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Stanford Report, June 17, 1998

Letter from President Casper to Koppel: 6/98

President Gerhard Casper’s letter to Ted Koppel

The following was a private letter President Casper sent on April 8 to Ted Koppel as a part of his invitation to Koppel to deliver the June 14 Commencement address. Because Koppel’s address was, in large part, a response to this letter, Koppel suggested, and the president consented, that letter be made public, which we do here.

8 April 1998

Mr. Ted Koppel
ABC News
1717 DeSales Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036

Dear Ted,

Since you asked for my thoughts, here they are.

For many years, I have been concerned about developments that the Lewinsky-Affair has exaggerated. My reactions are not particularly original to be sure, but they are also not of the kneejerkish kind. Let me single out two. The first goes to the distinction between public and private, the second to the overreach of law enforcement.

(1) I say "the distinction between public and private": my emphasis is not on "privacy." Privacy is obviously a related concept but it stresses the individual, his control over information, his rights. Anybody who runs for office obviously sacrifices much of his right to privacy.

My question is somewhat different. Can a society that essentially obliterates all distinction between the public and the private realm be a free and civilized one on the long run? The fact that there is much sin does not necessarily mean that we can afford to eradicate all of it without turning society into something both oppressive and trivial. Government, media, and ordinary people seem to have lost all sense that making everything public paradoxically means the victory of the private realm over the public business (not the other way around): the public realm will be eaten up by the private, by gossip, by entertainment. Ironically, it is the public realm that loses.

Ted Hughes once said something to the effect that television hates reticence. Yes, but not only television: in my first year as a university president, I found it very hard to focus people on core academic matters. I was reluctant to answer endless questions about my private life in a culture that has come to equate reticence with standoffishness or worse. When Chelsea Clinton entered Stanford, virtually all reporting was about the gossip angle. It did not cross any reporter's mind to look at the academic side of the university that the young woman had chosen.

Refusal to recognize a line between the public and the private not only drives the country literally to distraction but it also makes the country oppressive.

I had a very close friend, Charlotte Beradt, who was a Jewish refugee from Berlin and lived in New York City. In the early days of the Nazis, she collected dreams with a manifest political content (published in 1966 as The Third Reich of Dreams). Here is an excerpt.

In 1934, after having lived one year under the Third Reich, a forty-five-year old doctor had the following dream:

"It was about nine o'clock in the evening. My consultations were over, and I was just stretching out on the couch to relax with a book . . . , when suddenly the walls of my room disappeared. I looked around and discovered to my horror that as far as the eye could see no apartment had walls any more. Then I heard a loudspeaker boom, 'According to the decree of the 17th of this month on the Abolition of Walls . . .'"

So disturbed was the doctor by his dream that he wrote it down of his own accord the next morning (and subsequently dreamt he was being accused of writing down dreams).

I am obviously not suggesting that we are becoming like the Third Reich. Still, it behooves us to make sure that even segments of our social and political life do not resemble some aspects of life under totalitarian rule.

(2) The overreach of law enforcement is closely connected to the demarcation between public and private since in a secular society law enforcement is the main vehicle for getting at sin. Law enforcement also has become a main source of entertainment. Overreach includes the blurring of any distinction between auditing and prosecuting; using perjury to get at behavior that is not criminal in itself; limitless depositions as the modern equivalent of torture for obtaining evidence (I spent 10% of my time during the first three months of the year on depositions). There is little that is special about Ken Starr: many U.S. attorneys behave his way routinely and private lawyers do so increasingly (after all, Lewinsky was brought into this by Jones' lawyers if I remember correctly). There is no or little reluctance to use evidence that is "fruit of the poisonous tree" (see the wire taps).

However, instead of focusing on the well known, let me talk about ordinary people. The New York Times this last year has carried stories about New York police brutalizing ordinary citizens. Some of these have been heartbreaking. Recently, Bob Herbert told about a black man in the Bronx by the name of Ellis Elliott who was wrongly "drug-busted" in a manner that was so appalling that we would associate it with police states. Tony Lewis has been running horror stories about the Immigration and Naturalization Service. What is most dismaying is that accounts like these do not seem to be seen as particularly scandalous by anybody except those who write about them. And, of course, what happens to ordinary people, in different ways, is experienced by institutions (for instance, Stanford in the indirect cost controversy) and, for that matter, politicians.

In my mind, a civil society is associated with a clear demarcation between public and private and conscientious decision-making by those who exercise the authority of government. There are too many exceptions to what is, thank God, still the rule (of law?) that I believe we need to worry much more than we do. If a U.S. attorney tomorrow decided to go after you, for whatever alleged offense, he can impose extraordinary expenses on you, and, if you were acquitted in court, you would still have lost because the government would not reimburse you for your legal defense. If I got sued tomorrow in a civil case and I won, the losing party would be under no obligation to reimburse my expenses. That is why corporations and institutions, such as universities, frequently settle law suits: it is cheaper to pay the plaintiff off than to pay your own lawyers. And if you have done nothing other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time (like some of the White House staff), you still can face extraordinary legal bills.

Let me conclude with another dream from Beradt's book. The dream is about how distorted life becomes if you worry all the time.

"I dreamt I wanted to call on an acquaintance of mine whose name, shall we say, was Miss Small, but on my way I discovered I had forgotten her exact address. I went into a phone booth to look it up, but I looked up an entirely different name to be on the safe side . . ."

We are looking forward to your visit.


Gerhard Casper