor at Showa Institute
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from “I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens,” by Peter Hartshorn. Copyright 2011 by Peter Hartshorn. Excerpted by kind permission of Counterpoint Press:
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us, I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back on Tuesday. Muckraking journalism flourished in the early 1900s. One of its most successful practitioners was Lincoln Steffens. He sought to dig up and expose corruption wherever he saw it, but he became dissatisfied with the results and embraced revolutionary communism.
MS. KATTY KAYA new biography argues that Steffens important legacy should not be overly tarnished by the politics he embraced later in his life. The book is titled "I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens." The author, Peter Hartshorn, joins me here in the studio. Peter, it's a pleasure to have you with me.
MR. PETER HARTSHORNIt's very nice to be here.
KAYThe phone number here is 1-800-433-8850. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us on Twitter, send -- and on Facebook as well. We would love to hear from you. We'll be opening the phones in just a while. And Peter, I should also mention that you are, of course, the author of previous biography "James Joyce and Trieste." Peter, I'm going to make a confession here.
KAYWhen I was asked to fill in for Diane today, which I love doing, I was told that we were going to be doing your book about Lincoln Steffens and I thought, Lincoln who?
HARTSHORNOh, no. Maybe many people thought that.
KAYTell us about him.
HARTSHORNWell, first of all, Steffens was really the greatest muckraker, I believe. Because he -- in his articles, he was really able to show in precise detail with names, dates, dollar amounts and so forth, exactly how deep the corruption ran in cities and state capitals and so on. And he really was somebody who influenced not only laws, but journalists who followed him.
HARTSHORNFor example, some reformers were elected after his articles came out and some of them thanked him for his efforts, as a matter of fact. And some of those reformers went on to make sure that laws were enacted, in terms of campaign contributions and lobbying and so forth, to try to limit the amount of damage that was done by the graft that had been flowing into the state legislatures and city councils for years.
KAYSo reading your book, it's clear he was hugely influential at the time. We'll talk more about what he did in just a minute. But, I mean, how -- am I the only one that might not have heard of him? Is this a huge (word?) in my knowledge or do you think -- how do you account for the fact that he is not a household name today?
HARTSHORNWell, he was a household name when his -- when he was muckraking in the early 1900s, everybody did know his name. McClure's magazine sold many, many copies, probably because of his name and the other muckrakers there. But when he took a turn toward communism -- he went to Russia in 1817. And when we began to, basically, encourage or accept this idea that revolutionary Russia was the way to go, then his reputation took a hit.
HARTSHORNAnd he lived another 20 years after the revolution began. And so when he died in the years after that, his reputation suffered and actually he received quite a bit of criticism for being a, quote, "Communist." He never actually joined the party, but he was considered a communist. And, in fact, he did support the cause.
KAYWell, let's go back to the beginning because as you and I were chatting just before the show, he's one of these extraordinary men who, by quark of timing, really span what, to me, seems the old world and history and...
KAY...the early -- the middle part of the 19th century and kind of brings us up to the second World War, which of course my parents knew, and links history and modernity, almost.
KAYHe was born in 1866.
HARTSHORNYes, he was born in San Francisco. He grew up in Sacramento. And as he wrote in his autobiography, one of the most popular parts of that book was his childhood that he spent riding his horse out in the Sacramento valley. And he really learned a lot from those experiences. His sense of curiosity really grew. He used to look up at the Sierra, Nevada Mountains and wonder what's on the other side, you know. I want to know what's there.
HARTSHORNHe'd watch the trains pull into Sacramento, wonder where they came from. He had a great sense of curiosity and his sense of self confidence grew tremendously when he'd ride his horse out through the valley and meet all sorts of characters out there. It's hard to imagine now. You know, many parents won't let their children go down the street. But he used to ride by himself.
HARTSHORNAnd that did give him quite a bit, as I said, self confidence. One thing that happened in the California days, the early days, was he had a friend who worked in the state legislature. His name was Charlie Marple and he was a kind of a page, I guess. But when Steffens went in there and he was watching what he thought was democracy in action and voting on the floor and so forth, Charlie told him, oh, no that's not really democracy. These guys were in the back room earlier making up their own decisions and, you know, and mapping out the strategy and so forth. This is -- this was all decided, you know, long before. And Steffens...
KAYThe vote was a sham?
HARTSHORNYeah. Steffens couldn't believe it. He said, you know, this is not what I learned in school. This is not what my father taught me. This is not what I thought it was. And he mentioned that because he spent so much of his life trying to understand, well, why does it work that way? You know, why do we have this -- what he would say was a so-called democracy when actually a lot of the democracy, particularly between the politicians and the corporate executives, was run through graft, really. And we can get to that later.
KAYWith the expansion of the industrial revolution and the accessibility of transport, he looked from his horse beyond the hills of Sierra, Nevada, in fact, all the way to Europe.
KAYAnd he went off after studying at Berkley for a little while and went off to Europe. Why did he go and what did he find there?
HARTSHORNWell, he said he graduated last in his class at Berkley so he didn't feel like he...
KAYHe didn't have a very high regard for formal education?
HARTSHORNNo. No. He...
KAYHe was inquisitive and intellectual.
HARTSHORNYes, yes. Well, one of his quotes, his many famous quotes, but one of them is that, "It's possible to get an education at a university. It's been done, not often." And -- so he...
KAYI'm not going to tell my 17-year-old son that.
HARTSHORNNo. So he was not satisfied with education at Berkley. And he thought going to Europe, particularly going to Germany, the great German universities -- he went to Berlin. He went to Heidelberg. He ended up at the Sorbonne. His father was footing the bill for all this, quite unhappily, at the end. And so Steffens thought he could find the answers over there. He wanted to find a scientific understanding of, basically, of human behavior.
HARTSHORNHe wanted to find out why people acted as they did. And when he came back to muckrake the cities, he continued to follow that line of thinking. He really wanted to understand not who was doing it, but how is it happening, why is it happening. And that was one of the most interesting things that I found, was he really wanted to go beyond what he called the bosses, you know, beyond the politicians, beyond the corporate grafters, to find out why this is happening in city after city. And he went to Europe to begin to study sort of the why of it all.
KAYAnd that -- then he comes back to America. And as you suggested, his dad says, right, that's enough. I'm not funding you anymore. Gives him $100 and a letter saying, it's time to make your own way in life.
KAYHow does this man, who's been something of a dilettante, let's face it, swanning around the European capitals, managed to make his own way. And he has a wife.
HARTSHORNHe has a wife. I was just going to mention that.
KAYWho he hasn't, by the way, told his family about her, at this point.
HARTSHORNRight, right. He came back with his wife and his mother in law and his father and mother didn't know about that. Well, he looked for a job. He unsuccessfully looked for a job. He would get all dressed up and go into the places that were looking for employees, such as areas down by the dock, as he put it. So he would go in with his Sorbonne and Heidelberg education and they would look at him and say, you know, what can you do?
HARTSHORNAnd he had no answer. So eventually, he ended up at the New York Evening Post with some help from his father, honestly, because he really wasn't able to do it on his own. But one thing about Steffens was, he did learn to hustle and he saw that the veteran journalists at the New York Evening Post were not too eager to go out and get the next story. There was a lot of sitting around, probably playing poker and so forth.
HARTSHORNSo he was an eager, young reporter and he wanted to prove himself. And he did get out and find stories and management recognized that and pretty soon he was making a very good salary and making a name for himself.
KAYWhat was the New York newspaper like? And what are we looking --we're looking at the 1880s?
HARTSHORNThis was the early 1890s. He came back 1892, I think. Yeah, 1892, '93 is when he got started in the newspaper business there and he didn't really have a lot of training for that. But, as I said, he hustled and he had a very -- he developed a very good writing style. And also his method of interviewing people was quite interesting because he was extremely sympathetic to those he was talking to.
HARTSHORNHe could listen very well, apparently, and he would coax information from these people that they'd normally might not tell others. And when he was muckraking and talking to some really influential bosses, it was amazing what he could find out.
KAYWill you tell us the story -- you write about the story of the very first time he went back down into Wall Street, actually, as an investigative journalist.
KAYOn a tip-off. What did he find there?
HARTSHORNWell, when he went down to Wall Street, he -- this was during the recession, the depression, I guess, of 1893. And he didn't know too much about that. He wasn't a financial kind of a guy. But he learned how Wall Street worked. And he ended up getting a lot of tips from the people he met on Wall Street so that he could have stories ready, almost before the news broken. It looked like his paper was getting, you know, getting a jump on the competition.
HARTSHORNSo he did learn a lot about Wall Street. He ended up making quite a bit of money from Wall Street. And later on, actually, with Walter Lippmann who went on to become a great journalist in his own right, they investigated Wall Street. And what they found was that there were just a handful of financiers who controlled quite a bit of the financial system in America.
HARTSHORNAnd later, the Pujo Committee and the House of Representatives studied this problem and agreed that this what happened. And that lead to the Federal Reserve act eventually.
KAYHum, maybe we should've had Steffens around during the last few years as well.
HARTSHORNYeah, he -- the last five years would be very interesting for him.
KAYSo he leaves the New York Post and he goes to McClure's magazine.
HARTSHORNWell, he went to the Commercial Advertiser in between. He was working there for about three or four years and he trained some young journalist there. He actually didn't want any experienced journalists. He wanted people who had no training in journalism and who would just go out, find stories and write from the heart.
HARTSHORNHe tells an antidote in his autobiography of an experienced journalist who came for an interview and was sitting there regaling stuff and some stories about how experienced he was and how much he had done. And Steffens said, well, here's what I want you to do. I want you to go out the door, walk down to the dock and keep walking. When you get to the end, just keep going. He did not want anybody with that kind of experience because he thought they were too jaded.
HARTSHORNSo he brought in quite a few young journalists there. Then he went to McClure's and that was really the start of his fame as a muckraker.
KAYPeter Hartshorn, the book is "I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens." You can join our conversation. We'll be opening the phones in just a while. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number here. The email address is email@example.com. You can find us on Facebook and you can send us a tweet as well. Do join us for our conversation on "I Have Seen the Future." Stay listening.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined here in the studio by Peter Hartshorn. The book is "I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens." We were talking about Lincoln's time. He's just left the New York Post and he's moving towards McClure's Magazine. What kind of journalism was practiced at McClure's?
HARTSHORNWell, not muckraking, actually. Ida Tarbell, who became one of the great muckrakers, had been writing some stories about Lincoln for the magazine. And they really didn't start publishing muckraking articles until they sent Steffens out of the office as a kind of failed editor. He was supposed to be the managing editor of the office, but he was not the most organized guy and he didn't get stories in on time and he didn't expect other people to do that either.
HARTSHORNSo McClure actually just sent him out. I think he sent him to Chicago and said, find something. You know, you're a great reporter. I'm sure you're up to it. Go out and find something. And he was talking to -- Steffens was talking to a friend of his, Brand Whitlock, who later was an American ambassador in Europe. And Whitlock said, well what do you know about cities? You know, what are you going to do out there? And Steffen said, well I don't know anything. That's why I'm going. I'm going to try to find out.
HARTSHORNAnd so McClure's almost somewhat accidentally came into muckraking. Steffen's first article as a muckraker was on St. Louis and it was published in October, 1902, in McClure's. And that article really showed in great detail the kind of graft and corruption that existed in St. Louis.
KAYBut he went out there with a view to exposing incorruption. I mean, this -- was this something that he wanted to do or was it that he...
KAY...turned up in these cities and thought, my god, things are not good here?
HARTSHORNWell, he didn't go out to muckrake. And actually, from his days in New York, he kind of admired some of the bosses. He had a certain respect for them so he didn't go out expecting to find what he did find. But he had certainly seen a lot in New York so I wouldn't say he was totally shocked. But when he went to St. Louis and he investigated what had been happening there, a pattern started to happen where he would find someone in the city who would know what was happening, either it was a prosecuting attorney or a newspaper man or somebody like that.
HARTSHORNAnd he would start to see that this graft followed a certain pattern. It was almost like a system. For example, in almost every city, the police were totally corrupt. That was almost a given. And the city counselors often were on the payroll of the large corporations, particularly the railroads. There was a guest on this program last week who was talking about the connection between the railroads and the government politicians and he mentioned the amount of lobbying that went on and much of that lobbying was in the form of bribery.
HARTSHORNSo Steffens saw this in St. Louis and he went to other cities after that and he witnessed the same thing. So it was really (unintelligible) system.
KAYAnd why -- if it was a given that the police were corrupt and the city government was corrupt, why weren't people writing about this before Steffens?
HARTSHORNWell, some were. One thing about Steffens was he didn't go and dig out the information himself. It wasn't as though he went and found information that nobody else knew. This information had been available, at least in bits and pieces, in newspaper articles before him. And there were other people, like Henry Demarest Lloyd and others, who had written about this 10, 20 years earlier. But nobody had put it together the way Steffens did in a long detailed, fact-filled article with names, dates and so on. It really struck people as, wow, this is so clear and so undeniable that, you know, we have to pay attention to it now, that people did know.
HARTSHORNAnd this was the point -- one point that I really want to make. When he wrote "The Shame of the Cities," there was plenty of corruption documented in there. But his book was aimed at the citizens because he said, as corrupt as these people are, it's up to you to hold them accountable. It's, you know, the shame of the people who are letting it happen.
KAYAnd when he wrote his first article for St. Louis, exposing in numbers and in names what was going on there and the kind of graft and the scale of it, what was the outcome of his articles? What happened after...
HARTSHORNWell, at St. Louis, what happened didn't surprise him, but there was a man there, prosecuting attorney named Joseph Folk and he was a Democrat. And the boss of St. Louis was a man named Ed Butler who was also a Democrat. But boss Butler had so much power that he basically controlled both parties. And so Folk was an honest man and he prosecuted and he -- and Butler the boss was upset because Folk was prosecuting Democrats as well as Republicans so he said, ease off. And Folk said, no, I'm not going to.
HARTSHORNSo he got convictions on a number of these people. Some of them fled to Mexico and elsewhere, but he did get some convictions. And then, sure enough, after he got the convictions, boss Butler pulled some strings. The Supreme Court in Missouri actually threw out the convictions later, and not only that, they chided Folk for having the temerity to sort of criticize these pillars of the community. So here they were criminals taking money from particularly the railroad -- it was the suburban railroad and in the end they went free. And that was because the system was crooked.
KAYIt still is corrupt.
HARTSHORNJudges were bought or appointed or whatever. Yeah, it was all the way into the courthouse.
KAYSo Steffens was at McClure's, then he left McClure's to begin his own magazine. His father must've been happy with that show of his entrepreneurial spirit.
KAYHow did that work out?
HARTSHORNWell, first of all, the reason he went there was because there was a big fight at McClure's. Basically, there was a revolt of all the muckrakers against McClure and they left amassed. It wasn't just Steffens. It was Ray Stannard Baker, Ida Tarbell and others. So they started this magazine, The American Magazine, and that -- I guess that was going to be what they hoped McClure's could be. And it was successful. They had to put in a lot of their own money. Steffens continued to write, missing deadlines as usual, but he did well there.
HARTSHORNBut he -- after a couple of years, he tired of that and he wanted to move on. One thing, when he was younger, he actually wanted to be a literary writer. He wanted to write fiction and so forth. And I wouldn't say he burned out on journalism, but he simply had tired of it and wanted to leave.
KAYDo you think he was gratified or felt proud of what he had done as a muckraker? I mean, did he feel that he had changed the social and political landscape at all?
HARTSHORNIt did change, but it didn't change anywhere near the amount that he wanted it to. This was one of the points with Theodore Roosevelt. He was pretty close with Theodore Roosevelt when Roosevelt first became the police commissioner in New York. And he understood that Theodore Roosevelt had the type of personality to possibly be the one who could fix this system. You know, it's so broken, it's going to take someone like a Roosevelt to do it. And Roosevelt, as we know, he did bust the trust and he did support some reform, but he also compromised. And Steffens saw that even Roosevelt is not going to be able to break the back of this corrupt system and that really disappointed him.
HARTSHORNBut they had a very interesting relationship. I mean, the letters are long that they wrote back and forth. I don't know how Roosevelt had the time, as the president of the country, to write these long, long letters -- and he'd write them every day. Just reading his letters is amazing.
KAYDid Roosevelt admire Steffens?
HARTSHORNAdmire might be too strong of a word. I think he respected him. And he certainly found time to talk with him. They used to meet out at Oyster Bay in New York, at Roosevelt's home. They met in the White House. I would say he respected him. At the end, they had a falling out to some extent because Roosevelt grew tired of the muckraking. He thought it was too negative. As he said to McClure, you've got to put some blue sky in your work there. You know, there's not enough of that. So they sort of drifted apart. But not because Roosevelt really totally denied what Steffens was writing. Roosevelt probably felt like, you know, the country needs to function and we can't be tearing it down, you know, as much as you want to.
KAYFor all his muckraking, did Steffens like hanging out with powerful people? Was he drawn to the rich and famous?
HARTSHORNAbsolutely. I mean, if you can say I know Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Louis Brandeis, Clarence Darrow, Earnest Hemingway, I mean, the list goes on. So, yeah, he certainly liked that.
KAYDo you have a favorite story of one of his relationships or times with some of those people?
HARTSHORNWell, I guess when he was with Hemingway, Hemingway used to sometimes shadowbox, I think, to show off his masculinity. And Steffens was there with his wife Ella. And this was one of those occasions when Hemingway was sort of showing off and he would say to Ella, well, you can write, Ella. Anybody can write. It's hell, but you can do it. And Steffens, I think, thought that was quite humorous. Yeah, so that's one of them.
KAYBut he begins to get disillusioned and he turns to something else. He starts seeking something.
HARTSHORNYes. I think once he realized that Roosevelt couldn't really stop this graft and once he saw the progressives in trying to set up various commissions like railroad commissions, utility commissions, to try to limit the damage, he saw that even these commissions were eventually ruled by the entities they were supposed to be overseeing. The railroads influenced the railroad commission and so forth. So he started to lose faith that America could really become a functioning democracy and that people would never institute the reforms that needed to be done.
HARTSHORNAnd so he went to Mexico to study that revolution. He was there for a year or so. But ultimately, Russia was the great prize because he saw that in Russia, they actually were going to get rid of all the privileges from the past and really try to start anew. But the level that Russia took it to was so extreme that that was what interested me about Steffens, why did he support that.
KAYWhen he interviewed Lenin...
KAY...when was that?
HARTSHORNHe went -- he interviewed Lenin in 1919 when he...
KAYSo a couple of years after the revolution. It sounds like he was quite seduced by him.
HARTSHORNYes. He had been to Russia in 1917. He had heard Lenin address the crowds. This was just after the revolution started. And he did see the -- Lenin -- Lenin had the personality to persuade the masses and he was somewhat seduced by him. And then, when he interviewed him, that process just continued. He was speaking to Lenin, for example, about the war, World War I. And he asked Lenin about the people who were dying in Russia, you know, and to the tyranny there. And Lenin said, well, who wants to know? And Steffens mentioned of all the people at the peace conference in Versailles. And he said, oh, the people who just slaughtered all the millions in Europe, they want to know why I'm killing some thousands of people here. And that left an impression...
KAYAnd that answer was sufficient for Steffens, do you think, or...
HARTSHORNI wouldn't say sufficient, but it fit into the pattern of his own thinking at that time, that we would -- he -- basically Steffens looked at this as evolution or revolution. He saw America as an evolutionary country. But evolution brought in World War, the KKK, segregation, graft on a huge scale. And he said, at this rate, we're never going to get rid of this. We're always going to have these huge social problems. Russia is doing something that's drastic right now, but their goal is to do away with this and to try to bring in society where the people actually would have democracy and the people would have the liberties that they don't have in America.
HARTSHORNIn America, what he saw was that, as many people put it, if the lights go on in the waterworks, people don't really worry too much about how much graft is happening. And that -- Steffens didn't think that was ever going to change and the politicians knew that. So they often -- they would, for example, sell public works, like for example, water systems or electric utilities, and they wouldn't even take the full value of it. In St. Louis, for example, when he was out there, I think the water system was sold for something like $10 million.
HARTSHORNIt was worth over 30, but the politicians could pocket the money. That money should've been going into the public press, but it went into their own pockets. And they were happy to do it because they knew there'd be more graft coming if they were just sort of good customers, so to speak.
KAYSo he comes back from Russia and he comes up with his famous quote, "I have seen the future and it works." Now, do you think having studied him and studied what he knew about Russia that he really believed it worked, or was he prepared to overlook the atrocities that he saw in order to cling to an ideological belief that it should work?
HARTSHORNWell, that's a great question. One thing -- when I was looking at his letters and so on, one thing I wanted to make sure was that he actually did know what was going on. And, in fact, because he went there three times -- he went there as late as 1923. He did know and he didn't deny it. It wasn't as though he tried to hide it. He openly said, this is what is happening, but this is what needs to happen in order to scrape away these layers to get down to liberty, you know, to actually get rid of the people who are causing the problem.
HARTSHORNSo he, I think, was willing to overlook or accept the violence to get to this other side where he thought America would never get.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please do call 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. Do send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I have with me in the studio Peter Hartshorn. The book is "I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens."
KAYSam writes to us on Facebook, "In the new media landscape, it seems that investigative journalism is becoming part of a bygone era. In this age of press releases, celebrity news and consolidated media, corporations looking out for the bottom line, finding more Lincoln Steffens is becoming more and more difficult." Do you agree, Peter?
HARTSHORNWell, I would say Seymour Hersh is a pretty good investigative reporter. I would say Ralph Nader did quite a bit of good work before he tried to become president. So what's happening now, I think, is they don't have the opportunity that Steffens had. When he was at McClure's, he could work for weeks at a time on an article and he had enough money to do a great -- a very thorough job on that. I don't know -- with newspapers being the way they are now, I don't know if they have the finances to dig that deep really. But he had the opportunity, he had the support and he was great at doing it.
KAYWe're going to go to the phones now to George in Kalamazoo. George, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show" to speak to Peter Hartshorn.
GEORGEYes. Thank you for taking my call.
GEORGEI'm very excited by this. I happened to read his autobiography just a few weeks ago and was very interested in him. Tell me what you're going to maybe say differently, you know, in your book versus the -- what he was -- he put down in his autobiography.
KAYGreat question, George.
HARTSHORNWell, I would say in his autobiography, he accepts Russia. He accepts the Bolshevik Government. In my book, I...
KAYYou mean he accepts as ideologically or...
HARTSHORNYes, ideologically. Absolutely, he accepted it. And I've tried in my book to look very carefully at how he went from being a muckraking journalist to a supporter of revolutionary government in Russia in a way that he didn't really explain it in his autobiography. Because the question still comes up, how could such an intelligent man accept, almost without reservation, such a very tyrannical government? And I've tried to look at that as carefully as I can.
KAYAnd he wouldn't have been able to muckrake in the way they had in New York if he had moved to Moscow, for example. He must've known that, right.
HARTSHORNRight. Yeah, actually some Americans did go to Russia and the end for them was not -- for example, John Reed went there, the famous journalist, and in the end he had started to become somewhat disillusioned with Russia, although he was more enthusiastic about it than even Steffens at one time. And there were others.
KAYThe book is "I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens." The author is Peter Hartshorn. He joins me here in the studio. We'll be taking more of your calls, 1-800-5 33-8850 (sic) is the number. email@example.com is the -email address. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter as well. Stay with us.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm and I'm joined in the studio by Peter Hartshorn. His book is "I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens." We had an email that came to us from the break, Peter, that asks, "How does Mr. Steffens' life inform us with regard to partisan journalists such as Limbaugh and Oberman and internet blogs claiming to be journalism?"
HARTSHORNWell, Steffens when he was talking about Graft he said Graft has no partisanship, both sides practice it. Now, today, these journalists that were mentioned in the email, Rush Limbaugh and so forth, I wouldn't connect them with Graft, but these are not the types of people who Steffens would think could really institute the changes he was looking for. He -- I don't think he would listen to them and say this is the way forward. But Steffens would certainly speak to them. Steffens was willing to talk to anyone and, as I said, he was a great listener.
HARTSHORNHe would go and listen to any of those people, but I don't think he would feel that their -- their particular kind of partisanship would lead us out of this wilderness of Graft.
KAYLet's go to Nancy, who calls us from Reston, Va., Nancy, thanks for much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show."
NANCYThank you. I'm struck by how it seems to compare with today and how we don't seem to learn from these experiences. It's -- so, I mean, is there a -- you know, how would -- how would you compare it to today and how can we learn from -- from this? I mean, you've -- you put out this book and we're having these discussions, but it just seems like we just don't learn from them.
KAYWell, Nancy, I mean, it's a good point, Nancy, because when -- a lot of -- actually, we've had several Tweets and emails coming into us suggesting that we still have corruption in the country today.
KAYWe still have backdoor deals being done on issues like the budget, for example, at the moment.
KAYWhat would Steffens have made of all of that?
HARTSHORNWell, he -- as I mentioned before, there were commissions that were set up by the progressers, I mean, a hundred years ago to try to deal with this and Steffens saw that they couldn't deal with it. Actually, I think, a book has come out recently. I think it's called, "The Age of Greed," in which it talks about how some of the reforms that were put in have been scaled back or done away with over the last 30 years because people thought well, businessmen had grown up or businessmen now knew how to do it better. And this couldn't happen anymore.
HARTSHORNBut if you look at some of the individual case studies -- if you look at Countrywide or AIG or some of those or even going back to Enron before the recession -- and you look at the behavior of the management, it just seems like, at the very least, oversight is necessary on an ongoing basis. If you scale it back Steffens could have predicted it. If you scale it back the Graft will return. It will return. Even when there were reforms the Graft was very difficult to beat back.
KAYWould he have been writing about all of this today?
HARTSHORNOh, absolutely. He...
KAYWhat would he have taken on?
HARTSHORNWell, he -- there's no McClure's right now so I think he would have been an independent journalist and he probably would have gone to the same sources he went to before. He would have gone to some of the newspaper journalists who, as he pointed out, often knew much more than they could print. They knew that the truth behind the truth. He would go there and he would dig deep and talk to the politicians and talk to the corporate people. And get the story and publish it, but what his concern always was, was okay, I published it, but if the people keep voting them back in, this is where it breaks down.
HARTSHORNAnd that's why the shame of the cities was the shame of the people who were allowing the system to exist.
KAYAnd that's why he became disillusioned.
KAYRichard writes to us -- we had a call earlier about his autobiography and Richard writes to us from Washington, D.C. and points out that in one plate in the autobiography there are photos of Mussolini, Woodrow Wilson and Lenin and the caption is dictators.
HARTSHORNUm-hum, right. Well...
KAYSuggesting that, actually, Steffens might have changed his views somewhat on Lenin at the end or not particularly?
HARTSHORNWell, no, he felt that at that stage where Russia was, he felt that a dictator was necessary to take the steps that were needed to, as I said, to clean out the system, so to speak. And he felt like a really strong leader was needed. For a while he was impressed with Mussolini, although by the end of his life, he had changed his mind about fascism, but he did feel that a dictator was needed. Now, in the case of Wilson, when -- when the peace talks were held at Versailles, Steffens looked at some of these leaders like Clemenceau, Lloyd George and so forth and he didn't feel like they were -- they were not looking for peace. They were looking for land grabs and continuous power and putting Germany down and so forth. So he didn't see any angels in this group at all, including Wilson.
KAYLet's go to Oliver who joins us from Washington, D.C. Oliver, you have a question for Peter Hartshorn.
HARTSHORNThanks for taking my call.
OLIVERThe author made a parallel between Lincoln Steffens and Ralph Nader earlier and I wanted to explore that a little bit. In particular, his aside a bit, Nader had done some good work until he ran for president. I'm thinking about Upton Sinclair, another famous muckraker, who actually did run for office, as well. And it seems to me that that's a logical extension of this muckraking work is to try to actually challenge it within the political arena. And it seems to me that that's very much in line with what Nader did by trying to run for office.
OLIVERSo I wanted to ask the author what he thought about that and what he objects to in a muckraker trying to put his words into action by participating in the political system.
KAYWell, Oliver, I think that's a very good point. And can I just add something, as well, Peter, there? Because not so much to do with Nader, but whether Steffens, himself, ever thought, right, well, I can't change things by writing about them and by being a muckraker. Maybe I should run for office. You know, if Theodore Roosevelt's not going to do it, maybe I'm the guy that can actually change things. Did he ever feel he should go into public office?
HARTSHORNNo, no, Steffens did not see himself as a politician. He saw himself as a journalist, as a writer, as a prober, reporter, but not as a politician. But he, as far as people like Nader running for office, Steffens did encourage some of his sort of reformer friends to run and, actually, he was accused of being a little bit too tight with some of these people because he was supposed to be an objective journalist. But, in fact, in one case in Denver, I think the candidate there used some of Steffens writing in his campaign literature.
HARTSHORNSo Steffens did support that sort of thing and, I guess, I -- in the reference to Ralph Nader, I guess, I just think of his best work as being before 2000.
KAYDid he manage to criticize -- or did he criticize Theodore Roosevelt? I mean, that's an interesting example of him being very close to somebody who, perhaps, he should have been writing about.
HARTSHORNYes. Well, the Senate was full of these bosses and that's the criticism of those senators is one of the reasons that Roosevelt turned away from muckraking. And he -- he felt that Steffens, in particular, had gone too far with his criticism of the political system and so forth. Steffens was not afraid to criticize Roosevelt and, if you read their letters, there's great give and take back and forth on the issue of corruption in Washington and throughout the country.
HARTSHORNOne thing I will say about Roosevelt, though, if we have a second, one thing that really impressed me about Roosevelt was that he -- he was not of the old mold of party is everything. There was a scandal -- a timber scandal out in Oregon, which really was hurting the Republican Party out there. And one of his -- one of the senators, I believe, wrote to Roosevelt and said please, you know, call off the dogs. Let's -- let's get rid of this investigation. And Roosevelt wrote back and said, you know, it's precisely because you're republican that I'm pursuing this investigation.
HARTSHORNYou're an embarrassment to the party. You don't represent republicans and this corruption will not stand. And when I read that, I thought, gee, today who would write that, you know? That was a great example of Roosevelt being Roosevelt.
KAYLet's go to Brian in Reston, Va. Brian, you're on the air.
BRIANHello, my name is Brian Forsythe (sp?). I'm a professor at American University and I teach courses in criminal justice and I wanted to call attention to a chapter of Lincoln Steffens autobiography entitled, "I Make a Crime Wave," which actually provides a segue from the last hour. This book, by the way, was given to me by my mother-in-law and she had it rebound. It's really in wonderful condition except for this chapter, which I use so much.
BRIANAnd there's some good news and some bad news associated with this chapter, "I Make a Crime Wave." He called attention to crime just by going to the local precinct and reporting on crimes in New York that were happening all the time. And it induced his friend and rival, Jacob Reese, to also write articles. And so, all of a sudden, there were all these articles written about crime in New York. They were just about the ordinary crimes that occur, but people were under the impression that there was a crime wave that was happening when, in fact, they were just reporting on crimes that were always there.
BRIANIt lead to crime commissions and the good news is that we now measure crime in a way that came out of a need to improve on what the reporters were doing. My question is that this is continued. The legacy of scaring the public and producing ill-conceived policies that appeal to our reptilian instincts is something that I fear is a legacy of Lincoln Steffens. And I was wondering if your guest today could speak to the problem of this and what can we do? How can we create a responsible media that doesn't do this?
HARTSHORNWell, first of all, as far as Steffens goes, he didn't say that to imply that he does that on a regular basis. If I recall, correctly from that chapter, that grew out of a bunch of journalists sitting around and just, sort of, trading stories. I mentioned, before that many of the stories they knew about they didn't actually report. And so they -- it was almost like a competition. Once one story was reported, then the newspaper wanted to know, why didn't we get that one? And then (word?) would go out and get one and then it would build from there.
HARTSHORNBut Steffens -- I wouldn't say that Steffens supported that or that it was something he did on a regular basis. And as far as today, I don't know. That's difficult. It might be beyond my expertise. That's a tough question.
KAYBut it is true, isn't it? We often sit around thinking, oh, my goodness, it seems like there is so much crime or so much more crime than there was when I was a child. Whereas, actually, is it that there's more crime than there was when I was a child or is it just that we have better access to information?
HARTSHORNWell, you know, it could be a perception, I don't know. But I just keep coming back to the same thing about Steffens talking to these other journalists and knowing that there was much more available news than they put in the papers. And I would guess that's true even now. It may seem as though there's a lot of crime reported, but there may be even more. I don't know.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please do call 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I have -- a listener has just written into us asking me to ask you to tell us about Hearst's attacks on Steffens and how he got to him through Steffens young son, Pete.
KAYWhat's he asking about?
HARTSHORNThat -- I'm not familiar with that one. He interviewed Hearst several times, actually, and he had a great deal of respect for Hearst. He went in thinking that Hearst might be one of these bosses that he could criticize, but, actually, what he came away with was a great deal of respect for him. And this disappointed, most especially, Theodore Roosevelt, who had a poor opinion of Hearst. But after Steffens had done his research and written the article, he did have quite a bit of respect for Hearst. I'm not sure of the reference to Steffens' son with Hearst. I'm not familiar with that.
KAYWhen he came back from Russia and he'd said, I've seen the future, and he talks about communism and has slightly fallen in love with communism and he becomes discredited, what happened to Steffens then?
KAYIn the later years of his life.
HARTSHORNHe -- he was on the lecture circuit quite a bit. He was a very successful lecturer. And he would go around lecturing about, you know, the need for change in America, the possibility that the Russian way could be the way forward for America, at least as an example to see. And after -- I think it was 1931 when his autobiography came out. It was a smashing success. It was a bestseller. And as Steffens wrote to some of his friends, I'm back. And he -- he enjoyed that newfound fame for a while.
HARTSHORNAnd then, in Chicago, I believe in 1933, he had a stroke and he was limited to his home in Carmel for the last couple years of his life.
KAYDid he renounce communism?
HARTSHORNI've read that. But to be honest with you, in all of the letters that he wrote that I've seen, I didn't see any indication that he renounced that. He -- he moved away from any support of Mussolini or fascism, but even -- one of his last letters that he wrote was to the head of the communist party in California and it was a letter supporting the work of them. He -- there was a lot of labor turmoil out in California with the farm works and so forth and Steffens supported that.
HARTSHORNAnd he said, you know, of some of the young communists that I met have been, you know, very -- very energetic, very focused on improving the lives of these people, and he supported that.
KAYBut -- and more specifically to do with Russia, did he carry on following what was happening in Russia after the revolution?
KAYWhat the conditions were for people?
KAYDid he ever write about that in a way that suggested that he disapproved of what was happening?
KAYThe atrocities that were being committed against people in Russia.
HARTSHORNNo. People asked him about that. He was certainly asked about that. He discussed this with people like Ian Louis Armstrong, Albert Rhys Williams and others. But each time his response was, it's -- of course, it's terrible, but it's necessary. It's necessary so that they don't end up with the system that we have, which is sort of a make believe democracy. And I -- I tried hard to find evidence that he might have changed towards the end of his life, but it just wasn't there.
KAYPeter, I want to read you an email that's come to us from Judith who writes, "The way this country is today with most messages limited to 140 characters or less and today's youth glued to screens so small they fit in one's palm, what future do you see for not just investigative journalism, but reporting and writing, in general?"
HARTSHORNWell, what I hope is that if newspapers continue to decline, that something will replace them. Probably something internet-based, blogs or something where journalists will have an opportunity to go out the way Steffens did and actually rake the muck again and be allowed to do that. Right now, I don't see that happening. It doesn't seem like there's the resources or even the will. I mean, when -- when Woodward and Bernstein were investigating Watergate, Steffens name was mentioned quite a bit back then.
HARTSHORNIt hasn't come up recently, but, you know, you hope that it might if there were more of this kind of work going on. But I don't -- I don't see the resources or the -- the willingness to do it right now.
KAYDo you think that social media might help uncover corruption better? The people's access to word of mouth and information, I mean, there is this incredible tool for getting information out there.
HARTSHORNIt's -- well, you know, you look at what's happening in North Africa. It's possible. I mean, that's certainly possible with the speed of the information and so forth that is possible that could happen. But, again, Steffens needed time to go and look into this and dig up some of this information, but, yeah, I mean, I think the social media could be very influential in this and maybe it will have to be, especially if newspapers continue to decline.
KAYYou wonder what Lincoln Steffens would have made of it all.
KAYA very different world from 1866 when he was born. The book is "I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens." The author is Peter Hartshorn. It's a fascinating tale, a great read and a very interesting life. Peter, thank you so much for coming into the studio to join us.
HARTSHORNThank you very much, my pleasure.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all so much for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Aaron Stamper. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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