An Interview

With Hugh Downs

Hugh Downs on libertarianism: "The basic

philosophy, I find attractive and needed."

Hugh Downs is one of America's most respected and honored television personalities. He began his extraordinary TV career in 1956 as an announcer on Sid Caesar's Hour. After stints on The Tonight Show and The Today Show, he spent 21 years as co-host of the popular ABC news magazine 20/20 (1978-1999). On 20/20, he frequently shared a stage with self-professed libertarian correspondent John Stossel. Since his retirement from network television in 1999, Downs has taught journalism, edited a book, and lectured around the country.

To the freedom movement, Downs is known as perhaps the highest-profile media figure to praise libertarian ideas. In 1997, he famously said, "All the really good ideas belong to the libertarians." In 1998, he said, "From a historical perspective, all Americans are libertarians." Although Downs does not describe himself as a libertarian, he has also editorialized against the War on Drugs and in favor of the Second Amendment.

Downs spoke at the Advocates for Self-Government's 20th Anniversary Celebration in Atlanta, Georgia (October 14-16, 2005). In addition to a lunchtime speech, Downs dropped in to listen to two-time Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne speak on "The Seduction of Force." (The two had communicated during Browne's 2000 presidential campaign, but had not previously met.)

On Saturday, October 15, 2005, Downs sat down for an interview with Bill Winter, the Advocates' director of communications. The two talked about the appeal of libertarianism, the proper role of government, decriminalizing marijuana, the war in Iraq, and how to spread libertarian ideas.

Hugh DownsBill Winter: How did you first hear about libertarian ideas?

Hugh Downs: I don't remember where I first heard about it. But I do remember feeling that there were threads of that thought in what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they set up this nation. And that kind of appealed to me.

After I had done 20/20 for a while, we had the chance to gain John Stossel on the program, and that was very interesting to watch [him]. Philosophically he's a libertarian. And that interested me, too.

The way the nation has evolved now, from the government's standpoint, there's a real need for that kind of philosophy to come back into it. I can't say that I am in agreement with everything that is said -- possibly because in some cases I don't understand fully what [libertarians] are saying -- but still, the basic philosophy I find attractive and needed.

BW: Let me follow up on that. What are the areas of libertarianism you find most appealing?

HD: Well, the sovereignty of the individual is extremely important. And I grieve for the type of person who may be so baffled or battered that he wants to surrender his sovereignty to some guru or some government.

[There was a newspaper in] Phoenix -- I live in that area -- where this guy had written in and said he thought the public knows too much. And he said, "I don't want to know everything. I trust my government and I trust they have all the necessary knowledge, and they'll do the right thing." And I said, that's the most alarming thing I've read for quite a while. Mostly because the writer is not unique. And we've got people like that, and that's a great danger.

BW: There's something almost un-American about what he wrote.

HD: I think there is. You're absolutely right. You know what it reminded me of? After the Soviet Union really began to seriously come apart, there was a big flood of people who came to New York and became cab drivers, for some reason or other. I was in a cab with this guy whose English was pretty fair, and he was complaining about America. Because he said, "You know, you have to go get yourself a job; the government doesn't tell you where you're going to work." And then he said, "And then there's these newspapers; they've got differing views, and you're not told which view is correct."

Now, that was the result of 70 years of Communist oppression. But he thought he would have been more comfortable going back into Russia. Because people don't understand liberty if they've had two or three generations of not having it. Even though, if the oppression is bad enough, they can thirst for relief -- and people came from Europe to the New World to gain that benefit.

But I hate to see that creeping back. That kind of desire to give up your sovereignty.

BW: So, individual sovereignty, you find very appealing. What area of libertarianism are you most doubtful about?

HD: Listening to Harry Browne, who is a man I respect enormously, things popped into my head when he mentioned something about the government not doing anything worthwhile -- which is just about right! I've always felt that there's a role for government, and there is some role for a federal government.

If you adopt the view that I've always practiced -- that the government is us -- and there is a community of people who have gotten together and have agreed on certain forms of behavior, and agreed that people who tend to break that (once the agreement is there) have got to be dealt with. There's got to be some kind of a system of justice.

So there is a role for government, and I can't quite adopt a view that no government at all would result in anything but anarchy.

To the extent that government suffers corruption, then, yes, the libertarian ideas are right. But I've always thought there was a role for the federal government even in the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]. You know, before ballooning, hot-air ballooning did not come under the jurisdiction of the FAA. And the result was a lot of people got killed because they didn't have the rules you have [today]. When the FAA was functioning properly, it was a force for good, and it represented an example of where the government did do something good. And you have to keep an eye on it, because it can become corrupt over time.

But I can't abandon the idea that a government of some sort is almost a necessity for civilization.

BW: Let me clear up a possible misconception. Most libertarians would call themselves "minarchists," which means they believe in a minimum government. Some libertarians call themselves "constitutionalists," and they believe in the kind of small government this country originally had, at the time of the Founding Fathers. There are a small percentage of libertarians who might call themselves anarchists. Most libertarians would argue we want to return government to the ideas the Founding Fathers had, which was a much more limited government, obviously, than we have today. But it doesn't get rid of it completely. I agree: there are certainly legitimate things the government must do. Then the debate is, how many of those things are there, and how do you keep [government] from getting even bigger than that? Which I think is the central question of all politics: What is the legitimate role of government?

HD: It's possible that some of the libertarians you mentioned, in the different categories, may have an idea that I would love to see: That people are responsible enough to live together amicably, without a government that sees to it that they do obey the rules agree upon by the community.

It might be naive to think that. Knowing human nature, as I think I do, it wouldn't work.

BW: How would you describe yourself politically?

HD: I think about what was said by Will Rogers, "I'm not a member of any organized political party; I'm a Democrat."

I've never aligned myself with any party affiliation. I've voted for the person who ran for office. I was born into a kind of Republican family. But by the time I was 18 I didn't go along with that too much. And as a result, I tend to vote a little more in the Democratic way.

But I think, kind of, a pox on both of their houses lately. And I think that's one of the things that led me to examine libertarianism a little more closely.

BW: What would you say is the greatest threat to liberty in America today?

HD: Voter apathy. Complacency. The fact that an almost rogue administration can make the inroads in our liberty like this one has done, with things like the Patriot Act. That's extremely alarming to me. And I'm alarmed that my industry -- mass media -- isn't doing its job, and alerting people to what really is going on. And that's, to my mind, the biggest threat to liberties in our country.

BW: One of my questions was going to be: Do you think the media is doing a good job alerting us to the dangers? And you've already answered that. Why aren't they? Why isn't the media doing a better job of alerting us about the dangers of the Patriot Act, and the lies involving the war in Iraq, and the rise of religious fundamentalism?

HD: There is no simple answer to that; there are several things. One is journalistic fashion. One is ratings and commercial aspects of [media]. Another is the ownership of media -- enormous conglomerates who are pretty set in what they want said and what they want the public to hear. All these factors, I think, conspire to a certain extent in making journalism less than it has been. And less than it ought to be.

BW: In one of your radio commentaries, you spoke out against the War on Drugs and explicitly called for the decriminalization of marijuana. Why did you come to that conclusion? And what kind of response did you get to that commentary?

HD: First of all, I am against smoking marijuana, because I don't think anybody ought to draw leaf smoke into their lungs. That's bad. And marijuana smoking might be almost as bad as regular cigarette smoking. So I'm against it.

But I'm always amused at the drug warriors who, for some reason, have gotten mired in something very ancillary that got started in 1935, when [Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger] gave enough cannabis to a dog to kill it, and tried to prove a point that way.

And [some] people say, "Well, it's a gateway. Eighty percent of hard drug users started on marijuana." That's a nonsense statement! A hundred percent of hard drug users started on milk. What is the connection? It's just not there.

So I did feel that if we could get [drugs] under the law, it would be much better. Imagine a teenage ghetto kid who said, "I don't want to do drugs at all, I want to do alcohol." You know, the easiest thing for him to find is crack cocaine on any street corner. But where would he find a bootlegger? He couldn't. He'd have to go into a liquor store or a bar, and they wouldn't serve him. Because those things are under the law. As soon as you outlaw it, you lose control of it.

Hugh Downs SpeakingBW: What kind of reaction did you get to that commentary? I seem to recall hearing later that you said, "The hammer came down."

HD: Well, yeah. And not from the public so much. A preponderance of the public agreed with me, but the network--. That was ABC Radio, and they were very concerned about that.

BW: One of the arguments against even talking about decriminalizing drugs is that you're condoning their use. If you say, for example, the war on marijuana causes more problems than it solves, it's not uncommon for the Drug Czar to say, "Ah-hah! You're encouraging kids to smoke marijuana!" Did you get any of that reaction?

HD: Yes, I did. I got some. And some from viewers. Although, I repeat, it wasn't like the whole public rose up against what I had [to say]. There was a lot more sympathy out there than I expected. That didn't mean that the powers-that-be weren't upset by it.

BW: Another issue that libertarians are very concerned about is the war in Iraq. In your speech at lunch, you seemed to suggest very strongly that you were opposed to that as well. Why?

HD: I can't imagine how anybody could be in favor of it. It was so patently wrong. People who later said, "We were duped..." You know, they said, "We were duped, we were taken in, and now we know." And I said, "Who is the we? I wasn't taken in by that!" That was nonsense from the beginning.

Same with the Vietnam War. Even John Kerry, he said, "I finally came to realize that it was wrong." I may be lucky, but I realized how wrong that was at the very beginning. The French got out [of Vietnam] at Dien Bien Phu in 1954; why didn't we have the sense to follow that kind of wisdom? It was another example of a terribly misguided action on the part of government.

BW: If you were the president right now, what would you do about our presence in Iraq?

HD: I'll tell you why I would bring the troops home. There are several options -- all of them bad. And when you look at the option of bringing the troops home right away, you got to admit it's a terrible option -- there would be an awful, immediate increase in bloodshed. But I examined the other options, one by one, and they are all worse. And if we insist on staying there, that's the worse thing we can do. So, I think, yeah, it's going to be awful, but I'd like to bring them home.

BW: You've made your living as a communicator. How do you think libertarians could do a better job of trying to communicate our ideas to the American public, so more people are willing to listen to them and embrace them?

HD: You know, I've wondered. I can't say I've pondered that, but your asking me triggers this thought.

I've wondered if there would be a way for libertarians to establish a libertarian radio station, to start with. And have the whole thing where people would tune in and then say, "Hey, yeah, that's right." And then more people would tune in. I think it could even be supported by the commercial system that supports progressive talk radio now.

It might be a way to get a third stream going that would offset what's wrong now in mass media, with the big corporate ownership, and so forth.

BW: Actually, the good news is that the libertarian movement is already heading in that direction. There are some very, very popular libertarian talk show hosts around the country. But they do tend to be, sort of, one-by-one, as opposed to a block of talk show hosts, with a libertarian following a libertarian following a libertarian.

Now, going back to my original question -- how to communicate these ideas -- I'm actually thinking more on a one-on-one basis. You mentioned this fellow who wrote the letter to the editor, who thinks Americans know too much, and he trusts his government to take care of him. Which is scary! That letter-writer seems afraid of liberty. And I think that's one of libertarians' biggest challenges. How do we overcome the fear that people have of liberty? How do we reassure them that a free market and private charity and voluntary cooperation can work as good or better than most government programs? How do we overcome that fear factor?

HD: Eloquence is one answer, and I just heard it in listening to Harry's speech.

You might persuade some people, but that's a very deep-seated thing. A person so lacking in having his act together that he is ready to surrender his sovereignty to some government, God help us, I don't know whether you could have the time to convince that person.

But if [libertarian ideas are] hovering in the air, more and more people will begin to say, "Hey, yeah, maybe that's it." You will never persuade the guy who wrote that letter--

BW: We've written him off already!

HD: [Laughs.] It'd be nice to cut down the number of that kind of people who think that.

BW: Let me end with a lighthearted question. When you were on 20/20, you got to see all the reports that John Stossel -- one of our favorite libertarian correspondents -- used to file. Did you agree with everything he said, or did you sometimes think, "He's going too far!"

HD: I never thought he's going too far. I admired what he did. I loved his style! He was interviewing this prisoner one time who had gone to the law library in the prison, and he sued the prison system because they had supplied him with chunky peanut butter -- and he wanted the smooth.

And I remember John said, "So what? You're a criminal!"

[Laughs.] It was a beautiful moment.

[Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Brierly]

Read a profile of Hugh Downs

Read a profile of John Stossel

Find out how you can get and extended interview with comments by Harry Browne

Contents copyrighted The Advocates for Self-Government,, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) educational organization. Donations tax-deductible in U.S. All rights reserved.