Wednesday, September 07, 2005


All I know, as retired, I pass my days, I'm aware I still have so many books to read. They stretch out ahead of me for years. Fiction, biography, history, science. And classes to take. Tonight, all day, I feel so alive as my peers drop dead around me from 60 to 70. Just tonight, I watched American Masters presentation of Willa Cather and realized, there's another author I haven't experienced. Or have I? The life of the reader feels so distinct and separate from the rest of America. Whether that separateness is my imagination or a real thing I don't know. Do you?


Studs Terkel in his book, TALKING TO MYSELF, pages 57-59, reports on a conversation he had with Ben Bradlee (the editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate affair and the Cuban Missile Crisis). He was shocked to learn that one of Kennedy's favorite tunes was "Big Bad John" and that he played it over and over while he was facing down the Russian dictator, Khrushchev. "Big Bad John" was a "tough hombre", sung about by Tennessee Ernie Ford, who "risks and loses his life to save his buddies."

[Open quote] "What would have happened had Khrushchev not turned back?" I ask in a tremolo, ex post facto. "We would have been in World War III," says Bradlee. "Because we were going to get 'em. There is no doubt in my mind."

High Noon, by God. I am slack-jawed; no words come forth. I shake my head like a baby's rattle; my jowls jiggle loosely. I am Cuddles Sakall, the avuncular Czech film comic. I smack away at my left ear to clear it of sea water.

We were going to get 'em. My guest has a reputation as a fighting, no-nonsense newspaperman. Justifiably. With understandable hesitancy, I ask, No alternative? Mr. Bradlee patiently explains. His is a comforting, blues in the night, Jason Robards baritone. But why am I not comforted? "I'm afraid if the President of the United States had said, in the face of the Soviet fleet steaming to Cuba with missiles, 'Hey, fellow, don't do that. I'll take my guys out of Turkey'— I'm afraid that would have been viewed as the all-time gutless, yellow . . ."

"It's that gutsy macho matter again," I mumble, half to myself.

"It's a little more than that. It wouldn't have worked in the climate of that time."

To a slow learner, Bradlee explains Kennedy's pragmatism. The President, it seems, was well aware of our double standard of behavior. "It was okay for us to have 27,000 troops in Turkey right on the Soviet border, but it was not okay to have Soviet troops ninety miles from the U.S. border. That didn't seem right to him. He had an inner debate, but he kept it quiet."

"Suppose he had made those doubts public, might not the missile crisis have been avoided?" My naiveté is, I'm afraid, too much for Mr. Bradlee.

"The history of American politics is littered with bodies of people who took so pure a position that they had no clout at all," says the hard-hitting editor.

Maybe so. But why do my thoughts fly, higgledy-piggledy, to John Peter Altgeld? We remember this governor of Illinois, who in 1893 pardoned the surviving Haymarket riot defendants. He felt they had been framed. He spat into the prevailing winds. The Respectables were, of course, outraged. Altgeld was seemingly destroyed. But was he, really? He is remembered. Does anybody recall the name of his predecessor, a pragmatic governor who sent the others to the gibbet? Or the merchant princes of Chicago who damned Altgeld? They are not even footnotes. So much for pragmatism. Or, for that matter, so much for machismo. Need we ask ourselves who was the more gutsy of the two—John Fitzgerald Kennedy or John Peter Altgeld?

Meanwhile, back to reality. I mumble (listeners continually complain that they can hardly hear me), "It was a game of chicken. In Rusk's phrase, 'They blinked first.' "

Softly, Bradlee remembers, "Eyeball to eyeball."

My head is awhirl. I'm trying to picture what eyeball to eyeball looks like. All I can come up with is a Jules Feiffer cartoon. But why ain't I laughing?

I may not be as heavy as Herman Kahn, but I'm thinking the unthinkable, too. There is a difference. Kahn is brave and cool. I am craven and feverish. I find this strange, since there is so much more of him to be blown up than there is of me.

As one part of me is listening to my guest's straight-from-the shoulder talk, the other part is talking to myself. Suppose the stubborn Russian peasant, instead of turning back, had replied, Okay, I ain't blinkin'. Big Bad John, being Big Bad John, would have let 'em have it, by God. And what would the rest of us have? The rest of us and the rest of them. [Close quote]

I don't think it can be put any planer than Terkel has put it.

"If Roosevelt was alive today, he'd turn over in his grave." —Samual Goldwin

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