Washington — HE was the last American to broadcast from Paris before it fell to the Germans in World War II. He was one of the first journalists to be labeled ``neoconservative'' when, in the 1960s, he began arguing against the proliferation of government-sponsored social programs. And when, under CBS's mandatory retirement rule, he stopped his nightly appearances on television news in 1977, Newsweek described him as ``the most imposing of all broadcast commentators.'' Now, after half a century of watching world affairs, Eric Sevareid still tries, in his words, ``to elucidate, when one can, more than to advocate.''
``When I was doing nightly commentary,'' says Mr. Sevareid, who lives in semiretirement in the restored Georgetown row house he recently bought from CBS anchorman Dan Rather, ``I wasn't really trying to tell people what to think. I was trying to tell them what they should be thinking about, and how to think about these things that engulf us every day - that is, what historical importance to give these things, and how to separate out the minor issues from the truly major ones.''
Over a private lunch of Malaysian chicken and noodles in his dining room, he is asked about the ``truly major issues'' that will face the nation in the future.
``I think there are three things that are new in history, really new, and nobody knows the outcome of them,'' he says. ``One is the leap into space. Another is the existence of ultimate weapons. And the third is the poisoning of the natural sources of life - the rivers, air, food.''
He says he doesn't get ``very excited about space.'' Why? ``I don't think any of man's real problems are solved in space - outer space,'' he says. ``I think they're solved in inner space and inner man and terra firma.''
The second point, concerning defense and nuclear weaponry, interests him far more. ``The military aren't our first line of defense of our peace - they are our first line of defense of our territory,'' Sevareid says. Peace, he says, arises from ``civil rights and liberties'' - particularly as practiced in America.
He contends that if both superpowers were ``closed, suspicious societies'' like the Soviet Union, ``world tensions would be so explosive that we'd have a war.'' So maintaining America's rights and liberties, he says, is vital.
Vital, too, is his third point: the protection of the environment. He worries that technology is becoming ``increasingly complex, with no end in sight'' - but that ``the human brain and nervous system don't change except over eons.'' Unless human thinking and responding can keep up with technology, he is concerned that ``fatal results'' may increasingly occur from ``human error,'' as in the case of the Challenger and Chernobyl disasters.
A fourth point also concerns Sevareid: the need to deal with what he calls ``the vast tidal wave of human beings'' moving from the third world into the Western nations. ``There is a fragmentation going on in this country,'' he says, because so many ethnic groups are clinging to their own national identities. He worries, in particular, about the ``critical mass'' of Spanish-speaking people around Miami who have not been assimilated into the rest of American culture.
``I was brought up by Norwegian parents in Minnesota and North Dakota,'' says Sevareid. He explains that ``we were taught a different vision, which was to assimilate. We were going to be something called an American - a distinct personality and identity in this world - and [our] culture would arise out of it.'' By contrast, he says, the goal today seems to be ``cultural diversity.''
``At what point,'' he asks, ``does cultural, racial diversity become a kind of social anarchy? How do you get national cohesion this way?''
Dealing with issues like the four he has just mentioned, Sevareid says, will require one thing in particular: better leadership. He worries that leaders today are too often motivated by a desire for celebrity status rather than by a willingness to serve. ``Celebrity is, I guess, the other side of the coin of fame,'' he says. ``It's the counterfeit side. It's easy to become a pop celebrity.''
Thinking about some of the leaders he has known and most respected - statesmen like former World Bank president John Jay McCloy; Dean Acheson, who was US secretary of state in the Truman administration; and W. Averell Harriman, who was a businessman, a much-respected diplomat, and also served a term as governor of New York - he notes that they had a ``sense of dedication to the country and saw government as a way to use their lives to try to improve things.''
He notes that ``when General [George C.] Marshall retired and was asked to write his memoirs for a huge price, he said, `I can't judge myself: History has to do that.'''
``Can you imagine [Henry] Kissinger saying anything like that?'' he says, ``or Alex Haig saying something like that? They go right out of these immensely powerful positions to the talk shows and the best-seller lists and the lecture circuit.''
The talk shows, however, are part of the medium Sevareid literally knows inside out: television. He joined CBS under Edward R. Murrow in 1939 and is keenly aware of the faults of American network television. Because it is a commercial medium with a huge appetite for ``lowbrow'' programming, he says, it can't take risks on the ``highbrow'' side. ``You have to remember,'' he says, ``that broadcasting - radio and TV - is the only medium of information and entertainment in all time that ever tried to perform 18 to 24 hours a day, 365 days in the year. It can't be done at a decent level of quality.''
Yet, in its defense, he notes the networks provide ``about the only national hearth we've had on various occasions: when [John] Kennedy was shot, or the hostages returned [from Iran], or Challenger exploded.'' On such occasions, he says, ``somehow we feel like one people.''
``If you have a tremendous fragmentation of broadcasting,'' he says, ``then how do you command a truly national audience except in very special events?'' Without such a forum, he implies, it is difficult to maintain national cohesion.
So far, the discussion has revolved around collective and institutional issues. What does Sevareid see as the most pressing needs for the individual?
Like a growing number of forward-looking thinkers, he longs for a form of education that provides each individual with a moral foundation. He is not in favor of prayer in schools, noting that the distinction between church and state ``should be kept.'' But he insists that training children in the ``virtues of life'' does not necessarily have to be ``political or religious. ... You cannot raise children in a vacuum of morality.''
Particularly needed, he emphasizes, is a greater sense of personal responsibility.
``I've seen this country, with the leading edge of thought, go through the `social alibi' phase,'' Sevareid says. In that period, he notes, the common view was that ``society is responsible for my troubles, not me: Change society, and then somehow I will be rich and beautiful and popular and happy with life.''
Twenty-five years ago, says Sevareid, ``I began to think differently.'' He recalls that he was ``much denounced'' as a ``reactionary old codger'' by the young. ``But it became clear to me that we'd overdone this thing,'' he says.
``It seemed to me it came down to a realization, from many years of experience with Great Society programs, that only people with a sense of personal responsibility can help others, or - and this is the important point - be helped.''
Sevareid admits that he has little patience with ``the really crude conservative types'' who insist that ``everybody [can] be thrown to his own devices and survive.''
``That's too far for me,'' he says, adding that ``a lot of people suffer through no fault of their own and have to be helped.''
Nevertheless, he says, the real need for the future is for greater personal responsibility, which he calls ``the missing part'' of the present-day social fabric.
On this point Sevareid is optimistic. As American society heads into the 21st century, he says, the trend toward greater personal responsibility is the ``big change that's coming.''