Alsop Ascendant

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The public officials Alsop most admired were for the most part men of his own class: Robert A. Lovett, Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy, Charles Bohlen—the so-called Wise Men who first helped chart American victory in World War II and then mapped the strategies with which the Cold War was waged. They were “as selfless as men can be,” he wrote, “as trustworthy as men ever were, all totally dedicated to the American future.…”

For Alsop the Eisenhower era was a bad time. Most of his friends of more than twenty years were suddenly out of power, replaced by what he called the “eight millionaires and a plumber” who made up Ike’s cabinet. “An extreme self-righteousness prevailed” among them, he remembered. Unlike his old friends, to whom public service was the highest possible calling, “they behaved as though they were somehow sanctified because they had sacrificed their often large business jobs to serve … in Washington.”

But he reserved his greatest scorn for the singularly uncouth senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, and several times put his own determinedly anti-Communist credentials on the line in defense of former officials with whose opinions he may not have agreed but whose patriotism he believed beyond questioning.

As Washington and the world beyond it changed, Alsop remained resolutely himself—egregious, according to his brother Stewart, in the strict sense of the term, “ ex grege , outside the flock.” “Joe is a genius,” and “like most geniuses … not easy to work with,” Stewart wrote after the two had agreed to stop trying to compose their column together. “He seemed to feel a psychic need for at least one shouting, foot-stamping row each week.” And he did not suffer those he considered fools at all. Once, when Adm. Lewis Strauss, Elsenhower’s chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, called him in for an interview, flattered him extravagantly, and then refused to answer substantive questions, Alsop said, “In that case, Admiral, you have asked me to see you in order to waste half an hour of my time,” and stalked out of his office.

Alsop’s Law: In politics “the important thing is to be able to say ‘Most oranges are round,’ and sound as if you meant it.”

Venturing out to poll Wisconsin voters with his brother just before the Democratic primary in the icy early spring of 1960, Alsop got himself up in a vast fur hat that had been specially made for him in Paris and a voluminous, fur-lined coaching cloak that had once belonged to his grandfather. The first homeowner took one look, exclaimed, “Holy Mary Mother of God!” and slammed the door. The next was friendlier. An immigrant, she politely answered all the questions he put to her in his upper-class accent, before posing one of her own: “Ascuse me, Meester. Why you spik so broken?”

“What in heaven’s name could she have meant, Stew?” Alsop asked as they trudged to a third home. Its owner was a Lutheran who planned to vote for Hubert Humphrey, she said, because John F. Kennedy was a Catholic.

“Thank you, Madam,” Alsop said as they left. “I think you’re a GODDAMN BIGOT .”

The election of his young friend Kennedy to the Presidency restored Alsop’s spirits for a time. JFK was a man “perfectly formed to lead the United States of America,” he wrote, and he seems to have discovered in him something of the wit and good manners and built-in self-assurance of the best of those among whom he’d grown to manhood.

Kennedy’s murder devastated him: “Of the grim days that followed, I can only say that it was a shattering sensation to discover quite abruptly that one had lived the best years of one’s life between the ages of forty-eight and fifty-three. I had never known I loved the president … until I felt the impact of his death.”

The war that Kennedy left behind brought out the worst in Joseph Alsop. His tours of the Vietnam front—there were a dozen of them—were more like royal progresses than reporter’s forays, with special helicopters and full-scale military escorts laid on wherever he wished to go, and his venomous attacks on younger reporters whose understanding of what was happening turned out to be far greater than his were unworthy of him.

Alsop could see disaster coming. America could not contain the Vietnamese civil war, and in 1975, just five months before the last U.S. troops withdrew from Saigon, he discontinued his column. Thereafter he devoted himself largely to art collecting, and it is perhaps understandable that when he came to write his reminiscences, he was careful to virtually omit the last quarter of a century of his life, during which most traces of the world into which he was born seemed finally to disappear, and the men in whom he had such faith were proved little wiser than anyone else.