Joe Alsop at his craft: columnist writ large

March 26, 1995|By Richard Reeves | Richard Reeves,Special to The Sun

"Joe Alsop's Cold War: A Study of Journalistic Influence and Intrigue," by Edwin M. Yoder Jr. 220 pages. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. $24.95

The day will soon be here, alas, when a child or two will turn to a parent and ask, "Mommy, what was a syndicated columnist?" Edwin Yoder's wise little book on Joseph Alsop, who plied that demanding trade - three columns a week when it mattered - can give a satisfying answer.

"Stopping Taft had become a top priority item on the columnists" agenda by early 1952,'Yoder writes of the brothers Alsop, Joseph and Stewart, during the campaign year when Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio and General Dwight D. Eisenhower contended for the Republican nomination.

The thought that a columnist or two would aspire to such heights - or be the subject of two meetings of the French cabinet, which the Alsops may have been - is heady stuff for a twice-a-week guy like me. I'm happy if I get a few readers to think about some public issue in a new way.

But things were different in the 1950s and early 1960s when the Alsops were syndicated from their base at the New York Herald Tribune (Joseph was the older, more flamboyant and more important of the two and wrote for newspapers for more than 35 years, 12 of them with his brother). There was little television then and newspaper reporters were no analysts. Most newspaper men and women then were in the same working class as cops and nurses, while the Alsops and Walter Lippman, in particular, had benefited from and represented the best the Ivy League had to offer.

That does not mean they were necessarily all that much better than today's columnists. In researching a book on the presidency of John F. Kennedy - who ended the day of his inauguration as president having terrapin soup at Alsop's Georgetown house - I read some pretty dreadful stuff by Alsop and others famous in their day.

Joe Alsop was much better than most contemporaries, though too opinionated and much too arrogant for his own good. He was "right" for instance, on McCarthy's red-hunts, writing that the search for communists in government made Washington "like a distracted dog endlessly scratching imaginary fleas." But his foolish views on Vietnam had something to do with his retirement in 1974.

"Go and see for yourself" was Alsop's first rule - though he ignored it on occasion at great journalistic peril to himself. He treasured a letter from his friend George Kennan, who said: "Like Tolstoy, you are an artist and should write about what you see and perceive rather than what you think. For the latter I have respect, too, but not as much."

Joe Alsop was a man of real intellect, but also great intellectual arrogance. Competitors thought that the Alsops relied too much on the droppings of their powerful and networked friends. Yoder, though, attributes many successes to smarts and hard work. When Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson was spreading the story, in 1949, that the Soviet Union had not really detonated an atom bomb, Stewart Alsop simply called the Physics Department at Georgetown University and asked whether explosions could be detected. Of course, a physicist said, there was no doubt the Soviets had done it.

And then his time passed. In one of his last columns, he wrote in sad recognition: "The plain truth is, alas, that the reporter's trade is for young men. Your feet, which do the legwork are nine times more important than your head, which fits facts into a coherent pattern.

Richard Reeves has written several books including "Convention," and "American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville." A syndicated columnist, he is working on a book about Richard Nixon.

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