Monday, February 26, 2007

The Irate Codger Remembers When He Almost Met I. F. Stone

When thirteen years ago my happy home was sundered by cancer and my wife deposited me on my mom's doorstep, I was compelled to sell off about fifteen hundred books. Some were particularly hard to part with--Roger Angell's baseball books, Whitney Balliet's jazz criticism, and especially I. F. Stone's journalism of the sixties and early seventies collected in In a Time of Torment and Polemics and Prophecies. So it was like welcoming back a revered mentor when last Fall I bought The Best of I. F. Stone, an anthology of Stone's reportage of forty years in The Nation, PM, I. F. Stone's Weekly, and The New York Review of Books, a generous 340 pages of his "best" work as adjudged by Karl Weber.

I've no grounds at all to quarrel with Weber's selections, but I was disappointed to find that only fifty of the 340 pages were given to Stone's Vietnam War pieces, for it was in those polemics, written at the flush tide of his influence, when the circulation of the Weekly rose to 70,000, that his razor-sharp analyses of Johnson and Nixon administration stratagems, blunders, follies and hubris were most desperately needed. Stone and Noam Chomsky, Walter Lippmann, J. William Fullbright, and George F. Kennan saved sanity from near death in those berserk years and kept alive hope that she might eventually be resuscitated and restored to something like full health. (As indeed she was, until 9/11/01 when 89% of the nation decided it was time to go completely nuts again.)

Specifically, I missed in The Best of I. F. Stone a piece Stone wrote in 1969 or 1970 about the monstrous technological advantage the most advanced industrial power on earth enjoyed over its adversary, an Asian nation of thirty million. We had by then dropped a greater tonnage of high explosives on North and South Vietnam and Cambodia than on all theaters in World War II, each bomb making a crater twenty yards across and five deep; we'd sprayed millions of acres in the highlands and marshlands of the Camau peninsula alike with Agent Orange; and then there were the "daisy-cutter" bombs, the Rome plows, the napalm, the Cluster Bomb Units, and even scent-locators dropped over the Ho Chih Minh trail said to be able to discriminate between human and animal urine, so that if an NLF soldier put down a mortar base-plate to take a leak, beep beep, you could phone in an air strike! And despite all that, these scrawny peasants in black pajamas with their MK-47s, their mortars, light artillery, ponji sticks, tunnels, and land mines were undeniably kicking our asses and in the end would certainly win. The title of that piece was "More Than Steel and Chrome Can Bear."

Included in the anthology, however, was an essay I had all but forgotten and which suddenly--as we say--"took me back," "Goldwater and His Tribe," July, 1964. Rather, it seized me by the collar and yanked me back. Gosh, did I ever remember. In July, 1964, I had another month and a half to go as news director at KPFA. It was all settled: I was going back to Berkeley for a Ph.D., I had a teaching assistantship assured me, and Scott Keech would succeed me as news director. But one unsettling fact loomed in the immediate foreground: across the bay at the Cow Palace the Republicans would soon nominate a candidate for president. How should we at KPFA cover this thing? A silly idea, really, a news department with one salaried member, me, attempting to "cover" an event given, in those days, saturation "gavel to gavel" coverage by three giant TV networks. And yet attention ought to be paid. What sort of gesture might suffice to establish that our little lefty news operation was not rudely ignoring the Republicans in their jubilation at having at last, as they said, "a choice, not an echo" in their candidate. The station's relationship to that party was all but nonexistent. There was one Republican on Public Affairs Director Elsa Knight Thompson's "rota" of fourteen or so commentators, Casper Weinberger, then chairman of the California Republican Committee, and much, much later Reagan's Secretary of Defense. Good old Cap would come to the studio twice a month to record his talk, which would always begin, "Good evening. This is Cap Weinberger with your regular Republican commentary..." He was the only Republican in the Bay Area who did not shun KPFA, and he was therefore precious to us.

It seemed to me that we might assemble a panel of four or five newsies for a one hour wrap-up and analysis of the convention on the evening of its last day. Not competing with the networks, mind, which by then would have returned to their regular prime-time programing. Perfect. Then, too, the station had recently acquired a studio, a recording space, in San Francisco, not far from the Cow Palace. Who covering the convention might we be able to lure to so convenient a place? Station Manager Trevor Thomas lightly threw in that I. F. Stone was coming to the convention, that Izzy was a friend of his, and might be persuaded to appear on our show. My God! To meet I. F. Stone! To have him on my show!!

I must have left Scott to tend the newsroom one afternoon, for I remember taking a cable car on a chilly, gray day to Nob Hill, walking into the lobby of the Fairmount, and seeing TV lights, more brilliant than anything I'd imagined, trained, like guard tower searchlights at a stalag, on the elevator bank. Then an elevator door opened and out came the candidate, grimly waving to the cheering throng, his jutting jaw like Dick Tracy's, a nimbus of phosphorescence around his gray head. What was I doing there? Soaking up "color"? Hopeful of interviewing someone? I can't remember.

Then I am interviewing someone, the campaign manager for the dark horse compromise candidate, Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania. The campaign manager is the state attorney general and I'm trying to stammer out cogent, seemingly well informed questions about this impossible candidacy and I'm failing; my ego has experienced vertigo and has plummeted, I feel utterly fraudulent, there's a quaver in my voice and a nerve is pulsing so insistently in my left cheek that I fear it is visible. I'm so obviously unready for this role of crack reporter that the campaign manager, a kindly man, says softly, "Take it easy, son."

In the aftermath of my humiliating failure of nerve with the AG I resolve to maintain a bold, aggressive front at whatever cost, and my ambition has soared to frightening heights. If I. F. Stone, why not Norman Mailer? Mailer is my hero. I've read everything he's written (in high school I delivered a "book report" on The Naked and the Dead, for which my English teacher prudently required I furnish written permission from my mother) and I think "Superman at the Supermarket," his 1960 Esquire essay on JFK is the most profound piece ever written on contemporary American culture and politics. I write a note to Mailer at the Saint Francis Hotel desk.

At the press lounge in the Saint Francis mezzanine I find myself sitting next to a genial gent who introduces himself as Hiram Johnson III. What, grandson of TR's running mate in the Bull Moose campaign of 1912, progressive Republican governor then long-time senator from California? The very same. III lives comfortably in his bachelor quarters in Belvedere and is a non-practicing attorney at law. Although a member of the California delegation, he's more an amused spectator of the mob scene than a participant. Think of Burl Ives and you have him, in manner if not appearance. I like him immensely; he's my Virgil in this Purgatorio, providing owlish asides about bigshots in the passing parade. I confide to him my audacious hope of getting Mailer for my radio show.

The next afternoon I again encounter Johnson, who says, "Guess who I ran into yesterday? Mailer. Fine fellow, we had a few drinks, and he told me he wants to be on your show." Through the roof! (A troubling note, however: Trevor Thomas has not yet succeeded in contacting his friend Izzy.) If Mailer, why not William F. Buckley? They've debated one another. How could Buckley resist appearing in this venue with his old antagonist? I leave a message for Buckley at the Saint Francis desk.

There's another reason I want to get Buckley. In 1962 he appeared at Berkeley in a room on the north side of Wahrenbrock auditorium before about sixty students, mainly admiring undergraduates, and I was there. He began by sliding his tongue over his lips and saying with a sneer, "Is there anyone at this late date who still denies that Owen Lattimore was a Russian spy?" Silence. I wanted to say, "Yes, there is. I deny that Lattimore was a Russian spy." Hell, I knew this was a McCarthyite lie. I had read Lattimore's Ordeal by Slander in high school and knew that Lattimore was still at Johns Hopkins. So why didn't I speak? Because Buckley must know something I didn't, otherwise why would he say this without fear of refutation? Of course it was a lie, as I soon learned to my hot shame. In the studio, I fantasized, I'd compel him to own up.

Next memory. I have somehow secured a floor pass to the Cow Palace and am out on the left aisle making my way past the California delegation. There, midway down one row, are Ronnie and Nancy, she gravely beautiful with startling blue eyes, and he with head cocked to the right, perhaps favoring a hearing aid in his left ear, a half-smile, half-grin on his face, gazing into the middle distance, perhaps pleased by the oratory or perhaps tuned out, in either case prepared to beam at an admirer should one suddenly appear.

(That this man should in two years become governor, burying Pat Brown in a landslide, the same Pat Brown who in 1962 had defeated Richard Nixon by two million votes, is as yet beyond imagining, as would be the circumstances permitting such an outcome, namely the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley which would commence in two months when the UC regents discovered that the southern boundary of the campus extended across the "Bancroft bricks" to the street's gutter, and that the card tables set up by YPSL, YSA, CORE, Snick, etc. were therefore in violation of the "Kerr Directives" forbidding political advocacy on campus. Then would follow in May, 1965, the first march against the war, fifteen thousand students parading down Telegraph Avenue before being halted by the Oakland cops and DA Ed Meese at the Oakland city line. The lesson to the voters of California in 1966 was clear: the hapless Governor Pat Brown simply couldn't control those campus radicals. Well by God Roanld Reagan would! Ah, the painful ironies of history! We activists won the fight for free speech [Mario Savio's great speech on the Sproul Hall steps in December, '64, was just last year, in 2006, included in a Library of America volume of great American orations] but we also unwittingly elected Reagan and made possible his presidency. And did all those years of anti-war marches shorten the Vietnam War by a single day? I fear not. It was a decade from the first march in May, '65, that the war ended in May, 1975.)

But my quarry this day is not in the California delegation, but forty or so yards farther along the aisle, in the New York delegation. He is John V. Lindsay, the celebrated congressman from the upper east side Manhattan "silk stocking district," and there will be no repeat of my collapse before the Pennsylvania attorney general. I am determined to talk some fast shit to get Lindsay as the fourth in my august on-air panel. Think of it, Stone, Mailer, Buckley, and Lindsay, and me as David Susskind, the knowledgeable and witty host. There is Lindsay standing in front of me, the most handsome man I've ever met; he's leaning forward listening intently against the booming oratory from the poldium, looking down at our shoes as I speak, and as I plunge ahead with this impossible sales talk, his eyes rise slowly from our shoes to my face, and register--what? Polite incredulity, I think.

The rest is quickly told. Lindsay won't be able to make it; he has an early flight. I. F. Stone is far too busy (boy, was that the truth. As Stone's account revealed, he was all over the place, the Fairmount, the Mark Hopkins, the Saint Francis, and especially the appalling Jack Tar on Van Ness where most of the redneck delegations were lodged. I get Mailer on the phone. "Yeah, I told Johnson I wanted to be on your show, and I'd really like to do it, but I've thought it over and decided I'd better not. I might say things I shouldn't." I, the fan, helpfully supplied the rest: "Because you're under contract to Esquire and it wouldn't do to say things over the air that might later appear in print?" "Yeah, that's right." Buckley said he was intrigued by the idea of appearing on my show, but circumstances wouldn't permit. However, might he suggest an excellent replacement, namely the president of campus Young Americans for Freedom? Thanks Bill, but no thanks.

So, whom did I get? It was all very much "below the battle," as Randolph Bourne would say, some fascinated lefty political junkies sitting around a table in a darkened studio chatting far beneath all that Republican oratorical thunder filling the skies. Gene Marine, former KPFA news director, now free-lancer; Sid Roger, editor of the United Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union Dispatcher; a Canadian journalist I'd run into from the Ottawa magazine Fortnight, much bemused by the ferocity of American politics, especially as manifested by the lynch mob that shouted down Nelson Rockefeller, and a fourth I can't now remember. It was a lot of fun. And I later heard from a few listeners, all KPFA diehards, of course, that it was an excellent show. I simply wasn't destined to play David Suskind. I'd tried, it hadn't come off, and I had no regrets. But one thing I think of now: that fourth, so insignificant I can't remember him: why didn't I pick Hiram Johnson III?