Arrivals and Departures has, in a sense, been in the making since 1929 when Richard Rovere, away in boarding school at the age of fifteen, began writing his parents the letters which form the “School Days” chapters of the book. Most of the book, however, covers the quarter-century between 1951 and 1976 when the author served as a political journalist and sometime literary critic.
During the last three decades Rovere has become one of America’s great journalists, and yet he is not well-known to the average reader. While the “Letters from Washington” articles in the New Yorker created many helpless addicts over the years in treating such passionate issues as Vietnam and Watergate with balance and discipline, his voice has often gone unnoticed amidst the inflammatory rhetoric of the last decade or so. The restraint and balance he has displayed have not always been popular qualities in our age of partisanship. Rovere has been writing his occasional “Letters from Washington” for almost thirty years, during which time he has become highly regarded by knowledgeable Washington figures and serious students of national affairs. It is Arrivals and Departures, however, which finally unveils him to the average reader. The book is a collection of gracefully written memoirs, delicately balanced between remove and self-evaluation. Much of the material is gently edged with those ironies and self-depreciations characteristic of a man who does not take himself as seriously as do many contemporary political journalists. “I like to think,” states Rovere, “that if there are different voices to be heard here, altered perspectives to be noted, they are to be accounted for by growth, by sensibilities ripened by experience.” But he adds that he is hardly in a position to judge.
These memoirs, like his articles in the New Yorker, are characterized by a striking objectivity. Indeed, while writing about Washington, Rovere never actually lived there, although his book provides the evidence that distance lends perspective. Journalists such as Rovere, John Osborne, T.R.B., and Elizabeth Drew, have the time and distance for the reflection necessary to enable their intellects, reporting skills, and experiences to separate the serious issues from the confusion. Thus they can portray to the reader an unusually accurate picture of Washington. Far from being unopinionated, Rovere does, from time to time, express his views in the book; but for the most part he functions as an observer rather than a participant. His own life, Rovere states, has been an unadventurous one, yet he is the type of person to whom things happen. As his book reveals, bad grades happened to him, Joe McCarthy and Jack Kennedy happened to him, and Josephine Cianni happened to him, as did the Communist Party, Vietnam, and Watergate. Arrivals and Departures is a book about the impact of people, places, and events on its author.
Rovere is unusual for a political journalist of his stature in that he has never strayed far from New York. Most of his journalistic experience has been gained on publications based in that city. He started writing for New Masses in 1938 and became assistant editor of Nation in 1940. Following a brief stint as editor of Common Sense in 1943, he became a staff writer for the New Yorker in 1944. The “Letters from Washington,” column which provides the basis for much of the material in Arrivals and Departures stemmed from an idea dreamed up in 1948 by the New Yorker’s editor Harold Ross. Ross was uncertain that there was anything in Washington worthy of the magazine’s attention, so Rovere started dropping in on the city a few days at a time to test the waters. Ross gradually became convinced that this method proved to be the only means of covering Washington with any degree of objectivity, and that conviction continued to be the premise of the column.
One of the many insights presented in Arrivals and Departures is a chapter entitled “McCarthy and Company.” The picture of Senator McCarthy—much of it presented in the Senator’s own words—must be considered important for anyone wishing to understand the thinking behind the hysteria of the early 1950’s. The interchange between McCarthy and Rovere took place after a long-forgotten hearing that concerned American soldiers accused by McCarthy of mistreating a Nazi S.S. group that was alleged to have massacred 150 soldiers and 100 Belgian civilians at a town named Malmedz. This hearing occurred more than a year before McCarthy...
(The entire section is 1886 words.)