Taking on the World by Robert W. Merry

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(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1957, while in a Moscow hotel room awaiting an interview with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, columnist Joe Alsop had sex with a young Russian man. A couple days later, burly KGB agents burst into his room with incriminating photos and threatened him with blackmail unless he agreed to spy for the Soviet Union. Ambassador Charles E. “Chip” Bohlen, a personal friend, advised Alsop to inform the CIA of the experience. At the time, the FBI already knew about a 1954 encounter between Alsop and a gay State Department official stationed in Germany, and J. Edgar Hoover had turned the information over to presidential chief-of-staff Sherman Adams. In 1959, after Alsop wrote a scathing attack on the Eisenhower administration, White House Press Secretary Jim Hagerty threatened to lift the reporter’s White House press pass, telling his boss, “He’s a fag, and we know he is.” This was not the first such incident. Senator Joseph McCarthy had threatened to retaliate for an uncomplimentary piece by exposing Alsop as a “pervert.” Such were the perils of being a closet homosexual in the repressive years of the 1950’s.

What grist for a biographer’s portrait. Unfortunately, Robert W. Merry opts instead for a “life and times” approach that just barely lifts the veil of secrecy on the Alsop brothers’ private lifestyles and concentrates on matters of statecraft and diplomacy rather than social history. Although the brothers once occupied “the pinnacle of the reporter’s trade,” to quote from the title of Merry’s introduction, most all their writings are about as interesting as yesterday’s newspaper. Perhaps the only exceptions are their personal memoirs, Stewart Alsop’s Stay of Execution, about his dying of leukemia, and Joe Alsop’s I’ve Seen the Best of It, which ends, appropriately, with John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Why then should readers give Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop—Guardians of the American Century more than a passing glance? Merry answers that the Alsops’ worldviews were representative of the postwar corporate liberal “Establishment” that so shaped public opinion and foreign policy during the Cold War. Clearly they wielded great influence in the political (and social) milieu of their time, culminating with the New Frontier administration of their friend John F. Kennedy. The book opens with an account of a 1961 White House dinner dance attended by leading members of the fourth estate which captures brilliantly, although inadvertently, the glitter and snobbery of the nation’s governing class during the dawn of what would be looked back upon (by Joe Alsop, at least) as akin to the legendary days of Camelot. The thirty-fifth president held journalists in high esteem and enjoyed the lively conversation and comely women that were part of the Georgetown social scene. Joe was its maestro, putting together invitation lists based on accomplishment, power, brains, and wit (not necessarily in that...

(The entire section is 1,980 words.)