A Middle Class Interview with A High Class Individual

As I sat down to conduct my very first interview as a journalist, it was impossible not to grasp the irony of the moment. Armed with my notebook, my pen, and my wits (having forgotten a recording device), I found myself sitting across from a giant of the journalism industry. Hedrick Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, 50-year veteran reporter who has written for the New York Times, produced over 50 hours of content for PBS, written 6 books, and lived through six presidencies (which will become seven in November), had agreed to speak with me. Listening to him speak an hour later on stage at the Athenaeum, it occurred to me that our conversation in the Freeburg Dining Room mirrored precisely what he was hoping to kick-start in our young, vivacious generation. “This book is for your generation,” Mr. Smith told me.“We are not going to have a smart fix to our problems today until we understand the real causes.”

The real causes, according to Mr. Smith, are located deep in the archives of United States history. The real answers, however, are hidden behind a veil of fear. When asked about the current political atmosphere, Mr. Smith responded, “Politicians want to make themselves look good, others look bad, and not to alienate voters as they go.” While this comes as no surprise to anyone who follows politics (i.e., the CMC community), the result, according to Mr. Smith, is that the politicians "are not telling you what is really going on or what really needs to be done” for fear that they will jeopardize their election chances.

Mr. Smith, however, championed the importance of the middle class, noting its inextricable tie to American prosperity. Compared to the actions that he says need to be taken (but that politicians are afraid to reveal to the public), middle class welfare seems to be fairly harmless. The irony lies in the audience to which he was speaking. At Claremont McKenna College, most of the students have all but foregone their chance at leading a life defined by mediocrity. Sure, some CMCers may choose not to live the lavish lifestyle of a billionaire, but they will nonetheless lead the life that they want to live.

This is where the conversation began to resemble Mr. Smith's ideology. For about 45 minutes as I sat and spoke with him, I had assumed the role of dependent. I relinquished, if only for a short time, my habit of dominating conversations as I listened intently to Mr. Smith bestow upon me wisdom that I should hope to remember forever. It was not the wisdom, or even the conversation, that most mirrored his ideas, though. It was the dynamic of our interaction.

Everyone at CMC will go on to become leaders in their field, whether it is politics, economics, dance, theatre, or journalism, and with that success comes the ability to influence. One day in the near future, CMCers will play the role of Hedrick Smith, and others will play the role that I was fortunate enough to play—the role of an eager student determined to make a difference, but having yet to reach his potential.

Mr. Smith told me that he has “spent [his] entire life continuing [his] education, and somebody else has funded it.” If Mr. Smith’s ultimate message was that the middle class is an asset and not a liability, then I hope that CMC and its students have the good sense to remember it. Everyone needs help at times, though CMCers may not particularly need it thanks to the opportunities that a CMC degree affords. Take a second one day to fund someone else’s education because if you do ever assume the role of middle-class citizen, you would greatly appreciate being treated the way Hedrick Smith is imploring society to treat the middle class.

Hedrick Smith spoke at the Athenaeum the night of Monday, September 17, and is the author of a new book titled Who Stole the American Dream?