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The fantasy world of high chat

In 1867 Charles Dickens reported on "the first meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything." A dozen years ago, on the centennial of that occasion, I became Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara, California. I was reminded of these moments in history by the news that the Center, after years of seedy gentility, has found a new benefactor. It has been taken in as a ward of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Its new director, Brian Fagan, an anthropologist, proposes to "make it sing." Fagan would do well to read his Dickens.

Like the Mudfog Association, the Center took as its mission to bring together "the best minds" to reflect on matters of moment for the benefit of us all. For the best part of two decades, the minds convoked every weekday morning, promptly at 11 o'clock, in a large room with a wonderful, carefully designed view of the Pacific Ocean and a pleasing extent of its shoreline. Here the minds interacted among themselves and with other minds whose owners sat in by invitation of the house minds. A bimonthly journal (The Center Magazine), a newsletter, tapes, lecture engagements, pamphlets—"Occasional Papers"—and the like, memorialized some of this talk and gave it circulation among those in the body politic to whom it all mattered enough to be worth paying for. These numbered as many as 80,000 at the peak.

The bill for this talk came high. The Center's roomy mansion (nicknamed "El Parthenon"), employed in good times a staff of five dozen, including administrators, a public relations director, a direct mail marketing specialist, secretaries, a lunchtime cook, bookkeepers, people to look after the 47-acre grounds and its deer, along with editors and their assistants. To help sustain this level of conversation, the minds from time to time took to the road. With the help of ad hoc funding, they convoked best-mind superstars in New York, Washington, and Geneva to raise everyone's consciousness about peace and freedom and also to "shake the tambourines" for the Center and its mission, as Harry Ashmore, a Center official, put it.

The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions was an early model of an increasingly common type of organization. In general, these organizations consist of a group of people huddled around a Xerox machine under shelter of a common overhead of rent and utilities; they are bound together by a group health insurance plan, a more or less common interest, and some hope of making the world a better place—if not for everyone, then at the least for themselves. If one of these high talk organizations is to thrive beyond those necessities, then its talk must be, or be made to seem, inspired by some need of those who put up the money, including you and me in the form of tax exemptions. If the talk the organization produces seems no more instructive than what emanates from a journal of opinion, say, or a television panel show, or the op ed pages or a political discussion in a neighborhood saloon, it must be invested with a character that transcends mere content and achieves a higher significance.

Dickens's Mudfog Association, for an instance, harvested its self esteem from a dedication of science to the common good. For illustration: It is a Monday morning session (Section A,—Zoology and Botany). Mr. Misty complains that, owing to several causes, organ grinder monkeys were vanishing from the streets of London; "the proportion in the year 1829 (it appeared by the Parliamentary return) being as one monkey to three organs." This, he felt, had grave implications to the national education as it deprived the people, and especially children, of important lessons in natural history. He urged Her Majesty's government to repopulate the streets with monkeys and dancing bears and to provide a suitable park for them midway between the houses of Parliament. Mr. Mull disagreed sharply. His own observations had warned him that "many children of great abilities had been induced to believe . . . that all monkeys were born in red coats and spangles, and that their hats and feathers also came by nature," thus putting Her Majesty in the position of "diffusing incorrect and imperfect notions.”

The Center in Santa Barbara assumed a mission that cannot be defined more concisely than -the Advancement of Everything Good. At one time or another, depending upon its finances, the immediate audience, or the condition of the world and the night vapors troubling it, the Center proposed itself as an "early warning system" that would alert us to each rise in the tide of "critical issues" and the flotsam to be found thereon; as the sole locus of thought generated independently of the pressure of this world; and as the protector and civilizer of great conversation. Israel Shenker of the New York Times caught the flavor of the place during a visit there in 1969:

No subject is too vast for their attention, no project too visionary for their concern. They deal daily with concepts as grand as universal law and as remote as the uses of the most distant seabed.

In this echoing think tank, the accent is liberal and the optimism unbounded, as though words could bridge centuries of misunderstanding, and as though no communication were too difficult to establish. One of the fellows—resigned Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike . . . says that he even communicated with his dead son, an assertion that the other fellows pass over in uncharacteristic silence.

The one woman—Elisabeth Mann Borgese—perfected yet another form of communication: She says she taught her dog to type. 

Robert Maynard Hutchins, who created, peopled, and presided over the Center, also redeemed its pretenses for hard coin. There was never enough money—one suspects there never could have been enough money—but there was money enough to scrape by on in a manner that had to be taken seriously, and that would prevent the light from being shut off. Hutchins apotheosized the talk into Dialogue and converted many to belief in its salvific value. He did this in much the same way that he had sold the reforms he brought to the University of Chicago. "It isn't a great Center," he often said, "merely the only one there is." He peddled the faith well because, like every successful evangelist, he believed it.

An evangelist lives by words and music, but soon after death the music fades, leaving the words to the elements. To read old issues of Time and Fortune, for instance, now that the pews are empty and the Wurlitzer is silent, is to invite wonder why Henry Luce was ever conceded the power he carried, as if in a snuff box. Similarly, Robert Hutchin's's words and those written about him, reread today, make him sound like merely a slightly updated version of one of those turnof-the-century academic "presidents" who composed five-foot shelves of congealed learning and gave nostalgic seasoning to the soft-focus memoirs of New England literati. Perhaps, given the earnestness of Hutchins's contribution to the Great Books hype and other uplifts, he deserves no better. We are left, then, to ponder how he brought it off.

Hutchins became secretary of Yale University at the age of 24, dean of the Yale Law School at 29. At 30 he walked down the aisle of Rockefeller Chapel as president of the University of Chicago. He flubbed a chance to ascend to the Supreme Court by being too outspokenly pacifist on the eve of Hitler's war; then he did what needed doing to accommodate the first atomic chain reaction on the Chicago campus. Having greatly improved the university amid, as usual in everything he did, much controversy, he rewarded himself at age 46 with the self-created office of chancellor. 

In 1952 Hutchins and Paul Hoffman, president of the Ford Foundation, talked Ford's trustees into springing $15 million to form what they christened the Fund for the Republic. It was intended as a kind of antitoxin to McCarthyism. In 1954, the Fund's first president, Clifford Case, a prominent Republican chosen to make sure the Fund would not cause too much trouble, resigned to run for the Senate. Hutchins then took over himself.

Hutchins rose to prominence at a time when the American veneration of expertise gave to nearly all those who enjoyed reading and who sought to live by their wits the notion that they stood as a class apart. Homegrown varieties of the mother country's learned societies sprang up, and alongside them a more passionate species of organized, ad hoc devotions to the belief that the wisdom of the intellegentsia, if bound and tightened in the right places, might stanch the flow of evil in the world. In the ministry of the Church of the American Century, the word of Reason took the place of the word of God, and the spread of learning took the place of the spread of religion.

Hutchins followed Luce by a year at Yale and was also the son of a Presbyterian minister. Like Luce, Hutchins brought to all his missions an identifying susceptibility. He was the softest of touches for one-world schemes, drafts of new US constitutions, Charles Reich-type greenings: any whole plan for the molting of the skin in which we find ourselves, for producing in one swoop a better, purer world, the New Jerusalem. He also liked to live well. The Fund, which itself molted and became the Center, gave Hutchins an outpost, outside the mess and constraints of political, academic, and foundation life, while also providing, in the Presbyterian sense, a good living.

Lewis Mumford recalls an encounter with Hutchins in 1940, at the first "City of Man" conference, called among a "group of representative intellectuals, who would pool their wisdom and exert their authority to make clear the issues democracy now faced." Of the dozen representative intellectuals, Hutchins struck Mumford as "tall, urbane, boyish looking: keen but supercilious, rational and outwardly reasonable, but shallow: an unawakened isolationist." "Aloof," the adjective often used by friendlier critics, fell short of capturing Hutchins's look and bearing of pained noise, as if he were bearing his assigned mission nobly, but constantly wished he might be released for less burdensome service. 

Hutchins stood tall and handsome to a fault, with a presence that caricatured Mount Rushmore, When combined with two other Hutchins traits—magnanimity and courage in controversy, and the gift of being able to worry about the right things—Hutchins's looks and his supercilious manner helped his enterprises to maintain the pretenses contained in their self-advertisements.

The transformation of the Fund for the Republic into the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions was a living symptom of Robert Hutchins's own midlife crisis. The Fund began life in circumstances bound to fire an evangelist's he art. True Goths clamored outside the house of Reason, threatening civility and the Republic itself. The Fund vowed to counter the nightmares conjured by the McCarthyites. It commissioned factual studies concerning the true dimensions of communism in America, and other studies pointing to the damage McCarthyism was causing to the foundations of the going order. On top of that it gave large sums of money to the Southern Regional Council, to the American Friends Service Committee (to strengthen the right of freedom of conscience) and to others for, among other things, studies of fear in education and ravages being done to due process.

With McCarthy defused, the Fund turned reflective. Still at its New York City headquarters, it began to focus on "the great issues." Then in 1959 Hutchins got the Fund board to approve the move to Santa Barbara. Here, presumably, olive trees and the Mediterranean climate would remind all of Socrates and better times. A small clapper bell was hung outside Hutchins's office to summon the fellows to their daily devotions; a pleasant, small excerpt from the Orders of Saint Benedict, stamped on a tea towel and framed, was posted. The mailed appeals for money turned from present evils to eternal verities.

"Centers" or "institutes" come in two kinds. One kind, the advocate of a cause, stakes out a beat—privacy, say, or whales—to patrol and to make a place for in the arena of public issues. It measures its success by how much of what it wants it gets—in the way of laws, votes, and changes in public opinion polls. The other type of organization asks for a commitment of money and moral energy to a subject or to a process—in the Center's case "the intellectual enterprise" itself. The commitment is not to any one viewpoint, but to Dialogue. This kind of institute aspires to be the very conscience of the arena, or at least its tutor. There is no obvious measure of success for this second type. It can only measure its efforts as do lowlier forms, like magazines, say, or public television: does its existence bring into being valuable work that otherwise might not have been done?

Little that came out of the Center owed specifically to its existence. Little of it, that is, could not have been done just as well, and maybe better, under auspices of the usual bureaucratized, historically located university or foundation, and published in, say, Daedalus. Perhaps if the Center had been able to attract some genuinely "best minds," it might have worked, might have become the Institute for Advanced Studies West the people at the Center had in mind when they talked about their plans.

But except for expense-paid visits to spend a few days in Santa Barbara and to deliver a paper, the Very Best Minds could not be induced to join permanently in the meditations. What, after all, did the Center have to offer, except life in a California that only makes many thinking people nervous?

For all the weight the Fund for the Republic carried in New York, the Center in Santa Barbara stood essentially self-accredited and self-certified. Moreover, without an urgent evil to combat, much of the rally-'round-the-flag support drifted away. In order to make its new self credible, the Center needed to attract the Very Best Minds. But no self-respecting Very Best Mind would permanently attach itself to an institution run as if Hutchins were the founding abbot. Best Minds would want to make their own rules, Saint Benedict notwithstanding. Also, the alimony from the Ford Foundation had almost run out, requiring the kind of fund-raising exertions which, though suitable to institutions without need to explain their existence, might be seen as presumptuous in an independent center of thought.

The fund-raising efforts, officially presented as attempts to broaden the public discussion,of the great issues, took the usual forms, and some not so usual. Under the Hutchins banner—"We launder money"— Bernard Cornfled, the mutual fund salesman, paid for the Center's Pacem in Terris II meeting in Geneva. Indulgences were sold to members of the Hollywood community, who were admitted to the meditations and sometimes allowed to speak.

Not knowing whether to behave like the children of light or the children of this world, the Second-Best Minds who did become fellows could not find their moorings. The Dialogue deteriorated into squabbles that would make the average college faculty meeting seem by comparison a drawing together of friars. The Center continued to turn out drafts of new constitutions for the United States and the world, but the effort at collegiality broke down. In 1969, Hutchins fired nearly all the fellows—who had supposed that their appointments were permanent—and began to form a new fellowship based procedurally on the Apostolic Succession. This time he hoped to attract the Very Best Minds, but the Center no longer had the funds to keep up the kind of appearances necessary to bring in the kinds of money needed to keep up appearances. In perhaps its most imaginative thrust, it made a deal with Alex Comfort, the gerontologist, to use the royalties from his The Joy of Sex to pay his salary and other expenses. The fellowship continued to disintegrate, however, until there was nothing. Comfort complained, to be a fellow of. Comfort sued to repatriate $93,000 in royalties, and asked for severance pay and damages. The Center countersued. In November 1976, a federal judge in Los Angeles called the contract "shabby" and "unholy," and ordered some of the royalties returned with interest. Comfort got back his copyright for The Joy of Sex. The suit was the centerpiece of a complicated mess of events that left the Center in a shambles.

Hutchins died on May 14, 1977, in a Santa Barbara hospital. The Center, then already mordant, may be said to have formed part of his estate. Much of the acreage had been sold off to make severance payments as the purges, begun in 1969, proceeded by installments. The remaining assets, mainly cash from the sale of the land, plus the list of Center members—subscribers to The Center Magazine—make up the stake for the new players at UCSB. They will call themselves The Robert M. Hutchins Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

This article originally ran in the July 21, 1979, issue of the magazine.