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Dr George Gallup (1901 - 1984) - 3 October 1997

Every morning just before noon, on weekdays, there’s a slithering sound at the kitchen door. It’s the daily post.

The other morning, it was more of a thump. It was a pack of letters from many people, all in England – not Scotland, Wales, Ireland – enlightening me about the way England felt on the death of the Princess of Wales. They were all different, often contradictory, all confident and all undertook to speak for England.

This pile of letters took me back to a well-remembered occasion only a year or two after the Second World War was over. A famous English author had visited New York city and, like every other traveller, collected impressions of the city and its people. Being an author, he felt (as authors do) that his impressions were more valuable than those of non-authors; and when he got back to London, he lost no time in composing a radio talk and delivering it over the BBC.

Nothing more would have been heard of this talk – not in America anyway – if The New York Times had not reprinted the script; and you’ll soon see why the Times was, within a day or two, panting under a blizzard of protesting letters.

What people in the main were protesting about was not the author’s opinions, his dislike of what you might call the feel or smell of the town. There’s no compulsion to like New York or any other city. It was that he was stating so many of his opinions as facts, or deducing a sad state of things from his first glimpse of people. For example, he regretted that New York’s skyscrapers were not dedicated to God, but only to buying or selling dividends.

I tried to think of a skyscraper exclusively or even mainly devoted to trading stocks and couldn’t think of one. People pointed out to him that notable skyscrapers housed the American Bible Society, the American Cancer Society, the Association of Social Workers, the Medical Society of New York. And though you could say that the beautiful, rising, set-back marble monoliths of Rockefeller Centre were made possible by John D Rockfeller’s genius as a dividend monopoliser, somebody also pointed out that Mr Rockefeller’s millions had cured thousands, perhaps millions of poor people of scurvy, dysentery and other typical afflictions of tropical countries.

I won’t name the famous author because he’s long dead; and if he were alive, he might have a plausible case to make for his views. But it was his positive views about the character and habits of New Yorkers that riled them. He didn’t help things by declaring first off that “New York is Babylon piled on imperial Rome”. And a following sentence of his read, “New Yorkers are so restless in their nightly pursuit of diminishing pleasures that the lonely heart of man cannot come home here”. “Not a flower,” he moaned, “can blossom among these concrete cliffs.”

Evidently, the great man had not seen the thousands of little gardens that constitute the backyard of innumerable brownstone houses. Nor did he seem aware that in Central Park, with its 300 varieties of trees, there was a garden which grows every flower mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

I kept saying to myself but how does he know about, for instance, the night-time habits peculiar to New York, and why can’t the lonely heart of man come home here while presumably it has no trouble finding its way home in Bradford, Leeds and Wigan?

I had an idea. There was a neutral observer, a disinterested judge. I thought of Dr George Gallup, who by then had been doing his polls and surveys for about a dozen years.

George Gallup was the first man to use a statistical method on a large sample of the public, but his polls had, it seemed to me, always been about political opinion: was Hitler a threat to the United States; who was going to win an election; was President Roosevelt right to convoy British warships across the North Atlantic; was it a good or bad thing that President Truman had ended segregation in the armed forces?

I wondered if (for once) Dr Gallup would address himself to a few social facts, not opinions, and find out something about New York’s restless pursuit of diminishing pleasure. Why did New Yorkers never get home at night, but left their lonely hearts to wander around the perilously icy or murderously hot streets?

I never met Dr Gallup, but I suggested to him a poll about some of the daily habits of New Yorkers, especially the ones that the famous English author deplored.

Dr Gallup’s responsive survey was a shock even to me. He discovered that only one New Yorker in 15 had ever been in a nightclub. The great majority of New Yorkers go home for the evening meal at six o’clock – mostly, most of them, to watch television or read; at weekends go to a movie, have friends in to play poker or checkers (draughts). And 92 New Yorkers in 100 go to bed around 10.30. Dr Gallup found that when people were asked what kept them busy through the year, they replied, “Work, children, fun, quarrels, savings, death in the family and taxes.” Just like you and me.

The famous, sad author found a singular lack in New York of what he called the “intimate, endearing human touch”. Well I didn’t need to go to Dr Gallup for that.

Walking home under one of those flaming scarlet and green El Greco skies that we get in the fall, I turned a street corner and saw scrawled on the wall of a bricked-up corner lot a sentence. It said, "Nuts to all the boys on 2nd Avenue". There was a wriggly line for a pause. "Except between 68th and 69th Streets".

On my way to the BBC studio in Rockefeller Centre next day, my cab driver had stopped for a red light at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and there was a bevy of teenage girls on their way to prayers – their twinkling, bouncing shapes caught in the shafting sunlight. My cab driver hit the steering wheel with his open hand and he almost shouted, “They come in all shapes and sizes, don’t they?” “Yes, sir. Great stuff!”

Were these and the boys on 2nd Avenue and all the millions in bed by 10.30? Were they, as the great author saw them, full of unease, disquiet, bewilderment? Well Dr Gallup had an answer for that. His poll found that over 80% of New Yorkers, nearer to 90%, were under the fond delusion that they were happy.

I think of that long-ago occasion with peculiar sharpness – partly because I wrote it up at the time, but because I recognised for the first time in Dr Gallup a new lifeline to the truth (or a more persuasive part of it) than the hit-and-miss random surveys we’d previously depended on for an objective study of public opinion. The fall of that old method and the rise of Dr Gallup could not have been more dramatic.

Before the second war, in the presidential election of 1936, the only national poll that was thought half-way respectable was that of a famous magazine called The Literary Digest. It published a poll which had Franklin Roosevelt losing in a landslide to his Republican opponent Alfred Landon, the Governor of Kansas.

In the actual result, Roosevelt took 46 states and the Republican, two. Suddenly, out of obscurity rose the unknown Dr Gallup who, on the contrary, called the election pretty accurately.

And it came out that Dr Gallup had used his own statistical method over a wide range of the population. The Literary Digest had surveyed only telephone and automobile owners, a sample already heavily weighted in favour of the Republicans.

The Literary Digest folded and died the next year. But Dr Gallup was on the map and thereafter transformed our, the public’s, awareness of public opinion, which formerly we’d always left to politicians to tell us about. After all, they got around, didn’t they, and we took their impressions as gospel, if not their science, particularly when they coincided with our own prejudices.

Of course politicians came to hate the polls, but Dr Gallup marked the end of trusting to anyone’s strong personal impressions as an accurate gauge of what other people thought.

Which brings me back to the flow of letters from England – all deeply sincere, each convinced that he/she has correctly reported what the whole of England felt after the tragic death. None of them is alike; most of them put down totally different impressions. All of them were instructing me in the kindest way about the soul of England, which I, being 3,000 miles away, could not possibly sense.

None of them reflected the solid verdict of the polled surveys of the whole country and the letters convinced me that, in spite of our having now a priceless scientific tool to know the state of public opinion and not what we think or hope it is, I’m convinced that Mr Justice Holmes was right when he wrote, ‘For most men, the truth is what they can’t help feeling must be true.’

Among several of the letters, I was saddened to read bursts of crude, sometimes vicious pre-war anti-Americanism. I thought that had more or less vanished. "We’re sick and tired of America’s boasting that it runs the world and is better than anybody."

I don’t know of any American who wants to run the world, but the polls show there is a majority of Americans who feel sorrowfully, reluctantly that they cannot stand aside from genocide in Bosnia, famine in Africa, starvation in the old enemy North Korea.

And as for the aimless stabbing out at this country or that, people who write, "I can’t stand the French" or "I’m strongly anti-American", I have to think of Edmund Burke and his noble line, "I do not know the method whereby one indicts a whole nation".

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

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