THE VOICE OF AUTHORITY
JOE NOCERA| NYT NEWS SERVICE
IT was November 25, 1963, three days after the Kennedy assassination, and the powerful columnist was calling the neophyte president. Already, Joseph Alsop had penned a personal letter to Lyndon Johnson offering his support. The phone call was an attempt to offer something more: advice.
The advice itself, nearly four decades later, hardly matters. What is striking is the tenor of the conversation.
Although Alsop doles out the requisite flattery, “You’ve already made a marvellous start,” he says he is insistent that Johnson would be wise to follow his counsel. When Johnson objects, he respectfully pushes back. He even cuts the president off: “Wait a second, now,” he says, in a faux British accent.
When I heard the recording of that conversation recently, I couldn’t help thinking: “Boy, those must have been the days.” The person who sent me the link to that recording, which was declassified in the 1990s, is David Auburn. A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Auburn has written a play about Joe Alsop entitled ‘The Columnist.’ It opens on Broadway on Wednesday and stars John Lithgow.
“What you get from listening to that phone call,” Auburn told me the other day, “is that Alsop doesn’t think Johnson knows how things work, and he is going to explain it to him. The assumption of authority is just incredible.” What is likely to amaze younger theatergoers living, as many do, in a world of bloggers and anonymous critics and a fractured, often ideologically driven journalism is that journalists ever had that kind of authority. But the great columnists of the postwar generation did. Their columns were part of the weaponry of policymaking, and they themselves were powerbrokers.
None were more overt about this than Alsop. His power stemmed less from the fact that his column appeared in 300 newspapers than from the fact that he had the ear of every important person in Washington. During the Eisenhower years, he had fought against Joe McCarthy, a courageous stance, given that he was gay and homosexuality in that era was a potential career ender.
He was also the social dean of Georgetown, whose dinner parties included cabinet members, senators and sometimes even the president.
The night his good friend Jack Kennedy was sworn in, after the inaugural balls were over, the Secret Service drove the new president to Alsop’s house, where the two men talked nearly till dawn.
Robert W Merry, the editor of The National Interest, and the author of a biography of Alsop and his brother Stewart, also a prominent journalist, wrote that Kennedy often divulged highly sensitive information to Alsop, knowing that he wouldn’t use it unless the president gave him the go-ahead.
Kennedy and everybody else in official Washington trusted him completely.
Of course, Alsop trusted them every bit as much. The heart of Auburn’s play is the way Alsop’s faith in his official sources his friends, really led to his downfall. A staunch supporter of the Vietnam War, he refused to listen to anyone who dared to say it was going badly; in the play, he calls James Reston, The Times’s Washington bureau chief, hoping to convince him to fire David Halberstam, the paper’s reporter in Vietnam. By the time Alsop retired in the mid- 1970s, he had become a laughingstock, an embittered man whose once-formidable authority lay in tatters.
Here in 2012, of course, there are still plenty of Washington dinner parties attended by prominent columnists and government officials.
But it’s not the same. The national consensus that Alsop once represented no longer exists.
Politics is fragmented and angry.
And, certainly, no high government official is about to divulge a state secret to a columnist over drinks not if its supposed to stay secret.
Somewhat to my surprise, both Auburn, who is 42, and Merry, who is 66, did not view this as an unmixed blessing. “A tremendous amount of information came out of those dinner parties that was then conveyed to the American public,” Merry told me. “They served a purpose.” Auburn appreciated the fact that the phony controversies that crop up all the time now Medicare death panels, for instance, were much less frequent because the leading journalists of the day wouldn’t give them voice.
But Auburn, who is a voracious reader of blogs, also said that one of the things he really likes about the blogosphere is ‘the incredible diversity of opinion. “Many of the people I read are not journalists,” he said.
‘But they sometimes have amazing knowledge and depth.” I have to agree. It would be heady, certainly, if I could call the president and insist that he try my ideas. And I imagine that my life would be quite pleasant if I could write from the mountaintop the way Joe Alsop did. Instead, I’m just one voice among many. We’re all better off for that being the case.