- Historic Sites
Walter Karp, 1934-1989
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
When Walter Karp died suddenly last July after surgery, this magazine lost a delightful and challenging contributor. Readers will remember most recently his series “A Heritage Preserved,” in which he brought his powerful wit and insight to bear on various efforts by museums across the country to retrieve the American past. But Walter’s primary interest was American politics; he was a passionate defender of the Republic as it had been engineered by the Founding Fathers, and he often used their grand and sonorous vocabulary to warn of danger—danger from “usurpers” who would seize powers that rightfully belonged to the people, danger from “oligarchs” willing to scuttle their own party’s candidate rather than upset a status quo that allowed them the use of those purloined powers. He never forgot Madison’s words, “Men love power.” In the wake of the controversy surrounding his most recent book, Liberty under Siege, his daughter, Jane, then a high school senior, interviewed her father. The result suggests the gallantry and the relish with which Walter battled to make himself heard, as well as the love of the American past and its republican wellsprings that animated him all his adult life.
You began writing in the 1950s, but you did not initially write about politics. When and how did you begin?
When the whole country became political, I became political—which is to say, around the time of the civil rights movement. It broke up a lot of foolish notions people had in their heads that everything was wonderful in the country. Then came the Vietnam War, which many people found unbearable, and so did I.
You don’t think about politics until something goes wrong. Unfortunately, political thought begins with disaster.
What did your first political articles deal with?
I used to like Thomas Jefferson—I still do—but without any real comprehension, in a sort of sentimental way. Nevertheless, the idea that people should govern themselves, that they ought to be independent, that they ought to have a voice in their community affairs, always seemed to be a good thing. So the first things I wrote were in that vein. I had no idea at the time that I was dealing with the most radical ideas known to the country.
Aside from Jefferson, what writers and thinkers most influenced you?
The other person was the great German-Jewish writer Hannah Arendt. She wrote about politics in a way that was unlike anything I had ever read. Nothing that she wrote made sense. Oddly enough, that is why 1 liked her. Because I hated everything that made sense.
I didn’t like liberals because they sounded as if they weren’t liberating anything. I didn’t like the conservatives because they seemed just spiteful and mean.
The real reason I never thought about politics is because I had no place to rest my thoughts. Arendt’s great contribution was to lead the reader back to ancient Greece and from Greece to America’s founders—that is, to people who talked about politics as if it really mattered.
What are the ideas that someone must accept to understand your writing?
That’s very simple. All my political principles are contained in one sentence by Abraham Lincoln. He said, “Give all of the governed a voice in their own government and that and that alone is self-government.” That is all you need to know or understand.
How does looking to the Founding Fathers make you controversial?
That’s the most difficult question of all. I’ll rephrase your question. How could it be that if you stand up for the principles of this country, if you believe in self-government, if you are the enemy of everything that impedes self-government—that blinds people, that makes people dependent on power, that frightens them—you are perceived to be a troublemaker? How can a country that universally professes certain principles—that sees itself as a country in which to discuss these principles, to take them seriously and to use them as a measure for judging what happens —makes someone like me something of an outsider? That is a question I’ve been brooding over for twenty years.
Liberty under Siege was described in a New York Times review as “cranky speculation.” A Washington Post reviewer wrote , “Liberty under Siege is an extraordinary book.” How do you account for these two widely differing reviews?
Sometimes one of my readers catches on to what I’m saying and thinks, “This guy, who doesn’t sound like anyone else sounds, is speaking to something I learned as a youngster, something I cherished, something I was taught to admire but that got lost.” When I make a connection like that, it turns out to be a powerful one.
But when you suggest to ordinary political writers that the American people have more virtue than they normally are given credit for, and when you point out that the powers that be are trying to nullify those virtues, they get very upset. They’ve been hanging around the rulers all the time. A book like mine is a red flag to people who think like that. This was particularly the case with the New York Times review. I got lucky with the Washington Post . I got a reviewer who takes me extremely seriously and probably praised the book more than it deserved.
How would you typify your enemies?
In one form or another, my enemies believe that the few should rule the many and that the many should shut their traps.
You would say that power, and not money, is the driving force behind politicians?
Absolutely. The idea that people are interested in nothing but money is the great contemporary principle of understanding. This is a principle dearly beloved by the radicals on the left; it’s dearly beloved by conservatives on the right; it is dearly beloved by centrists; it is dearly beloved by everyone that matters in this country. It is the belief that political power is of no interest to those in power. And yet the hardest way to make a million dollars is to become a senator. There are an endless number of better ways for a vicious, impudent, brazen, shrewd, gifted person to become rich than to become a crooked politician. People don’t become politicians to make money. If you want to make money, you go to where the money is, in the stock market.
Has your career been difficult?
It hasn’t been difficult, but it hasn’t been easy. Not easy means that when you do something, people don’t call you up and ask you to do more of the same. People don’t give you money. People don’t invite you to attend seminars.
At your age, Jane, you don’t realize that a tremendous amount of the good things in the world—fame, wealth, consequence—are all part of a vast machine; I call it a “preferment machine.” If you stand outside the realm of powerful and privileged people, that machine doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t produce goodies for you.
It doesn’t have to do with virtue or merit at all. It has to do with the fact that you are not saying the same things that a great many important people want to have said. The principle is very simple. The thing that is so shocking to discover when you become middle-aged is that there is such a thing as a machine of preferment. A nineteenthcentury English writer named Walter Bagehot said, “The world is given to those who the world can trust.” And believe me, in America, if you stand up for democracy, the world (that is, the powerful) doesn’t trust you.
Why do you persevere?
Because it’s fun. It’s fun to stand up and speak your mind. It’s fun to feel yourself independent. It’s a joy to cleave to the principles of a great country. I confess, there is a certain sweet martyrdom to feel that you are standing with the truly great men of the country and that the people who ignore and despise you are the people who are diminishing the country. It can make you very conceited. The great danger of being an outsider is of becoming self-satisfied. As for persevering, nothing could be easier. I don’t know anything else to do!
If you could not write about politics, would you write at all?
That would be difficult. If I no longer had an outlet for writing about politics, I would find that devastating. I’ve had a year or so here and there when I felt that that black cloud was over my head—of being condemned to write about everything but what I cared about most. But so far, every time the black cloud gathered, it always managed to break up. America is not as free as it should be, by far; but it is not so unfree that a voice like mine can’t be heard.