"Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop - Guardians of the American Century," by Robert W. Merry. Viking. $39.95
For a nostalgic, illuminating jaunt down the years of American supremacy, from triumph in World War II to defeat in Vietnam, what better companions than the Alsop brothers, Joseph and Stewart? They were the quintessential Cold War journalists of their day, products of the Anglo-Saxon Eastern establishment whose assumed right to rule the nation extended easily to the world.
Though linked in the public mind as like-minded brothers churning out opinion columns and magazine articles of great impact and controversy, they were vastly different in personality, appearance, journalistic instinct and, yes, sexuality.
Joe was an explosive comet of passion and intellectual flair, an arrogant, snobbish, foppish man who wanted to run national policy as well as to write about it, a newspaperman of the old-fashioned shoe-leather school who nonetheless was prone to thrust his opinion on interviewees rather than listen to what they had to say.
His professional lapses - blurring the line between sources and friendship, hectoring as well as pandering to officials in top positions - were as nothing, however, when put against his personal bravery and integrity.
When Soviet agents confronted him with pictures of a homosexual encounter in Moscow, he asked them for prints to add to his collection and went straightaway to the American Embassy to tell his embarrassing story. No blackmail target, he. When McCarthyites questioned the patriotism of the U.S. diplomats who, in Joe's opinion, were indeed guilty of "losing China," he went stoutly to their defense.
To be an Alsop was to be a product of Groton and YaleHarvard, a Roosevelt cousin admitted automatically to the elite salons of Georgetown and Cleveland Park, to have as one's guests Jack and Jackie Kennedy at 2 a.m. after their inaugural ball, to confront as an equal the Kennans, Bohlens, Forrestals, Lovetts, McCloys, Achesons and other architects of American triumph.
Stewart fit as easily as Joe into this society, but he knew the need to keep emotionally at arm's length from those he wanted to analyze dispassionately. As the younger brother, he long was outshown by his more flamboyant sibling. But in the end, he emerged as the Alsop with the better judgment, the more reliable reportage.
Robert W. Merry's biography of the Alsop brothers is a work of intense and long commitment. It provides vivid anecdotes about the making of high policy, commentary on the reporter's trade, an unforgettable look at an Alsopian haut monde, history neatly encapsulated. If there is one failing, it is the rather cursory treatment of the columnists and commentators who were competitors. A better delineation of where the brothers stood in the shifting political spectrum would have helped.
An outstanding journalist in his own right, Mr. Merry has given us flesh-and-blood, deeply personal, portraits of two great newspapermen who had the lineage, the guts, the intelligence, the work ethic and the writing ability to influence their times. This is clearly a book for those who lived fully the "current events" of the Alsop era, or for those younger readers who want to know what it was really like.
Joe Sterne has worked at The Sun since 1953. He has been editorial page editor since 1972. Before that he worked as a local reporter, a foreign correspondent, in London, Bonn and Africa, and he worked in the Washington Bureau from 1960-1969.