Donald Trump enters the White House as the champion prevaricator of its 217-year history. But he occasionally says something real -- such as his recent warning that those who stay in Russian hotel rooms should beware of snooping. Whether or not he spoke from personal experience he didn’t say.
I can add a related tale. I once wrote a book (“Joe Alsop’s Cold War”) about one of the 20th century’s master journalists and opinion columnists, whose anti-Soviet attitudes made him a target for KGB snooping. I was interviewing an Alsop friend when he asked: “How do you plan to handle the Moscow Incident?” I had read reams of Alsop’s papers in the Library of Congress and interviewed dozens of his friends, relatives and colleagues. But I knew nothing of any such “incident.”
My interviewee told this bizarre tale: In 1957 Alsop was paying his first and, as it proved, only visit to the Soviet Union. He was secretly photographed by the KGB in a compromising hotel-room tryst with another male, no doubt an agent-provocateur.
I had known Joe pretty well in Washington, before his death at age 79, but I had no interest in the sex lives of eminent friends and was appalled by the self-evident need to tell the story in print. The duty was unavoidable for a biographer, however distasteful. The episode was in certain ways – especially Joe’s bold reaction to the attempt to blackmail an eminent critic – central to his character and sense of journalistic duty. It was a far from negligible element in an illustrious career which began with his bravura coverage of the Lindbergh kidnapping trial many years earlier.
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But the documentary evidence in his archive was slight and suggestive only if you already knew the secret.
I had been an admirer of Joseph W. Alsop since my days as a student editor in Chapel Hill. We used his provocative columns in the Daily Tar Heel. In the mid-1950s, he was notoriously critical of Soviet misbehavior and an impassioned defender of public figures caught in the crossfire of McCarthyism, including the “China hands,” accused of “losing China” and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” who was, as absurdly, stripped of his security clearance by the Eisenhower administration.
Others might have been intimidated. Not Joe. He promptly insured himself against blackmail by confiding the details of the Moscow incident to friends at the CIA and blithely continued to savage Soviet misbehavior, which as the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolution showed was then at its worst.
It is a measure of the boneheadedness of the KGB that when they persisted with the campaign of defamation and mailed copies of the sordid photos to Joe’s colleagues they included, of all people, Art Buchwald, the humorist. They assumed that Buchwald, no one’s enemy was Alsop’s. He had written a comedy, “Sheep on the Runway,” featuring a pompous Washington columnist who reminded a lot of people of Joe. Joe, who could indeed be pompous, announced that he would not visit a house where Buchwald was received. But of course Buchwald was far from pleased to have the smutty photos. He was appalled and embarrassed.
When the KGB continued its vile campaign (for instance, writing “Joe Alsop is Queer” on the windshield of a car in front of Joe’s Georgetown house) Joe summoned his friend and head of the CIA, Richard Helms, and said that he planned to put an end to the ordeal with a public declaration. Helms advised against it and promised to fix the problem via a back channel reserved for washing dirty laundry with Russian intelligence. The Soviets were warned that if the defamation continued, US intelligence had plenty of retaliatory trash to circulate. It stopped.
This was a typical episode of the Cold War, and it occurred when American attitudes about sexual “deviancy” were still primitive. Knowing Joe Alsop as I did, he would surely resist starring as a proto-hero of gay lib. That wasn’t the point anyway. The point is that he defied blackmail and continued to critique Soviet behavior while defending victims of domestic anti-communist hysteria. It was a tale of gallantry and duty under threat of grave embarrassment. Thus this bold and brilliant, patriotic and colorful grand-nephew of Theodore Roosevelt demonstrated that the ancestral genes had bred true.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington, D.C.