MEDIA: US NEWS article on Ayn Rand -- 3/9/98

Kathryn Aegis (
Tue, 3 Mar 1998 19:48:05 +0000

Oops, this article was worse than I thought it would be! Text

> US NEWS article on Ayn Rand -- 3/9/98
> -------------------------------------------------------
> Culture & Ideas
> Fighting over Ayn Rand:
> A radical individualist's followers can't get along
> The drama has all the requisite ingredients of a typical Ayn Rand plot
> line: epic aspirations, forbidden passions, and intractable rivalries that
> pit fervent purists against pragmatists who call for measured compromise.
> But 16 years after Rand's death, that scenario springs not from some just
> discovered scrap of her fiction but from her own complex and paradoxical
> legacy.
> On the one hand, many of the once radical notions Rand spelled out in her
> novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, not to mention in her
> philosophy of rational self-interest, appear to have achieved mainstream
> status. Rand's half-century-old calls for minimal government, unfettered
> individualism, and the "morality of selfishness" have now become
> commonplace. The most esteemed and powerful former member of her inner
> circle, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, holds unparalleled sway
> over global markets. Rand's books still sell a brisk 300,000 copies a year,
> and in January, 55 years after its publication, The Fountainhead was named
> the favorite novel of the freshman class at that onetime bastion of
> countercultural protest, the University of California--Berkeley. Earlier in
> the decade, when a survey by Reader's Digest and the Library of Congress
> asked respondents to rate which books had most influenced them, Atlas
> Shrugged came in second, right after the Bible. Now, nearly half a century
> after its last major Rand film--King Vidor's 1949 version of The
> Fountainhead with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal--Hollywood is jumping on
> the Rand bandwagon: At least two movie projects are in the works, and a new
> feature-length documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, has just been
> nominated for an Academy Award.
> But ironically, at a time when Rand's influence has never seemed so
> pervasive, her followers have never been so fractious. In a development
> Rand herself might have relished, two rival institutes are locked in a
> bitter philosophical--and public-relations--battle over which more
> faithfully conveys her message. The story of that rivalry provides a vivid
> object lesson in the inherent pitfalls of maintaining any large-scale
> movement committed to the primacy of individualism.
> A sanctioned affair.
> The internecine feud owes its roots, in part, to Rand's own passions. For
> more than a decade, she conducted a love affair with her closest
> collaborator, Nathaniel Branden, a disciple 25 years her junior. At 50,
> Rand had wrested a benediction for that liaison with the 25-year-old
> Branden, whom she had met as a University of California--Los Angeles
> student, from their respective spouses--an achievement that might seem
> remarkable except that it echoes her own story lines. During the years of
> their affair, Branden codified the principles of her novels into a strict
> philosophical system that she dubbed objectivism, complete with an
> institute in his name and a newsletter with 20,000 subscribers. But in
> 1968, when he backed out of Rand's bed for another woman, an objectivist
> disciple herself, Rand excommunicated him with a brutal denunciation that
> left her movement splintered--her most dedicated acolytes on one side, most
> of the rest drifting into the mushrooming libertarian movement.
> For years, their doctrinal squabbles had been confined to diatribes in
> obscure publications and, more recently, on the Internet's proliferating
> objectivist Web sites. But last October, that rivalry surfaced publicly
> when more than 400 Randians gathered in Washington, D.C., to mark the 40th
> anniversary of Atlas Shrugged at an event organized under the wing of the
> Cato Institute, the capital's libertarian think tank. Greeted by the
> spectacle of a real-life bodybuilder hoisting the globe above a spotlighted
> pair of pecs, the speakers included ABC-TV personality John Stossel, Wall
> Street Journal editorial writer John Fund, and Nathaniel Branden himself,
> now a Beverly Hills psychotherapist frequently hailed as the father of the
> self-esteem movement. But nowhere in evidence was a single representative
> from the California-based Ayn Rand Institute, the official guardian of
> Rand's reputation, which had broken with the gala's organizers years
> earlier.
> Meanwhile, the institute had given its blessing to the Oscar-nominated
> documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which opened in New York and Los
> Angeles February 13 and moves to 15 other cities over the next two months.
> In that sanctioned portrait, Branden merits only the briefest mention, and
> the film contains scant reference to their affair, which was finally
> revealed by his ex-wife, Barbara, after Rand's death. In fact, as one
> condition of access to the institute's archives, the documentary's
> producer, Michael Paxton, agreed to not even interview the Brandens. "It's
> ridiculous nonsense," says Barbara Branden. "They're fanatical true
> believers, and they've rewritten history totally." For her, there is no
> doubt that the man responsible for banishing them from the official record
> is her cousin Leonard Peikoff--whom Branden introduced as a gangly
> 17-year-old pre-med student to Rand's inner circle nearly four decades ago.
> But Peikoff, who endured to become Rand's legal heir, is unapologetic about
> ordering their exclusion. "I haven't the slightest interest in supporting
> those who disseminate falsehoods about Ayn Rand," he says, "any more than I
> would ask Hitler to appear in a documentary about George Washington."
> Barbara Branden, however, is getting another crack at setting the record
> straight in a forthcoming cable TV movie based upon her confessional 1986
> bestseller, The Passion of Ayn Rand. Currently set to air on Showtime this
> fall, the film of the same name depicts the unlikely romance between the
> mature Rand, played by Helen Mirren--whose blond Prime Suspect bob has been
> slicked for the occasion into Rand's trademark brunet blunt cut--and
> Branden, played by the boyish Eric Stoltz. Now 68 and a consultant to the
> film, Barbara Branden watched the recent shooting in Toronto and wept over
> Mirren's uncanny portrayal of the guru Branden claims she still adores.
> "I'm trying to present Ayn Rand as a human being," she says, "not as a
> goddess who had to be infallible." Still, she does not hesitate to brand
> the movement she helped create a cult. "The signs were all there," she
> says. "People were afraid to ask searching questions because they didn't
> want their heads taken off. They were becoming little Ayn Rand parrots."
> The fierce infighting among Rand's legatees calls to mind the split between
> Trotskyites and Stalinists that haunted New York's literary left in the
> 1930s. It is an analogy that would have infuriated the Russian-born Rand,
> who spent her life crusading against communism. Landing in New York from
> St. Petersburg in 1926 at the age of 21, with $50 in her pocket and
> speaking broken English, Alice Rosenbaum re-created herself with a
> determination worthy of her own fictional heroines. Borrowing a Finnish
> writer's first name that aptly rhymed with "mine" and a surname from her
> cherished typewriter, she set out for Hollywood, where she spent nearly two
> decades working her way from bit-part actress to screenwriter before
> earning enough to turn full time to novel writing. When she finally
> published The Fountainhead in 1943, most major reviewers ignored or savaged
> it, missing her celebration of individualism entirely. To those who became
> devotees, that reception seemed to confirm the book's thesis--that
> professional opinionmongers refuse to recognize the work of solitary
> geniuses. But favorable word of mouth over the next two years turned it
> into a bestseller that established Rand as a literary force to be reckoned
> with. By 1962, The Fountainhead had sold half a million hardcover and a
> million paperback copies.
> Craving respect.
> Although Rand was gratified by that popular success, her true ambition was
> to win recognition as the author of a distinctly 20th-century--and
> American--philosophy: objectivism. According to its central precept, man is
> a rational being who ought to have no truck with religion or mysticism--in
> particular the spiritual belief that an individual has any "obligation" to
> his fellows. Instead, each person must reason his way to a set of ethical
> values that can be "objectively" known and felt. Under that value system,
> the noblest human purpose is to pursue enlightened self-interest, and only
> those who follow that course can emerge as true Randian champions like
> Howard Roark, the architect-hero of The Fountainhead, and John Galt, the
> iconoclastic inventor of Atlas Shrugged--the visionary artists and
> entrepreneurs who become the movers and shakers of a nation. If, along the
> way, they provide jobs and inspiration for the masses, then the masses
> should be grateful. But they have no responsibility in any form to the
> common good; Rand scorned altruism, warning it was a kind of sloppy
> mass-think that could be perverted into communism or fascism.
> Snubbed by Buckley.
> During her lifetime, Rand's ideas never won the high-ground intellectual
> acceptance that she--unlike Howard Roark or John Galt--avidly craved.
> Although she became the toast of TV talk shows with Phil Donahue and Tom
> Snyder, academics derided objectivism as grasping and simplistic, and to
> this day Rand followers, like Peikoff, have difficulty landing jobs on
> university faculties. Even among conservatives, Rand received a chilly
> reception, largely because of her defiant atheism. When she first met the
> young William F. Buckley, editor of the conservative National Review and a
> devout Catholic, she shocked him by demanding how such an intelligent
> thinker could believe in God. Later, Buckley hired Whittaker Chambers to
> take on Atlas Shrugged. In that scathing critique, Chambers charged that
> from every page "a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding:
> 'To a gas chamber--go!' "
> During the two years before her 1982 death, Rand might have found
> vindication in the election of Ronald Reagan, whose administration seemed a
> tribute to many of her ideals. A handful of her followers, such as
> domestic-policy director Martin Anderson and senior associate counsel
> Christopher Cox (now a California representative), had won key jobs on his
> White House staff, and Reagan himself claimed to have been inspired by her.
> But compromise--inevitable in politics--was anathema to Rand: Denouncing
> Reagan's alliance with the Christian right and his opposition to abortion,
> she refused to vote for him and ended up watching the conservative euphoria
> of the early 1980s from the sidelines.
> The Ayn Rand Institute, repository of orthodox objectivism, exists,
> ironically, in defiance of Rand's expressed wish. After disbanding the
> Nathaniel Branden Institute in the late '60s, Rand refused to bless any
> organization promoting her philosophy. But three years after her death, one
> of her millionaire supporters, Ed Snider, then the majority owner of the
> Philadelphia Flyers, was shocked by what he considered leftist claptrap
> that his two sons were learning in college. After an abortive attempt to
> set up an objectivist course at the University of Pennsylvania, he
> persuaded Peikoff to start an educational organization, whose funding he
> guaranteed. "I felt, after she died," Snider says, "that if there wasn't an
> organized approach, objectivism would simply fade away." Peikoff, fearing a
> takeover by hostile forces, insisted on total control. Although he has
> since withdrawn from everyday operations to become chairman emeritus, he
> retains veto power on every decision. "I was afraid it would attract
> crackpots," he explains. "We used a variant of the Pepsi-Cola licensing
> agreement to permit no deviations."
> Now based just south of Los Angeles (its Marina Del Rey address is listed
> in every Rand paperback sold), the institute is housed in a high-rise so
> undistinguished that it might well have caused Howard Roark--who dynamites
> a building rather than see its design altered--to reach for a detonator.
> Still, the setting seems apt for lionizing a novelist who spent her life
> exalting the triumph of human ingenuity and grit over the obdurate forces
> of nature: Beyond the windows, sailboats litter the world's largest
> man-made small-craft harbor. Inside the lobby, where Rand's photos and
> letters cover the walls, her forbidding steel-hasped desk has pride of
> place. According to the institute's executive director, Michael Berliner, a
> 59-year-old former professor of the philosophy of education, the aim of his
> current $1.8 million budget is nothing less than "to change the
> intellectual foundations of the culture."
> To that end, Berliner ticks off the evidence of Rand's increasing ubiquity.
> When she died, she had 11 titles in print. Now, she has 15. After releasing
> Rand's early short stories, her marginalia, her letters, and, most
> recently, her journals, the institute is overseeing an anthology,
> tentatively called An Ayn Rand Sampler, scheduled for publication next
> year.
> Is Schwarzenegger available?
> Meanwhile, up the coast in Hollywood, Tony-award-winning producer Craig
> Anderson is currently attempting to recruit Titanic director James Cameron
> to translate the daunting, and didactic, saga of Atlas Shrugged onto film
> in time for the millennium. In the process, Anderson has found himself
> fielding calls from dozens of supplicants, including actress Sharon Stone,
> who have lobbied to work on a classic they claim shaped their lives.
> At the Marine Corps' command and staff college in Quantico, Va., James
> Robbins, an associate professor of diplomatic history, has made an
> avocation out of tracking media references to Rand, which he claims are up
> 30 percent in the past year. Some, from antifeminist Camille Paglia,
> Baltimore Orioles star Brady Anderson, or high-tech tycoon Larry Ellison,
> the CEO of Oracle, seem entirely predictable. And few would be surprised
> that Rush Limbaugh has read lengthy chunks of Rand's tirade against
> altruism in Atlas Shrugged over the airwaves. But who might have suspected
> that Hillary Rodham Clinton would confess to a long-ago "Ayn Rand phase"?
> Rand disciple.
> The most highly prized Rand acolyte, but also the most furtive, remains
> Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan. With the Brandens, Greenspan once
> ranked as an ardent member of the Saturday-night salons in Rand's New York
> apartment that she jokingly dubbed "the collective." Invited to Greenspan's
> swearing-in as the chairman of Gerald Ford's Council of Economic Advisers
> in 1974, she praised him as a "disciple"--a tag he has never publicly
> disclaimed. Peikoff scoffs that a true objectivist would never have taken
> the post Greenspan now holds as the nation's chief banking czar. Still,
> friends insist that Greenspan never abandoned his Randian ideals and assert
> that he finally exposed them in a speech last April when he essentially
> advocated the abolition of his job and similar regulatory interferences
> with the economy.
> But the principal target of the Ayn Rand Institute has always been
> adolescent readers, who have demonstrated a striking affinity for Rand's
> books. "Ayn Rand is speaking to what an adolescent is dealing with: Who am
> I? What does it mean to be independent?" Berliner says. Since 1986, more
> than 55,000 high school students have been induced to read and opine on
> Rand's Anthem or The Fountainhead through two institute essay contests
> offering up to $10,000 in prize money. Berliner's staff has also promoted
> objectivist clubs at more than 100 college campuses across the country.
> Last April the institute set out to raise its profile with an op-ed article
> by staff writer David Harriman attacking the volunteer summit hosted in
> Philadelphia by Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Jimmy Carter.
> Titled "Selfishness Made America Great," the article compared Clinton's
> appeal for volunteerism to the call for citizen service once issued by
> Adolf Hitler. When conservative columnist Arianna Huffington launched a
> swift counterattack, Berliner knew he had hit upon a cause tailor made for
> promoting the author who penned The Virtue of Selfishness. Over the
> Internet, the institute recruited 40 students to show up in Philadelphia
> brandishing customized placards protesting, "Clinton Wants Your Life" and
> "Don't Volunteer Me." The ensuing publicity caused contributions to shoot
> up 30 percent--a development that would have delighted the philosopher
> queen of capitalism, who was buried beside a 6-foot floral dollar sign.
> Now the institute has launched a $66,000 campaign to capture more space on
> the nation's op-ed pages with equally provocative stands. But not
> surprisingly, its newfound notoriety has caused dissent. On a crest high
> above Beverly Hills, in an imposing white, art-deco palazzo that Howard
> Roark might have approved, Nathaniel Branden laments the institute's
> targeting the volunteer summit. "It confirms the worst accusations of her
> enemies," he says. "I'm appalled."
> Another Rand acolyte who has become disenchanted with Peikoff and the Ayn
> Rand Institute is Ed Snider, its onetime sugar daddy, who discreetly cut
> his ties nearly seven years ago and now helps fund a second objectivist
> institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. For Snider, the final straw came when
> Peikoff and board chairman Peter Schwartz excommunicated David Kelley, a
> former Vassar philosophy professor who had read Rand's favorite poem,
> Rudyard Kipling's "If," at her funeral. In 1989, Kelley committed what
> Peikoff and Schwartz considered an act of unpardonable deviationism: He
> spoke at a New York meeting of the Laissez Faire Supper Club, a gathering
> of libertarians. If any political philosophy would seem to echo Ayn Rand's
> beliefs, it would be libertarianism, and indeed, according to Robert Poole,
> president of the movement's Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, he and a
> majority of his members claim her as their inspiration. But Rand denounced
> libertarians as anarchists--enemies of reason who wanted not less
> government but no government at all. She herself believed a minimalist
> state was necessary to safeguard individual rights through the courts, the
> police, and the army. With some libertarians calling for decriminalization
> of drug laws and openly puffing pot, Rand spurned the lot as "hippies of
> the right."
> For the Ayn Rand Institute, Kelley's decision to consort with such
> apostates was an act of treason. He was attacked in the institute's
> newsletter, and his writings were expunged from its catalog. In his own
> pamphlet of reply, Kelley raged that "This is the behavior of religious
> zealots." In 1990, he founded the rival Institute for Objectivist Studies
> in Poughkeepsie, where he attracted Snider and other defectors from the Ayn
> Rand Institute. Last October, as they joined the libertarians at the Cato
> Institute to fete Atlas Shrugged, the occasion took on the air of a
> dissident convention.
> What would Rand have made of that tribute? According to Peikoff, she would
> have deplored it. Holed up in his suburban brick ranch house in Irvine,
> Calif., a maroon convertible with AYN RAND license plates parked in the
> driveway, Peikoff remains defiantly unrepentant about his break with Kelley
> and other infidels, no matter what opportunity for Randian hype and hoopla
> their Washington celebration offered. "I'm an ideological purist," he says,
> sounding remarkably like a character who has just stepped off Rand's pages.
> "I'd rather blow up the whole movement than ally myself with this slime."