Photo: Mary Pfaff

March 24, 2004: A moment with...

Richard Stengel ’77


After more than 20 years with Time magazine, Richard Stengel ’77 has been named president of the National Constitution Center (N.C.C.), the $137.5-million museum devoted to the Constitution of the United States, which opened in Philadelphia last July 4. Stengel, who returned to Princeton in 1998 as a Ferris Professor to teach a course on politics and the press, collaborated with Nelson Mandela on Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (1995), and is the author of two additional books, most recently You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery (2000). A Rhodes scholar, Stengel was a member of Princeton’s 1976 N.I.T.-winning basketball team. He speaks with Kathryn Feldman Levy ’78.

Why would you, political editor at a national news magazine, leave during the middle of a presidential election year?

It’s a terrible time to leave. I’m national editor in charge of all our political coverage. I live for elections. But at the same time, opportunity is never convenient. This job is about something that’s bigger than an event that happens every four years; it’s about our past, present, and future history.

How do you see the N.C.C. fitting into the debate on topics such as gay marriage?

We host a debate. We air both sides – or as many sides as there are – of an issue, and while we may not come to a decision, I want people to know that the N.C.C. is a place where you can not only hear smart people discuss the merits of both sides but also hear them comment on where the sides come together. I think that one of the problems in our public politics is that there is no moderation between the sides. There’s no one to say, “You on the left have an interesting point and you on the right have an interesting point but in fact, there’s some common ground.” I think Americans really yearn for that.

What are the most pressing Constitutional issues today?

The cliché is that 9/11 changed everything. Of course it didn’t change everything, but it did change a lot of things. Throughout our history, there’s always been a tension between security and liberty, and I think in this post-9/11 era, that’s one of the big questions. The concept of individual rights and individual liberties versus the need for group security is out there in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time. And there’s no easy answer. Which, of course, is part of the beauty of our Constitution and of our system, that there will always be tension between different poles.

You taught a course at Princeton entitled Politics and the Press. What has been the role of the press in this presidential election year?

The relationship between the press and presidential campaigns has become much, much more adversarial over the last half century. I’ve been on both sides of this issue. As a correspondent, I’ve been part of the adversarial role of the press, but I sometimes think that the press itself needs to be more of an honest broker. On the other side, working for Bill Bradley ’65 [Stengel worked as a speechwriter for Bradley in 1999], I can tell you that, in politics, all you want from the press is a fair and transparent medium for your ideas as opposed to something that is critical. The $99-million question is, what do people really want? You get a lot of feedback from regular citizens that they want the press to be a transparent medium. They don’t want to have the reporter’s opinion mixed in with what the candidates are actually saying.

What about this election?

The role of the press in this election cycle has been interesting. Time magazine put Howard Dean on the cover twice, and he is going to turn out to be an asterisk in this election. We all embraced the Dean candidacy long before any vote was cast, and it was primarily because of the fact that he changed the way money was raised. I think he has changed the race and changed the Democratic party for the good, although he is not the beneficiary.

And President Bush?

The relationship between Bush and the press reminds me of a book I read at Princeton when I was an undergraduate, The Mirror and the Lamp (1971), which is a famous book about literary criticism. It has the idea that literature is a mirror and a lamp. The press is a mirror and a lamp. We’re a mirror in the sense that we mirror what’s going on. We’re a lamp in the sense that we hold a lamp up to something that people haven’t looked at. You go back and forth between one and the other. We’ve been tough on President Bush, but in some ways that’s a mirror of the country feeling some reservations. And in some ways it’s a lamp, like holding up a light to what he did when he was in Alabama during his National Guard service. Is that fair or not? I don’t know. We have both jobs and sometimes you swing too far in one direction or the other.


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