Roger Wilkins discusses his book "A Man's Life"
BROADCAST: Aug. 30, 1982 | DURATION: 00:55:09
Discussing the book "A man's life" with the author Roger Wilkins.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Roger Wilkins has had--does have, indeed, a remarkable life, more to come. Roger Wilkins, for those of you who may not know, was the Assistant Attorney General, especially during those very exciting civil rights battle days. We're talking about a certain period in our history, and also worked with AID., with aid to underdeveloped countries, more [or less? of this?]--now, when I say underdeveloped, I mean underdeveloped materially, may not be underdeveloped in other ways. And Roger Wilkins' story is that of a development of a person. Arthur Miller said--by the way, the name of the book, it's a autobiography, "A Man's Life", Simon & Schuster the publishers. And I like Arthur Miller's comment, "This stirring and brave book, more than any I know, somehow invites the reader to see with new eyes the dilemmas of race in America. It's also a mythic story of the youth's adventure in becoming a man. The country needed this book for a long time," and so the story of a, someone who might be called a privileged Black man, who discovers that he is not separated from others. He's my guest today. And, so, Roger
Big Bill Broonzy Wilkins. [content
Roger Wilkins "Friday, March 22, 1934. 'Dear Roger, let me congratulate you upon having reached your second birthday. Your infancy is now past and it is now that you should begin to turn your thoughts upon those achievements which are expected of a brilliant, young gentleman well on his way to manhood. During the next year, you should learn the alphabet, you should learn French and English idioms which are part of every cultivated person's vocabulary. You should gain complete control over those natural functions which uncontrolled are a source of worry and embarrassment to even the best of grandmothers. You should learn how to handle table silver so that you will be able to eat gracefully and conventionally, and you should learn the fundamental rules of social living: politeness, courtesy, consideration for others, and the rest. Great things are expected of you. Never, never forget that. Love, your father.'"
Studs Terkel That's Roger Wilkins reading a letter that he received when he was 2 years old, his father wrote to him. I was thinking, Roger, as we're talking now, you heard fragments of Big Bill Broonzy's song, and then your father's letter to you. That's almost what the book is about, isn't it, this startling contrast?
Roger Wilkins Well, the contrast, Studs, it has very much to do with my father's knowledge of the wisdom in that song. I think he thought in order for a Black kid born in the midst of the Depression to survive, that kid had to learn everything there was to learn and to be very strong and very disciplined.
Studs Terkel But I'm thinking also, as you were raised, you were certainly, relatively of a privileged, that is, in relation to other Black people.
Roger Wilkins Oh, there's no question about that, and that's why I wrote the book, because throughout my life I have been asked or even told time after time by white people, "Racism didn't touch you. You've never been affected." And I realized that there was a broad misconception around in this country among whites that privileged Blacks had escaped racism, had not been touched by it. In 50 years of living in this country, I have never met a Black person of high station or low station who did not believe that her or his life had been adversely affected in very serious ways because they were Black, so I wanted to write a book that told people that a) racism still exists, and b), that you don't have to be Claude Brown or Eldridge Cleaver or Malcolm X to have been injured by being Black in America.
Studs Terkel And so we're talking now. It's a book, really, of the development and growth and the increasing awareness of himself and the country, you, Roger Wilkins, throughout, and of course it's written very movingly, indeed. And so it began where, in Kansas City, your father, your uncle was Roy Wilkins, for so many years head of the NAACP and he was, he and your father were very close.
Roger Wilkins Very close. My mother and--my father was a small man, my uncle was about as tall as I am. They loved each other and in the eyes of each of them, the other could do no wrong. And my mother and my uncle Roy's wife used to laughingly call them "Big Jesus" and "Little Jesus."
Studs Terkel The women, by the way, the women you say were very strong.
Roger Wilkins All very strong.
Studs Terkel Strong women. So you were raised as the one child and it was sort of an extended family.
Roger Wilkins There were no children on either side of the family until I was 15 years old, so I got it all.
Studs Terkel You know, there's something you say here in hearing people talk. This I've heard often among Black people: the grownups would laugh and laugh at a story, they'd tell funny stories of little triumphs, and you the kid, the little Black kid, or I should say, light brown, we'll come, that was the nature of Bill's song, of course. They loved stories, these grownups, about trivial victories over a system that was pretty crazy. In retrospect I'm sure those stories helped to keep them sane. Vernon Jarrett, who is a columnist for the "Trib" here--
Studs Terkel You know, he said tells of his grandfather and his grandmother. One was a house Black, the other was a field Black, and they were born slaves, and they'd sit in the back porch and talk and they'd laugh and laugh, and why were they laughing? They were laughing that they survived.
Roger Wilkins They were laughing because they survived and they were laughing because those trivial victories demonstrated to them over and over again how stupid segregation could be. You want me to tell you one of those stories?
Roger Wilkins You could say that my grandmother led me into my first civil rights activity when I was about two and a half. She had me downtown in Kansas City, which in 1934 or '35 was a very segregated town, and she had me in a department store. She was shopping and we're on the top floor. And I indicated to her that I had to go to the bathroom. So, she headed for the ladies room on that floor. And she was stopped by a white sales clerk who said, "You can't go in there. The colored ladies room is in the basement," and I guess I was doing that little kind of dance that little kids do when they have it urgently and my grandmother said, "You can see this little boy can't wait." And the clerk said, "You still can't go in." So my grandmother said, "Okay, that's fine." And she started unbuttoning my fly and said, "Roger, you can go here." As a result of that, my grandmother and I integrated the ladies room in that department store. That's the kind of story that they could--
Studs Terkel By the way, this appears in the autobiography of Roger Wilkins that makes the book itself, because not only is it anecdotal, but it's more than an anecdote, it's a reflection of what's, of a craziness of a setup. And so there's the big movement. Then you moved East. That was Grand--that was Kansas City. And then it was Sugar Hill, a certain neighborhood in New York, of which you heard a great deal. That was upper.
Roger Wilkins Oh, that was, that was, in New York in those days there was a very limited amount of housing for middle-class Blacks and there were two famous buildings on Edgecombe Avenue, 4-0-9 Edgecombe, where most of the professional people lived, doctors, lawyers, the few judges we had. My Uncle Roy lived there. And then there was 5-55 Edgecombe, and that was where the artistic people lived. Joe Louis lived there, Canada Lee, the actor lived there. Dr. Kenneth Clark also lived there, and that's where we lived. But those were the two fabled buildings on Sugar Hill, and of course, as you can imagine, in 1941 and '42 when I lived there, the most important person in the universe was Joe Louis. Oh, we
Studs Terkel By the way, so many stories about Joe. This must have been the moment, 1937 was the year, of course. June, I think. And when Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in that first round, but I guess that must have been the event, wasn't everybody--
Roger Wilkins I was five years old. And the event was so important that my parents let me stay up to hear the fight, and I just remember screams of joy all up and down the neighborhood when--
Studs Terkel I gotta tell you a quick, this is very quick, I'd [assume?]--so I was walking down, we're doing a film, a documentary in Chicago, "Through My Eyes", there's some Canadian filmmaker, and we're going to cover the South Side, and I thought, I remember being here the night after, that same night, another guy, another white guy and I, and it was at 47th and South Parkway, and that's where Vernon Jarrett says you can meet everybody back in the old days, and that hometown was there. And it was Carnival time, it was liberation of Paris time, it was everything, but so I tried asking, there was a middle-aged Black guy going through, as we're making the film, I says, "Pardon me, sir." He says, and he looks straight, I says, "What year did Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling?" And his face took on, wreathed in a big smile, "It was 1937." All of a sudden, like that, it was the moment, wasn't it?
Roger Wilkins Well, I can tell you that Joe was the central uplifting symbol in the Black community with the possible exception of Jesus Christ. I remember in 1941 when Joe fought Billy Conn in the Polo Grounds, and right across the Polo Grounds was down Coogan's Bluff from where I lived. And in the early rounds of the fight, many of us were out on the bluff and you could look down in the Polo Grounds and people had their portable radios listening and people were saying, "Well, Joe'll get him in five," or "Joe'll get him in eight." Well, came the 10th, 11th round, it was clear that Conn was ahead on points and Joe wasn't getting them. And so we all kind of slunk up to our apartments and it was a great night of mourning until 13th round, when Joe knocked Conn out. At that moment, there was an explosion of people onto the streets the likes of which I will never forget. I was only nine years old, and my mother, who was a very staid, professional woman, and we just, the people surged out onto the street, and the, as we were out in the street, my old, who did we run into but my old staid Uncle Roy, out cheering and shouting and cheering and shouting with everybody else. Yeah.
Studs Terkel Of course, that was it, isn't it, the idea that a triumph, a small triumph to make a point.
Roger Wilkins Right.
Studs Terkel And yet, you had a problem, didn't you? Of course, to you, beauty, the little kid, to you beauty was whiteness, wasn't it?
Roger Wilkins Well, everything was whiteness. All power and glory in this society was white. President Roosevelt was white. The Senate was all white. The House, with the exception of Congressman Dawson of Illinois and Congressman Powell of New York, all white. And we didn't have television, but we had movies, and all the movie stars were white. I guess our answer to television was magazines like "Collier's", "Life", "Look", all those were all white. There was not a Black person depicted in the ads or in the stories. And when you went to those war movies, which I did invariably every Saturday afternoon when I was a kid growing up in New York, who were the heroes? They were white men. Who were the symbols of beauty? Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman, and it was every message that this society had to tell you was that all power, glory, and beauty was white. You'd have to have been dead not to ingest that and believe it to some
Studs Terkel Going along with that, then, became not consciously a sense of shame, perhaps--
Roger Wilkins Oh, absolutely.
Studs Terkel In Blackness.
Roger Wilkins Absolutely. White people felt perfectly free to be absolutely rude to you at any time at all even up into the '50s. I remember very clearly that in Ann Arbor, Michigan, white barbers would not cut the hair of Black students, and my girlfriend, who later became my first wife, was not permitted--she was a beautiful girl, and very lovely, they would not permit her to try on clothes in the Ann Arbor, the campus shops.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of the effect of it on whites, too, and poor whites. You had a friend up in, when you were in Grand Rapids for a time, Jerry. You said he was a very poor, poor white kid, and I would suspect your family was better off than him.
Roger Wilkins Much better off. Jerry's family lived up over a store in a very rickety ramshackle building.
Studs Terkel And there's his father, who apparently is just out of it completely.
Roger Wilkins His father was like straight from "Tobacco Road".
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Roger Wilkins And Jerry was the first kid who befriended me in Grand Rapids in that all-white neighborhood. And one day he came to our house and he was crying, and my mother said, "What's wrong, Jerry?" And when he calmed down he said, "My father says I can't play with Roger anymore," and he said, "Because we're too good for you." And my mother said then, and at other times and it's really true, that you can steel yourself to take the injuries to yourself, but there is no way to defend yourself against the racial hurts and slurs and insults that are going to come to your children.
Studs Terkel You know, just last Friday I was playing a rebroadcast of "This Train", it was an hour and a half program, the 19th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington last Friday. And so all sorts of voices on the train, and then I'm in the parade next to this Black woman who lives in Washington, D.C. and her face is glowing, this going toward the Lincoln Memorial from the Washington Monument, and then she's saying she waited for this day and mostly for her children, both boys, and she's in, she put it, in Vietnam. Both boys. But you remember little kids, these two little kids when they couldn't go to that store or to that little restaurant for a bite, and they couldn't understand why. She says, "You know, it's so difficult," she says, "To explain to a little child, you see. You see, why it is, how do you explain to a little child that can't get it, you see." That's what you're
Roger Wilkins Well, sure. If you read, as I recently did, reread Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham City Jail", it is an extraordinary document in many ways, but it's an answer to white clergymen in Birmingham.
Studs Terkel "Why are you so extreme?"
Roger Wilkins "Why are you so extreme and you're an outsider and why don't you go away and we'll handle this by negotiation?" And the letter is King's answer. But one of the things that he says in there is, "I am here because I cannot explain it to my six-year-old daughter that she cannot go to Fun Land in Atlanta, Georgia because she is Black." It happened to all of us.
Studs Terkel And so this is inside Roger Wilkins. By the way, on that thing, we've got to tell that story about "They all look alike," and you have some remarkable tales there. One--we'll skip back and forth, we're not going to do this in chronological order, because this involves Henry Kissinger, it involves David Frost and it involves Merv Griffin, and it involves three people they get mixed up: Roger Wilkins, Julian Bond, and Andrew Young. Now, would you mind telling a couple of them?
Roger Wilkins Well--
Studs Terkel You're in Kissinger's story.
Roger Wilkins The Kissinger story is wonderful. We were--I was at a party at Marion and Jacob Javits' house while Javits was still a United States senator, and this was before Kissinger was Secretary of State, he was still a security adviser. It was just at the time when Jack Anderson had printed some documents that showed that Nixon had ordered the U.S. to tilt toward Pakistan in the India-Pakistan war, and Kissinger was there talking all about how these documents couldn't be read out of context, and it was foolish talk, but all these fancy New Yorkers were hanging on every word. And suddenly, Charlotte Salsbury, the wife of the noted journalist Harrison Salsbury, said something like, "Why don't you cut it out, Mr. Kissinger, and stop talking about that? When are you going to stop the bombing in Vietnam, that's what we want to know about." Well, Charlotte was a great pal of mine and I sympathized with her, and George Weidenfeld, the English publisher, was there, and he thought that that was really too insulting for Kissinger to have to answer, and he got Javits to answer. Well, Javits made a wishy-washy answer and Charlotte was hanging out there all by herself, so I attacked Javits' answer, whereupon I heard Weidenfeld say, "Disgraceful, disgraceful, here the president is trying to arrange a truce, and these people are criticizing him," whereupon I made the most eloquent five-minute extemporaneous speech of my life telling Weidenfeld the role of dissent in a free society. The party then broke up, and as it was breaking up, Kissinger and I had never seen each other and I shook his hand and said, "I hope you give the president a message for me." And he said, "What's the message?" And I said, "Tell him that some of us wish he would tilt toward busing."
Studs Terkel Well, this is a time where the tilt toward Pakistan.
Roger Wilkins That's right. So Kissinger reddened and said, "Oh." Well, Barbara Walters, who was there, told me that going home in the cab Kissinger said to her, "That Julian Bond certainly is a fiery guy, isn't he?" And Barbara told him that he had more trouble than that, that she told him who I was and told him that I was just about to join the editorial page staff of "The Washington Post". The following week he told Katharine Graham that she was hiring dangerous people, and that one of her new people had just attacked him, and he named me, and Katharine to her everlasting credit said, "That's what we'll hire people, to be independent." My first day at the "Post" I was having lunch at a restaurant and Kissinger walked in followed by David Frost. Kissinger walked right over to me with a great huge smile on his face and said, "Hello, Mr. Wilkins, welcome to Washington. I hope you're going to enjoy the 'Post'. I said, "Thank you very much." And he moved on, and David Frost came up to me and said, "Hello, Julian. Nice to see you again."
Studs Terkel And later on someone else addressed you, "Hey, Andy!"
Studs Terkel So--
Roger Wilkins That's right. Merv Griffin saw me and said, "Hi, Andy," and I was going to visit somebody at a time when Andy was running for Congress for the first time. And I knew it wouldn't have helped him to be visiting that lady at that time. And I didn't want to be known as the person who was visiting that lady at that time, so I looked at Merv and I said, "I'm not Andy Young. I'm Julian Bond."
Studs Terkel And, by the way, we'll just wander back and forth 'cause these, to me these are telling tales not simply because of the anecdotal quality and they're very funny, but because very often I'm sure you've been conscious of this, that someone who is doing the interviewing or writing the story or a political figure, is doing something because it's a matter of rote. You do it. And the individual is a very intelligent Black man. So it's one of these guys, doesn't matter which one, they're interchangeable.
Studs Terkel That's what you're
Roger Wilkins Yeah.
Roger Wilkins Yeah. It's--all Blacks are fungible.
Studs Terkel Yeah, but the--when you were being quizzed possibly for a job you finally had as a director of Ford Foundation, and we'll come to that later. You got a call from Moynihan who was then--he was--and that too, has it--it's not unrelated to this, is
Roger Wilkins No. I was at that time an assistant attorney general leaving the Department of Justice because I didn't want to work for Richard Nixon. And also Washington tires you out. I'd been there seven years, had been through all the [Bryant? riot?] years--
Studs Terkel You were assistant attorney general--
Roger Wilkins Under Ramsey Clark.
Studs Terkel Under Ramsey Clark and [Ken?]--we'll come to Ramsey Clark later.
Roger Wilkins But Moynihan called me and said that he wanted to talk to me. And I really thought--he was going into the White House, and I really thought that he wanted to talk to me because I was the person, the Black in the federal government who probably knew more than anybody else about the dynamics of the Black ghettos in the United States at that time. And I was perfectly happy to share my information with him. He had me come over and meet him at Averil Herriman's house, and we met for cocktails. And so I started to brief him. And I didn't get about a sentence and a half out, and then Moynihan would cut in and tell me what he thought, and he would speak for about 15 minutes, then he'd ask me another question, I'd get another sentence out, and then Moynihan would tell me what he thought. Now here, he's talking to a guy who has been walking around in these ghettos for the last three years, but he's got theories, and his theories are more important to him than my knowledge. And as Ramsey once said, "When you're talking, you're not learning." Well, when we got through, Moynihan said, "Well, I've got to go off to dinner with Joe and Polly Kraft," the noted columnist and his noted hostess wife, and he said at the end, "You have a great reputation and I am sure the administration wants you. They really want you for a job, so you're going to be called," and all of a sudden I realized it had been a job interview, and it was the dumbest job interview I've ever had, because I didn't talk. He did. He learned nothing, but they needed a Black guy and I had a good reputation and that was that.
Studs Terkel So that's it. It could have been any number of Black guys, you had a good--that is, if in your stratum of society.
Roger Wilkins But it didn't matter--
Studs Terkel It
Roger Wilkins It didn't matter what was in my head. That's the interesting thing.
Studs Terkel So now we come to, it involved Finch, who was then an associate of Nixon and Moynihan, and as you put it there, how does it look? It was a cosmetic matter.
Roger Wilkins Yeah. Finch was going to be secretary of HEW. He was very close to Nixon. And during the transition he called and had me come over and I walked in, and I had never met the man before in my life, and he said, "Hello, Mr. Wilkins. Good of you to come. I want you to be general counsel of HEW." And I almost fainted. I wouldn't hire anyone for a significant job without talking to that person for an hour. I want to know what's in the person's head. I want to know how the person approaches federal responsibility. I want to know what the person knows about the interplay between the administrative branch and the Congress. I want to know how the person feels about the incoming president of the United States. He wanted nothing. He offered me the job in his first sentence, and I said, "No." He was shocked. He said, "I didn't want you to answer now." I said I, he said, "Why'd you answer that way?" I said I would not work for Richard Nixon. He said, "Think it over." I said, "You have my answer." He said, "Call me in a couple of days." I said "All right." But the point was that he didn't care what was in my head. So either he enormously undervalued Black people, or, much more likely, he wanted the cosmetic effect of having a Black high in his department, which meant that I would be virtually powerless, because he had--
Studs Terkel Because we're talking about this book, Roger Wilkins my guest, and he's reflecting on some of the some of the incidents in his autobiography called "A Man's Life", and by the word, "man's" life, man is the operative word here, because it's his growth. As Arthur Miller put it, the mythic tale from boy to man but also discovery of how certain human beings act in certain circumstances, you're talking about certain people here, Moynihan, Finch, a variety of others, Kissinger, and in contrast there's someone else: that's Ramsey Clark. "A Man's Life", Simon & Schuster the publishers, and it's--by the way, it's a very funny book, too, that some of the incidents are funny, but it is a very, mostly a very moving and the other word, of course, is that a revelatory book. I suppose in growing up you find out that there are two kinds of people in the world, you know. There are those who do it for show, who don't know you from Adam, you're a product, you're a thing, got to get this thing in there. And then there's somebody else who also grew into a--'cause you worked with Ramsey Clark when he was attorney general.
Roger Wilkins Well, back in the summer of '65 when Watts erupted, President Johnson sent LeRoy Collins, who was then the undersecretary of commerce and three others of us to Watts to try to help reconstruct the place. After about a week, he brought Collins home, but before he did, Collins and I went to a meeting out in Watts where poor Blacks talked to us. They talked to us after we had concluded a deal which set up the poverty program in Los Angeles, and they were infuriated because we had not talked to them. And I realized that I had made a big mistake by not forcing Collins to talk to those people. Well, Collins went home and the president sent out another team leader, and I had wanted to go home, but they said, "You have to stay to be the bridge between these two teams." And they said the new head of the team is going to be Ramsey Clark, a man whom I had never met before, but who was the deputy attorney general and who was also the son of a Southern politician, a successful Southern politician, and I thought that he knew nothing about race. I thought he would be arrogant. I thought he would be insensitive, and he laughs at his first vision of me. He says, "I can see you sitting up on top of that file cabinet in our little offices down there in Watts looking at me, thinking 'What's this dumb white man going to do in here?'" So the first thing I did, I started pressing Ramsey the first night he got there to meet with poor Black people, and I said, "If you do not meet with poor Black people, you are going to have no idea what this riot was about." Ramsey was reluctant, but finally the next morning he agreed to have me set up the meeting, which I did, in the basement of a church in South Central Los Angeles, and a lot of people were there, maybe 200 people all lined up in wooden folding chairs, and Ramsey would not let the rest of his team sit around him. He sat in front of the people by himself. It was incredible. There was rage in that room. There was hurt in that room. There was pain in that room, and these people all wanted to get it out about how hard life was, how unfair the city government was, how brutal the police were, how inferior their services were, and Ramsey sat there politely taking notes all evening long, no matter how enraged and out of control any of the speakers might become, he never--and, of course, some of them directed their rage at him just as the symbolic white man. No matter how out of control they would become, Ramsey was unfailingly polite and attentive and it went on for about three hours. Well, Studs, I was 33 years old by then. I had never before in my life seen a powerful white man take poor Black people seriously. And that night I fell in love with Ramsey and I, that love has remained ever since.
Studs Terkel But see, we're talking also about a certain man who also went through a crucible of sorts in his growth and development.
Roger Wilkins Oh, I think that night was a crucible for Ramsey. I think he learned--he remembered peoples' names, specific peoples' names, for years after that. He would say, "Oh, you remember out in Watts what Fred Clark said about the bus service." He remembered, he took it all to heart. I think that that night Ramsey probably got a Ph.D. in race and urban ecology.
Studs Terkel There's something else about him, you said before we went on the air, he cannot trim his sails. You've been talking--we've been making reference to trimmers who are master trimmers of sails, and so they get where they get because--and by the way, we should point out, perhaps Hubert Humphrey falls in that category, too. I know this will offend a great many people. But there's an anecdote there that's telling. But Clark can't do that.
Roger Wilkins No, he is, he is constitutionally incapable of trimming his sails, and he really believes that he ought to do what he deems to be the right and decent thing right now, no matter what anybody is going to say. And he believes that if you tell the truth and if you act on the truth, you will effect change in the best way, and of course lots of people don't see truth the way he does, and sometimes he makes mistakes. And every time he makes mistakes, of course, those mistakes are never forgotten or forgiven. For instance, he made a, he saw while Iran was disintegrating, he saw the Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris and made a very hopeful comment about what Iran would be like under the Ayatollah. Well, of course that didn't quite pan out that way. The Ayatollah turned out to be every bit as bad as most people, some people thought he would be. Well, Ramsey is never permitted to live down that mistake. But as my grandma said, used to say, "Everybody makes mistakes. That's why they put erasers on pencils."
Studs Terkel But you know something? Coming back to Ramsey Clark and the treatment of the media of him. You, by the way, we'll talk about your international development committee and your work overseas, too. But you worked as editorial, did a column, you worked for the two most prestigious papers in the country, "New York Times" editorial board and column for "The Washington Post", the treatment of Ram--I'm thinking about press. Perhaps you could talk about that, since you're independent now and free. Someone like Clark, in contrast someone like, say, Kissinger or the variety of those others we've named, to me, I know we have a free press, certainly in relation to the rest of the world. But there's something not quite right about it.
Roger Wilkins Well, the press is like public opinion. If public opinion comes to a general conclusion about a human being, the press is right there with the rest of that opinion, and it is very, very hard to change that.
Studs Terkel Who creates--but who creates that opinion? Who helps create it?
Roger Wilkins Oh, it's the press, but I don't think
Roger Wilkins And TV. But the individuals do it, too. Ramsey is not a person who can court the press. And he wouldn't. Kissinger is a good example. You mentioned Kissinger. I really think that Kissinger got off unbelievably well in the aftermath of Watergate, and I believe that the reason he got off so well was that he spent an ordinary amount of his time and his energy courting the most powerful people in the Washington press. I have seen him court Katharine Graham. I have seen him court famous columnists. He works hard at it, just as Pat Moynihan does. And those guys are treated very, very favorably by the press.
Studs Terkel Let's stick with this for a minute. Courtship, then, courtship of those who mold opinion is part of what it's all about.
Roger Wilkins Oh, absolutely. I'll give you the most revealing conversation about that that I ever had. As you know, I wrote all the Watergate editorials for "The Washington Post" in 1972. And so I thought a lot about it, and I always believed that if Haldeman and Ehrlichman had gone to all the parties in Washington and had gone to Katharine Graham's house and gone to Joe Kraft's house, that they never could have been caricatured as the two Prussians guarding Nixon's door, and that because it is hard to see good old Bob Haldeman at dinner one night and then go back to your typewriter the next morning and say, "Haldeman is a vicious Dobermann Pinscher of a human being." Years later, I was sitting out in Santa Fe with Ehrlichman and I said, "John," I said, "I always," I put that theory to him and I said, "I just always thought it would have been different if you guys had gone to the parties." He said, "So did I, Roger." I said, "Well, why didn't you go to the parties?" He said, "Well, I asked Nixon and he said 'No.'"
Studs Terkel This is very funny. This aspect, the intangible you're talking about, I.F. Stone, one of the most independent of American journalists, even when he could, he would never play tennis with these guys, what the White House courtiers, you know. Well, they're courtiers, in a way themselves.
Roger Wilkins Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Studs Terkel So this is what it's about, too. I'm thinking about, before we come back to some more of your editorials and your work for "The New York Times", AID is what, the Agency of the International Development?
Roger Wilkins Right.
Studs Terkel And here again, discoveries. This all adds up to your discovery about yourself and the society in which you live, and now we come to these adventures and attitudes toward those little yellow Vietnamese who can't possibly beat us.
Roger Wilkins When I went to, I went to Vietnam for the first time in, I guess it must have been January 2nd, 1963. At that time the United States was not fighting directly but was giving advice and had a lot of military advisers around, and there were two things that were quite striking in Vietnam. You'd be taken out of these pacified hamlets. I was traveling with the administrator of AID, David Bell, and you would fly down and you would see as the helicopter came in, all of the people gathering and waving their flags and stuff. Well, you knew if you weren't crazy that these were staged receptions, and then they would give briefings. And the head man of the village, and he would tell if we have schooling since the Americans were here and we have medicine and we are very secure and everything is going along swimmingly. But the American adviser would be standing there hovering over the man who was talking just the way a parent does, I mean a teacher does, on parents' night when a star student is talking. That was one revealing thing. The second revealing thing was that the young people in the mission, I was then 30 years old, would come to me and contradict the things that their bosses were saying about how well the war was going. When we left Vietnam, my boss, Mr. Bell, who was a wonderful guy, asked me what I thought, and I said, "We cannot win this." I said, "Our guys," meaning the South Vietnam army, "Don't have any dream, and they have to be bribed to fight, and they don't fight well. The other guys have a dream and they are going to pursue their dream, and if we could wave a magic wand and fix this place just the way we want it, whatever that would be, we would have to station a million American troops in here to keep it that way, because those other guys are not going to stop coming." And I thought about it a minute more and I decided I would tell him the other part of what I thought, which was that the Americans were really making a profound miscalculation, military miscalculation, because they could not believe that those yellow, little yellow guys in black pajamas were capable of standing up to big, tall, corn-fed American G.I.s, and they undervalued them, they undervalued their stamina, and they undervalued their guts, and enormous military misjudgments were made because of that kind of racism.
Studs Terkel I was going to say this in a wholly different context, Admiral Larocque, Gene Larocque, who is a very enlightened guy in Washington, who says this crazy nuclear arms buildup is loony and insane, he says he remembers he was in Pearl Harbor, and that's a wholly different context. And he says, one of the reasons for the debacle, is these little yellow Japanese, who can't see at night, near-sighted, what do they know about technology, which of course is funny today.
Studs Terkel Well, of course that's a big factor in that, in the suddenness of it, too.
Roger Wilkins Of course. I'm sure that's right. Sounds right.
Studs Terkel Yeah. So we're coming back to the observations and the experiences of Roger Wilkins, and, oh! You also were, you were director of the Ford Foundation. You were. Now, the first reaction of people, lay people out listening is, all the power, all that dough at your disposal. Yet there's an incident in there that's terribly moving and frustrating when this couple of a little school. Suppose you just recount the work of a direct--how
Roger Wilkins I was the director of the Ford Foundation's largest domestic program. That's where I went to after I left the Justice Department. The Ford Foundation is located on East 43rd Street in Manhattan in one of Manhattan's most dramatic and opulent-looking office buildings. It's polish, it's deep brass, it's upholstered walls and parqueted floors and fancy furniture. It has a dining room on the 10th floor overlooking a huge inside courtyard with a garden and in that context, it was awfully difficult to work on programs designed to help poor people. The opulence was ridiculous and at such odds with the concerns that my program had, and one day a couple, a white woman and a Black man who worked together in Philadelphia, came to see me seeking money for a little alternative mini-school which was designed to prove that poor Black kids from the most deprived homes are educable. Their school had a wonderful reputation, and they were asking for what by Ford terms is a tiny amount of money, I think $25,000 a year for three years, something like that, and I couldn't give it to them. I couldn't give it to them because of the bureaucratic constraints. My program was not an education program. And we could only give money to innovative education programs when the Education Department of Ford Foundation wanted to put some money in. Well, as those two, we went upstairs and we had a fancy lunch at the fancy dining room and then we looked at the fountain and then we went back and they asked for the money. And I told them why I couldn't give them money. And as I say in the book, I hated myself, because it is impossible to explain bureaucratic constraints to working idealists. And I wanted to give them the money, but I couldn't give them the money. And of course, they couldn't understand, and my heart was broken and their heart was broken. And, so, finally I got them out of my office and I walked them to the elevator. And, big, fancy, lush elevator lined in leather and trimmed in burnished bronze. And as the man got on the elevator, he looked at it and he said, "You know, we could run our school for three years for what this elevator cost." Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking.
Studs Terkel So the nature of foundations, too, how the technocrat or the bureaucrat is in every aspect of our life.
Roger Wilkins Absolutely. And the bureaucrats, I am convinced that the fundamental purpose that bureaucrats make of bureaucracies is to evade individual responsibility. It's easier to say "No" and stay out of trouble than it is to say "Yes" and take a risk.
Studs Terkel So therefore, you don't see that person's face. See, the more you're in, doing that kind of work that deals with books and accounts and rules and ledgers, the less you see the face.
Roger Wilkins Right. And the more you are--Reinhold Niebuhr made a wonderful point. And that is, human beings in groups are rarely, if ever, as moral as individuals are alone. And that surely is true of bureaucracies.
Studs Terkel You know, we have individuals we haven't talked about, LBJ. The reason I laugh at LBJ is because of the horren--but the color, the energy of the guy. Recently Ronnie Dugger was on the program, Ronnie Dugger of "The Texas Observer", who did a remarkable volume 1 of LBJ, whom he knew very well, as did you. Now, where do we begin? you can start almost anywhere.
Roger Wilkins I'll start at the end, and I'll tell you a story that you have not heard and have not read in that book. As you know, when I left Washington I hated Johnson and I think he hated me. I hated him because of the Vietnam War and I hated him because when the commission headed by Otto Kerner made its report on the causes of the riots, which was about as perceptive and as piercing an analysis of urban poverty and discrimination as had ever been produced, Johnson walked away from it. Hated it. And so despite all the great things that Johnson had done in the field of race relations, our relationship had really soured by the time I left. Four and a half years later, I was persuaded to go to a party at the home of Mollie Parnis, the famous dress designer in New York, because Johnson was there. When I walked in, Parnis, who had never met me, grabbed my arm as soon as she heard my name and took me over to where Johnson was telling a story. By this time his hair was all white and he is telling this story and he's telling this story and he's telling this story. And finally when he finished the story he turned, expecting to be introduced to somebody new, and instead of being introduced to somebody new, he saw my face, he hadn't seen me for all these years. He said, "Well, I know you! I know you!" I said, "You ought to know me, Mr. President. You made me." And he said, "You're little Roger!" Whereupon this great huge man enfolded me in a bear hug and started telling the people who were standing around, and the people who were standing around were people like Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger and Walter Cronkite and David Frost and all, what a great man I was, and how I had saved the country and how he would, if he hadn't had me the country would've burnt down, well, it was all Johnson hyperbole, of course, but I loved it. He went on like this for about ten minutes. Then we walked away and we talked about what each of us was doing. And I said to him, "Mr. President, you know you've said that you would finish what Lincoln had begun." And I said, "But Nixon is doing all these terrible things in race relations, and your voice is still powerful, but you won't talk. I think you should start talking up on civil rights." He said, "Well, Roger, maybe you're right." He said, "What do you suggest I do?" I said, "Well, make a speech at the start of the LBJ Library." He said, "Well, I have to talk to somebody who I trust. Who do you think that is?" I said, "That's easy. You trust my uncle Roy, you guys are like brothers. Talk to him." Well, when I left the party that night he was across the room, he's leaning on the piano and he gave me an almost beatific smile and wiggled his fingers at me in farewell. That's the last time I ever saw him, he called my uncle Roy, my uncle Roy did go down to the ranch, and just a few weeks before the end of his life, against his doctor's advice, when he was popping nitroglycerin pills in order to ease the pain, Johnson stood up at the dedication of that library and made one of the greatest pro civil rights speeches that has ever been made. And so that's my last story about LBJ.
Studs Terkel By the way, someone, I forget who it was, spoke of your impact, but Roger Wilkins is more than just someone just, you know, highly sensitive young guy who worked in the various administrations. You've always spoken out in the manner, that's why you and Ramsey Clark, I suppose, get along so well together. You never trimmed your sails either. But in that speaking out, you've influenced it would seem a number of powerful figures and perhaps some of the attitudes have changed to some extent.
Roger Wilkins Well, I tell you one of the, I don't think this is in the book. When I left the Ford Foundation because of dissatisfactions like the one I mentioned before, I insisted, I wrote a memorandum talking about the racism, the sexism, and the elitism of the Ford Foundation and I insisted to McGeorge Bundy, who was then president of the foundation, that I be permitted to make that statement to the board of trustees, and Mac, to his everlasting credit, persuaded the board over some objections to let me do that. Well, I did it and it was quite moving, and I left. A few years later, the Ford Foundation selected Franklin Thomas, a Black man, to succeed Bundy as president. And I did a column for "The New York Times" on that selection, and I called Bundy and interviewed him and at the end of that conversation he said, "Roger, I want to tell you something." He said, "There are a lot of people in this building taking credit for what happened today." He said, "But you are more entitled to any of that credit than anybody else." He said, "You know what the board did?" I said "What?" He said, in essence they decided, Well, we don't want that crazy one, but we'll go, he was right and we'll go find a sane one."
Studs Terkel You know, we're talking to Roger Wilkins and the hour is almost up and there's so many aspects to the book, funny incidents, the relationship of LBJ to Bobby Kennedy, you figure in that, a very funny story, but perhaps one last thing as to what is a jour--earlier I was implying that the press has a certain way of treating certain people better than others, and the case, say, of Ramsey Clark getting the short end of the stick and someone like Kissinger who courts the other end, when you were at "The Washington Post" when the editorial writers, Meg Greenfield said somewhere along the line this phrase: "I am not a cause person." Now, we hear so much about the objectivity of the press. Well, there ain't no such animal.
Roger Wilkins That's right. There is not--Meg, it was very interesting because I had asked Meg to help me think about the women's movement and she immediately said, this was about '72, she immediately said, "I don't know anything about that." Then she said the most incredible phrase: "Like you," she said, "I'm not a cause person." Well, if there is anything I am, it is a cause person. But she was subtly and gently instructing me in how to get along on the editorial page of "The Washington Post". Now, in fact, now that Meg is the editor of the editorial page, you see that page drifting to the right more and more.
Studs Terkel See, whenever anyone says, "I'm not a cause person," or "That person has a cause," I start wondering about the other who has no cause. Well, of course that person does have a cause.
Roger Wilkins Self-preservation.
Studs Terkel Exactly as it, self-preservation. Keep things precisely as they are.
Roger Wilkins Keep them as they are. Sniff the prevailing winds and shift with them.
Studs Terkel And so we come back to that. Trimming sails. I'm delighted to have as my guest Roger Wilkins, who is not a trimmer of sails, and who never says, "I am not a cause person."
Studs Terkel And the book is "A Man's Life", and it's a very exciting, I hate to use the word "read." It's exciting reading, and it's an autobiography in the best sense of the word in that it deals with self-discovery, and thus we discover, too. Simon & Schuster the publishers, and thank you very much.