Another Round in the War Against the Elite

March 17, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

College Park -- In the 50,000th edition of the New York Times Tuesday, the newspaper's television critic, Walter Goodman, writing under the headline ''Champion of Elitism: PBS's Best Defense,'' has some advice for the Public Broadcasting System in its fight against the long budget knives of Newt Gingrich's contract killers.

PBS, Mr. Goodman writes, should stop hiding behind Big Bird and emphasize the need for more quality programming aimed at the substantial number of Americans interested in high culture and heavy public affairs.

Leaving aside the fact that there is a lot of ratings-driven counter-programming on many public television stations, and the fact that conservatives get more public television air time now than liberals do, Mr. Goodman is on to something important. The PBS fight is the best indication that the changing of the guard in Washington has as much to do with culture as with ideology or politics.

The fight is populist vs. elite -- ''Roseanne'' vs. Pavarotti. The same argument was going on 25 years ago when the populist spear-carrier was Vice President Spiro Agnew.

I was reminded of that, rather joltingly, last week as I was reading through the memos of President Richard Nixon at the new National Archives repository here in College Park.

I came across a Wall Street Journal editorial of January 12, 1970. The title was ''Assaulting the Aristocracy.'' The subject was the vice president's attacks on what the Journal called ''the highbrows, the intellectual-beautiful-people-Eastern-liberal elite.''

''Very perceptive,'' scribbled Nixon in the margin of the editorial. He underlined two passages that day 25 years ago.

The first was: ''The heart of the Agnew phenomenon is precisely that a class has sprung up that considers itself uniquely qualified the thinking people'), and is quite willing to dismiss the ordinary American with utter contempt ('the rednecks'). Mr. Agnew has merely supplied a focus for the inevitable reaction to this arrogance.''

Then Nixon underlined this sentence, with its references to Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy: ''Oh, the highbrows can write off the war as due to a Texan, conveniently ignoring from whom he inherited it and from whom he took advice.''

It was an angry editorial asking questions like these: ''Whose theology culminates in the death of God? Whose artistic advice culminates in pornography? Whose moral advice culminates in 'anything goes' with sex and drugs? Whose children sack the universities?''

S.I. Hayakawa, then the president of San Francisco State, was quoted as saying: ''As soon as the American college student is successfully propagandized by the American intellectual, he looks down on the mainstream of American culture -- the American Legion, the Grange, the Rotary, the Lions Club -- because he's all wrapped up in Becket, Camus, Pound.''

''Agnew,'' the editorial said, ''has hold of that most primeval political cause, the assault on the perquisites of a vested aristocracy. . . . The battle is over whether that authority should now be withdrawn.''

The editorial writer, who described himself as ''a part-time highbrow,'' expressed his hopes that the Agnew phenomenon was the beginning of a ''dawning era'' -- and indeed it was.

Nixon wanted to find out who the writer was, sending this note to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman: ''Excellent. H- See if we can get the editorial writer (possibly a young staffer) for our staff.''

I presume the writer was Robert Bartley, now editor of the Journal's opinion pages. The newspaper does not release the names of editorial writers but did tell me the writer was still there, which almost certainly makes it Mr. Bartley, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a deserved reputation as something close to the Thomas Paine of the revolution declared by Speaker Gingrich.

So, it seems, there is nothing Newt under the sun. This war -- and a certain anti-intellectualism in conservative hearts -- has been with us for a very long time, perhaps as long as men and women have had to turn their children over to the education of strangers. And it will never end. PBS is just the battlefield of the moment.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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