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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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).