We are the stories we tell ourselves, or so the anthropologists explain. The notion has stuck in my head the past week, ever since a visit to New York City that included an evening at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre attending The Columnist, the new play by David Auburn.
The play examines Joseph Alsop, a most influential columnist during the middle of the past century, a unique creature of Washington, at the ear of the powerful, dinning with them, sharing time over drinks, writing, as Auburn puts it, “to effect.” He aimed to drive decision-making.
John Lithgow brilliantly plays Alsop, the Akron intersection reinforced. Auburn is the son of Sandy and Mark Auburn. His grandfather was the president of the University of Akron. Lithgow spent time here in his youth, his father then the director at Stan Hywet Hall. More than anything, the play is a rich, fascinating character portrait, Lithgow conveying the full range, arrogant, pompous, combative, the fury, wit, delight, even doubt and occasional tenderness.
In a New York Times article, Auburn explained to Eric Alterman, an author and media columnist for The Nation, that he began to think about Alsop’s role in pressing relentlessly for American intervention in Vietnam as he watched the news coverage leading to the war in Iraq. He wondered: “How do you arrive at that point when you are so firmly committed to a particular point of view that nothing will dissuade you or force you to re-examine it?”
Such is the power of illusion, or those stories we tell ourselves.
Much of the play resides in the Vietnam era, those crucial junctures in the 1960s when John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson made choices about sending American soldiers to fight. Alsop revels in his influence, boasting: “ … . nobody knows Washington like me. It’s my territory. Everyone knows me. Everyone fears me, so if you’re with me, you are guaranteed a good table at restaurants.”
Kennedy stops by his place for a drink — after the Inaugural balls!
For Alsop, the fierce anti-communism goes way back. As an Army captain, he spent time in China as the communists made their move. By 1950, he wrote a series of essays in the Saturday Evening Post under the title of “Why We Lost China.” Auburn has him exclaim: “Yes, you’re damn right I ‘subscribe’ to the domino theory, I named the damned theory.”
Alsop asserts how Kennedy “owes us. … The ‘missile gap’ — we gave that to him on a plate.” Yet, in the end, there was no missile gap. The domino theory proved hollow. And China wasn’t ours to lose.
For years, Alsop wrote a column with his brother, Stewart. They had parted professionally yet remained close. If Stewart began to question the course in Vietnam, Joe found reassurance in the numbers, the casualty counts of the Pentagon, practically each day showing much larger losses by the North Vietnamese.
Those counts failed to capture the full picture, yet Alsop howls: “What better sources do you need?” He rages about the likes of David Halberstam (also a character in the play), their reporting from Vietnam “undermining American interests … irresponsible, a stain on our profession.”
Patrician, sophisticated, with his signature round glasses, Alsop also was a gay man in the closet. A public revelation would have wrecked his career. Here, too, he clings to illusion, believing a marriage could thrive without affection.
The play opens in a hotel room in Moscow, 1954, Alsop having just made love with a young man. What Auburn and Lithgow capture so well is the ease and warmth of Alsop, “the loveliest afternoon I’ve had in a long, long time.” Yet he let his guard down, inexplicably at the heart of the menace. The KGB set a trap, the presence of photos a shadow, a reminder of the fragile world he has constructed.
One of the tape recordings from the Johnson White House in March 1965 finds the president telling Nicholas Katzenbach, the attorney general, “Joe Alsop is having a change of life. I’ve gone through a change of life with three or four of my friends. He’s just short of the asylum now. He’s had two or three breakdowns.”
Johnson isn’t happy with Alsop accusing his administration of tapping his phone. This is the strain Auburn and Lithgow portray, feelings of revulsion for the nasty and pig-headed Alsop mixing with sympathy for how things are cracking up.
“This is our moment,” Alsop tells his brother as Kennedy enters the Oval Office. Yet seven years later, he seems a man without a country.
On the mall in Washington, Alsop encounters the young man with whom he had spent the afternoon in Moscow. He is an attache at the Soviet embassy. He is more in touch with America than Alsop. He champions Sgt. Pepper’s, Dr. Strangelove, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Paul Newman. “Everyone you just named I frankly despise,” Alsop responds.
Now, years later, Alsop sees a trap: “What is it you want from me?” Nothing, the young man answers. He is ready to move on, extending an apology, even tweaking his Soviet superiors. He expresses a certain wisdom that Joe Alsop hasn’t acquired.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.