Loud Voices In The Forum

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That’s one of the cases when the light system betrayed me. I had told the people in Boston that I wanted a signal from the engineer with a light under the tablecloth, set up so that people wouldn’t see it. I don’t mean to criticize my good friends, but they didn’t remember that a light bulb gets very hot, and they hung it against one of these light cottony tablecloths. I had an eminent club lady on my left, and the light was hanging down about between my knees against the tablecloth. Naturally when we had been on the air eight or ten minutes, I smelled something decidedly like burning cotton, and I looked down and I could see that this cotton was getting scorched. Of course, I didn’t know at what moment it might burst into flame and throw the whole business into an uproar. So without saying anything and unable to explain to anybody, I started with my left hand reaching around under the table trying to get the light, at which the eminent club woman at my left drew back from the table with the look of the most intense and shocked indignation on her face. I couldn’t explain, “My dear lady, I’m trying to keep the table from burning us all to death. I’m not insulting you.” I never could explain it to her because as soon as the show was over, she got up and left. I think she still believes I was trying to pat her on the knee.

You see, there are vicissitudes in this business.

Deliberately the People’s Platform became more and more conversation, and the skill that I developed was almost entirely in the field of keeping a conversation going—because you can’t let it lag—and giving it a slightly more dramatic impact than it ordinarily will have and still be natural. I began to see my job, as time went on, as a kind of dramatist of the moment.

As to choice of participants, I think they have got to be people who are naturally interesting and dramatic, without being too much involved personally and without being too easily inflamed emotionally.

I remember very distinctly one time we were going to discuss the housing situation in New York. We got Mr. Nathan Straus, who had been on the National Housing Board, and another housing expert, a third person whom I’ve forgotten, and a woman whose picture and the picture of whose “home” had been published in one of the newspapers as an example of how bad housing could be. She was a respectable and earnest woman who thought she ought to have a nice home for her children. She was young and was by no means poverty-stricken or anything like that, but she was living in horrible quarters.

It was a great error. That’s not the way to set up a discussion. I would generalize on that one instance because all she wanted to say was how bad her house was. Having said that, she was not only bored by whatever anyone else wanted to say, but within the time of the half hour she got very resentful because these national and local commissioners were discussing housing in general. She finally broke out into an almost hysterical complaint: “Why don’t you find me a better house? You don’t want to because you just want to talk about housing. I want a better house!!!” It had a certain quality at one point but there’s no way of going on from there. You can’t carry on a discussion by the reiteration of a grievance.

Another thing we found about selecting people was that there can be a degree of knowledge about a subject which is a handicap. Some people are so sure that they know all the answers to a problem, and build up their own picture of themselves as infallible experts to such an extent, that they won’t discuss with anybody-they will pronounce, and having pronounced, they’re silent. So you get no conversation.

It is astonishing how many people in politics, for instance, are like that. Even in debate, they’re not used to listening to the other fellow, they’re simply used to having an alternation of declarations. In a discussion you have to have somebody who has the gift of conversation; he has to have something of the dialectic temperament.