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The Best of Potomac Punditry

ISSUE:  Winter 1993
I’ve Seen the Best of It. By Joseph W. Alsop. Norton. $29. 95. Deadline. By James Reston. Random House. $25. 00.

Two of America’s foremost journalists published their memoirs within months of one another. Joseph W. Alsop died of lung cancer on Aug. 28, 1989, at the age of 78; at 83 James (Scotty) Reston continues to write an occasional column for his beloved New York Times. For nearly a half century, from Roosevelt to Reagan, their columns instructed Americans on politics, foreign policy, and war. With the possible exception of Walter Lippmann, no Potomac pundits had a more devoted following. For half a century, they offered a school for the concerned public and sometimes for statesmen as well.

Both columnists apparently took for granted that the journalist at times would be a political actor, as when Alsop reported a “ruthless vote steal” by the Taft organization battling for convention delegates at the Mineral Wells Hotel in Texas hill country. Alsop had traveled to Texas at the request of Henry Cabot Lodge, who became Eisenhower’s floor manager. Drawing on Alsop’s findings, Eisenhower strategists at the Republican convention contested the seating of the Taft delegation from Texas and won. In the 1960 election, Alsop undertook to help John F. Kennedy “in any way possible.” He confessed: “By the strict laws of journalistic propriety, I suppose this. . .was improper. However it had been my nature, since the first interventionist days of the “Win the War” group in FDR’s prewar Washington, to promote actively causes in which I believed.” For Alsop, it was entirely legitimate for the journalist to become the advocate.

Significantly, James Reston, whom some regard as the ultimate insider, throws doubt on Alsop’s philosophy. He writes: “I never thought there was much mileage in confidential relationships between reporters and presidents.” He concludes that presidents, with the possible exception of FDR and Eisenhower, were not remarkable men. He was unable to find a Caesar among them. Nevertheless, he accepted as a foremost challenge the portrayal of presidents beginning with FDR. It is instructive to compare his views of a few modern presidents with Alsop’s.

Reston admires FDR more than any postwar president. For him, FDR was the “cheerful optimist” who “appointed competent advisors and listened to them.” He credits Roosevelt with pulling the country out of the Depression, improvising to provide aid to endangered allies until the U. S. could enter the war, and laying the foundations for the new United Nations.

Alsop was a cousin of Franklin Roosevelt reared as a “corseted child of privilege” on a gentlemen’s farm in Avon, Connecticut. His grandmother was Theodore Roosevelt’s sister, his mother was Eleanor Roosevelt’s first cousin. Soon after his arrival in Washington, the journalist received a New Year’s invitation to the White House. On one occasion, the Roosevelt/Alsop clan met to decide “what to do about Joe’s education.” For him, both Theodore and FDR represented the continuation of what he called “the WASP ascendancy,” and he saw himself as its beneficiary. While Alsop opposed a number of FDR’s policies and programs, including the court packing scheme, he ranked him with Washington and Lincoln as the three greatest American presidents.

Reston and Alsop differ on John F. Kennedy. In his concluding chapter Alsop writes: “I cannot recall a single broad area of policy on which I really disagreed with President Kennedy while he was in the White House.” Elsewhere he speaks of working diligently to see that “his man” captured the White House. His estimate of Kennedy matured from an early judgment that he was an indifferent legislator more interested in “pretty girls” than lawmaking. His marriage to Jackie worked a calming effect on him. Even so, the president was not prepared for the enormous burdens of the presidency. His salvation was that he learned from the Bay of Pigs and the Vienna summit with Khrushchev. Alsop’s bottom line on JFK is to proclaim him as his favorite presidential candidate.

Reston’s judgment of the Kennedys is considerably more qualified. “They were always. . .getting more credit than they deserved and more sorrow than they could bear, climbing into jobs before they were ready and falling just when they were succeeding.” From the start, he acknowledges that it was unfair to issue any final judgment on them because “they never had time to conclude anything.” They paid for their triumphs, and their legend outlived their history. Nonetheless, Reston grew to trust Kennedy the more he saw of him, in particular after the Cuban missile crisis. All along the way, however, there were setbacks affecting that confidence. Reston was the first to interview Kennedy after the fateful Vienna summit in June 1961 and found him angry and shaken. Khrushchev had bullied and threatened the new president, presenting him with a deadline for signing a peace treaty giving Communist East Germany control over access to Berlin. Collecting himself, Kennedy spelled out the actions he planned to take to demonstrate American resolve. On his return to Washington, he gave orders to send more than 15, 000 American advisers to Vietnam. Reston asked in astonishment “why Vietnam?” It was an action that in Reston’s eyes signaled the slide toward eventual defeat. He insists that the connection between the Vienna summit and Vietnam accounted for the president’s fateful choice. Yet at Kennedy’s death, Reston wrote: “America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young president, but for itself.” For most Americans, the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best and the brightest.

The divide that separated Alsop and Reston is illustrated, finally, in their positions on Vietnam. Alsop was among the newsmen who traveled to Vienna for the president’s meeting with Khrushchev. Perhaps with an eye on Reston, Alsop explained that he did not try to see Kennedy after the conference, adding it did not fit his writing schedule. He departed Vienna for London where, with the president, he would be attending the christening of the child of JFK’s sister-in-law Lee and her husband, Stash Radziwill. When Alsop and the president met, Kennedy’s first words were that he was not going to give in to Khrushchev no matter what the dangers. Alsop in his account says little about Vietnam, stressing rather the sending of 40, 000 troops to Europe and the partial mobilization of reserve and National Guard forces.

Alsop estimates that he devoted two-and-a-half years of his life to Vietnam during the Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson presidencies and during France’s occupation. When Kennedy took office, Alsop found nothing unthinkable about the U. S. fighting a full-scale war in Vietnam. Having discussed his own direct involvement which he admits may have been too passionate, Alsop concludes: “I do not think I was wrong about the importance of Indochina to the general balance of power.” In the end, he argues that the American decision to accept defeat led the Soviets to recalculate risks. In Angola and Afghanistan they followed policies of quasi-aggressive and directly-aggressive actions that, he asserts, would not have been pursued but for the American withdrawal from Vietnam. What saved the United States was the collapse of the Soviet Union due in part, Alsop acknowledges, to the overextension of their empire.

For Reston, Vietnam and Lyndon Baines Johnson were inextricably joined. A quotation from Woodrow Wilson foreshadowed Reston’s experience with Johnson: “When you come into the presence of a leader of men, you know you have come into the presence of fire.” Johnson’s strength in the Senate of punishing those who crossed him became his weakness in the debates over Vietnam. He could forgive enemies who opposed his views but never his friends, Reston explains.

The columnist identifies the main elements driving Johnson’s Vietnam policy as, first, the continuation of Kennedy’s Vietnam strategy. Johnson insisted on continuity both in domestic and in foreign policy and with personnel at least until he had won an election in his own right. Any measured discussion of Vietnam became increasingly more difficult. A Reston column on the controversial Johnson TV station in Texas led to a 42-minute lecture and tirade in a one-way phone conversation. All this aside Reston insists that Johnson could have been one of the great presidents if the Vietnam War had not overwhelmed him. Much of what Reston writes about Johnson is written more in sadness than hostility, especially during the president’s last days. Johnson became convinced the northeastern press and intellectuals at Ivy League universities were all conspiring against him and his Vietnam policy. For them, he was a Southern president and a “hick.”

A driven man, Johnson pushed the nation by “stealth” ever deeper into the Vietnam War. He alternately exaggerated successes or invented pretexts, such as the attack on U. S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. He carried around the Congressional Tonkin Gulf resolution that passed 504—2 which, he claimed, gave the commander-in-chief full authority for a wider war. He not only increased air and ground strikes but he decided on the targets that were to be bombed. He accused reporters of seeking Pulitzer Prizes with their anti-Vietnam writings. (Reston reminded the president that his two Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1944 and 1956, long before Johnson became president.)

Having reviewed all the elements that helped shape the country’s Vietnam policy, Reston concludes:

I thought then and retain the conviction that the Vietnam tragedy. . .resulted, at least in part, from the interventionist policy he [Johnson] inherited from Kennedy, from the anticommunist atmosphere of the country, from the “domino theory” and from a combination of vanity, ignorance and booze. . . .

Reston is convinced that Johnson’s obsessions about himself and his place in history led to his placing personal interest above the national interest. He knew little about the enemy or the guerrilla war he was fighting, he could not imagine that the United States through its money and machines would not triumph. The “little brown men,” his name for the Vietnamese, would flee into the rice paddies once American tanks appeared. None of this happened and finally Lady Bird Johnson had to say to her husband: “It’s time to go home.”

In the end historians may have kinder words for Johnson and the other presidents about whom the two pundits write. Reston admits as much and says he is not writing history. While more critical of Kennedy than Alsop, he does observe that the young president turned back the Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba in perhaps “the bravest naval action of the postwar period.” Reagan was all “Hollywood,” but Reston affirms that he made more progress toward controlling nuclear weapons than any of his predecessors. All our postwar presidents, Reston concludes, did not attempt to do little but tried to do too much; they did not fail to use force as in the era of American isolationism, but they applied such force indiscriminately.

Reston’s indictment of presidents then is that they used force too often and sometimes “preferred to fight rather than negotiate.” Alsop’s last word, as summarized by his collaborator Adam Platt who finished the memoirs after Alsop’s death, is that Vietnam was “winnable” and Vietnam was a beachead in the battle against Communist expansion. Two major interests were served: first, preservation of the U. S. position as a Pacific power and, second, China will follow Japan someday and become a second world power in the Pacific which the U. S. cannot afford to overlook. More fundamentally, as Alsop told members of the Yale Political Union in November 1971: “All rules of history can be put in one sentence: nothing endures, because there is always change and there is always war.” On this point the separation of philosophy between Alsop and Reston is made clear.

Throughout the two memoirs, the reader is conscious of being in the presence of two extraordinary minds at work, one conservative and the other generally liberal. Each is the product of a unique background. Alsop was a child of Groton, Harvard, and a self-conscious American elite whose life revolved around elegant dinner parties. The most celebrated parties of all were those at Alsop’s Georgetown home. With such a background, he was assured a place in the power elite, but he suffered from the absence of daily contact with ordinary people. He was cut off from the man in the street, and ultimately his stand on issues such as Vietnam demonstrated that he had lost touch with his audience. Reston, a Scottish immigrant and Midwest sportswriter, moved ahead step by step finally becoming Washington bureau chief and executive editor of The New York Times. Both saw the world through lenses ground from their personal experiences. Being closer to the people, Reston possessed instincts that were steadier and surer and thus tapped the fears and hopes of the polity. However they may have differed, the two columnists tower above most contemporary pundits who offer little but their own prejudices and passions.


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