On Thursday, February 10, I had a chance to sit down with Tom Winter and Allan Ryskind, the former owners of Human Events. Ryskind, the son of famous Hollywood screenwriter Morrie Ryskind, joined Human Events in 1959 as a reporter. Winter joined in 1961 as an intern and recent Harvard graduate. Together, the two took over the reins of our publication in 1966.
Ask Tom Winter if he has an especially fond memory of his tenure at Human Events that spanned five decades, and he doesn’t hesitate. “The parties at the White House. Ronald Reagan would host us, and he was very good to us.” He said that he fondly remembers the 300-plus person gala that Reagan held at the White House to celebrate Human Events 40th Anniversary.
“Reagan would have us come over to the White House as groups of couples. He would talk to us about this and that, tell stories, share things he had enjoyed reading in the publication.”
Winter’s journalism career started while at Harvard where he and a group of fellow conservative students launched a publication on campus to compete with the Harvard Crimson. “We passed them out for free on campus. We couldn’t quite bring them out every fortnight, but we did pass them around. That was what led me ultimately to Human Events to start as a copy editor. I worked with Frank Hannigan (one of the original founders of Human Events) who was still around then.”
Ryskind chimes in that Hannigan passed away in ’64, right after Goldwater lost. “I think that disappointment was part of what did him in,” Ryskind said. “When Frank died, Tom basically took over as publisher.”
Ryskind had come from the other side of the country in ’59. “I was a graduate from the UCLA School of Journalism and then I had gone to work for the Los Angeles News Agency. I got introduced to the Human Events opportunity and the thing that motivated me the most was their anti-communist position. That’s what really drove me. I had a pretty good grasp on most subjects, but when I started, I was on pretty shaky ground at first. I figured it out though.”
Regarding the communist threat back in his early days, Ryskind points out that Joseph Stalin had far more control and influence on communist party activities worldwide than most people realized. “Stalin fooled almost everyone. There was this communist party or that in different places and countries and people thought it was all decentralized. But they were united. Stalin was overseeing everything. When that all got laid out for me, I realized that was, it seemed to me, the greatest threat to the world and to America.”
I asked Winter what the early days were like. His respect for Frank Hannigan was transparent. “Frank was a great, great writer. He had some other talented folks as well. I just had to do a little rewriting. We’d work hard through Thursday evening for a Friday publication deadline.” Winter also referred to team lunches that included Hannigan and noted anti-communist journalist Stan Evans where they would come up with story ideas. There was a sincere solemness in Winter’s voice as he recollected those lunch meetings. The fondness of the memories was clear.
While Winter spoke of his contribution with great humility, his friend Allan was a bit quicker to give Tom his credit due. “You know, Tom came from Harvard and the Harvard Business School and was topflight. He made Human Events thrive after Frank (Hannigan) died. He was one of the founders of the American Conservative Union, the Conservative Victory Fund, and he also was responsible for starting the rating of House and Senate voting members.”
Ryskind recalled how easy it was to get access to lawmakers back in those early days. “I roamed around Capitol Hill and it was so easy to go into the White House, even when the Kennedy’s were there. Ryskind shared that he had access to White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “I could actually get in there and talk to them. It was amazing.” Ryskind said that at the time he had been critical of Kennedy’s handling of the standoff against his Kremlin counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, but that he has come to change his mind over time and feels Kennedy handled it well.
I asked the two what it was like to be running a news publication back during the Cold War and how they reflected on it now. Winter, in what is clearly his very humble manner said, “I was just a copy editor. Allan will be better to answer.” Ryskind didn’t hesitate.
“Well, I guess there was a great division in the republic. It's kind of complicated to me, but there was a great division between the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats always wanted, it seemed to me, to be less concerned about communism. There were exceptions. Some Democrats were very good like Henry (Scoop) Jackson. But in the Republican Party, and especially Reagan was just terrific at this, they were more strongly anti-communist.
“Reagan felt like, ‘We can defeat these people’. When you go back and study Reagan and read the things he wrote, especially in a piece he did for the Washington Post, you see that he had it all laid out and when you look at it, and in retrospect, you see how right he was. He said we needed to increase our defense spending greatly so that the Soviets couldn’t keep up. Of course, that’s exactly what he ended up doing.”
Both Winter and Ryskind make no secret of their respect and admiration for Reagan. When I asked each of them who they thought was the best President during their run and who was the most important American political figure in their lifetime, Regan got four out of four possible votes. They also both felt that his election was the most important political event of their time because of how it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Human Events was known to be Reagan’s favorite news publication, a choice not necessarily favored by those on his staff. This reporter has been told anecdotally on several occasions that staff members would attempt to hide Reagan’s Human Events issue from him, to the point where Reagan ordered a second secret subscription.
No anecdote better shows the influence that Human Events had on Reagan than does the one Ryskind shared about the famous summit between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland. “Now Reagan had it easier than most because the Soviet Union was collapsing from within; they were trying to reform. Gorbachev turned out to be a good communist. I mean, you can see it from the fact that he went to Reagan's funeral. To me that was just incredible. But at Reykjavik, Reagan wanted to get a deal and Gorbachev couldn’t go along with an ABM system or anything to do with an anti-missile system” (SDI-Strategic Defense Initiative, or, as the American media cynically nicknamed at the time “Star Wars”). So we were told that Gorbachev was demanding that Reagan give it up, insisting it was an offensive weapon. Regan says he can’t do it, that it’s a defensive weapon only and its humanitarian. It just knocks things down. And then Reagan says that the second reason he can’t give it up is the conservatives at Human Events would ‘beat my brains in!’
“Then Reagan tells Gorbachev that he has a problem in that he will get criticized by his own party members and even conservative Democrats if he gives up the defensive system. Gorbachev says that he also faces political opposition in the Soviet Union. Reagan then says, ‘but you don't have to worry about that. You can just lock them up!’”
I asked them what they thought of the common notion today that all politicians are crooks? Winter made me chuckle with his response. “I mean, that’s nonsense obviously. Who says that they are all crooks?”
“The average man on the street,” I said.
“Well, there you go,” was his reply.
Ryskind pointed to the fact that Congressmen have always made deals, but there is a concern as to how so many of them get rich. He went on to add that the problem is not what worries him the most when he thinks about today’s issues.
Both men shared their concerns over how divided the country is today. While neither of them were supporters of Donald Trump’s presidency, they both are worried about the current infighting within the Republican party. They do not believe that one Republican should vilify another simply because they did or didn’t support the former President.
I then asked them what they thought of the fourth estate today insofar as all journalism at a minimum comes from some angle in choosing and presenting stories for publication, while much of what is shared as “news” is nothing more than lightly veiled opinion. Both were more positive than I had anticipated.
“I think there is a lot of decent journalism out there,” Winter said. “Sure, you have to choose this liberal guy or that conservative guy, I think they are working hard at it and you can find lots of good reporting.”
Ryskind, who was an actual beat reporter, looks sympathetically on today’s journalists when compared to his own time in the profession. “My own view is that they have a phenomenally tough job. I mean, things change moment to moment, and they only have so many resources to put onto one story. I couldn't exist. Our papers were weekly. I did a lot of research on things. When something would come up, I'd have a whole week to go to the Library of Congress and get the New York Times. They had stories on a daily basis. I would read something and then I would go out to see if it was true. Now, of course, with internet there is so much and so fast, you can try to find things and some of the things are very good [accurate], and other things, well, not so good.”
Besides Reagan, they both expressed a high degree of respect for the former Congressman from New York, the late Jack Kemp. “I think he transformed the Republican party with his ideas of supply side economics,” Winter said of Kemp. “He was one of my favorite political people. What he did was he showed how you could help people out and do it from a Republican perspective. He really sold the Republican Party.”
My last question to the pair of American journalism icons, was if they had any advice for me in trying to preserve and extend the legacy that they have left at Human Events. The obligation and burden both being significant.
“I think, first of all you guys have the energy and I think you're doing good things. I like the idea that you're talking about totalitarianism,” Ryskind said. He wanted us to continue to pursue stories that shine a light on totalitarianism and was very complimentary about our March 8th Victims of Communism program to be held in California with the Liberty Forum. He also wanted us to keep reporting on the war between Russia and Ukraine.
As for Tom Winter, his advice to me as to how to carry on at Human Events, and preserve the integrity of the publication that he and Allan had shepherded so masterfully for so many decades, was a bit more succinct.
“You know what to do. Do what’s right.”
It is rare for an average person (and for me, average is aspirational) to have a chance to sit down and talk with a person who is a living legend. Rarer still, is the opportunity to do so with someone who became a legend for their work in your own particular field. To be able to do both of the aforementioned in one sitting, and then to have the chance to meet not just one, but two, living legends from your field who are also the professional ancestor in your own current enterprise is just a few feather shades away from a black swan event.
It was a humbling privilege to sit down and meet with Tom Winter and Allan Ryskind. We at Human Events owe everything to them because without their past commitment this present platform would not exist. We will attempt to fulfill our obligation to them and the others that came before us with both vigilance and vigor in all our publishing endeavors.
And as for me personally, Tom, I promise to do my best to do the next right thing.