Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So to Speak, the free speech podcast where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am your host Nico Perrino.
Today is an exciting day for me. Really, it’s the culmination of three years of work. Today is the day when I’m sitting down with former ACLU executive director and Fire Advisory council member Ira Glasser to discuss the new documentary film about his life and career, Might Ira: A Civil Liberties Story. A film I co-directed with my colleagues Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby.
Ira’s free speech advocacy is the through line for the film, particularly his involvement in the famous 1978 Skokie case in which neo Nazi’s wanted to rally in a town with thousands of residents who survived the Holocaust. But along the way you will learn about Ira’s growing up in Brooklyn and seeing Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in baseball. You’ll learn about his friendship with conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. And you’ll learn about his path to the ACLU, which led through Bobby Kennedy’s office. You will also see Ira’s first ever meeting with the 97-year-old Holocaust survivor Ben Stern who organized the opposition to the neo Nazi rally in Skokie, Illinois.
The film is now available to watch via the Angelica Film Center’s virtual cinema program. You can find a link to purchase a ticket to that screening at mightyira.com or in the show notes. The screenings run through at least October 15th, but could go for another week after that if it does well at the so-called virtual box office. On October 23rd, Mighty Ira will be available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play, and it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on October 27th. The film is already available for preorder on iTunes.
Now, long time listeners to this podcast will know that I had Ira on this show for a marathon two-hour episode in May of 2017. That episode was the inspiration for the Mighty Ira documentary, and this episode is sort of a reflection on some of what has happened since.
For big fans of Ira and the documentary, we are releasing a companion episode to this one in which I narrate Mighty Ira and provide some of the background on the story and the filmmaking process. You can find that episode in the So to Speak feed, but I suggest watching the film first before listening to the watch a long narration of the film. Now, without any further ado, I present the man himself, might Ira Glasser.
So, Ira, welcome back on to the show.
Ira Glasser: Well, thank you. It’s been a long journey. Whenever I tell people about how the film happened, I always start with that 25-minute podcast that turned into a three-hour podcast in your apartment in New York.
Nico: Well, I always like to tell people that you told me that you might not remember much, and then you get to my apartment there in New York City, and you sit down, and two and half hours later we’re still talking. And there’s still much more to cover.
Ira: I tell people that story also, and I tell them how astonished you were. And I said, “Well, the thing that Nico never understood is that I didn’t remember much. I mean, if he thinks two and half hours was the product of remembering a lot, he should have only have seen me when I did remember everything.”
Nico: Well, I think we should maybe tell our listeners, at least from my perspective, of how this idea was conceived or it began. I mean, it began before that – I think it was April, 2017 podcast. It began in January of 2017 when Nat Hentoff, the famous columnist and civil libertarian passed away. I went to his funeral, which I think was at Riverside Memorial Chapel, and I saw Michael Myers there who was one of your old colleagues and the leader of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, and he had introduced me to you and Norman Siegel. Norman Siegel who’s also in the documentary.
And I forget if it was you or Norman, but Michael said that I work at Fire, and one of you said, “You do what we used to do.” And I’m looking at you both and I’m saying, “Who are you and what did you used to do?”
Nico: And then, of course, you introduced what you used to do, and I’m, first of, kind of ashamed that I didn’t know who either of you were. And we go and there’s, of course, a beautiful service to Nat. But Michael connects us afterwards and I invite you on the podcast, and then that’s when we sat down. And it’s the start of a very long journey for me learning about your generation of so-called civil libertarians, and what animated your work, and how you went about it. And it was just an honor really to get to know you, and to get know Norman, and Philippa Strum, and David Goldberger, the old school liberals as Harvey Silverglate likes to put it. The free speech liberals, with the small L of course, are really heroes to a lot of who do this work now. And that shining light of a generation is now retiring. And in some cases, folks like Norman Dorsen are passing away, Nat Hentoff are passing away, so it was a privilege to be able to capture part of this story through one man, in this case, yourself. So, it was an honor.
Ira: Well, you know, my phrase for our brand of civil libertarians was always regarded ourselves as the social justice libertarians. And that phrase came about at an annual conference of an organization called the Drug Policy Foundation, who’s founder Arnold Trebach just died this past year, a few months ago. And it was the first organization that was founded and functioned to try to gather together everybody that was against the drug war, and the excesses of the drug war, into one place and begin to build a movement.
And in those days, the thing that was astonishing about the 200 or so odd people who came to these conferences – they were annual conferences – was that they were all white. They were all, mostly involved with marijuana and not necessarily with the other drug issues. And it always puzzled me. I went there once when I was still head of the ACLU, they invited me there and I came, and I was amazed because my experience at the ACLU is that although the war on drugs was an abomination to the principles of John Stuart Mill and individual autonomy, and bodily autonomy, and that was sort of a core basic civil liberties principle. The fact is, in my experiences at the ACLU, most of the enforcement of the war on drugs was disproportionately against black and brown people.
So, I had begun, at the ACLU, to see that in addition to the John Stuart Mill libertarian personal autonomy issue that led to our opposing the war on drugs, there was this whole racial injustice issue about who was it really enforced against. And nobody at this conference really saw that, and it took many years before the complexion of these conferences and the participants started to change. One of the things that that organization used to do every year, was give out awards for various kinds of things. Of course, there really wasn’t much else that they could do back then. This was in the late ‘80s early ‘90s.
And one year they gave an award to Thomas Szasz, the iconoclastic psychiatrist who had long opposed the abuses of locking up people on the grounds of mental illness and the snake pit institutions. That’s where I knew him from. But it turned out he was also an opponent of the war on drugs, sort of on the same libertarian principles. But he never talked about the racial disproportion. He just talked about personal autonomy. I had never met him; although, I was very familiar with his writings and relied on them a lot at the ACLU in various ways.
And so, he accepts the award, and gives this big libertarian speech, which was unexceptional, and with which I agreed completely. And then, he walks over to the table where I was sitting, and he sits down, and we introduced each, and he says to me, “Well, you know, if you’re not a free market libertarian, what are you?” And I looked at him and smiled, and it was just completely spontaneous, out of nowhere, I said, “Well, I’m a social justice libertarian.” And he says, “What does that mean?” I said, “It means that at the ACLU we fight a lot against racial subjugation. We fight a lot against subjugation of women, and of gays, and of prisoners, and of mental patients, and of children, and on and on and on. And free speech is one of the core issues for us, but it’s not the only core issue, so we define ourselves as social justice libertarians, and that’s what to us civil liberties is.”
And he couldn’t understand it. And I’ve had that discussion over the years with people like Milton Freidman, who never understood why the ACLU was opposed to school vouchers.
Nico: So, you’ve met Milton Freidman, huh?
Ira: That, and debated him, yes.
Nico: Oh, interesting. Well, I wonder whether the social justice aspect of that description, social justice civil libertarian, is even necessary as a way to distinguish yourself from the small L free market libertarians. Because that’s why you put civil before the libertarian. You’re talking about civil issues, or social issues, as opposed some of the fiscal or economic issues.
Ira: Well, that’s right. Yeah. That’s correct. I mean, when Roger Baldwin who started the ACLU 100 years ago in 1920 called the organization the American Civil Liberties Union, that was the first time, I think, in our history that phrase civil liberties had ever been part of an organization’s name. It became a brand, but it wasn’t at the time, it was really new. And the whole idea of how you define civil liberties was constantly in flux and in turmoil as the ACLU developed. When I came into the ACLU in the late ‘60s, they used to use the term civil rights and civil liberties, differently
Nico: Well, I’d always that you could almost use them interchangeably. And I tried to do some research into this.
Ira: Well, that’s right.
Nico: And it was, I guess, during Truman’s administration he had a big civil rights panel he put together, or commission that he put together, in which that they looked at this and distinguished civil rights and civil liberties. There’s a paper about it that Randell Kennedy over at Harvard told me about, but it’s interesting how the phrases have evolved.
Ira: Well, it’s true, and when I came into the ACLU in the late ‘60s, not just I, but a whole – then, I was 29 when I first started at the ACLU, just about the age you are now, and we weren’t called the old school then. We were the young turks. We were the rebels, and what we were rebelling about was that the issue of racial injustice, and discrimination against women, were not seen within the ACLU’s governing board at the time as equivalent priorities to free speech, and due process, and privacy, and things like that.
Our generation had grown up seeing discrimination against on the basis of skin color and sex as predominant issues that inflamed us. And the ACLU board used to distinguish between civil liberties and civil rights. I mean, we actually had people who got up on the board and said, “We’re not against civil rights, we’re for civil rights, but isn’t really our mission. That’s the NAACP’s mission, and we support that mission, but we support it sort of as a friend not as warrior. It isn’t – our mission is civil liberties,” by which they meant free speech and due process issues.
And we had a big struggle inside the ACLU in those years, between the late ‘60s and the mid ‘70s, to elevate racial injustice and sexual injustice to equivalent priorities, and to erase what we regarded as a phony distinction between civil rights and civil liberties and call them all civil liberties. And that basically happened during my years at the ACLU. Not just my doing, but as part of a whole movement of people like Eleanor Norton, and Chuck Morgan, and later people who were slightly younger than I like, Norman Siegel. And the organization changed during those years in that way.
I mean, there were fights in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s about there not being enough women on the board of the ACLU. And when Ruth Ginsburg was first hired to be the director of the ACLU’s women’s rights project by my predecessor Aryeh Neier in 1971, that was a huge big departure from how the ACLU had functioned in the past. And one of the reasons why the women’s issue got pushed forward a little faster than the race issue on the ACLU board, was that there were women on the board who made that fight, and there was not an equivalent number of Blacks on the board.
I mean, there were people like Kenneth Clarke, and Bob Carter who’s one of the guys who argued Brown against the Board of Education for NAACP, on the board. But they didn’t come that often, they were only two among 70 people. And so, the whole transformation of ACLU during the years from the mid/late ‘60s to the mid/late ‘70s was a transformation that didn’t introduce the issues of equality into the ACLU’s agenda, but elevated them to a position of equivalence with the more traditional issues of First Amendment and due process.
Nico: It brings up the question for me, it’s like, what’s the liberty principle for what we define a civil liberty? Because some might argue that those principles can be expanded into the political realm, and the political issues then become civil liberties issues, and economic issues then become civil liberties issues. I’m not saying that the stance that you and your colleagues took in the ‘60s was wrong. I guess this gets down to the question: What is a civil liberty? And when you think of the word libertarian –
Ira: That’s exactly right, and the issues of how you define those have to be done very rigorously, and with a great deal of intellectual and analytic rigor. Otherwise, it just become rhetorical and amorphous, and like you say, it can expand too easily to embrace anything you feel strongly about. Whether or not it’s a civil liberties issue, and then you call it a civil liberties issue. That’s not what we tried to do. There were people in the ACLU who did that, who tried to elevate everything that they felt strongly about into an ACLU issue, but that isn’t what the majority of us did.
The definition of civil liberties is to me what Isiah Berlin called negative rights. I like to say that the words democracy and liberty, which a lot of people grow up thinking are sort of almost synonyms for each other, are really very different. Democracy means a system of government where people vote for representatives and majority prevails. But liberty means that the majority doesn’t prevail about everything. And the Bill of Rights defines – it’s basically a list of limits on majoritarian rule. If you look at the way the Bill of Rights is written, it’s all phrased negatively.
Nico: Congress shall make no law.
Ira: Yeah, right. And the rest of the Constitution tells you what the government has the power to do. The Bill of Rights tells you what the government doesn’t have the power to do. When Congress shall make no laws, means that even if all 535 members of Congress want to ban a certain kind of speech, the First Amendment says they can’t do it.
And no other country in the world had that kind of set of legal limits. They had things like Declaration of the Rights of Man, and declarations and homilies, but they didn’t have something that was legally enforceable by a court system. Now, of course in reality those limits were not enforces for a very long time. I mean, when the ACLU was created in January of 1920, 100 plus years ago, the Supreme Court had never, in 131 years of its existence, ever struck down a federal law or action on First Amendment grounds. Not once.
So, at that time, in 1920, 131 years after the First Amendment was passed, people like Margaret Sanger were arrested every Monday and Tuesday in New York City for distributing informational leaflets about birth control to women. And during the period of 1916, ’17, ’18 when there’s a movement in the United States to oppose America’s entrance into World War 1, those people had their rallies broken up, FBI infiltrating them, had their homes searched.
Nico: Well, that makes me wonder Ira, so when the ACLU was founded 100 years ago this year, in 1920, were those individuals that founded the ACLU concerned with the principles of libertarian autonomy, or were they more concerned with political expediency, in so far as these principles of libertarian autonomy would allow them to protest World War 1, would allow them to fight for reproductive right?
Ira: They were both. I mean, these kinds of questions are never easily answered in 100% black and white, yes or no, because like every movement –
Nico: But you knew Roger Baldwin, for example. He was still around when you were executive director.
Ira: Yes, yes, yes.
Nico: I’m assuming that you guys had talked about it at some point.
Ira: Yeah, there’s no question. The way it happened is that Baldwin as a young man in his twenties, was activist in an organization called the American Union against Militarists. And that was a political organization that was sort of a pacifist organization, was against war in very broad ways, and became one of the organizational focuses of activity designed to keep America out of World War 1 during the Woodrow Wilson years. And they spent most of their time lobbying in the streets. I mean, they were very small, and they didn’t really have any weight in Washington. So, they mostly had meetings, and leafletted people, and made speeches, and did all kinds of what we would now call traditional protected First Amendment activity.
And they were constantly getting their activities busted by cops, and both federal and state and local, and harassed by the FBI, and wiretapped, and all that kind of stuff. And they began to see that their political goals, which were sort of resisting war, required the ability to have free speech. It required the ability to meet, the ability to assemble, the ability to demonstrate, the ability to pass out leaflets, the ability to speak. Without those rights, they couldn’t achieve their political ends.
So, at some point, the American Union Against Militarism creates a little sub agency inside the organization called the civil liberties bureau, which is the very first time that the phrase civil liberties is attached to anything organizational. It just becomes a little unit, a little department of the American Union Against Militarism. And the guy who is chosen to head it up inside the American Union Against Militarism is this young social worker activist named Roger Baldwin. And Baldwin spend most of those war years, 1916, ’17, around then, trying to protect the speech of the political activists in his organization. So, they all were political activists, but they needed speech to make their political activism possible. S
So, they began this effort under Baldwin to try to find ways to protect the speech rights, and they found out that the First Amendment, as pretty as it sounded, didn’t work. Nobody paid attention to it. The courts didn’t enforce it. It was a tiger without teeth. When the war ended in 1918, Baldwin decided that, you know, this problem is not gonna go away, and for all the movements out there – and he was engaged in all of them. They had a nascent labor union movement, his friend Margaret Sanger getting arrested in New York for distributing birth control information, the racial issues, he was a political activist who was engaged in all that stuff. And he realized after the war was over that this problem of free speech not working was gonna effect all these movements.
And so, they took this little unit called the Civil Liberties Bureau, out of the American Union Against Militarism, and created something called the National Civil Liberties Bureau. I think it was probably five people. And they decided they were gonna try and protect free speech in general.
Nico: But in order to get that First Amendment to do what they wanted it to do, they needed to fight it in court, presumably, and Baldwin wasn’t a lawyer.
Ira: Well, –
Nico: And one of the things he learned is –
Ira: No, not really.
Nico: – about the ACLU is – not really?
Ira: No. I mean, if you look at some early memos from the early days of the ACLU, they regarded as going into court as useless because if people who were politically active today think and worry about how conservative the Supreme Court is now, you can only imagine what it was like in the early part of the twentieth century. It had never, as I said, struck down a government action on First Amendment grounds.
They regarded going into court as next to useless, and they made a decision early in the history of the ACLU to basically use what they called a political activism as their leverage. To make noise. To speak. To go on the steps of city hall and argue for rights. To lobby legislatures. They don’t place much store in the courts because the courts were deeply conservative and didn’t work.
Now, they were drawn into it. For example, in 1925 when the ACLU was five years old, John Scopes gets indicted in Tennessee for teaching evolution, and Baldwin who was then the new director of the ACLU enlists – I mean, they had no staff lawyers. You know, they were just 30 or 40 people.
Nico: And Baldwin was not a lawyer.
Ira: And Baldwin himself was not a lawyer. So, the only way they could get lawyers were to get lawyers in private practice who were practicing law for a living, to volunteer their time to take cases for the ACLU. And Baldwin got Clarence Darrow to agree to represent Scopes in what later became to be known as the monkey trial. And that, as Baldwin always used to love to tell me. He’d look at me with this glint in his eye and his smile, “That was our first great case, and it’s still our greatest case.”
And, you know, in 1981 when he was still alive, and in his mid-90s, the state of Arkansas passed the first creationism, which didn’t try to ban the teaching of evolution, but which required that if you were gonna teach evolution, you also had to teach the biblical story of creation along with it in science classes. So, that was sort of the second generation of anti-evolution laws, and the ACLU, which I was then the head of, took the case and challenged that law in Arkansas.
And when we had the press conference to announce that challenge, instead of running the press conference, I asked Baldwin if he would run the press conference because as the director of the ACLU at the start of Scopes case, he was still here when we were starting this creationism case. And I thought it would be great if he were the one who presided over the press conference and announced it.
And he did. And he had this one little thing where he said, “You know, in 1925 we resisted this, and now in 1981, we’re gonna resist it again, and this time we’re gonna win it.” And this time we did win. And whenever he told me that Scopes was the ACLU’s biggest case, I would say, “Yeah, the difference though Roger is that you lost, and we won.”
Nico: Did you see the Kevin Spacey, before he got wrapped up in his “Me Too” scandal, did a one-man-show out in Queens, I think called Darrow, in which for an hour and a half he does this one man where he relays the life Clarence Darrow? Did you ever hear about that?
Ira: No, I never did. No, never did.
Nico: Oh, it was so good. I went. I went with my roommate at the time, and it was fantastic. Whatever else you might think about Kevin Spacey, he’s a tremendous actor, and he captured Clarence Darrow so fantastically. And then, what’s that movie they made about the Scope’s trial.
Ira: Inherit the Wind.
Nico: Oh, that’s fantastic as well.
Ira: Yeah, well, Inherit the Wind, before it was a movie was a Broadway play in the – what? It was the ‘70s I think. Or maybe earlier. No, it was earlier.
Nico: It had to be because the movie was black and white, I think.
Ira: Yeah. Right. Right. The movie starred Spencer Tracy as Darrow, but the play starred Paul Muni as Darrow, and Ed Begley as what’s his name…
Nico: Oh, yeah. William Jennings Bryan? Was that it?
Ira: William Jennings Bryan. Yes.
Ira: And I saw the place twice. And for most of its run Paul Muni, who is an actor that very few people today remember, but he was a phenomenal movie actor during the ‘30s and ‘40s. He was an old man by then, and he played Darrow in the play, and Ed Begley played William Jennings Bryan. And then, towards the end of the run of the play, they switched roles and Begley plays Darrow and Muni plays William Jennings Bryan. It was just fantastic.
As great as Spencer Tracy was in the movie, I always was mad that they didn’t cast Paul Muni because his role in the play was so great. And you know, the trouble with plays is that they don’t get – at least in those days, they didn’t get recorded, and so that performance is lost. And that play was – you know, it took liberties with some of the marginal facts as works of art always do with history, but it basically stayed pretty close to the transcript of the actual trial in terms of what happened, and some of the major speeches.
The issues were so similar to the issues we faced in 1981 with the creationism laws, but by that time the courts had changed. The ACLU had grown much bigger and stronger, and we won that case very decisively, and the state of Arkansas appealed it, and it ended up being joined with a case from Louisiana about the same issues, and we ended up winning it in the Supreme Court. And when we finally won it in the Supreme Court, and some reporter from Newsweek or Time, called me up and asked me for a comment. My comment was, “Somewhere in heaven John Scopes is smiling.”
Nico: What was Roger Baldwin like? I forget what year he died, but we include some footage of him in the documentary from the documentary that was made about him. It was a shorter documentary, 30 minutes, called Traveling Hopefully, from the ‘80s.
Ira: Yeah, Traveling Hopefully. Yeah.
Nico: But what was he like, and what was your relationship like with him?
Ira: Well, Baldwin died that same year in 1981 at the age of 97. And I knew him from the time I came into the ACLU in 1967 when he was in his early 80s. He was about the same age I am now. And I didn’t know him well in those years. He seemed to me as this crusty old guy with a heavily wrinkled face, but a fierce glint in his eye, and he was around, but he had no active role by then. He had been retired since 1950.
But when I got to the ACLU and became national director in 1978, and then until he dies in 1981, I became pretty close with him, and I saw a lot of him. I spent a lot of time with him. And, you know, I always thought of him as a very – my experience with him was that he was a sort of a charming old gentleman. Still very sharp, had a quick wit, could give a great speech, but basically, I thought of him as a charmer. And most of the people who I knew, who knew him back when he was the ACLU executive director, laughed at me when I said that. And they said, “He was pretty brutal politician.”
I mean, he was pretty strong willed. He ran that place for 30 years. He brooked no interference if he could manage it. He ran the board more than the board ran him. Well, I mean, he ran the board because he invented the board. He started the organization. You know, a founder of an organization always has a different relationship to its board of directors than his successors do because he started the organization, he chose the board of directors, he selected them, he basically gave them life, so it’s a very difficult thing for him to act as an employee of the board, where the board governs and sets policy, and the executive director on staff executes the policy. That’s a very different relationship for a founder than it is for anybody who follows the founder.
So, by the time I come to the ACLU, the board is 80 people who appear at meetings. And 60 to 65 come to every meeting. The meetings can go on for weekends at a time, and the board is in charge. I work for the board. They make it very clear; you are our employee. We hired you. Our job is to set policy. Your job is to implement the policy that we set. Your job isn’t to make policy. Well, that was pretty clear to me, and that’s the way I always functioned, which didn’t mean I didn’t have influence over the policy that they made. But that was a different relationship.
His relationship with the board, was he didn’t exactly see himself as their employee. And so, the view that people had of Baldwin who knew him when he was younger was different from the view that I had of him in my experience with him as a 90 plus year old man. But he was feisty. I loved him. We had a 95th birthday party for him in somebody’s apartment on the Upper West Side, and 70, 80, 100 people came.
And he arrived, and we left together, and as we’re leaving the apartment building and going out into the street, I say to him, “Well, you know Roger, I have my car. It’s parked about a block away. Can I give you a lift downtown?” He lived in Greenwich Village. And he looked at me, “No, no, no. It’s all right.” And I said, “Well, can I get you a cab?” I mean, the man was 95 years old, and it was 11:30 at night in Manhattan, and, “No, no, no,” he says, “Once you start taking cabs, there’s no end to them,” and he disappears down the steps of the subway on the corner of Central Park West and 81st Street to go back down to the Village. And I look at my wife, and I say, “Holy mackerel. You know, 95 years old and he disappears into the subway and refuses a cab because he might get used to it.” And that’s way he was.
Nico: Was he a Brooklyn guy?
Ira: Oh, no. He was a Boston Brahmin blue blood. He came from – you know, in the early part of the 20th century if you were spending your time working for organizations like the American Union Against Militarism, or later the ACLU, you had to be independently wealthy because you weren’t making a living from jobs like that.
So, he came from a privileged background. He had a home on Martha’s Vineyard that he disappeared to from time to time. He spent his summers on those fancy places. No, he was not a street guy. In fact, he was vaguely suspicious of me. I was sort of – I had been the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union for close to a decade, and sort of presented myself as a street guy because that’s what I was. I mean, I came to ACLU conferences in t-shirts not in a suit and tie, and I played basketball with younger lawyers. That’s what I projected.
He always seemed vaguely mistrustful of that. He was also mistrustful of what he called my New York accent, by which I always took to mean my Brooklyn accent. And I always thought it was even vaguely anti-Semitic because, you know, he kept saying things like, “When I was candidate for the national job… Well, you know, he may play well in New York, but I don’t know how he’ll play in Indiana.” So, we had a kind of an arm’s length relationship until I was there, and then we became closer and more affectionate as we got to work together.
But, he wasn’t around the office much, but every once in a while, he would come in and he would open the door to my office, or the door was open, and he would stick his head in and he would just look at me with a glint in his eye, and way his finger and say, “Stay solvent.” He was a balanced budget – you know, he had presided over the ACLU in the days where its annual budget was $2500.00.
Nico: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Ira: And here I was presiding over a half a million-dollar deficit with an annual budget in the multi millions, and trying to grow it. In his days, the organization was 25 people in New York, period. And in my day, the organization was 300-350 people, with affiliates and offices in every state in the union. We communicated by fax machine and telephone, and we flew all over the country. He had no fax machine, telephone long distance calls were almost impossible – prohibitively costly to make, and when he traveled to California, or to Iowa, or to anywhere else in the country, he took buses and trains.
So, the whole (inaudible) (00:38:59) of how we operated and what he had become was something of an astonishment to him. On the other hand, we operated with litigation as a primary means of our leverage, which he had eschewed for the reasons that I explained before. And we operated during the hay day of the Warren court, from the mid-‘50s to the mid-‘70s, when 80% of the rights that we all wake with and take for granted today were established during that 20 year period.
And so, for him looking back on his beginning from the perspective of where we were now, it must have seemed like an amazing journey. And I always thought how gratifying it must have been for him to realize that he started this completely delusional dream in 1920, that were 20, or 30, or 40 people in New York, with a budget of a few thousand dollars, they were going to awaken and enforce the Bill of Rights and protect the entire Bill of Rights for everybody in the whole country. I mean, it really was delusional.
And then, there he is in 1980 looking back upon the growth of that delusion, and it had become largely a reality. And as difficult of a time as we were having, and as much as we felt we were fighting a 12 front war during the Reagan years, for him it had to have been a sign of enormous progress. And that I think is what fueled the relentless optimism that he always reflected even until the end.
It was an optimism born of his experience of reality, which was that over his lifetime this idea of protecting rights had grown from a delusion into a reality that was not completed but was far along. He had started out on his own one yard, and there we were on our opponents 30 yard line, and he could see that. And so, there was a thrill to talking to him in those days about that journey.
And that’s what that documentary about him was called, Traveling Hopefully because he was very fond of – that was a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson, and he was very fond of saying that the idea about these sorts of social justice civil liberties journeys, that you never arrived, but you made progress. You traveled along a path of progress, and you traveled hopefully because you were gaining ground all the time even though it took a lifetime. And he was a great inspiration for that reason.
Nico: Well, actually, in the office that I’m sitting right now, have a painting that’s kind of always inspired me. It’s the wanderer over the sea of fog, and it’s got this kind of 19th century aristocratic guy with a cane standing at a mountaintop, and you can tell he’s wandered far, he’s traveled far, he’s climbed high, but far off in the distance you see mountaintops that are even higher. And new mountains to climb. New adventures to take. New goals to set. So, I’ve always kind of thought that way as well.
Ira: Yeah. Well, that’s right. The metaphor that I came to use during my days at the ACLU was that people would say sometimes, “This is not a sprint it’s a marathon.” But I thought that wasn’t quite sufficient to explain what it was that we were doing. It wasn’t just a marathon. It was a marathon relay race. And the idea of it being a relay race was important to me because what it meant was is that while I was on the track holding the baton in my hand and running as hard, and as wisely, and as strategically as I could towards this elusive goal of enforcing the Bill of Rights for everybody all over the country, I had to realize, I had to come to understand, that my position on the track was way ahead of where it had started three generations earlier.
And that I had taken the baton from people who had been running for decades before me whom I never knew. And that before too long somebody would have to get on that track and take the baton from me because I wasn’t getting to the end of it. Although somebody’s lifetime seems long to them, you know, 70, 80, 90 years is a very short period in terms of political, and social, and legal development.
You know, when you think censorship of the press began the day that the printing press was invented in the 15th century, and that the first amendment didn’t turn up until late in the 18th century, and it wasn’t really enforced until the middle of the 20th, you’re talking about 500 years, and nobody’s life embraces that. So, these struggles go on for centuries, and no individual life can measure the progress.
Nico: We try and capture that in documentary. At the end, you’re talking about that baton passing analogy, and there’s clips of you at the Fire Student Network Conference locking hands, shaking hands, hugging out with some of the next generation, some of these students who you had just spoken to and shared your story with.
Ira: Yeah. Well, that’s what’s been thrilling to me about your efforts in not only making this film, but in what you guys at Fire have been doing. The thing that’s thrilling to me is that you’re the same age I was when I first got to the ACLU, a year older maybe. And it’s very important to me that the baton be passed to people who are at the beginning of a lifetime of running because otherwise it just peters out.
And one of the reasons why I am so insistent about the idea of what I call social justice libertarian, is that how the Bill of Rights is enforced, and against whom, and for whom is a very critical – I have come to understand over the career at the ACLU, is a very critical part of the goal of enforcing the Bill of Rights.
I know that Fire is a First Amendment organization, and I’m not asking you or it to become a multi issue organization like the ACLU are, but –
Nico: If only we had time. We’ve got our hands full enough.
Ira: Well, you do have time, but you have as much time as Baldwin had in 1920.
Ira: But the fact is, is that during the course of my career, we worked with a lot of organizations. Some organizations were only interested in reproductive freedom for women. Some organizations were only interested in the rights of mental patients. Some organizations were only interested in the rights of prisoners. Some organizations were only interested in immigration. Some organizations were only interested in skin color discrimination. We were the only organization that was what I used to call the conglomerate of civil liberties. We embraced them all, and that was our mission.
And we worked with all of these single issue organizations, but it was very very important to have an organization like the ACLU that was non-political, non-partisan, and devoted to the entire range of issues embraced by the Bill of Rights, whether it was criminal justice, whether it was Fifth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Eight Amendment, First Amendment. These were all important, and though there were liberties that we advocated that were not in the Bill of Rights, and there were some elements of the Bill of Rights that we didn’t focus on, it was our definition of civil liberties that determined our mission, not somebody else’s. We did not take our mission from the Bill of Rights. Our mission was our own invention.
You know, I like to say that if the ACLU had been around in 1850 – there wasn’t a Fourteenth Amendment. There wasn’t the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery wasn’t prohibited. It wasn’t part of the Bill of Rights. It wasn’t part of the Constitution. But I like to think that we would have opposed slavery anyways even if it wasn’t in the Bill of Rights. I like to think that we would have supported the right of women to vote even before the Constitution was amended to give them that right.
That we got our definitions of liberty from our own analysis of what liberty was, and what liberties people should have, and what limits the government power to deny those liberties should be. And, where the Constitution agreed with us, we were happy to invoke it, but we didn’t get our mission from the Constitution anymore than – you know, a person has a right to vote, you that that right is what some philosophers have called natural law. They have the right to vote because they’re human beings. They have the right to vote because they have right that comes to them by virtue the humanity. And if a government recognizes that right, that’s great. And if the government doesn’t recognize that right then you fight to get it to recognize that right.
But you’re not limited. Your mission is not defined by what the government chooses to recognize. You hope that what that what the government chooses to recognize is defined by your mission.
Nico: Well, even the Bill of Rights, the authors of the Bill of Rights of course, did not think of those ten amendments of being exhaustive of all rights.
Nico: I mean, the Ninth Amendment was there to be the catch all for all those other rights that they didn’t enumerate in the Bill of Rights.
Ira: That’s right. And one the things that people have to remember about the Bill of Rights, is that they’re amendments to the Constitution. They weren’t part of the original Constitution as it was written because there was huge fight at the Constitutional Convention about whether or not you needed to have these rights defined in the Constitution. And one of the reasons that some people, including people like James Madison who was thought of as the father of the Bill of Rights – one of the things that he did in arguing against it at the Constitutional Convention was that you couldn’t possibly define them all. And if you didn’t define them all, if you made a list of 10, or 15, or 20 then the courts would think, well, this isn’t in the list so it probably isn’t a right. And that’s why they added the Ninth Amendment to say, in case we’ve forgotten something, this list is not exhaustive.
You know, they were a little naïve at the Constitutional Convention. The dominant number of delegates there believed that the Constitution gave government certain powers, and if it didn’t give the government the power to censor the press, then the government wouldn’t have the power to censor the press. Other people who were much more distrustful, said, the government will take whatever power is not denied to it. And so, you have to have not only a constitution that confers power on the government, in order to protect rights, you have to have a constitution that denies government certain powers, and among those the power to speak, the power to publish, fair trial rights, the government is denied the right to search except under defined conditions, all of that.
And in order to get the Constitution as it was originally written ratified by the required number of states they had to end up agreeing to add the Bill of Rights. And James Madison who was part of the original drafters and opposed the Bill of Rights initially was defeated on that ground in his campaign to be a senator from his home state of Virginia, and later ran for Congress in a district of Virginia, and it was somewhere along there that he changed his mind, and the reason he changed his mind is because he got voted down.
You know, the spirit of liberty was present in the founding generation of this country because they had experienced oppression as a British colony. I used to say that the founding generation in this country was the last majority of Americans that believed in the Fourth Amendment because they had all suffered, or knew somebody close to them who had suffered, illegal searches by the British soldiers. And nowadays, most people are so protected by the Fourth Amendment against such illegal searches that they don’t think it’s important to support because – you know, when you looked at the stop and frisk epidemic in New York City during the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations, it was largely implemented against black and brown people.
Black and brown people did not use marijuana in any larger proportions than white people. In fact, the contrary was the case. But 85 to 90% of all the illegal stop and frisk that took place in New York City, and there were like, at some point, for years, five, six, seven, 800,000 a year were executed against people with darker skin color, mostly young men and teenagers. So, a lot of people who looked like me didn’t think that there was a Fourth Amendment crisis. They didn’t think that there was a danger of illegal searches because it had never happened to them or to anyone else that they knew.
I mean, my kids grew up as teenagers in the ‘70s in New York City, and they smoked weed and they never got approached by a cop. Not once. They travelled to school, they went to public schools, they were in the subways, they were in Central Park, they were on the streets, they never once got approached by a cop. Every black friend that they had had been approached, and searched, and stopped, and frisked multiple times by cops.
And that was when I began to see that you cannot enforce the Fourth Amendment just in terms of the liberty rights of the Fourth Amendment. You cannot enforce the First Amendment just in terms of the liberty rights of the First Amendment. You have to also deal with the fact that when the government takes this power illegitimately, it doesn’t use it uniformly against everybody. It uses it against the weakest most vulnerable minorities, whether they’re political minorities, or racial minorities, or sexual minorities. And if you don’t engage in the fight for equality for those minorities, you cannot protect the underlying libertarian rights.
Nico: Yeah, and that’s the larger message of the documentary is your explanation. And it kinda culminates at the end when you’re on the Phil Donahue show with that one white supremacist, the KKK member. There’s that woman in the audience who said, “Well, our Constitution protects the rights to domestic tranquility, but this seems to me with the KKK guy that it’s not promoting domestic tranquility. It’s promoting lawlessness and unrest.” And then, the KKK guy speaks up and he says, “No, no, no, no. If I were in charge, we would have domestic tranquility because we would not have any of this lawlessness. We would not have any of this rest.”
And it brings home, after an hour and 15 minutes of the documentary, your larger point, which is political power is often wielded unequally. And if you allow political expediency to pick and choose who gets to speak, you can’t always assume that it will be Ira Glasser or your favorite politician who will be in power. It’ll be Donald Trump or Mr. Stoner in this case, the member of the KKK.
And just to put a bow on this – I’ve got a whole page of questions here and we’ve gotten through three, which is typical for our conversations Ira. But to put a bow on this, I mean, when I was in high school, I was a member of one of the best track and cross country teams in the country. We had 26 state titles in 50 years, not including second and third places. And one of the things that really motivated me as an athlete on that team in those years, was the tradition, was hearing from our coaches who had been there for most of those 50 years about the people who came before us. And when we were on the track it almost felt like we were running with ghosts, and that we had a duty to those who came before us to carry on that tradition.
And in a larger sense for me, this documentary, and telling your story, almost is a composite for those of your generation, is carrying on that tradition, is telling that story, is telling that history. And in the documentary, in the beginning you might recall, you say, “How can anyone expect to remember this history if you don’t tell them about it?” And you’re referencing there the young girls who met you outside of Abbott’s Field. And we close out the documentary by you telling the group of students about the history, and about passing the baton.
And so, that’s a through line for us, and I hope that this documentary is a retelling of that history, and a retelling of what it means or meant to be a social justice civil libertarian as you put it in those years. And that’s why I so much wanted to include so many voices of our generations, the Phillipa Strums, the David Goldberger, the Norman Siegel who comes shortly after your generation, but he has a similar mindset. I almost thought about calling the documentary The Civil Libertarian because of its composite message of what it means to be a civil libertarian, but a very astute and wise counselor told me that most people won’t know what that means. They’ll think it means political libertarianism which is something completely different.
So, we ended up going with Might Ira, which I thought was also – I know you were concerned about the documentary being hagiographic but you know, baseball’s a through line of the documentary too. And that poem that we asked you read at the end from one of the gentlemen, your colleagues who voted against you to become the executive director of the ACLU, is a play on Mighty Casey at the Bat, which is a very famous famous baseball poem. A
And also, this mighty Ira concept, I mean, you watch the documentary, you see you on firing line, you have a very mighty way of carrying yourself. You have a very mighty way of debating. You don’t back down. You’re authoritative. You don’t use notes. So, I just thought it not only captured your character, but also captured your passion for baseball and that through line from the documentary. So, in the same way traveling hopefully meant something to Roger Baldwin, I think baseball meant something to you, and history means something to you as well.
So, a little bit of background on why we chose the title because I don’t think I ever discussed the title with you. I think you only knew about the title once the documentary came out.
Ira: People asked me about that, and I said, “I didn’t know about it until I watched it myself.” And I said, “You know, at first, it was a little embarrassing.” But I remember that poem that that board member wrote at the one of the anniversary celebrations or something that we had at my tenure there. And I remember that I liked it because it was focused on baseball, which I always took to be a metaphor of how we struggled. And that my glomming onto my Jackie Robinson experience was always that I used to say, “You know, we try to protect civil liberties in the same way he danced on third base, which was daringly, spectacularly, relentlessly, and successfully.”
And so, it was not just the racial struggle that his story represented, but also his style of dealing with it, and the way he channeled his aggressiveness, and his competitiveness. I not only copied his batting stance when I played baseball, but I tried to copy his style when I was at the ACLU, and so did Milton Siegel and a bunch of other people. It was something for that generation of us who went through that experience, his style of play, and his way of dealing with the oppression, became incorporated into our own styles of how we dealt with civil liberty issues, and social justice issues in our own lives.
So, these metaphors can often take on a life of their own, and it’s very important because it’s the way that we understand things is through those metaphors. I mean, that’s how when you talk about the marathon relay race, when you talk about starting out from the shadow of your own goalpost and being on the opponents 30 yard line after 100 years, when you talk about being thrown for a loss on a play that didn’t work and getting up off the ground and calling another player and getting back to it, when you talk about stamina and persistence and keeping on, all these metaphors are very effective ways of understanding what you’re talking about. And they do a better job of explaining it to younger people than abstract language.
And so, I like that the film captured that. And that you guys understood how to do, and did it in a way that seemed to me to be very effective and very communicative. And so, we’ll see. I’ll see you at the Academy Awards. Right?
Nico: Yeah, I wish. So, Ira it’s been a really big pleasure. It’s three years in the making. If another documentarian comes around, do you think you’ll be up for another three years?
Ira: Well, somebody asked me, “Well, they only dealt with two issues. They only dealt with free speech and racial justice. What about all the other issue?” I said, “Well, you know, maybe we’ll turn it into a series if I can suck it up.”
Nico: Yeah. Right? Yeah. Well, part of the reason we focused on those two issues, and I like to think talking across lines of difference and the importance of that is another issue, especially as it relates to your relationship with William F. Buckley and Ben Stern.
Nico: You know, we’ve been talking now, for an hour and eight minutes, I’ve gotten through four of my questions. Your history is just so rich, in order to have a narrative that makes sense, you need to pick and choose, unfortunately.
Ira: Yes. That’s right.
Nico: Also, it’s a production of Fire and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, so we needed to make sure that some of the issues that we focused on were relevant to our core mission as well, which is of course, defending First Amendment rights and values, and values of legal equality, and talking across lines of difference. But I like to think that we got a few more tastes of Ira in there with your baseball, stuff with your growing up and seeing the Civil Rights movement transpire. But yeah, even if we don’t make another documentary, we’ve got, at this point, three and a half hours of podcasts. And hopefully, Ira, I can get you on again sometime in the future, and we can finish my list of questions once and for all.
Ira: Yes, well you know, there was a lawyer at the ACLU who once, in one of our cases, called me as an expert witness, and I think it was a campaign finance case, and he had a long list of questions, and he always joked and saying, “The only thing I got to ask, is I asked him his name. And then an hour later he came up for air and I got to ask my second question, and by that time the court was ready to adjourn.”
Nico: Well, Ira it’s our time to adjourn now. Thank you so much again for coming on the show. And it has been my distinct pleasure to share, at least some parts of your story.
Ira: Thanks Nico.
Nico: That was Ira Glasser. The film is Mighty Ira: a Civil Liberty Story, and you can learn more about the film and see the different ways to watch it by visiting mightyira.com. This podcast is hosted and produced and recorded by me Nico Perrino, and edited by Aaron Reese. Mighty Ira is co-directed by me Nico Perrino and my colleagues Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby. To learn more about So to Speak, you can follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/freespeechtalk, or you can like us on Facebook on facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. You can email us feedback at [email protected],
And please, if you enjoyed this episode, and you enjoyed the documentary Mighty Ira, please consider leaving us a review wherever you listen to this podcast or wherever you watched that film. Reviews are the best way for you to support what we do on this podcast and what we did with this film to help us attract new listeners and viewers. And so, until next time. I hope you enjoyed the film and thanks again for listening.