Excerpted from The Georgetown Set by Gregg Herken. Copyright © 2014 by Gregg Herken. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A conversation with Gregg Herken author of
THE GEORGETOWN SET: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington
Q: Your last book, Brotherhood of the Bomb, was about Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller, the scientists most responsible for the advent of weapons of mass destruction. What inspired you to begin writing THE GEORGETOWN SET?
A: I’ve long wanted to write a history of the Cold War—a subject I taught for almost 40 years at the college level. But I didn’t want to write a “policy history.” Instead, my interest was to focus upon the people who were key to the Cold War story in Washington—in particular, the Alsops, the Wisners, and the Grahams. I had enjoyed writing a group biography of the atomic scientists in Brotherhood of the Bomb, and decided to take the same approach with THE GEORGETOWN SET.
Q: This Georgetown set included Phil and Kay Graham, husband-and-wife publishers of The Washington Post; Joe and Stewart Alsop, odd-couple brothers who were among the country’s premier political pundits; Frank Wisner, a manic-depressive lawyer in charge of CIA covert operations; and a host of diplomats, spies, and scholars. Who intrigues you most and why?
A: Joe Alsop essentially steals the show in THE GEORGETOWN SET—as he did in real life. Joe was such a fascinating and influential figure, although he is virtually forgotten today. Friends described him as an “American aristocrat” and an “emotional hemophiliac.” As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, Joe and his brother Stewart were the “generous center of social life” in Cold War Washington.
Q: Tell us about Sunday suppers at Joe Alsop’s home on Dumbarton Avenue.
A: Most guests found the Sunday night suppers at Joe’s house on Dumbarton Avenue either “exhilarating” or “terrifying”—and sometimes both together. Alcohol—usually gin martinis—were a vital ingredient in what Alsop called the “gen con,” the general conversation. Sitting at the head of the dining table, Joe dominated the discussions, which focused upon the political events of the day. Controversy was not only tolerated, but encouraged. Joe used to say that it wasn’t considered an argument in the Alsop household until someone had left the table and stormed out of the dining room at least twice.
Q: The Georgetown set was made up of affluent, well-educated, and well-connected journalists, spies, and government officials. How has the dynamic between journalists and government changed over time? Are there any similarities in politics today?
A: The Washington, D.C. of the Georgetown set has simply ceased to exist. Beyond the poisonous partisanship of the current-day capital, the formerly chummy relationship between journalists and government officials vanished when the two became antagonists and stopped trusting each other.
Investigative reporting, which replaced the so-called elite or “access” journalism of the Alsops, serves the public good when it brings to light political scandals like Watergate. But it has since devolved into a “gotcha” mentality that reflects poorly on both sides. And it seems almost impossible to keep a secret in Washington today.
Q: In 1958, Joe and Stewart Alsop wrote, “Being a newspaper columnist is a little like being a Greek chorus.” What did they mean by this?
A: The purpose of the chorus in classical Greek drama, as I recall, was to warn the protagonist of approaching danger—and, often, of impending doom. The Alsop brothers—and Joe especially—saw themselves as doing the same in their newspaper column, which warned incessantly against Soviet expansionism and the danger of nuclear war. But they probably overdid it, prompting critics to dub them “the Brothers Cassandra” and “Doom and Gloom.” Interestingly enough, the warnings of the Greek chorus were also typically ignored by the play’s hero—leading to the inevitable tragic ending.
Q: In your research, you drew upon recently declassified CIA and FBI documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and you had exclusive access to previously unavailable private papers. How did you go about your research, and what did you discover that most surprised you? What new information about this period do we learn in THE GEORGETOWN SET?
A: Since The Georgetown Set is my fifth book, and my academic specialty is modern American diplomatic history, I’m pretty familiar with doing archival research. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the Freedom of Information Act in America have made available to researchers a treasure trove of previously-classified Cold War documents, many of which are now available online at websites like those of the National Security Archive and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project. Among the research findings that most surprised me was the extent to which the U.S. government was penetrated by Soviet spies during the Second World War and after. But equally surprising was the Kennedy administration’s use of the CIA to secretly wiretap American journalists in Project Mockingbird—a top-secret program that plainly violated the agency’s charter, and only recently came to light with the declassification of the CIA’s so-called Family Jewels. The Alsop papers at the Library of Congress and Joe’s private papers—which the Alsop family generously granted me access to—also made it possible to finally resolve a long-time mystery concerning the KGB’s attempts to blackmail Joe Alsop for a clandestine homosexual affair in Moscow back in 1957.
Q: You write about Kennedy’s election, “the return of a Democrat to the White House marked not only the end of eight long years of political isolation for the likes of Joe Alsop but also a revival of the staid capital city’s social life.” And following his inaugural ball, Kennedy went to a party at Alsop’s home “for more than two hours, not returning to the Executive Mansion until 3:40AM.” What changed for the Georgetown set when Kennedy was elected?
A: The Alsops present an interesting example of a traditionally Republican family that was also related to—and supportive of—Democratic presidents. Joe’s influence in the White House peaked during the administration of John Kennedy—whom Alsop called the ‘perfect candidate” for the job. The reasons for the attraction were obvious: like Joe, Kennedy was from a prominent East coast family, had gone to Harvard, and took a hard line on defense and the Soviet Union.
Q: How did Watergate and Vietnam bring an end to the Georgetown set’s cozy world?
A: Joe Alsop was right about McCarthy, wrong about the missile gap, and very wrong about Vietnam. He was also late to recognize the significance of the Watergate scandal. Part of the problem is that both Joe and Stewart were “Old School” journalists—they believed that the government had the right to keep at least some secrets. But even more important was the fact that the brothers depended for news upon the very people they were reporting on—a fundamental flaw of their brand of “access” journalism. As New York Times reporter “Scotty” Reston observed, Joe Alsop was “professionally crippled” by his own sources.
Q: Following Phil Graham’s suicide, Kay Graham became president of the Washington Post Company, and kept up the tradition of the Georgetown salons (at one dinner, she “had to hold her head back to keep the tears from falling”). Was this career move surprising? How did her choice affect gender dynamics among reporters?
A: I don’t think anyone predicted that Katharine Graham would become the powerful and tough-minded publisher and newspaper owner that she became after Phil’s death. From a shrinking violet perpetually in the shadow of her domineering husband—in those days she was even too shy to fire an incompetent laundress—Kay would succeed brilliantly in what had traditionally been considered a man’s world. Later, she also played an important role in promoting the journalism careers of women at the Washington Post—making her friend and confidante Meg Greenfield editor of the Post’s editorial page, for example.
Q: You describe the Washington Post editorial pages in 1966: “On Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, Alsop’s Matter of Fact column declared confidently that the war was being won and ‘standing fast is paying off.’ On Tuesday and Thursdays, Lippmann’s Today and Tomorrow urged the president to halt the bombing and seek a negotiated peace.” Finally, Lippmann denounced “cronyism,” quit the Washington Post, and moved to New York. How did Alsops’ stance quickly result in his being ostracized by reporters, and dropped by his friends?
A: Joe Alsop seemed to have a particular knack for making enemies—even among those who had once been his friends. Joe was notoriously unwilling to suffer fools, bores, or critics—and he did not hesitate to insult or attack those who were close to him if he felt they were wrong on an important issue. Things became much worse, of course, because of Vietnam—where, eventually, Joe was virtually alone among his journalist peers in his support for the war. But even then, it was not a personal enmity: although Joe and Walter Lippmann disagreed fundamentally on Vietnam, their letters show a certain mutual respect and even affection. Near the end of his life, Joe also tried to make amends among those he felt he had wronged during his career as a columnist.
Q: What are the most significant ways that the DC you describe in THE GEORGETOWN SET differs from DC today? How are the two similar?
A: The big difference in Washington between then and now is that, today, the movers and shakers in both political parties rarely talk to one another, except to level accusations and score debating points in the media. What used to be just a partisan divide in the capital has become an ideological chasm—where elected officials are almost afraid to be seen in the same room as their opposite number, lest they be accused of “selling out” or “going soft” by their party’s extremists. The great thing about the Georgetown salons—and, in particular, Joe Alsop’s Sunday night suppers—was that they provided a venue for socializing independent of political affiliation. That didn’t mean that harmony necessarily prevailed: it was not unusual for Joe to throw a guest out of his house for some untoward remark. But, almost invariably, Alsop would send that same guest a letter of abject apology the following day—and it was rare indeed for a feud to result in any lasting personal enmity. Thus, Joe’s salons forced each side to confront the fact that the other was at least human, and not the embodiment of the Anti-Christ. Notably, in an interview that Alsop gave to CNN in 1984—just five years before his death, and shortly after the re-election of Ronald Reagan—Joe decried the rise in Washington of those he called the “ideologists”: “When I was young we didn’t have any ideologists, thank God. I hate ideologists. I hate extremists.” And then he made a prediction that, I think, has relevance for today, with the midterm elections approaching: “Either great American party that yields to its extreme group is doomed there and then.”
Q: In THE GEORGETOWN SET, we learn a lot about reporting for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, and many more publications still in circulation. Can you tell us about a few pivotal articles that ran in these publications? What do you hope the media will take away from your book?
A: The publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post was one of the most significant moments in the history of the modern press, along with Watergate, and both are stories told in my book. In 1977, one of the heroes of the Watergate saga—Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein—wrote an article for Rolling Stone, “The CIA and the Media,” that has never received the attention I think it deserves. When I interviewed Ben Bradlee at the Post, I told him that I hoped THE GEORGETOWN SET would reveal even more about the secret ties between the intelligence community and the press. I remember that Ben smiled sardonically and said simply: “Good luck.”
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