The Magazine

Their Town

The lost Washington of 1968.

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Even the best political books are in their nature ephemeral, but there are exceptions. One is Theodore H. White's making-of-the-president series, especially the first, on the Kennedy-Nixon contest. Stewart Alsop's The Center, published 40 years ago this spring, and the subject of this reprise, is another. And it is instructive to ask why certain journalistic essays earn and enjoy a sort of immortality.

It assuredly isn't because the Washington scene is static. The capital whose exercise of power Alsop evokes so vividly, roughly modeling his book on John Gunther's once widely read Inside reports, was dominated by the troubled figure of Lyndon Baines Johnson and its consuming preoccupation, the Vietnam war. Robert McNamara and his whiz kids, cocksure architects of the war, had exited from the Pentagon, to be succeeded by the canny Clark Clifford. And oddly, there was a lurking fear of "race war," whose foreshadowing was thought to be the Watts riots of a few years earlier.

Other features of the capital of 1968, however, retain a lingering resonance. The efficacy of U.S. intelligence was sharply questioned, then as now. State and Defense were at daggers drawn, as usual. Congress, though it featured such eminent names as Fulbright, Stennis, and Mansfield, was deemed dysfunctional--"catatonic" is Alsop's term--because it lacked initiative and exercised only limited veto powers. "A bore," the author concludes. The Supreme Court, which Alsop treats in a late chapter, was certainly no bore, though the controversies current in the late 1960s are all but forgotten; but it was his blind spot. "Until rather recently" he had never set foot in its "pompous marble mausoleum," and it shows in a number of petty errors and misconceptions.

But if the question is why The -Center remains an engaging read, it isn't so much the subject as the manner--the author's vivid way of bringing public personalities and issues to life. It seems to have come naturally. Stewart Alsop had been briefly in New York book publishing before World War II. But the family name had been prominent in Washington journalism even in the prewar years--his older brother Joseph had written a Washington column with Robert Kintner in the mid-thirties--and the Alsop run continued until Joe ended his column in 1974, soon after Stewart's untimely death from cancer.

They had formed a partnership, writing their four-times-weekly "Matter of Fact" column for the New York Herald Tribune syndicate after 1946. Both had served with distinction in the recent war, Stewart as a British Army officer and then an American OSS operative, Joe as a brash Army captain in China, as publicist and backstairs lobbyist for Gen. Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers. The collaboration lasted for a dozen years. But in 1958 Stewart wearied of playing junior partner to his irascible and opinionated brother. Arguably the better journalistic stylist and reporter of the two, Stewart launched a glowing run as columnist for the Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek.

The Alsops, sprigs of a colonial Connecticut family with presidential connections (their grandmother was -Theodore Roosevelt's sister and Eleanor Roosevelt was their first cousin), were adepts at shoe-leather reporting. No one, in fact, was more contemptuous of "thumb-sucking" commentary than Joe Alsop, although in his later years he wrote more than his share of it. At the top of their game, their prime rule was to present at least one previously unreported fact in each of their columns. They were on intimate personal terms with many movers and shakers in Washington society, politics, and journalism. But it was a misconception that they were content to gather crumbs of gossip at the fancy tables at which they supped.

Their basic tool was the interview, usually exclusive, in which Stewart listened more than he talked, while Joe often did the opposite. There were instances, amusingly recounted in The Center, when their scoops aroused the usual White House paranoia. When it was confirmed that the Soviet Union had unexpectedly tested an atomic weapon in 1949, a finding of which some were skeptical, they wondered, "How do we know?" Stewart Alsop phoned the chairman of the physics department at Georgetown and asked. That "source" knew. It happened that the same information had been relayed, in a nearly verbatim Top Secret report, to President Truman. The FBI was deployed to investigate the "leak," not for the only time.