Note: This is a unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording. Update: This transcript has been edited for errors and accuracy.
Nico Perrino: Ira, thanks for coming on the show.
Ira Glasser: Thank you, my pleasure.
Nico Perrino: So, I want to ask you, you have a background in mathematics, why civil liberties work then?
Ira Glasser: Well, that’s a very long story actually, but in the sum of it, those were the issues that I was interested in. I didn’t – I wouldn’t have called them civil liberties when I was 15 or 16 or 18 or 19 –
Nico Perrino: What would you have called them?
Ira Glasser: I would have called them probably social issues, I would have called them philosophical issues, I would have called them political issues, but the kinds of things that I was mostly interested in you would find in – if you found it all in school, you would find it in courses, in sociology courses or literature courses or philosophy courses or history courses, but nobody knew what that was, and when I was a kid, if you ever said that’s what you were interested in, the response you got from any adult you said it to, your parents, your uncles, your aunts, your guidance counselors, anybody, was, well, yeah, but you can’t – what are you – how are you gonna earn a living?
Well, the only way to earn a living is to be a writer, and nobody really knew what that meant and it was sort of like deciding to become an actor or something. It was, it was, well, most people who try to do that don’t succeed. You can’t – things like, oh, I want to be a jazz musician, right, and so, so there was, there was – or else you could go teach, and I wasn’t particularly interested in teaching. I was – I sort of had – I wanted to change the world, I mean, I was just, if anything, I thought of social criticism, I thought of, I thought of dissenting from this or that or the other thing, and I’m taking about from the time I had any consciousness at all, from 14, 15, 16, and throughout college, but there was – you were enormously discouraged by vocational considerations by any adult that you talked to, and so you had to really be driven and be willing to look at a bleak future if you wanted to pursue that.
On the other hand, this was the 1950s and, and because of Sputnik and the increasing cold war competition, there was beginning to be tremendous emphasis in school on science and mathematics and physics and if you were good at it, it was very hard to avoid being trapped into it.
Nico Perrino: And you were good at it?
Ira Glasser: Yes, I was, and it wasn’t my passion, it was never my passion, but I was just always an honor student, a straight A student in high school, phi beta kappa in college. I was, I was very good in mathematics.
Nico Perrino: And where did you go to college?
Ira Glasser: I went to what’s now CUNY in New York. It was then independent colleges in the boroughs –
Nico Perrino: Yeah, you were a Brooklyn kid?
Ira Glasser: Yeah, but not by then. By then my parents had, had moved from Brooklyn out to what they told me was Long Island, but which I later discovered was Queens, and, you know, that great migration into the suburbs in the ’50s especially if you were white, and so I ended up at Queens College, but it would have been Hunter if I was in Manhattan, it would have been Brooklyn if I was in Brooklyn, and it was free in those days. You went to college – I lived at home. You went to college the way you went to high school; it was just the next step. There was, there was a test. You had to have a certain grade point average, you had to – but, but that was not a barrier.
Nico Perrino: We’re coming full circle because Cuomo’s budgeted –
Ira Glasser: They’re all talking about that again now because it’s become impossible, and because that was – the free colleges in New York City were the entryway to the entire generation of the children of the immigrants who came in the early 20th century around 1905 and, and –
Nico Perrino: Were your parents immigrants?
Ira Glasser: No, my grandparents were though. My parents were both born here, but I was the first person in the family, I was the oldest son of the oldest son and the oldest daughter, and so I was the first person to go on to college. It was a – I remember the first day I went to school in kindergarten, first grade, my grandmother who had migrated from Minsk in Russia when she was 13, and this was like this is why I came, this was the dream. She, she walked in front of me throwing little sugar cubes for luck. I, I vividly remember that. I didn’t even know what was going on, I was just going to school, and – but, but this – so, so that was a real gateway for, for the generation before me and my generation.
So, the free colleges, without them, every – nobody could have afforded tuition, I mean, it wasn’t – I didn’t even apply. I mean, I was a very good student, I didn’t even apply to any place else. You just, you just went – after high school you went to one of the city colleges the same way that you went to high school after junior high school or after grade school, and so – and it was a great system, it was a great system because the faculty in those – they didn’t have a graduate school in those days, they just had the colleges. So, the great and experienced scholar teachers did not migrate into the graduate school leaving less experienced undergraduates to teach –
Nico Perrino: To teach, yeah.
Ira Glasser: And so – and there were a lot of great teachers in those days because they had come up during the ’30s, during the depression, when, when having a tenured faculty position was a tremendous and unusual security. So, they all were in there, and this was true in history, it was true in literature, it was true in math. I mean I had undergraduate math courses with, with a guy who co-authored a paper with Einstein, and there he was teaching, teaching calculus to 19 year olds, and so the – and it was true in every subject. So, the quality of instruction that you were getting was not – it was not only free, it was a very high level for undergraduates, and it wasn’t really until the early ’60s when the colleges of New York City came together to form what is now CUNY and they created a graduate school which immediately drained off the best and the most experienced –
Nico Perrino: Instructors –
Ira Glasser: – instructors, and I ended up coming back from graduate school and teaching at Queens College when I was 22 years old, and I never taught in my life, and I liked teaching more than I expected to and I was good at it, but that was a very different experience for the kids in my class then it was for me just five years, six years before, and, and that – so that generation passed and then, then they began to charge, and so the whole, the whole gateway into a different world that the free college system was in New York City, disappeared, and that’s what the backlash now is about that is – but this is like 40 years later.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, when you were a kid and you said you were always interested in what you called just politics or philosophical issues, who were the people you looked up to at those times for commentary on those issues? I mean Nat Hentoff is a few years older than –
Ira Glasser: That, that was, that was – I never heard of Hentoff, I don’t think Hentoff was writing then.
Nico Perrino: He was doing most of his jazz stuff.
Ira Glasser: Yes, that’s right; it was before I ever knew him. No, it was people; it was people like Murray Kempton and I.F. Stone and Jimmy Wechsler and Max Lerner. It was people who wrote for newspapers like PM, which was a short-lived afternoon newspaper in New York which had a – I later found out, kind of a radical reputation, but it was basically people like Murray Kempton and I.F. Stone and people like that. It was only thought of as radical because after World War II and the McCarthyism came, you know – I mean anything was radical that wasn’t right wing, but it was a newspaper without advertising, and it was the only newspaper in my house. I mean, I never saw the Times, but the Daily News and the Journal American, they were, they were right wing newspapers, and the Daily Mirror. The Post was, was – came after the PM, I mean it was there, but we never read it. It was – so the PM was in my house, and it had all these writers and, and – but I didn’t read much of them when I was 12, 13, 14. I read the sports pages or –
Nico Perrino: You’re a big baseball fan.
Ira Glasser: Yeah, right, well, I mean I was 9 years old when Jackie Robinson broke in, and that was the race drama of my life, although I don’t think I realized it at the time, but the idea of a – in 1947 when this country, north as well as south, was rigidly exclusionary and separated. I grew up in an area of East Flatbush that was, you know, you could walk 10, 20 blocks in any direction from my house and not find anybody who wasn’t white and Jewish, never mind black, I mean, you didn’t – you had, you had to go pretty far to find Italian Catholics or Irish Catholics, I mean, it was right at the borders of these ethnic neighborhoods that there were fights and violence, but within them they were very segregated.
I mean, the meat stores had Hebrew letters on them, you know, about kosher stuff and there were foreign language newspapers. There was Yiddish language where I was, there was Czech someplace else, there was German someplace else. So, that it was a very rigid and separated society, not by law the way it was in the south, but by custom. I mean, there were no black teachers, there were no black kids in my school, there were no blacks that you ever saw in the stores, not only behind the counter, but shopping. If I went to the polling places with my parents when they voted, there were never any blacks there.
If I went to the union hall with my father who was a construction worker and that was sort of the left of the liberal politics in those days. I didn’t realize it at the time, it was so, it was so routine that you didn’t see it, but there were no blacks and only decades later did I find out, when I was at the ACLU, the reason there were no blacks is that the labor unions discriminated against them. At a time, during the depression and after, where you could not get a construction job in New York City unless you were a member of the union, you know, there were no non-union work, not for carpenters, not for electricians, not for bricklayers, not for plasterers, not for painters, not for glazers, not for any, and the unions were all white, and so you wonder, you know, when you, when you look at the legacy of racism and how it got transmitted. My father who was an unemployed construction worker during the depression manages to survive because he’s a member of a union, so the post-war boom. there’s a lot of construction work and he, and he gets a lot of it, and he’s a working guy, but he ends up, he ends up having enough money to be able in 1950 to put a small down payment on a house in Queens –
Nico Perrino: Or Long Island.
Ira Glasser: And, and he gets a mortgage, many of which came through, through federal FHA, and they didn’t give mortgages to blacks. So, blacks didn’t have the money because they didn’t have the jobs, and then they couldn’t get the mortgages. So, the suburbs became a reflection of all of this, and when the migration from Brooklyn and the Bronx to the suburbs in Westchester and Queens and Long Island happens in the ’50s, it’s entirely white. Levittown gets built with 30,000 of these little ticky tacky houses, and not one of them is owned or occupied by a black family, not one of them. So, this whole out migration, and then they build the highways, not mass transit, they build the highways and they build Jones Beach and they build all the stuff out to the –
Nico Perrino: Robert Moses is –
Ira Glasser: Robert Moses stuff and they did things like they built the overpasses over these highways low enough so that buses couldn’t get through. So, what happens is, you know, I’m a teenager, you start to date, you go out with friends on a weekend, you run out to Jones Beach, A) you need a car, and B) you go to Jones Beach and it’s all white, and you don’t even notice any of that because it’s, it’s so normal that every, every – I don’t realize it until, until much later. Now, what happens, I’m 9 years old back in East Flatbush before this move, 1947, and Jackie Robinson breaks in, and into this rigidly separated and segregated society where a kid like me, even though I’m growing up in a liberal household where FDR was a god. And in 1948 when Henry Wallace runs against Harry Truman, my father is for Harry Truman and my mother is for Henry Wallace, and I think that that’s the whole range of political opinion in America.
It was so parochial, it was so – but into this thing, suddenly there’s Jackie Robinson, and you go to Ebbets Field as a kid, you take the trolley, your 9,10 years old, you go to Ebbets Field and one of the things that happened during those years is because of Robinson, blacks started coming to the ballpark. So, all of a sudden, a 10-year-old kid is sitting in the bleachers next to a black guy, and you’re rooting for the same thing, you’re on the same side, and you’re hitting each other in the shoulder when something good happens for your team, and I’m rooting for Robinson and he’s rooting for Carl Furillo, and this is an experience that it’s impossible to have for a 9 or 10-year-old white boy anywhere in the country except at Ebbets Field.
Ebbets Field becomes the only integrated public accommodation in the whole country, and lots of us went through that process, and things happen to you psychologically as a result of it that you weren’t even aware of. For example, I’m listening, there’s no television then, I’m listening to the ballgames and I’m listening to Red Barber broadcast the play by play of the Dodger games with his southern accent because he was from Mississippi, and things are happening on the field. I mean, they’re harassing Robinson, they’re throwing beanballs at him, and you, you know all this and you hate it because – not because you’ve developed a racial justice ideology, you hate it because it’s your guy, and it’s your team, and at a very elemental level, this becomes a kind of a tribal reaction.
You hate the Yankees, you hate the Giants, you hate the Cardinals, and they’re doing this shit to your guy, and so you hate that and you become defensive for it, and all of a sudden, every kid on my block, Robinson becomes their favorite player, and they’re identifying with his struggle. We don’t even know what it is that we’re ingesting, and the first place I learn about Jim Crow laws is listening to the broadcast of the Dodgers games where I am told by the announcer doing the play by play that when the Dodgers are in St. Louis playing the Cardinals, Robinson and Campanella and Newcombe have to stay at a different hotel than the rest of the team, and eat in different restaurants because of Jim Crow laws because St. Louis is a southern town, and that’s how I find out about Jim Crow laws and that’s how I hate it. They can’t do that to that – how –
Nico Perrino: To your guy?
Ira Glasser: Yeah.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: So, this whole experience of, of – and I used to joke when I was at the ACLU, I discovered that almost every – this was less true of women because women – girls were discouraged from being baseball fans, that was another whole sexist thing, so it was mostly for boys, but I discover when I’m at the ACLU many decades later, a curious sort of statistical quirk which is that virtually everybody, all the lawyers, all the, all the guys on the staff about my age, give or take a few years, were Dodger fans. There were no Yankee fans, and there was only an occasional Giant fan.
Nico Perrino: You sure that wasn’t team discrimination there?
Ira Glasser: No, I mean it became so, and I became aware of it. I used to joke that I’m for free speech, but if you don’t take down that poster of the Yankees, you’re out of here. People would say, uhh, but the – no, the fact is it was the other way around. It was – it turned out that what my experience that I just described about the impact on me as a 9, 10, 11-year-old white kid growing up in a segregated society of the Jackie Robinson phenomena helped determine in a very definite direction the political values that turned into civil rights, and that that was not an accident. I knew enough about statistics to know that the probability that random hiring wouldn’t turn out that everybody worked at the ACLU were Dodger fans and there were no Yankee fans, and we all knew that the Yankees were one of the last teams to have a black player.
They were the – of all teams of both leagues, they were the third from the last to ever hire a black player, and they didn’t until 1955 or 6, 6 I think, and we all knew that, and it was one of the dividing lines. So, I used to always joke that if you were a Dodger fan you grew up to believe in civil liberties and civil rights, and if you were a Yankee fan you grew up to believe in oil depletion allowances, and if you were a Giant fan you were basically morally confused, and so, so it was – but there’s no question that that experience affected – I mean, what I later understood about my own political development turned out to be something that almost everybody who was my age who was a Dodger fan who I met later years went through the same thing.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: And so, it was a very pivotal political moment, but that’s how my interest focused, I mean, it wasn’t because –
Nico Perrino: You didn’t read someone who inspired you; you just lived in a culture that changed –
Ira Glasser: Yeah, yeah –
Nico Perrino: – and brought these issues to the fore.
Ira Glasser: That’s right, more that, more that. I mean, later when I was – by the time I was in college and I began reading more systematically, it began having more content to it, but for the most part those – the heroes were more sports heroes, which is one of the reasons why I’ve always thought that the lessons that you learn through things like sports, including stuff like when we were opposing the unconstitutionality of urine searches during the drug stuff, the place, the arena where everybody understood that, was because of athletes getting tested.
Nico Perrino: They did that to me when I was at Indiana University. I was an athlete; they’d call you up the night before, about 10 p.m. and say you had to be there at 6 a.m. to take your drug test.
Ira Glasser: I know, and by that time I had read a lot of the founding father stuff and I just knew somehow there was nobody, not Alexander Hamilton, not James Madison, not Thomas Jefferson, there was nobody among the founders who would not have been outraged by the notion that you had to drop your pants and piss in a cup for somebody in order to get a job. I mean these were people who started the revolutionary war because of searches of their footlockers.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, searches and seizures.
Ira Glasser: Right.
Nico Perrino: It seems like civil liberties hits you, or civil rights, hits you at your core. When you think about getting into that sort of work today, you think about doing it through the legal avenue. Now, you’re not a lawyer, but you rose to the position of executive director of the ACLU, which is probably the most prominent legal organization in the United States, so how does that happen? So, you started at the New York Civil Liberties Union –
Ira Glasser: Yeah –
Nico Perrino: The affiliate chapter, how do you get there and become its executive director and then get to the ACLU and become its leader?
Ira Glasser: Well, so I end up going to graduate school in math, and when I’m in graduate school I suddenly can’t take courses in literature anymore. Even though I was majoring in math in undergraduate school, I was still taking lots of courses in literature and sociology and philosophy and stuff, and –
Nico Perrino: Because math was going to be your vocation, but literature –
Ira Glasser: That was –
Nico Perrino: – and philosophy was your passion–
Ira Glasser: – my education.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: Yeah, and I took – anybody else who was going on to graduate school in math went way beyond the 32 credits that they were required do be a math major. They would take 42, and when they got to be juniors and seniors, they took nothing but math courses. I took the minimum. I ended up having 32 credits and that was it. My whole senior year I ended up taking four – I was the only non-history major in the history courses, the only non-English major in the English courses, the only non – I took all that. I got to graduate school, that was impossible, and I was just immersed in mathematics and nothing else and I hated it.
I mean, I felt like I was exercising one finger and I was going to end up with the strongest finger in the world, but the rest of me was atrophying, and I was on a doctoral program and after a year, I got my master’s degree and I said I can’t do this, and I just – I was newly married. My wife and I just picked up and we left and we came back to New York, and I got a job teaching math at Queens College, which by that time, the graduate school had begun and it had siphoned off all the more experienced people, and so they were hiring people like me, and I ended up coming back there.
I had been a star student there, and so I got the job without a doctorate and I was teaching math, and I still hadn’t given up on the idea of graduate school, so I enrolled in a program, a doctoral program at the new school, a combined doctoral program in philosophy and sociology because by that time I had decided if I was gonna go on in graduate school, it was gonna be in my subject matter, it wasn’t gonna be in their subject manner, but as it turned out, it was the academic enterprise itself that was, that was – I was becoming alienated from. I was more activist than that. I wasn’t thinking of doing anything like the ACLU. The ACLU was a small organization; I had hardly ever heard of it, I don’t think I had heard of it at that time. This is sort of 1961, 62. So, I leave that – the new school after a year, and I’m teaching math at Queens, and an opportunity arises to teach mathematics at Sarah Lawrence College, which was this very sort of fancy rich girls’ school, and –
Nico Perrino: That’s in Florida, right?
Ira Glasser: No, no, no, it’s in Westchester, lower Westchester county right below Scarsdale, and – but it’s a kind of a radical school. They don’t have – they don’t teach in large lecture halls, and they have small classes. It’s sort of like a British system like Oxford. They have six, seven people in a class, and you have some lectures, but then you have tutorials and conferences and stuff like that, and they didn’t have grades, they had written evaluations, and the whole thing, and you could teach, and, you know, these are kids who if taking math at all, were not taking it for vocational reasons.
They were taking it for purposes of general education, and it always seemed to me, by that time I had figured out that teaching math to freshman who were gonna take it for one year for purposes of general education, had to be very different than teaching it to people for whom it was the first step toward becoming nuclear engineers or something, and so you had to ask yourself the question, why is it important for somebody seeking a general education to even learn the stuff, and I discovered during those years that one of the things that every freshman took in every college in the country was analytic geometry along with calculus.
Analytic geometry was invented by Descartes and because I had read Descartes in philosophy course, I had learned that he developed the analytic geometry as part of his effort to prove the existence of God, but when you learned analytic geometry in the math class, there was no mention of that. It was those pages were ripped from the book, and when you learned about Descartes in the philosophy course, the analytic geometry was gone because the segmentation of the academic enterprise had really made it indecipherable. So, when you read Descartes in a philosophy course, his attempt to prove the existence of God was vacuous because the analytic geometry was a key part of it, but it wasn’t there because they couldn’t teach it in the philosophy course because nobody understood it, and when you learned about it in the math class, the philosophy was all stripped away, so neither had any full meaning.
So, I decided that if I was going to teach math to young undergraduates for the purposes of a general liberal education, it had to be done together, and you couldn’t do that in the – at Queens College or mostly at any university because it violated their whole academic departmental segmentation, but I was able to do that at Sarah Lawrence because it was sort of a progressive and experimental school, and so I set about teaching things like non-Euclidean geometry and topology and all kinds of things like that, and I loved it, but they only – they were basically a literature and arts school, they had very little math and science, and they only had one guy on the math faculty, and they were, they were then expanding it by adding a half person, and I was that half person.
So, I left Queens College and I decided if I’m going to stay teaching math, which by that time I was liking unexpectedly, I was gonna do it there, and so I left. The problem was it was only a half time position, which paid $2900.00 a year; this is in ’61 or ’62. My wife was a kindergarten teacher, had become pregnant, so she left her job. So suddenly that was our whole income, $2900.00 a year, and, you know, when you’re 23, 24, and I always knew if worse came to worse I could go get a job with North American Aviation or Grumman Aircraft or IBM, they – I was, I was a star mathematics student and I could have walked into a $30,000.00 job even back then.
So, with that kind of security and at that age, you could take risks and you could take steps that later on maybe you couldn’t take because you would have two kids and you would have a mortgage and you would – and I just had this sense that if you didn’t experiment then, when could you, and so even though to everybody else looked like what I was doing was very risky, I never felt that there was much of a risk because I could always fall back on something, which I never had to. So, I take that job and I decide that this is the opportunity, if I’m only working half time, to try now to find a way to branch out into the things that really move me, and –
Nico Perrino: Politics, philosophy, civil rights –
Ira Glasser: Yeah, well, this was 1962, so stuff was starting to bubble and boil out there in a way that was very different from the ’50s during McCarthyism when is when I really grew up. So, I, I decide, well, it would be great to do some editing, to do some writing. By this time, I’m reading all this stuff that I wasn’t reading when I was 12, and so I decide to try to get an editorial position. Now, I’d never been in a high school newspaper. You talk about heading up the ACLU, not being a lawyer, the really scary thing was I write to all these magazines and newspapers trying to get a job editing, and I’ve never been on a high school newspaper, I have never taken a journalism course, I – God knows what they must have thought receiving these letters, but there’s a certain kind of naive arrogance that you have when you’re that age.
I was smart, I was capable, I was committed, and I wrote these letters, and, of course, virtually nobody answered me. I, I wrote to the Nation, which I had then just discovered. I wrote to a few other journals, I wrote to the New Republic, I wrote to the New York Post, I wrote – and there was a magazine called Current back then, which was brand new, it started in 1962, and I, I was vacuuming up the publications at the time. I was reading and subscribing to dozens of things, and I was – and Current was one of them, and it was a very interesting magazine because what it did is it, it subscribed to 700 periodicals, law journals, journals of sociology, political science, the New York Times magazine, dozens of newspapers, the Washington Post, The Times, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, dozens of academic journals and popular magazines, and they would – the editors would read them all, and then cull what they thought were the best articles from them, but focused on new ideas all around social issues.
This was sort of conceived of as a magazine for the citizen, so it was all about unemployment and economics and poverty and foreign affairs and civil rights and all the stuff that moved me, and then they would construct kind of dialogs between excerpts of these articles that they found. So, that you have a section on automation and unemployment or a section on the civil rights struggle or a section on the Sino-Soviet split, and you would have pieces of the articles from all these different sources ranging from two sentences to five pages arranged and edited in a kind of a constructed debate and a discussion. It was fascinating stuff, and –
Nico Perrino: Sounds like a perfect publication for you who’s vacuuming up all these –
Ira Glasser: That’s exactly what it was. It was like one of those – that’s why luck plays such a part in these, and the answer to the question, how did you get from here to there. For some reason, the founding editor of that magazine –
Nico Perrino: What was his or her name?
Ira Glasser: Sidney Hertzberg it was. My letter appealed to him, I don’t know why.
Nico Perrino: Do you remember what it said?
Ira Glasser: I basically told him my story about what – and why I thought this magazine was really – bridged all of the artificial gaps that academic disciplines created and it was sort of like where I had come from, and why I – and I think, I think if I were to guess, I think it appealed to him because he didn’t meet too many people, particularly readers of the magazine, who really understood conceptually what he was trying to do, and I did, and he agrees to see me, and I go in there. This is probably, I don’t know, August, September of ’62, and I end up getting a job as associate editor. Everybody in the magazine, there’s about five or six people in the magazine, everybody a career journalist, they’re all mostly 20 or 30 years older than I am.
I, as I said, I had never been in a school newspaper, and I end up on the magazine, and there were some ups and downs because small magazines have periodic financial problems, and people get laid off and I was the last one hired so I was the first one laid off at one point for a few months, but at the time I was still teaching half time, I was still teaching math half time at Sarah Lawrence, and he agreed I could still do that, and so I’m there as associate editor, and one of the people I meet, I’ll telescope this now, one of the people I meet is Aryeh Neier.
Nico Perrino: Who we’ve interviewed on this podcast.
Ira Glasser: And who was then on the staff. He wasn’t doing editing on the staff, but he was doing direct mail, he was helping to promote the magazine. He didn’t know anything about that, but he was – and he was basically about my age, he was a year older than I was. He was the only other one that was close to my age, and we become colleagues at the magazine, and he is newly married and I am newly married and he has a young son and I have a young son, so we begin to socialize a little bit, have dinner at each others houses, and on a small magazine it’s almost like a little family anyway, and we become friends and colleagues and associates, and then some years later, he gets laid off in one of the periodic downturns that small magazines have, and he ends up getting a job at the ACLU, and that’s kind of the first time that I – I don’t know if it’s the first time I ever heard of the ACLU, but it’s the first time I certainly become aware of it, and it was still a very small organization with an undeserved left wing reputation, and as you said, almost entirely legal.
So, he, he gets a job with the New York Civil Liberties Union, and later when the, when the – not too much later, the long-time director of the NYCLU is old and he retires, Aryeh becomes the head of the NYCLU, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York affiliate of the ACLU, and we keep in touch and I’m – by that time I’m, I’m – I’ve risen in the magazine. The founding editor leaves, and I’m basically editing the magazine with two or three people, and after a while I begin to realize, this is after three, four, five years, that this magazine has a great concept, but since it still has very small readership, it’s not really going anywhere and it’s not going to go anywhere, and it’s not going to satisfy my, my desire to sort of affect things, and I get to – by this time it’s ’65, ’66, and stuff is really bubbling and boiling. The anti-Vietnam war movement is starting, the civil rights movement is rising, and I’m getting more and more interested in going into politics per se.
I don’t exactly know what that means. I’m thinking of it, not running for office, I’m thinking of it going to work for somebody I admire, and, and somewhere in 1966 I decide that the, the most change agent politician out there is Bobby Kennedy. I was never a big fan of John Kennedy, and 1960 was the first presidential election I was eligible to vote in, and I, I was heartbroken over Kennedy arresting the nomination away from Adlai Stevenson who had been a hero of mine, and I didn’t see all that much difference between Kennedy and Nixon, and I ended up voting for Kennedy, but it was a struggle, but Bobby Kennedy I had become really turned on to by the mid ’60s, and I begin this thing that I did with the magazine, I write him this letter, and I wondered for years after because I’ve received so many letters like that myself at the ACLU, and I always had a – I always leaned over backwards to see people for that reason because so often these letters come in and who is this person, you know.
It took me a long time, and I had a connection with Pierre Salinger because I knew his brother who was Kennedy’s press secretary. John Kennedy’s press secretary at the time was part of that clan, and he intervened with me, and after a long time I finally get an appointment with Bobby Kennedy and late ’60 – I think it was December ’66 or January ’67, I actually get to see him, and what I said in the letter was that I thought he was a unique politician, neither liberal nor conservative and he was uniquely positioned to make real change in the country of the kind that I wanted, and that I thought he should run for president and I thought if he did, he’s gonna need more people like me.
Nico Perrino: How old are you at this time?
Ira Glasser: By that time I’m 28, and outside of math, I have no experience in anything except the five years at the magazine, but I get the appointment and years later when I was at the ACLU and it was so hard to see senators and you never got to see them alone, you know, there was always staff people and this and that, and I got like a 45 minute meeting with him, just me and him and his barber who was giving him a haircut at the time that we were talking, and he, having read the letter, asked me, well, you know, so why – what are you interested in, and I went through the whole business, and don’t forget this was like December ’66, January ’67.
He was, he was far from ready to challenge Johnson or to get out there, and he was a senator and you know, so he says to me, well, I’m not, I’m not ready yet to decide whether I want to do this or whether I can do this, but he was already beginning to kind of gather up people, and I realized later that’s sort of why he agreed to see me, and he says to me, well, I’m not going to be hiring anybody any time soon, but you should stay in touch, which I only years later realized was sort of an astonishing response, instead of a blow off.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: And he asked me to stay in touch with Frank Mankiewicz who was one of his top aides, which I did, and then he says to me, and this is one of the most interesting and insightful sort of stories of my vocational life, he then says to me, so what else are you thinking of doing given these interests. I said, well, I don’t know, but I, I got an offer, which I had just a few weeks before, from Aryeh at the NYCLU, who said they were beginning to grow. The money was beginning to come in, this was late ’66 and it was fueled by all of the movements that were growing then, and he said that he was thinking of creating the position of associate director and was I interested, and my response to him, probably not.
For one thing, I said, I’m not a lawyer, and he says, well, I’m not a lawyer either. I said, I know, but you’re running the organization, and I said, and anyway, I think, and I say this to Kennedy, I think the ACLU is much narrower than my interests. I mean, I saw it as legal interests and constitutional law. I saw it in a way that was, that was narrow, and I said, I’m interested in more broad things, I mean that was why I was interested in politics. I was interested in foreign affairs, I was interested in economics, I was interested in all these other issues, and that the legal issues seemed to me to be narrowly constructed, and Kennedy looks at me and says, you’re wrong about that, and it astonished me years later to realize that a guy like Kennedy who did not come out of a liberal background, was not particularly disposed to constitutional rights in the work – for Joe McCarthy. He was kind of a hard-edged guy. It was amazing to me that he had this insight which as a sort of a dyed in the wool, borne and bred liberal, I did not have and wasn’t to have until years later after being at the ACLU.
He said to me, you’re wrong about the narrowness. He said if you – the ACLU is a unique organization in American life, and it’s unique because it’s based on a set of radical principals about what this country is founded on, but it operates in the mainstream of American institutions. It operates in legislatures, it operates in courts, so it’s a very – it’s very politically mainstream in how it goes about pursuing its ends, but its ends are based on a radical and correct understanding of the principals that the country is based on, which was an amazing thing for a guy like Kennedy to understand and articulate in 1967.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: I couldn’t have and I didn’t, and I thought about that, and he said you should, you should think seriously about taking that job. So, I left Washington, I went back to New York, and I rethought that and partly because my real intention was to continue relating to him in the hope that I would end up on his staff, and if he thought this was a good idea, then maybe it was good for me to do it. Partly for that reason and partly because I – the more I thought about it, the more that interested me, and I had nothing else to do. I had an offer to go back to the University of Illinois, and develop a math curriculum for elementary school kids, which if I had stayed in math is what I probably would have done.
So, I go out and I interview for that and I get offered that job, but I decide this is the moment where I can’t have it both ways. I have to decide I’m going in this direction or I’m going in that direction, and I say no to the math and I leave the Sarah Lawrence job, and I take the job at the civil liberties union as Aryeh’s associate director. This is – in two weeks it’ll be 50 years to the day, May 1st, 1967, and I’m fully intending to be there for a year or two until Kennedy runs, which I’m convinced he’s gonna do, and I stay in touch with Mankiewicz, and I get involved in all kinds of things at the New York Civil Liberties Union, and then I’m up in Syracuse one day speaking for the NYCLU, and I’m staying at the home of the law school dean at the time, and I wake up in the morning after the speech and the radio is playing in the kitchen or something, and it’s talking about a Kennedy assassination, and I say to myself, you know, half asleep, that was five years ago, why – I mean, six years ago, why are they talking about the assassination, and, of course, what they’re talking about is RFK’s assassination, and uh, like for so many other people it just cut the ground out from under me.
I go back to New York in a stupor, and then suddenly there’s no political route for me. Gene McCarthy is not going anywhere, Humphrey we’re all pissed off about because of his support of the Vietnam war and Johnson, and then Nixon gets elected. Nixon, you know, the Darth Vader of our youth, and so suddenly here I am on the – thinking I’m on this path where the NYCLU is a temporary landing spot where I can do some good things and some interesting things, but it really, it’s really – it really is a temporary spot until I can find a way into politics, and then suddenly King is dead, Kennedy is dead, Nixon is in the white house and for people like me, the political roots to change were gone for the foreseeable future, and so I stay at the NYCLU. Really not thinking of it as a long-term thing still, but right now it puts me in the position to fight for things I believe in, to resist the things I, I don’t believe in, and it becomes a kind of almost government in exile, you know, operating on the same issues not through politics, but outside of politics using the leverage of –
Nico Perrino: The court of public opinion?
Ira Glasser: The court of public opinion, the legislatures, state and federal, and the courts, and it becomes a place where people, in those years, where people like me get to fight for the things that formerly we thought you had to be in politics to fight for effectively, and I begin to get an appreciation of what Kennedy told me in that interview that the root to political change in this country is not just through the institutions of formal politics, it’s through this whole range of organizations outside of politics who function as pressure points upon the political system, and the more I learned about it as I went on, the more I came to understand that most of the fundamental political and social changes that have occurred in this county, have occurred from the bottom up, and that the political systems were the last ones to jump on, and, you know, when you went to the march on Washington in 1963, which I did, I was 25 at the time, and it was – I’d never been to anything like it in my life before or since for that matter, and there was no – the president wasn’t there. The president, this was John Kennedy, didn’t send a message. There was no senators, there were no members of the house, there were no political figures there, you know, it was King and, and Bayard Rustin and Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins and John Lewis, I mean –
Nico Perrino: And Ira Glasser in the audience.
Ira Glasser: Somewhere in that crowd. Every time one of my kids sees the pictures, where are you, I say somewhere in there, and, and so I end up staying at the NYCLU. Three years later in 1970, Aryeh is elected as head of the national ACLU, and I slip in to his position of executive director of the NYCLU in 1970 where I stay until 1978, and then he leaves the ACLU and I’m a candidate. By that time, I’m sort of one of the young leading figures in the organization and I’m one of several candidates and I get chosen, and so in the fall of ’78 I become national executive director, and then 10, 15 years after that I wake up in a hotel room someplace and I realize, holy shit, I’ve been here 20 years, and 25 years since then, and I thought this was a two-year gig.
Nico Perrino: Before you got into politics.
Ira Glasser: And this turned out to be my political life in a way that totally fulfilled, I mean totally in an unimaginably terrific way, all of those dreams and ambitions and desires that couldn’t be articulated when I was 15 and 16 and 18 and 19, and that no adult could give a vocational shape to because and partly these organizations used to tell people in the ’70s and ’80s, 90 percent of all the organizations you know about, NARO, NOW, the Legal Defense Funds, the Asian American Legal Defense Funds, the Mexican American Legal Defense Funds, the Common Cause, Environmental Defense Fund, all of these organizations didn’t exist then, and they all were created during the turbulence of the ’60s and collectively became places where people like me, like I had been when I was 15, could say, that’s what I want to grow up to do, and suddenly the nature of people going to law school changed.
When I started at the ACLU, all the lawyers there had come from firms. They had gone to law school for all the reasons I didn’t go to law school, that they were going to become rich. They were going to represent corporations and banks and estates and trusts and do stuff like that, and then they graduated law school, they went into these firms, they began working their way up to partners, they’re about my age. The civil rights movement happened, they started doing volunteer legal work for the ACLU. Then they left their firms and they came to work for the ACLU, again thinking they would be there for two years before they would go back and make their pot. The whole thing changed for them and they never went back, but by the late ’60s and early ’70s, young people had begun to go to law school really for the first time for the purpose of coming out and working for –
Nico Perrino: For the purpose of being an activist and going into public interest work?
Ira Glasser: And that had never been possible or even thinkable or even imaginable when I was that age as a young person. So, for me, this was all like some kind of an accidental metamorphosis where I had ended up in exactly what I had dreamed of doing although I couldn’t have articulated it back then nor given it the shape nor imagined that it would be the ACLU. One of the reasons why I was so stunned, is that Bobby Kennedy seemed to understand that in 1967 which was, given who he was, an extraordinary thing.
Nico Perrino: He was an establishment guy, and this was very much a grassroots movement –
Ira Glasser: He was totally, but it was part of what was happening with him. Part of what appealed to me in him was this transformative figure he had become, and in order to become that kind of a transformative figure, you have to be transformed yourself, and that’s the real meaning of the term charismatic. I mean the term charisma is often misused to be a synonym for magnetic, but really it is a change, a transformative fundamental change, and there were lots of people, I mean there was Kennedy, there was King, there was Mohammed Ali, there was Jackie Robinson, there were lots of people who were charismatic transformative figures, and in a way that I sort of regard as a stroke of luck, I crossed paths with more than a few of them and it changed, it changed me and it opened up for me the vocational life I had in an inchoate way dreamed of without any definition to it back when I was younger.
Nico Perrino: So, the story of your career could almost be said to be one where you follow your passions, you know –
Ira Glasser: Yes –
Nico Perrino: – or go places where people wouldn’t expect you to go based on your education –
Ira Glasser: Yes.
Nico Perrino: You got into teaching not really wanting to go into teaching, you got into journalism with no real journalism background. You sought to get into politics and probably would have gotten into politics had it not been for the Robert Kennedy assassination, and you got into law as a non-lawyer.
Ira Glasser: Yes, all that is right, and all of it is the content of whenever a young person would pop into my office or want to see me or write me one of these crazy letters of the kind that I wrote, I would always see them, and whether I had a job or not for them, that was the conversation we would have, that when you have these passions and the path to get to where you want to go is not clear and there isn’t a path, there’s just a jungle, and you got to hack your way through it or hope you find the path, you never know where it’s gonna end up, but what you do know is what you want, and you have to keep your eye on that and follow your nose, and especially when you’re young, be willing to do things that are unorthodox and risky because when you get older you won’t do it.
When you get older you’ll have too many kids and a mortgage and you won’t be able to take those risks because there’s consequences for other people than yourself, but when you’re young is the only time to do that, and for people – that’s why I tell my grandchildren now as they contemplate about what they should major in in college. I said, you don’t know what you’re going to major in, and whatever you major in, you’re gonna end up doing something different, and what college is, is a tasting party. You go there and you absorb all kinds of things that are new and fresh and you have no idea where it’s gonna go, but you follow your interests and you stick to your interests no matter what anybody says because the truth is, especially if you’re white, middle class, well educated and smart. Take the risk and don’t worry about it, but I got – I have a 13-year-old grandson now who’s not even in high school yet, and he’s already thinking about responding to questions about what he wants to be. You have no idea what you want to be.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, and it’s absurd that anyone would ask that question.
Ira Glasser: Well, but they all do. The pressure on kids at an earlier and earlier age is incredible.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, when I was in college I went in wanting to become a sports journalist because sports is in my background and I really liked reading newspapers, and I decided I didn’t want to do that. Then I thought I maybe wanted to become an history professor and decided I didn’t really want to do that. Then I got interested in politics, thought I may want to go into politics, became disabused of that notion and started looking at advertising and marketing because that’s what some people in my family do, but all along I’ve been very passionate about civil liberties issues and had an internship with FIRE, and so I’m applying to advertising and marketing jobs and then FIRE CEO, president and CEO, Greg Lukianoff calls me up and says, I have a job as my assistant open up, are you interested in applying for it, and then I did and here I am –
Ira Glasser: Yeah, that’s exactly –
Nico Perrino: – years later.
Ira Glasser: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right, and the –
Nico Perrino: This would have never have been part of my path.
Ira Glasser: That’s right.
Nico Perrino: Had someone not told me maybe you should try this.
Ira Glasser: That’s right, and the reason why, like I said the answer to your question, how did you get from there to here is a short question, but it doesn’t have a short answer. The details of that answer that I’ve given you are critical to the content of the answer because –
Nico Perrino: It wasn’t strategic.
Ira Glasser: And you could not have predicted it, you can’t look back on it and say any of it was purposeful except in the general direction.
Nico Perrino: Which is to say you were following what you were interested in.
Ira Glasser: You were following your nose, you were following your passion, and you were taking risks that were not that great, but you were taking those risks at a time when it was possible to take them without dire consequences, and because those years are the only years you have. I mean, I still flirted with the idea of running for congress when I was still at the NYCLU before I had the ACLU job in 1970. By that time, I had four children under the – 7 and under.
Nico Perrino: Harder risk to take.
Ira Glasser: And what am I doing, how am I going to raise this money, and what if I go into debt, and how do I give up my job and what if I have to go to Washington and they’re all in New York and I have to go and they’re in school. I mean, all kinds of considerations begin to constrain you, and I ended up heading up the ACLU instead of being a freshman member of congress, but as Eleanor Norton once said to me years later, you ended up having a lot more influence as head of the ACLU in the things you care about, then you would have as a single member of congress.
Nico Perrino: And she would know.
Ira Glasser: That’s right, and that’s probably right, and it’s something that in 1967, 1968, 1970, I never would have believed because my view was growing up that if you were interested in political change, the route to that is through electoral politics, period, end of story. I had no appreciation of the impact of organizations outside the government –
Nico Perrino: NGOs.
Ira Glasser: Yes, and I had no appreciation of how those organizations collectively nurtured and supported movements of people outside the formal engines of government upon government. I mean, that was stuff I learned entirely while I was at the ACLU, but I did not know it before. So, there was no way I could have mapped that, that end game. That was something that I see only in retrospect, and as you correctly say, the only thing that could have gotten you there was not foreseeing the particular form of the ending, but just sticking with the general direction of what was moving you and be alert to opportunities as they arose because you can never anticipate those.
Nico Perrino: We’re at the ACLU right now, and we’re already an hour into the conversation. Do you have a little bit more time?
Ira Glasser: Yes.
Nico Perrino: You can?
Ira Glasser: Sure.
Nico Perrino: Because I do want to talk about your experience fighting for the First Amendment at the ACLU.
Ira Glasser: Yes.
Nico Perrino: Because you come to the ACLU right after – as its executive director right after Aryeh Neier left.
Ira Glasser: Right.
Nico Perrino: Right after the ACLU had been embroiled in the public debate surrounding the Skokie case.
Ira Glasser: Which I was deeply involved in before coming to the ACLU through my role in the NYCLU.
Nico Perrino: Really?
Ira Glasser: Yeah.
Nico Perrino: Because Aryeh made the good point that the ACLU had always defended sort of these outliers like the Nazis –
Ira Glasser: Right –
Nico Perrino: – it’s just all the facts in the Skokie case came together to make it a headline grabbing story.
Ira Glasser: Yeah.
Nico Perrino: So, you assumed the directorship after he leaves and after the ACLU’s public profile has been risen from that case. Was the First Amendment docket your most important docket at that point?
Ira Glasser: No.
Nico Perrino: No?
Ira Glasser: No, the –
Nico Perrino: Because I ask you because I think of the ACLU, and I think of it foremost as a First Amendment organization because when I think of its founding documents or its first annual report was the fight for freedom of speech and then a year in the fight for freedom of speech.
Ira Glasser: Well, that was the, the sort of the historical origins of it. I mean, it grew out of the anti-war movement, trying to resist America’s entrance into World War I. It grew out of an organization called the American Union Against Militarism, and they were small, they were not too effectual, but what they did is they organized meetings, they organized rallies, they organized demonstrations, they distributed leaflets, and every time they did so they got busted because in 1917, 1918, around then, the Supreme Court had never yet, in 130 years of existence, ever, ever struck down a law or a government action on First Amendment grounds, never, and so the First Amendment stood there like a beacon, but – and it was supported rhetorically in some abstract way.
For people who actually needed it on the ground, it was useless. I mean, Margaret Sanger got arrested every Monday and Tuesday in New York for distributing leaflets on birth control. She was a contemporary of Roger Baldwin, they knew each other, they came out of the same period, and when the American Union Against Militarism kept organizing these anti-war, anti-conscription meetings and rallies, they constantly got broken up by the cops and there was no remedy, and one of the things that they did, is they realized that they needed protection. They needed somehow to be able to invoke the First Amendment to enable their political action, and so they created within the American Union Against Militarism something called the Civil Liberties Bureau, which was basically a unit of the American Union Against Militarism and was, I think, the first time in American history that the phrase civil liberties was attached to an organizational name.
Nico Perrino: So, it started then, the First Amendment was used as a vehicle to a different end?
Ira Glasser: Yes.
Nico Perrino: It was opposition to war?
Ira Glasser: Which – yes, which –
Nico Perrino: It wasn’t an end in itself?
Ira Glasser: Which it always is, always, whether you’re talking about the prisoners’ rights movement or mental patients’ rights movements or high school students’ rights movement or welfare rights movement, it’s always – the First Amendment is always something that is enabling and making it possible for people to pursue a political end. It’s not ever a political end in itself. It can become so for people like us who end up in organizations that are devoted to defending it for other people, but it’s use is always in behalf. This is, without exception, true historically. Until the ACLU is actually created in 1920, there is no organization that is devoted to trying to advance and protect First Amendment rights.
There’s only organizations devoted to other ends who need the First Amendment in order to be able to freely pursue those other ends, and so Baldwin becomes appointed by the American Union Against Militarism to head up their Civil Liberties Bureau. It becomes his job to try to see if the First Amendment can be used to protect the rights of people organizing against the war. That’s where – and then, of course, we get into the war, and Wilson turns around and they get into the war, and everybody closes ranks and says, well, now that we’re in the war, we have to stop opposing it, and there’s a big argument about that politically, and the American Union Against Militarism basically shuts down its opposition to the war, and in a few years it goes out of existence.
Baldwin and some of his colleagues, given their experience with the Civil Liberties Bureau within the American Union Against Militarism during the war, come to realize that, that no social and political change is possible in the country, especially for people who are dissenting from established positions and people who are in minority positions and people who are outvoted basically, no movement is possible without the First Amendment. So, they decide they’re gonna take the Civil Liberties Bureau outside of the American Union Against Militarism, which is sort of fading anyway and finally goes out of business.
And they create an organization called the National Civil Liberties Bureau, and it’s a free standing organization, which for a couple of years functions in a probably not very effectual way because it was tiny and under resourced, and then this develops to the point where they figure out that they need something more substantial, and about 30 or 40 people, that’s really all it was, got together in a hotel room in New York one day in January of 1920, and decide to create an organization, which in their completely illusory, delusional imagination they’re going to defend the entire Bill of Rights for the entire country all over the country, all 40 of them, in New York without a budget.
Nico Perrino: And they really didn’t have a budget –
Ira Glasser: No –
Nico Perrino: – for a long time, and that’s one of the things you’re often credited with is that you made the ACLU a sustainable organization –
Ira Glasser: Well, it was sustainable before, but it had a quantum leap of resources and reach, which really began with Aryeh’s tenure, but then got laid low in part because of the Skokie case, but mostly because of infrastructural problems in the ACLU in my view, but they start this, and one of the interesting things, one of the first great cases that the ACLU takes is a First Amendment case and it’s the Scopes trial in 1925, and, of course, they lose that case.
Nico Perrino: For our listeners, briefly describe what happened?
Ira Glasser: Huh?
Nico Perrino: For our listeners, can you briefly describe what happened?
Ira Glasser: Yes, yes, well the Scopes case was the case that the movie Inherit the Wind describes. It’s a case of the State of Tennessee in a fundamentalist revival not unlike what’s happened to this country in the 1980s going forward, passes a law making it a crime to teach the theory of evolution on the ground that that’s an offense to the biblical story of creation and therefore an offense to God and the belief in God, and John Scopes is a young biology teacher who’s teaching the theory of evolution to his high school class and he gets arrested for violating that law, and Baldwin, the ACLU is then – this is 1925 and the ACLU is just five years old and not with a lot of resources.
Baldwin announces that the ACLU is prepared to defend Scopes, and he enlists Clarence Darrow as a volunteer lawyer to do it, and it becomes famous as the monkey trial, and the full, the full weight of fundamentalist politics comes down on Scopes and Darrow, and they lose that case. He gets convicted, it’s never appealed because it gets, it gets dismissed for some technical reason. They fined him a hundred dollars and it turned out that under Tennessee law, you couldn’t be fined for more than $50.00, and so it gets thrown out on a technicality and never gets, never gets appealed, but publicly and politically it splashed all over the front pages of every paper in the country, and it becomes an embarrassment for the fundamentalist politics.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: And it’s a fictionalized, but essentially accurate portrayal in the movie Inherit the Wind of that whole thing. So, that – fast forward to 1981 when half a dozen states in the south pass creationism laws, not prohibiting the teaching of evolution, but requiring that wherever evolution is taught in biology classes, creationism has to be taught too, which they say is a scientific alternative which is basically the biblical theory of – the biblical story of creation, and we file a lawsuit to challenge the first state that passes that law in Arkansas in 1981.
By that time, I’ve been executive director for three years. Baldwin is still alive, he’s 97, and still full of piss and vinegar and travels by subway in New York City, and so I decide that the press conference in which we’re going to announce this lawsuit were to be run by him, not me, and he, he does this press conference, which he basically says, we fought this in 1925 and I’m here still to fight it again, and we win that case, and he always used to chide me in public and say, well, you know, he says, at the time that Scopes case was our most famous case and it’s still our most famous case, and then I would say, yeah Roger, but you lost, we won this case, and we end up doing that, but the – all along the way, there were also in addition to the First Amendment cases in the context of religious freedom, there were all the political First Amendment cases along the way.
Nico Perrino: And I want to ask you about that because you were very involved in the Buckley v Valeo stuff –
Ira Glasser: Yes, later, yes, but the Skokie case, Aryeh is completely right about that. For us – as controversial as that was, it was a surprise to us that it got so controversial because we took those kinds of cases all the time. We took it on behalf of neo-Nazis, we took it on behalf of Klan, we took it on behalf of all kinds of right wing groups, we always defended everybody’s free speech.
Nico Perrino: Aryeh lays that out in his book, Defending My Enemy.
Ira Glasser: Yes, right, and it was – my view was quite apart from the principals involved. It was a strategic necessity because if you allowed the town council in Skokie to ban people from marching through their streets with swastikas on the grounds that it was too offensive to the people who lived there, which it was, I mean a lot of them were holocaust survivors and it was deeply offensive.
Nico Perrino: They had tattoos on their arms.
Ira Glasser: Yeah, and – but if you allowed the law to say that it was okay for the town council in Skokie to bar people with swastikas from marching through their streets because it was so offensive to the citizenry of Skokie, how could you then not say it was okay for the white citizens council in Mississippi to ban a march of Martin Luther King, Jr. black and white together because blacks and whites marching together in the streets of those small towns in Mississippi was as offensive. Now maybe we don’t credit that, maybe we think the Jews in Skokie were right to be offended and terrified by the specter of people with swastikas walking on the streets, and the people in the small towns of Mississippi were wrong to be offended by Martin Luther King, Jr. walking or by white and black marching together, but the fact is, in terms of the law, if the principal is that any town which is deeply offended by speech can ban that speech, then the only thing that matters is who’s in charge, and it can’t work that way.
So, if you wanted to support Martin Luther King’s right to demonstrate in the small towns of Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia, you had to support the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie because the one crucial thing about all these cases is who decides, and the fact is that you can never let the government decide because once you let the government pick and choose which speech is okay, then you’re at the mercy of whoever has government power, and as I used to say debating the Skokie case in synagogues all over New York in those years, you tell me which people you would like to have in charge of deciding whether it was okay for you to speak, and look at the people who’ve been in power just in your lifetime. Look at Joe McCarthy, look at Richard Nixon, look at Ronald Reagan, look at – I mean, are you crazy?
I mean, if you give the government the power to ban speech, your speech is gonna be the first speech banned. The only protection minorities have and dissenters have is a rule which doesn’t allow the government to decide which speech is okay because it won’t be theirs.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: And people tend to imagine that they will be the ones making these decisions, but, of course, people like us never are the ones making those decisions.
Nico Perrino: Who’s the angel in the room that you would –
Ira Glasser: Yeah –
Nico Perrino: – have decide for you what books you can read.
Ira Glasser: That’s right.
Nico Perrino: Or what movies you can watch.
Ira Glasser: That’s right, and so for me the First Amendment and all those always was a strategic argument. I regarded the First Amendment, not as a highfalutin doctrine of principle, but as an insurance policy, and that’s what it was meant to be. The people who wrote it and founded – two minutes after the First Amendment was passed and ratified, they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. I mean, and nobody – oh, but that John Adams saying you couldn’t criticize the president, it wasn’t the king of England so it was okay. Well, it wasn’t okay for the people who wanted to criticize John Adams, and the whole story about speech in America and anywhere really is that, as I used to sort of say half tongue in cheek, everybody is in favor of free speech as long as it’s theirs or people that they like and agree with.
Nico Perrino: As Nat wrote, free speech for me, but not for thee.
Ira Glasser: Yeah, I mean, and so people – there were feminists like Catharine MacKinnon, who thought that free speech was wonderful except for people who wanted to publish pornography or what she considered pornography because that was for her the equivalent of rape, and the anti-tobacco people thought free speech was wonderful except that they wanted to ban tobacco ads, and the anti-abortion people thought that speech was wonderful for them when they were picketing the abortion clinics, but they thought that abortion clinic ads could be banned, and the black kids on college campuses in the early ‘90s for whom free speech was critically important because they were in a hostile environment, they were in favor of speech codes, and I would go to speak to them and I, by that time, had a well-deserved reputation as a passionate defender of racial justice through the ACLU, and I used to say to them, you know, your supporting speech codes has got to be the dumbest political act I have ever seen in my life.
If speech codes like – first of all, the board of trustees at your university are white, the dean is white, the president is white, the donors are white, who do you think they’re gonna ban. If this speech code that you say you want had been in effect in the ‘60s, the people most frequently banned from college campuses would have been Malcom X and Eldridge Cleaver, not David Duke, and the same thing happened in England when, when the Jewish student union at a lot of colleges joined in a provision that banned hate speech, and that worked fine until somebody else decided that hate speech included Zionist speech, and then what. So, the question always was, well, who gets to decide that, and the answer is, not you.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, during your tenure at the ACLU, aside from the Skokie case, what do you think was the ACLU’s most important First Amendment free speech case, and it doesn’t even need to be most important, what was one that you’ll remember most?
Ira Glasser: Well, I mean, the pentagon papers case was critical obviously, and the Progressive case. The case where the government tried to ban Progressive Magazine in the mid ‘80s from publishing an article on the H-bomb because they said it was gonna reveal secrets of the H-bomb, but what the article did was secret of the H-bomb wasn’t a secret, and there was no information in it that – this article that you couldn’t get from a high school physics lab or library, but a lot of the free speech cases, and I’ll get to campaign finance stuff in a second because that was sort of unlikely and a surprise in some ways, but we filed a lawsuit at the NYCLU in the ‘70s, which challenged a rule, a law in New York that required anybody who wanted to run for statewide office to not only get like 10,000 signatures on a petition, but they had to have at least 50 in every county in the state.
Well, if you were a member of the socialist workers’ party headquartered in New York City with a small membership and a radical reputation, you could –
Nico Perrino: And a nine to five job –
Ira Glasser: – get 10,000 signatures in one apartment building maybe, but you sure as hell couldn’t get 50 signatures in every county throughout New York State and in some counties it would be dangerous for you to try, and that was true of all the minority parties. So, in effect, what that law did is it banned small minority parties right and left from ever running for state-wide office, and not by saying so, not by saying those parties couldn’t run, but by creating requirements that only affected small minority parties. So, we decide we’re gonna challenge that and strike it down and we did challenge it and we did strike it down, but in doing so, we constructed the lawsuit in order to make the point to the court and publicly that this was an issue that affected across the political spectrum small minor parties of every political stripe. So, we had the National Renaissance Party, a small kind of neo-Nazi party, a socialist workers party, The Socialist Labor Party, we had maybe 15 or 20 different parties as plaintiffs.
Well, it came time where in order to get the lawsuit filed you had to have an affidavit from every one of them that set forth the facts and how they were affected by the laws, and it was just there were too many of them to do this one at a time, so the lawyers decided it would be a good idea, let’s take a weekend, a Saturday or something and get them all into the office and we can prepare these affidavits and everybody can sign it at once, and we’ll be done with this.
Nico Perrino: So, you get the neo-Nazi party –
Ira Glasser: So, we do that. So, we have in this big room all of these people. It was like fire and ice, I mean, it – one by one they’re all doing their affidavits, but they’re all outraged by everybody in the room except them, and one by one almost every one of them comes up to me while the lawyers are doing these affidavits, and says, Mr. Glasser, this is a wonderful lawsuit you’re doing for our rights, this is really great and thank you, but why do we have to have all of those other people here, and it was just a wonderful example of A) how their rights were necessarily tied together because you could not, you could not strike down one without striking down all, and you could not have that kind of a law except that it applied to all of them.
That they were inextricably tied together not by their politics, but by their common need for the right to pursue their politics, and the other thing that was wonderful about it is how oblivious they were to anybody’s right but their own, and given power, they would have denied the rights to everybody else in the room.
Nico Perrino: Is that something that you learned during your tenure –
Ira Glasser: Yes –
Nico Perrino: – about people’s relationship to their rights?
Ira Glasser: Yes, I didn’t know that before. It was something that I learned at the ACLU, that rights were a matter of self interest and that if you were going to sell anybody on the importance of rights, it always had to be rooted in self interest. The reason we have a Fourth Amendment in this country is because the colonists had a self-interest in not having the British soldiers barge into their house with their bayonets and tear up the furniture looking for violations of the Stamp Act. This was all about self interest. One of the ironies of the Fourth Amendment is that for people like me, the Fourth Amendment all my life has worked perfectly, I mean, none of my kids every got stopped walking around the streets of Manhattan and stopped and frisked even though they all smoked weed in the ‘70s.
They never got harassed because they were white, they were middle class, they were in middle class neighborhoods, but everyone black that they knew did, and so one of the things that happens is that when the only people getting searched are people who are minorities, the white majority to whom it’s not happening, is not even aware that there’s a problem, but in the 18th century all the colonists were affected, and their self interest was tied together, and they had a common antagonist, which was the British king and the British parliament and they knew it, but in America, one of the things that’s happened is that it’s ironic, but the success we’ve had in protecting rights for many people has resulted in making it harder to protect it for the people who are left out.
So, that for example, when you win the right to abortion in Roe v Wade, the states respond by passing a lot of restrictive legislation that makes it especially hard if you’re poor and if you’re rural and if you’re young, and in the course of defending Roe v Wade in the mid ‘80s, you get 500,000 women coming to Washington to march in protest and affect legislation and affect the court, but once those women’s rights are secure, they don’t go to Washington anymore, and the women who can’t have an abortion because Medicaid won’t pay for it who are mostly poor and not white, there ain’t 500,000 of those women going to Washington, and so what happens is they get isolated and left out and everybody else thinks, well, the right is secure.
So, if my daughter is growing up, she has no worries about – if she needs an abortion, she can get one. If she needs contraception, she can get it, but for many women, that right doesn’t work even though Roe v Wade stands secure, and very often when you win rights for most people, it becomes harder to complete the victory for the people who need the rights the most.
Nico Perrino: I wanted – the last First Amendment question I asked you here is the one we tipped our hat to already which is campaign finance because even within the First Amendment community it’s a controversial topic. Martin Garbus who we interviewed previously on this podcast doesn’t believe that money spent on politics or in political messages or in support of candidates is speech, and you’ve gone back and forth with Geoffrey Stone who we just interviewed on this podcast on the same topic, and a lot of people think that this campaign finance issue is a right versus left, progressive versus conservative issue, when in reality they forget that the ACLU, a civil liberties organization has always said that money spent on political message is speech or is expression. So, quickly, if we can –
Ira Glasser: We can’t, but I’ll tell you –
Nico Perrino: Why should the skeptic –
Ira Glasser: I’ll tell you, I’ll give you a couple of examples instead of getting into the thicket of the details of all of these cases and legislation. It’s a little bit like the right to travel. Think of the right to travel –
Nico Perrino: But that’s an unenumerated right, right?
Ira Glasser: No, but there’s still, there’s still – that doesn’t matter, that’s not – nobody’s arguing with that in the area of campaign financing. Nobody denies, no court, no legislature, the public doesn’t deny you have a right to travel. I mean, if I want to go and go to Europe, the government can’t stop me. If I want to drive to California, the government can’t stop me. It’s a hallmark of a totalitarian society to restrict people’s travel. The right to travel is well established, but supposing I told you you couldn’t spend more than a hundred dollars on traveling. You have the right, but you don’t have the right to spend more than a hundred dollars. You couldn’t go very far. Supposing I told you you could only spend $500.00, you still couldn’t go very far.
The notion that by limiting the amount of money you can spend on a right doesn’t restrict the right is absurd. It’s a fantasy. I mean, if I’m at the ACLU and I want to take out a full-page ad to advance a civil liberties cause, where – I have to spend the money to buy the space in the Times. If I’m planned parenthood and I want to take out an ad advancing the right to contraception and I want to buy it at the super bowl, I have to spend money. If I want to distribute leaflets, a fundamental First Amendment right, I have to produce the leaflets. Sometimes the cost is considerable, sometimes it isn’t considerable, but you ask anybody who’s ever run a political campaign, what about buttons, what about leaflets, what about travel, what about going to – you can’t exercise your First Amendment rights without spending money, can’t be done unless you sit around like you and I in a little apartment by ourselves, nobody listening, and we have all the right to free speech we want, but –
Nico Perrino: But I still have to pay $150.00 to get the Sound Cloud subscription to upload this episode to itunes–
Ira Glasser: Exactly, exactly, there is no way to exercise the right to free speech in an effective way without spending money for the dissemination of that speech, without spending money to make that speech audible and visible. You know, the right to free speech is not the right to sit in the closet by yourself and mutter. It, it requires you – to be effective, it means you have to get out there and reach many, many people, otherwise the government could let you speak all you want if you only get to speak to yourself and three people that you know. It’s only when the speech gets to be disseminated that’s a problem, and there is no way to disseminate it without money.
In an electoral campaign that’s even more true, and that’s always been true. It’s not something that just became true, it’s always been true, and now what people are upset about is that the severe disproportion of wealth and money in this society creates a severe disproportion of speech. They are upset about that, but giving the government the power to restrict speech is not the answer. You got to do something about the disproportionate wealth because that’s always been true too. I mean I grew up in New York where the names of the governors were Lehman, Roosevelt, Harriman, Rockefeller and Dewey. Dewey was the only one, but the others were all fabulously wealthy and by inheritance, they didn’t even make the wealth themselves.
Now, did they have more access to political power than my construction worker father with a six-grade education and no money in the bank? Of course, that was as true in 1935 and in 1940 as it is today. It’s always been true. Thomas Jefferson was an aristocrat. Ordinary working people couldn’t run for president, they couldn’t even vote when the constitution was adopted. You had to own property in order to vote in 1789. So, the notion that money has never always been tied to speech is ridiculous, and the remedy of not attacking the gross inequality of wealth directly is a cop-out.
All of these radicals who want to equalize speech have to first get involved, if you really want to be radical, in dealing with the gross disproportions of wealth that have been made much more gross during precisely the period that the campaign finance laws have been in force. That’s No. 1. No. 2 –
Nico Perrino: So, that going after free speech then would just be a cosmetic fix?
Ira Glasser: Well, it’s worse than a cosmetic fix.
Nico Perrino: And a tactical error.
Ira Glasser: It makes it easier for them because you – every single restriction that exists, people with a lot of money can get around. When Gene McCarthy decided to run for president in 1968 in order to oppose Lyndon Johnson’s escalations of war in Vietnam, he was a liberal senator. This was before Bobby Kennedy got into it. He was a liberal senator from Minnesota. Nobody knew who he was outside of Minnesota. So, the first primary is in New Hampshire. It wasn’t Iowa in those days, so he decides to run in New Hampshire to make an anti-war statement. Here’s his problem, he has 2 percent name recognition in New Hampshire, and he’s running against the sitting president. So, how does he get his message out? He can’t.
If you have a law that says nobody can give him more than a hundred dollars, he has to be able to raise millions of contributions in order to have enough money to get name recognition. Well, where’s he going to get those millions of contributions if he doesn’t have the name recognition. It’s a circle that folds in on itself. If you – the law to limit the size of contributions is a law designed by incumbents to protect them against insurgent candidates because it’s precisely the insurgent candidate who needs the big dollars. McCarthy ends up being able to run a viable campaign in New Hampshire in 1968 because he has three people who give him a million dollars or more; Stewart Mott, some guy in Massachusetts who I think was a shoe manufacturer and I forget who the third one was.
Without those million-dollar contributions he has no campaign. With those contributions, he gets visibility for his message. He doesn’t beat Johnson in the primary, but he surprises the hell out of everybody by coming close. Because his message was popular in a way that nobody would have heard if he didn’t have the money to spread it out. He does so well against Johnson in New Hampshire that Johnson resigns, and says, I’m not running for president. It was for liberals all over America to this day, one of the most seminal changed, political change. There is nobody in the campaign finance side of the things who makes Marty Garbus’ argument or anybody else, whoever opposed those contributions to McCarthy at the time because it was the same thing like every other free speech thing we do, it depended on whose ox was gored.
They loved that he got the message out. They weren’t against it, and that’s one of the reasons why McCarthy joined us when we sued in the Buckley vs Valeo case. I mean, Buckley was the lead plaintiff, but McCarthy was in there too because he understood that you couldn’t have insurgent speech, you couldn’t have dissenting speech, you couldn’t have challenging speech in an electoral context without a handful of big contributions because the requirement that you make – get all your money in small chunks meant you had to have the constituency who didn’t know who you were.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: And you couldn’t do it. Now the other thing to be said about it is that how we got into this, how the ACLU got into this. They passed this law in 1971. I wasn’t aware of it. It was there like a good government law, this was – it didn’t sound like there were civil liberties issues involved. We weren’t even – we didn’t even know about the details of the legislation. The law passes. The first people who were sued by the federal government for violating that law were three old left wing radicals who took out a two-page ad in the New York Times denouncing Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia, and calling for his impeachment.
This was way before Watergate. The ad was almost unreadable. It was cluttered, it went over two pages, but these – one of the three people had some money and paid for it, and one of the things they did in the ad is they listed an honor roll of senators who had voted against the bombing of Cambodia, and then they listed a dishonor roll of – and it was very critical of Nixon and Kissinger. Well, this was late ’71, so the ’72 campaign was starting and one of the things that the campaign finance law said at the time that most of us were unaware of, is that in order to prevent big money from affecting the election, they made a rule that said that any money that you spend to take out an ad say in support of a candidate counts against that candidate’s limits.
They first limited the amount of money that the candidate can spend, and then they said they’re going to count money that non-candidates spend to support the candidate or to criticize his opponent. So, this add that these three 75, 80-year-old left wing activists, who happened to have the money to take out an ad, they publish this ad, it’s construed by the government as an ad in favor of one of Nixon’s opponents who was on this honor roll of people who had voted against the bombing who happens to be named George McGovern, and on the base of that, they go into court and they get an injunction against these people.
I mean if there was anything that the First Amendment was designed to protect, it was the right of three people to publish an ad in a newspaper attacking the government for something that they thought the government should be attacked for, and so they walk into my office at the – this is at the NYCLU, this is before, way before Buckley, years before Buckley. They walk into my office and they show me the add, and they – and I say, what’s this. Well, the government has an injunction against us, it says we can’t publish this ad again, and moreover they sent a letter to the Times saying that if they ever publish an ad like this again, they will be subject to criminal prosecution because it violates this law.
My first response was, get out of here, don’t be crazy. I mean if there’s any, you know, no. I said based on what, so they show me the court’s decision. I read it and it cites this provision in the then Campaign Finance Act of 1971, and I have never heard of this. This can’t be, and I get a copy of the law and I read it, and sure enough that’s what it says, and I think, how the hell did this get through. So, we go into court on appeal to the 2nd Circuit, and we represent them, and we get it struck down on First Amendment grounds. A year later, less than a year later, the ACLU takes out an ad. I’m not there yet, I’m at the NYCLU, but I – but we published the ad, and because we are in a big quarrel over school integration.
There’s a lot of carrying on about no busing for school integration and Nixon is very big in this, so I take out an ad in the form of an open letter to the president urging him not to take this position, and that – making all the arguments I can about, about not only why school integration is good, but why busing is necessary and why nobody’s really against busing except for integration because most of the kids in this country go to school by bus anyway and on and on. It was just – and we get the ad designed by an ad agency in New York, and we submit it to the Times.
Times writes back and says, we can’t publish this ad because we – because you criticize Nixon and it’s 1972, and it’s in the middle of an election campaign, and if you criticize Nixon, unless you have his permission, it counts against the ad – the expenditure limitation of his opponent. I said, I have to get his permission in order to criticize him, what are you, crazy. It’s the same issue that Cambodian bombing ad. So, I go to the Times general counsel, and he says, well, we can’t do this because we have a letter from the government saying that we’re going to be – we could be criminally – so I said, well, supposing we file a lawsuit challenging that, would you put in an amicus brief on our side. They say yes; I say, good, let’s do that.
So, we file a lawsuit, we win that lawsuit, and we strike the law down for the second time. This goes on over and over again, and I’m saying to myself, this is a law that is supposed to get in the way of nasty rich folks, and the only two times it’s been used so far is against these three aging radicals and the ACLU on totally legitimate, core First Amendment speech, how can that be, and that’s how we get into this issue, and why we see it so clearly as a free speech issue. It goes on and on and on and on, and they kept coming back, doing it again, and again and again and again in 16 different versions.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: And that – and so when somebody like Fred Wertheimer of the campaign finance crowd or Marty, they’re just being poseurs, I mean they’re just talking about they don’t like big money. I mean, the day that Marty Garbus refuses a fee for defending his cases as a lawyer, is the day I’ll believe that he doesn’t like big money. I mean, it’s a perfect example again, of the fact that a problem exists which is that there’s a disproportion of speech rights in the country because there’s a disproportion of money does not mean that the remedy of giving the government the power to pick and choose whose speech rights they will go after is the right remedy.
There was a problem of crime in the 1980s. It didn’t mean that getting rid of the exclusionary rule, the Miranda warning was the right remedy. There was a problem with drugs. It didn’t mean that drug prohibition was the right remedy. The fact that there’s a problem doesn’t support the argument of every remedy that’s proposed for that problem. That’s a classic civil liberties issue, and everybody has their blind spot. The people who hate tobacco want to ban tobacco ads, as I said. The people who hate racism, want to ban racist speech, and people like Marty who don’t like the disproportionate power of people like the Koch brothers, want to ban them from their speech, but they never talk about banning George Soros because he agrees, and they never objected to how Gene McCarthy got his speech out, not one of them back then.
So, I, I regard it as the biggest liberal blind spot in First Amendment struggles in my entire career at the ACLU. The Nation magazine wants to convene a constitutional convention to overturn Citizen’s United. If they convene a constitutional convention, the Nation will be drummed out of business because they’ll be the first ones attacked by the results of changing the First Amendment.
Nico Perrino: Because they’re a corporation.
Ira Glasser: Right, as is the ACLU a corporation, as is Planned Parenthood. I mean, it’s just, it’s insane, and it’s stupid for the same reason that the black kids who wanted the speech codes thinking that they would be going after David Duke when they’ll be going after Malcolm X. You’re handing your enemies the tools to suppress you, and the campaign finance crowd is exactly in that same position, and Citizens United was a great decision because if you didn’t have – if it decided the other way, the ACLU speech would have been affected and not only that, the rule that the Constitution doesn’t apply to corporations would also have meant that they can come into our offices and search without a warrant.
What world are they living in when they think that you can carve corporations out without even distinguishing between the corporations you hate and the corporations you support, and think that the Constitution doesn’t apply to them. So, what does that mean? Does that mean if the FBI wants to walk in and rummage around in the ACLU files it can. That they can go into Planned Parenthood’s office and search without a warrant, that they can suppress our speech because they – it’s not – that’s not a fantasy, they did it. That’s what the campaign finance laws have been. If you look at the case law, that’s who the government goes after. It goes after the centers.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, or unpopular –
Ira Glasser: Or unpopular, yes.
Nico Perrino: Unpopular speech or unpopular speakers.
Ira Glasser: Right.
Nico Perrino: The last question I want to ask you here before you go, you spent about 25 years, 24 years as the executive director of the ACLU before retiring in 2001. Looking back on it all, you brought the ACLU to towering heights, created affiliates in every state and most territories. So, now it’s a household name. I’m sure if you polled most people in the United States, they would say I know who the ACLU is. What are you most proud of during that time?
Ira Glasser: Well –
Nico Perrino: It doesn’t need to be a First Amendment answer either.
Ira Glasser: No, well, no it isn’t. There are two answers. One answer is substantive and one answer is organizational. The substantive –
Nico Perrino: Sometimes the organizational answers are the most important ones.
Ira Glasser: That’s right, that is correct.
Nico Perrino: I’ve learned that as a manager myself.
Ira Glasser: Yes, that’s right, and that’s something I had no idea of when I first came to the ACLU because I was a substantive guy. I came there, and I thought, whoa, now I’m gonna pursue all these substantive ends and you have no idea that – you know, it’s like a kid growing up and deciding I don’t have to live with my parents anymore, and then he remembers somebody has to buy the food, somebody has to cook the food, somebody has to take out the garbage. You can eat, but you have to – you gotta wipe your ass too, and so the organizational issues are substantive in the sense that without addressing the organizational issues of money, of fiscal responsibility, of managing a budget, of hiring and firing, without managing all those organizational –
Nico Perrino: Setting clear goals –
Ira Glasser: – issues you don’t get the substantive work done, and you undermine the substantive work. So, they’re not separate, but the things that I look back on now after the 34 years at the NYCLU and the ACLU combined, the substantive goals are I was one of a handful of people deeply involved in expanding the ACLU’s agenda from sort of traditional First Amendment and due process issues into a range of equality issues.
Nico Perrino: Inspired by Jackie Robinson?
Ira Glasser: That’s right, that’s where it started, that’s where it started. Dealing with race, with gender, with sexual orientation.
Nico Perrino: That was controversial at the time.
Ira Glasser: It was very controversial.
Nico Perrino: Within the ACLU itself –
Ira Glasser: Within the ACLU structure, every one of these things involved a big board fight, absolutely right.
Nico Perrino: And one of the things I hear about you is you’re not afraid of a fight.
Ira Glasser: Well, you know –
Nico Perrino: Particularly a board fight.
Ira Glasser: I’ll tell you what a colleague of mine, with whom I had had many fights in the organization, once said to a younger ACLU person who had come in near the end of my career, and says, you know, the thing with Ira is that he just loves these fights, and she said, no, no, no, you’re wrong, he hates these fights, which I always did, I always found it the most unpleasant part of the job. No, she said, he hates those fights, but if you get into a fight with him, he’s gonna kill you, and that was Brooklyn street stuff. I mean, the way you deal with a bully is you walk away from it if you can, but if you can’t, you better leave him bloodied on the floor because if it’s not him it’s you, but the other substantive role was we were involved, Aryeh and I together actually at the NYCLU started this, in extending traditional rights to untraditional places.
So, that for example we were deeply involved in applying the Constitution to the military. We were deeply involved in applying the Constitution to high school students, First Amendment and due process rights and privacy rights. We were deeply involved in applying the Constitution to prisoners, to mental patients, to welfare recipients, to foster care kids. All of these institutions were completely unprotected by the Bill of Rights as late as the late ’60s, early ’70s in this country.
We began those fights at the NYCLU in the late ’60s and the early ’70s, and I think it’s fair to say that I was one of the two people, the other one I would think is Aryeh, who, who did that systematically and consciously in what we used to – and we got a whole lot of criticism for it, including inside the ACLU because a lot of the people who ran schools and who ran mental hospitals and who ran foster care institutions and who ran welfare departments were liberals, and they understood why we wanted to limit the police, but they couldn’t understand why we wanted to limit them.
I used to get outraged calls from some of them saying why are you suing me, I’ve been a member of the ACLU for 30 years as if that somehow justified their suspending a kid for having long hair in school, or for distributing a leaflet opposing the principal suspending him for long hair. So, the extension of the Bill of Rights protections to these untraditional places was a major expansion. It started in New York, it later spread out to the whole national organization. Getting the ACLU deeply into the fight against drug prohibition was a major thing that I was probably more responsible for than anybody else at the ACLU, which was also deeply resisted in many ways within the ACLU for a long time.
So the extension of traditional elements of the Bill of Rights to all these untraditional places and to all these untraditional people, extending these protections to people who were victimized by skin color subjugation and gender and sexual orientation and who were trapped in these institutions like mental hospitals and prisons and military and high schools and welfare systems, and extending the Bill of Rights into all these controversial places, and in certain areas like drug prohibition, the prisoners’ rights and the drug stuff came together because the drug war became the principal feeder of the explosion of incarceration.
In 1968, when Richard Nixon becomes president before he declares the first drug war, Reagan did it again in 1980, there are 200,000 people in prison in the entire country, state and federal combined for all crimes. By the time the drug war was going for a few years, there were 2.4 million people behind bars, and almost all of them who came out then were denied the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws that had their roots in race in the post civil war period in the south, but then affected everybody. Every state in the county with maybe one or two exceptions at the time I retired still had those felony laws.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: So that substantively, that expansion of the ACLUs traditional agenda, the expansion of the traditional rights in the Bill of Rights to all these untraditional groups and all these untraditional places was the major substantive change in the ACLU’s program during those years, and that I think is the thing that I am proudest of and I was one of a small handful of people inside the ACLU who drove that change. Infrastructurally and organizationally, it is what you said. When I was growing up I never heard of the ACLU, and when I did hear of the ACLU, it was a tiny organization that was mostly composed of lawyers, most of whom were not on staff.
They were volunteer lawyers who were in private practice, and most of the ACLU’s legal work was filing amicus briefs in other people’s cases, and the ACLU was – had organizational presence basically in a handful of large cities; in New York, in Chicago, in Boston, in LA, in San Francisco and a few other places like that. Eleven years after I first came to the New York Civil Liberties Union, we still nationally did not have staffed affiliates in probably 30 of the 50 states, and in some places where we did have staff affiliates, we had one person who was basically a glorified administrator who worked for the board who were volunteers, but they were called executive director, but they were not paid very much, they didn’t have benefits, they had no real substantive leadership or background.
So, you would – and part of it was a problem with money, there wasn’t enough money in the organization to fund anything else, and what money there was, was mostly raised in those handful of big cities, in New York, in Philadelphia, in Boston, in Chicago and LA, San Francisco, and because of the way in which the organization grew up, most of the money stayed in the places where it was raised. So, you had this strange situation where if you had enough money to hire one more lawyer, and you had a choice, do I put a seventh lawyer in New York, a sixth lawyer in LA, a third lawyer in Boston, or a first lawyer and only lawyer in Mississippi or Alabama or North Carolina.
Everybody would say you put the first lawyer there where the civil liberties problems are the worse because the support facility is the least, but the way it worked by our internal rules which had grown up without much thought to the future over time, is that most of the money stayed. So, you ended up in the places where it was raised so you – if it was mostly raised in New York, you ended up with a seventh lawyer in New York, not a first lawyer in Mississippi or a sixth lawyer in LA, not a first lawyer in Alabama. So, what you had to do is you had to change the tax code. You basically had to restructure the rules in how the money was shared and distributed, so that as you grew the money, enough of it went not in the places that already had most of it, but in the places that had none of it or very little, very close to none of it. Well, that was a war.
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Ira Glasser: It was a war because you can’t change any tax code, I mean you can’t do that because it wasn’t as if New York couldn’t use a seventh lawyer, it wasn’t as if LA couldn’t use a sixth lawyer, it wasn’t as if the resources were so plentiful in those states that the civil liberties agenda was easily handed. They were all under the gun. So, people say, well, if I’m gonna ask a resident of my city to give me $5,000.00, I don’t want three of it to go to Alabama. Well, don’t you think we ought to be putting one lawyer in Alabama before we put a seventh in our own. Yes, but, and so it was really a civil war. It was the worst, most brutal fight of my three decades in the ACLU was to get those changes written into the law, and it’s a long interesting story about how we did that, which I won’t – we don’t have enough time to get into, but the fact is that those infrastructural changes, which basically grew the money, but also changed the distributive rules, so that suddenly we’re able to have an ACLU staff professionalized presence with minimum salaries and benefits and pensions.
The pension rights didn’t apply to everybody, they only applied to the big affiliates when I got there. So, these were huge contentious changes which involved people giving up stuff they thought was theirs in complete violation of their professed commitment. These were the people who thought that we should redistribute wealth in America, but not in the ACLU, and there was a lot of hypocrisy, there was a lot of vested interests. Changing an organization that’s been around for 70 years, changing its fundamental rules that were there at the start and were there for so many years, is like changing somebody’s religion. It, it was very, very difficult.
So, I’m – but the reason that the ACLU is what it is today, you know, which is basically a conglomerate of civil liberties with a professional staff presence still not adequate, but still a professional staff presence in every state was a pipedream in 1978 when I first got to the ACLU, and it was a pipedream for me too, but – and it’s true that no matter how much you talk about substantive change, about bringing the rights of high school students or the rights of prisoners or the rights of mental patients or the rights of black folks or the rights of women, if the right is won by a supreme court case or by a law that you get passed in Congress, it means nothing to people living in a small town in Georgia if there’s nobody there to call when the right gets violated.
And civil liberties is protected when there are people on the ground to be responsive to its violations, and you can’t do that from a central headquarters in New York no matter how well resourced it is, and it doesn’t matter how big the Washington office is, and you pass a law and you get a supreme court case, and you think, oh wow, this is great, now we have this right. You don’t have the right if you can’t enforce it, and you can’t enforce it unless you’re on the ground, and you can’t be on the ground unless you can bring resources to the places where the resources aren’t, and if most of the money is going to be raised in a handful of places, you have to find a way to move it to where the support and the money isn’t or else you don’t have – you violate the basic reason why the ACLU was founded in those days when Baldwin said, we’re here, we’ve started this organization to defend the entire Bill of Rights for everybody in the country.
It was a delusional dream in 1920, it was still mostly a delusional dream in 1980, and so those changes I think in addition to the substantive expansion of the agenda to protect rights in places and for people who had never before been protected, those are the two things that thrill me the most about looking back on those years.
Nico Perrino: Always fighting an uphill battle there, Ira, from getting into journalism to getting into civil liberties work to changing the way one of our most prominent civil liberties organization operates, it seems that you’re always trying to do things in unique ways. So, I realize we’ve gone a lot longer than I have anticipated, but this has been a fascinating conversation –
Ira Glasser: I told you the questions were short, but the answers weren’t.
Nico Perrino: Well, I prefer it that way, I prefer it that way. I think our listeners are really going to enjoy what you had to say reflecting on your career, so Ira Glasser, thank you for joining me today and maybe one day we’ll have an opportunity to talk again.
Ira Glasser: Good, I hope so, thank you.