Politics & Government

Reporting on Rand

Barry Roal Carlsen

Conservatives, including Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, have cited the novelist Ayn Rand as a major influence.

In the early 1960s, Rand came to campus as part of a symposium series, and I was the Daily Cardinal reporter who grabbed the assignment to cover her speech and report on the small-group session that followed the next afternoon.

Naïf that I was, it struck me as strange that more-experienced staff members hadn’t jumped at the chance to hear an actual published writer speak in person.

In those days, I was a political tabula rasa, the product of a public high school where current events were merely newspaper clippings that students brought to class to earn extra credit. But we did read fiction. Voraciously. And we recommended books that we’d enjoyed, always including page numbers of sex scenes, if any. Before arriving in Madison, I had read both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I had skipped most of John Galt’s speech — Rand’s magnum opus and the crux of her philosophy — partly because I found it too long-winded, but mostly because the friend who’d recommended the book said I didn’t have to read that to get the good parts.

I checked in at the Cardinal office before I left for the speech to see if anyone hanging around that night wanted to keep me company. As I recall, the phrase ten-foot pole was used to explain why no one else would touch her. Puzzled, I left for the Union Theater alone.

Rand’s appearance didn’t match what I’d come to expect from somebody who could create such a stable of romantic hunks, as I saw them then. It was the unflattering, no-nonsense haircut that surprised me the most.

She was speaking from a prepared text, flipping one piece of paper after another. Five minutes in, I was lost: the ideas were flying too thick and fast. As soon as the speech was over, I sprinted for the door. I had friends who ushered that night, and they were more than happy to let me backstage.

Rand was alone, so I started right in with my request. She was reluctant; I was adamant. I wanted to do a good reporting job, I told her, but I couldn’t do that without seeing her text to back up the notes I’d taken. At last she gave in, but with this caveat: she’d made revisions while flying to Madison. If I wanted to quote from those sections, I had to use the handwritten revisions, not the typed originals.

Today I wonder what I would have learned about her thinking if I hadn’t been too naïve to see the benefit of comparing her original words with her revisions. Had she been warned that a hostile audience awaited her, a crowd of people only a little less liberal than most of the Cardinal staff? Had she soft-pedaled some original ideas to avoid being booed? Or, had she revised her typed words to come across as even more clear, audience reaction be damned?

But that night it was not political apathy that drove me to ignore everything except her revisions; it was a deadline. I came back to the Cardinal office with a thirty-page speech and half an hour to write the story. Each page of my story was being ripped out of the typewriter just as I finished typing it — by staff members who had refused to honor the speaker by attending the speech, yet were hungry to know what she had said.

Before the follow-up session the next day, my story had been published. As I handed back the speech, Rand commended me for the story’s accuracy. At the time, I considered it a compliment to my writing. But nowadays, I consider the person it came from, whose ideas I had condensed without ever editorializing.

The small-group session contained some drama, which was easier to write about than dense philosophy. Someone asked, “What about love? Doesn’t love matter?” Rand said it didn’t; her tone seemed to suggest that the questioner was a fool. He popped up from his chair and stalked out.

These are the things that stay with me from the days before too many politicians got their ideas from writers like Rand — novelists who, by definition, manipulate their invented worlds to achieve successful outcomes resulting from their philosophies. They were also the days when the Daily Cardinal was staffed mostly, though never entirely, by liberals like the one I became, the days before the paper leaned so far left that it spun off the Badger Herald.

In addition to freelance writing, Marilyn Shapiro Leys ’63 taught journalism and English in the Milwaukee Public Schools and journalism at UW-Richland. Now retired, she lives in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

Published in the Fall 2013 issue


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