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.

The rich yield of some 15 years of reporting is evident in The Center, although the author admits that there was much about the hidden Washington of the regulatory agencies of which he knew nothing. Offsetting these deficits, Stewart Alsop enjoyed special entrée at the White House, then as now the true "center" of power, especially when his friends John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were there. (They had limited regard for President Eisenhower and his millionaire appointees, whom they found dull and uninformed.)

Another favorite beat was the Foreign Service, which then boasted such names as Kennan and Bohlen. We read a good bit here of the frictions between the democratizers of the State Department and the diplomatic elites who were Alsop social friends. Stewart Alsop was also, for a time, an admirer of Robert McNamara in his Pentagon heyday, and of McNamara's attempt to bring rationality to procurement and, less successfully, to jungle warfare.

But this was, above all else, LBJ's Washington before the deluge. Such obvious later references as "Kissinger, Henry," "Watergate," and "King, Martin Luther Jr." are missing. Tragic twin assassinations overtook the book soon after its spring 1968 publication--of King in April, and Robert F. Kennedy in June; and the March Johnson abdication was unforeseen and indeed unforeseeable.

A rereader, searching this book after 40 years in the spirit of that "paleontological reporting" that was another Alsop specialty (that is, piecing together a story by inferences from "fossil" fragments) would note a few anomalies. One is an obvious comparative reticence and delicacy. Thus Walter Jenkins, a valuable White House aide, "had a nervous breakdown" and James Forrestal, first secretary of defense and an important Alsop source, "killed himself in despair" while trying to discipline Pentagon spending. In fact, as would surely be noised in oppressive detail today, Jenkins was arrested in a sordid sex incident in a YMCA men's room, while ex-Secretary Forrestal leapt to his death from an upper floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he was being treated for (then relatively unmentionable) clinical depression.

Another notable quirk is the profusion of colorful Alsopisms, such as "treacher" (traitor), a word that Stewart Alsop says he heard from a cab driver. But it was a known Alsopian favorite and his brother Joe was once heard to roar, in his cups, that someone at the same dinner table was a "treacher" to the country. Stewart Alsop likewise had an ear for playful metaphor and anecdote. Thus the illusion that the Pentagon could be "managed" might be pictured as a log with 30,000 ants tumbling down a rapids with each ant believing he was steering. And the mild Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, resembled "an amiable, exhausted monk."

Just over time's horizon when The Center appeared lay a challenge that would test Stewart Alsop's courage and reportorial brilliance to the limit: a 1971 diagnosis that he suffered from a mysterious form of leukemia. The medical anomalies of his illness eluded even the expert detection of physicians at the National Institutes of Health, and provided absorbing material for Alsop's Newsweek column and for a compelling memoir, Stay of Execution.

As he lay in his hospital bed one day, Alsop jotted in his notebook that being deathly ill was "a most interesting experience, though one wishes one were not so personally involved," a signature understatement. Although mortal illness is so often now a hidden, sterile, indeed technological subject, Stewart Alsop had the gallantry to defy terror and despair and write a small masterpiece of medical reportage, a readable pendant to The Center and a memorial to a supremely gifted journalist. Within two years, Stewart Alsop learned that his "stay of execution" was temporary; but the book reminds one of all that went dark when he died in 1974.

And to strike a personal note, both books remind us of a cultural strain of obvious importance to him. Stewart Alsop was gone when I came to Washington in 1975, but rereading these two books is, for me, a poignant reminder of something he and I (and millions of Americans of an earlier time) had in common, steeped as we were in an Anglo-American culture. It transcended regional differences--he was a New Englander, I a Carolinian--and was blended of song, story, poetry, hymn, and Scripture (above all those verbal masterpieces the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer).

Stewart Alsop's writing is plummy with these elements. One can't read many pages in either book without encountering a snatch of English poetry or a reference to Winston Churchill, the subject of sparkling anecdotes in both. Stewart Alsop suggests that what he and his brother Joe called "the Wasp Ascendancy" reached a symbolic terminus with the death of Dean Acheson in 1971; but its echoes linger still. Those of us who grew up in that world, even in different ages and places, were steeped in its song and poetry, as a brief memory may suggest.

Four years ago this writer and several friends were visiting in the Lake District. After a long hike through the fells (and substantial refreshment at a neighboring pub), we were sitting in the backyard of native friends, writers themselves. Loch Lomond was mentioned and I began to sing, "By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes/ Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond .  .  ."

Our astonished host asked, "Where on earth did you hear that?" I said that it went back into the unsearchable mists of a Carolina-Georgia childhood. It was, I suppose, a minor Alsopian moment, and explains why I feel a deep affinity with the shade of Stewart Alsop, fellow journalist, fellow Anglophile. The transatlantic culture that nurtured this old tie is fading now, with few to mourn its passing. But it will be missed. It already is.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., author of Joe Alsop's Cold War (1995), is a former editor and columnist in Washington.