The Closeted Columnist

Article excerpt

Byline: John Lithgow

"Now, wait a second, Mr. President!" The words pop like firecrackers in the middle of the recorded conversation. This was Joseph Alsop talking on the phone to Lyndon Johnson on Nov. 25, 1963, days after JFK's assassination had abruptly elevated Johnson to the presidency. The columnist was counseling the new commander in chief on the creation of the Warren Commission, and that sharp phrase leaves little doubt of Alsop's opinion of his own superior wisdom. It is hard to imagine any journalist in American history adopting such a tone with a sitting president, let alone the bluff, authoritative LBJ. But Joe Alsop was not just any journalist.

Power: Alsop was a giant in a long-lost era of print journalism. He and Stewart, his younger brother and sometime writing partner, were children of Northeastern privilege. Eleanor Roosevelt was a first cousin. Educated at Harvard and Yale, respectively, the Alsops wrote newspaper prose with Henry James-ian flourish and a self-assertiveness born of noblesse oblige. Joe in particular used his syndicated column to lecture policymakers from the lowliest congressmen to the mightiest world leaders. He dealt with all of them as if he were a stern schoolmaster and they were his wayward pupils. His pronouncements were impossible to ignore. In today's journalistic landscape, the only figure wielding a fraction of Joe Alsop's power is Rush Limbaugh. In every other way, Joe and Rush are polar opposites. And Joe would have regarded Rush as an ignorant vulgarian, beneath his contempt.

Secrets: Joe's status in the social and political hierarchy of midcentury Washington, D.C., was equally lofty. He invited every politician of note to his Georgetown dinner table, where his dandified voice dominated every combative debate. At the center of Washington life, he was loved, hated, and feared in equal measure. His out-size personality was shot through with complexity and contradiction. His arrogance was tempered with generosity, his abrasiveness with humor. …