The character in ‘The Columnist’ is not the Joseph Alsop I knew.
May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
There is a journalistic sequel. One evening in Lexington, Virginia, where I was then teaching, Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, one of the great reporters of our day, learned that my book was in galleys and ready for launch. I told Jack that I was about to spring this hidden tale for the first time, and was far from comfortable about it. He asked if he could write the story. Trusting his craftsmanship, taste, and judgment, I “leaked” the relevant chapter to him and he wrote an excellent piece, rounded and nuanced. His story was seen the day before it appeared in Los Angeles in the Washington Post newsroom, and the Post’s press reporter phoned. He demanded a briefing. Otherwise, he said, Jack’s story and mine would get little play in the Post. I explained that I had promised Nelson an exclusive and would stick by it, but the Post the next day ran a stunted fragment of Jack’s piece.
I was embarrassed and angry and so was Katharine Graham, Alsop’s close friend and publisher of the Post. I told her the story of the version that had appeared in her paper. She pronounced the curtailment of the -Nelson story “stupid” and ordered up a lengthy treatment of the tale. It duly appeared under a fitting headline: “The Hawk and the Vultures,” an allusion to Joe’s notoriously hawkish views on Vietnam, and also to those who exploited his sexual embarrassment, notably J. Edgar Hoover.
End of story? Not quite, since today the vulnerable, all too human, brilliant, gifted, and irascible Joe Alsop has become a theater caricature. The excellent actors, including John Lithgow, I do not blame for this infantile distortion; it is ever the way of the world that, as eras fade, the past becomes increasingly susceptible to whimsical and ignorant pastiche. But generations to whom Joe is a stranger, and who haven’t a clue what he was like, need to know what a paltry, walking shadow they see on the stage.
Joe could be bearish, and occasionally his manners slipped; but he had his values straight. Read, for instance, his centennial appraisal of the character of his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt—it is a sure mirror of his own. And he could be generous. One evening, at a joint birthday celebration with Margaret Jay (his 70th, Margaret’s 40th), he turned to Margaret, then joint ambassador with her husband Peter at the British embassy, and said: “What, after all, do we wish of friends? Intelligence, physical beauty, and a good heart.”
Perhaps an eccentric idea of physical beauty had betrayed him that far-off night in Moscow. But of his own fundamental benevolence and his good heart there was not the slightest doubt.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.
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