On His Mind

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By George Weigel

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When A. M. Rosenthal retired some months back as executive editor of the New York Times, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review marked the event with the appropriate acknowledgement: that the Times was (goddamit) the best newspaper in the world. Mr. Rosenthal’s performance at the helm of the paper — the people he hired and fired; the tone he set; the news judgment he displayed — undoubtedly had much to do with both the accolade and the parenthetical qualification.

The energetic Mr. Rosenthal has not downed tools since handing over to Max Frankel. Twice a week, his column “On My Mind” appears on the Times’ op-ed page. And here Mr. Rosenthal has been producing pieces of great importance for the American debate over peace, security, and freedom. “On My Mind” is brightly written and singularly lacking in that pontifical style that seems to function as a kind of club tie among other regulars on the page (Messers. Lewis, Wicker, and Reston, please stand up). But the issue here isn’t whether Abe Rosenthal read Strunk and White more carefully than did Tony Lewis or Tom Wicker. The issue is the issues Mr. Rosenthal is engaging. His target acquisition radar is performing admirably.

On April 23, for example, Rosenthal cut through some of the glasnost cheerfulness with a powerful plea for those still languishing in the Perm prison camp: “These prisoners are not guerrillas or terrorists or leaders of conspiracies against the Soviet state. They have been imprisoned for what they said, thought, or wrote about the freedoms in which they believe. One prisoner was jailed because he carved a sculpture in honor of American liberties. Their crime is called ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ . . . These are the ‘forgotten prisoners’ whose release the Soviet Union will not discuss . . . They wear striped convict clothes, spend much of their cell time in solitary and work at hard labor. In the morning they are fed bits of old fish and watery gruel. In the afternoon, entrails or lard and odorous soup. In the evening, the soup. It is a diet designed to keep the prisoners in perpetual starvation and nausea. They come from all over the Soviet Union. What they have in common is that they are prisoners of conscience who could not be broken . . . Ten escaped in the last few years, by dying. …”

Ten days later, Rosenthal was back with a column celebrating the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT), Education for Democracy project. “On My Mind” noted that “Schools [once] taught that a free society was not only the one we were lucky enough to live under but the best form of society.” But things have changed, and for the worse. “The tendency became to avoid value judgments among various forms of government. And providing students with enough history to make their own judgments does not seem to be considered an essential part of the purpose of education.”

Thus, the value of the AFT declaration: its affirmation that democracy is the best form of governance now available. It teaches that democracy can never be taken for granted. It claims that “the central drama of modern history has been and is the struggle to establish and extend democracy here and abroad.”

Isn’t this repeating the obvious? Abe Rosenthal doesn’t think so: “. . . just as you have to be taught to hate you have to be taught to find truth. In this case, the demonstrable truth in democratic principles. You can be taught through education in history and democratic ethic. This does not mean simply pronouncing values and insisting they be accepted … It means teaching not only democratic values but Communist, militarist, fascist values. The idea is to provide enough information so that the student understands that social contracts are not cost-free but often deliberate choices among conflicting values and that the price can be very high indeed, a matter of life and death.”

What has Abe Rosenthal’s new column to do with the American quest for peace, security, and freedom? The answer is, a lot. The Times being what it is, and Mr. Rosenthal being who he is, the tenor of the Times’ op-ed page-what gets addressed, and how-sets an important standard for the rest of the brethren of the fourth estate. But more is at stake here than fashion. What is at stake is substance. If the United States is ever to develop a peace strategy worthy of the name and capable of being sustained in and out of political season, we are going to have to build a public consensus that peace, human rights, and democracy are inextricably linked in the modern world. This means understanding the perils posed by a Leninist superpower, and the imperative of de-Leninizing the Soviet Union-precisely for the sake of peace. It also means a consensus on the historic importance of the democratic revolution, at home and abroad-again, precisely for the sake of peace.

These are not linkages prominently displayed or celebrated in the American peace movement today. They are rarely engaged in our national politics, on which the peace movement has had such a subtle but pronounced influence. One could wish that Abe Rosenthal had made more directly the linkage between “work for peace” and the prisoners in the Perm camp, or the imperatives of education for democracy. Perhaps he will in the future. We hope so. But for now, it is sufficient to note that A. M. Rosenthal, a man who has made an incalculable impact, for good and for ill, on American journalism, has these things on his mind. Which is very good news indeed.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.