Easter, Passover, spring break, holiday weekend. Let us unfurrow the brow and look at something elevated. It’s a small thing, a half-hour television interview from 60 years ago, but it struck me this week as a kind of master class in how to be a public figure and how to talk about what matters. In our polarized moment it functions as both template and example.
In March 1958, the fierce young journalist Mike Wallace —already famous for opening an interview with the restaurateur Toots Shor by asking, “Toots, why do people call you a slob?”—decided to bore in on Oscar Hammerstein II. (For the record, Shor responded that Wallace had him confused with Jackie Gleason. ) Hammerstein was the fabled lyricist and librettist who with composer Richard Rodgers put jewels in the crown of American musical theater—“Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” and “Carousel,” whose latest Broadway revival is about to open. He was a hero of American culture and a famous success in a nation that worshiped success.
Wallace was respectful but direct and probing. He asked Hammerstein if critics who’d called his work sentimental didn’t have a point.
Hammerstein said his critics were talented, loved the theater, and there was something to what they’d said. But he spoke of sentiment “in contradistinction to sophistication”: “The sophisticate is a man who thinks he can swim better than he can and sometimes drowns himself. He thinks he can drive better than he really can and sometimes causes great smash-ups. So, in my book there’s nothing wrong with sentiment because the things we’re sentimental about are the fundamental things in life, the birth of a child, the death of a child or of anybody, falling in love. I couldn’t be anything but sentimental about these basic things.”
What, Wallace asked, was Hammerstein’s message in “South Pacific”?
Hammerstein said neither he nor Rodgers had ever gone looking for vehicles by which to deliver messages. They were attracted to great stories and wanted to tell them on stage. But “when a writer writes anything about anything at all, he gives himself away.” He inevitably exposes his beliefs and hopes. The love stories in “South Pacific” were shaped by questions of race. The main characters learned that “all this prejudice that we have is something that fades away in the face of something that’s really important.” That thing is love.
Does this reflect his views on interracial marriage?
Hammerstein, simply: “Yes.”
“The King and I,” he said, is about cultural differences. The Welsh governess and the Siamese children know nothing of each other at the start: “There again, all race and color had faded in their getting to know and love each other.” On the other hand, “Allegro,” about disillusionment and professional achievement, carries a warning: “After you’re successful, whether you be a doctor or a lawyer or a librettist, there is a conspiracy that goes on in which you join—a conspiracy of the world to render you less effective by bestowing honors on you and taking you away from the job of curing people, or of pleading cases, or writing libretti and . . . putting you on committees.” He added he was “a fine one to talk”: he couldn’t stop joining committees.
Is he religious? Here Hammerstein told a story. A year ago he was rushing to work and jaywalked. A policeman called out; Hammerstein braced for a dressing down. But the officer recognized him and poured out his appreciation for his work. Hammerstein thanked him and moved to leave, but the policeman had a question. “He said, ‘Are you religious?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t belong to any church,’ and then he patted me on the back and he said, ‘Ah, you’re religious all right.’ And I went on feeling as if I’d been caught, and feeling that I was religious. He had discovered from the words of my songs that I had faith—faith in mankind, faith that there was something more powerful than mankind behind it all, and faith that in the long run good triumphs over evil. If that’s religion, I’m religious, and it is my definition of religion.”
Then to politics.
Wallace: “You are an active liberal.”
Hammerstein: “Yes, I guess I am.”
What connection does this have with your work?
“I think it must have a connection, because it expresses my feelings, my tendencies,” Hammerstein said. “As I’ve said before, a writer gives himself away if he’s writing honestly.”
Wallace: “Would you agree that most of our writers and directors on Broadway and television in Hollywood are liberal and that there is a liberal complexion to their work?”
“I think I would, yes,” Hammerstein replied, honestly and with no defensiveness.
Wallace’s office had just spoken to “a militant dissenter” from liberalism, Ayn Rand, author of the recently published novel “Atlas Shrugged.” She said: “The public is being brainwashed by the so-called liberal or leftist philosophies, which have a stranglehold on the dissemination of ideas in America.” How did Hammerstein respond?
He didn’t like her adding the word leftist, “because you can be a liberal without being a leftist, and many and most liberals are.” Beyond that her criticism was an example of what’s working. “I think it’s fine that there is a Miss Rand who comes out stoutly for the conservative. I think it’s fine that we have all kinds of thinkers in the world. . . . I admit that the majority of writers in this country are on the liberal side.”
But he added, of Rand: “We need her to hold us back, and I think she needs us to pull her forward.”
Italics mine. Because liberals and conservatives do need each other, and the right course can sometimes be found in the tug between them.
Wallace: “The public does rarely get anything but a liberal viewpoint from Hollywood or from television, from Broadway,” and the charge can be “safely made that there is a certain intolerance of conservative ideas among liberals.”
Hammerstein, again undefensive: “I think so too.”
What’s to be done about it? Nothing, said Hammerstein: “Just be yourself, that’s all.” If the public likes Miss Rand, “there will be a Miss Rand trend.” Let the problem work its way out in a free country.
Hammerstein said he tries sometimes to vote Republican “just for the sake of switching—just for the sake of telling myself I’m not a party man,” which he doesn’t want to be. “But somehow or other I always wind up voting Democratic.” Balancing the budget bores him. “I have an idea that the more liberal Democratic tendency—to borrow and owe money is healthier for us.” Most big corporations borrow, and they make progress with the money. When the U.S. borrows money, Hammerstein said, he felt “the people in the lower income bracket get the most out of it. But I’m no economist—this is merely a guess.”
We’re all guessing, and working on instinct and experience.
Moral modesty and candor are good to see.
In our public figures, especially our political ones, they are hard to find. I offer Hammerstein’s old words as an example—a prompter—of what they sound like.
A radiant Easter, a beautiful Passover to my radiant and beautiful readers.