A passion for writing and geopolitics: For the Kalbs, it runs in the family

August 5, 2011

In her childhood Chevy Chase living room during the heart of the Vietnam War, Deborah Kalb was allowed to watch two things on television: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and the CBS Evening News, featuring her father, Marvin Kalb.

“At 5 years old, I would watch my father reporting on the State Department,” laughed Deborah Kalb, 47, a longtime politics reporter who has written for CQ and the Hill newspaper. “I remember my mother taking out an atlas. My father might be in Riyadh today, Jerusalem the next day.”

Her father, of course, was one of the acolytes of storied TV journalist Edward R. Murrow at CBS. He also hosted NBC’s “Meet the Press” in the 1980s and made Richard M. Nixon’s “enemies list.” And with such a role model and such progeny, it must have seemed natural for father and daughter to collaborate on a book that would take five years to research, diving into presidential diaries and libraries and interviewing hundreds of officials. The result is “Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency From Ford to Obama.”

The book offers a detailed history of presidential decisions that are influenced both emotionally and strategically by the sobering lessons of the Vietnam War. The Kalbs write: “The United States has never lost a war — that is, until 1975 when it was forced to flee Saigon in humiliation after losing to what Lyndon Johnson called ‘a raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country.’ ”

The ghosts of Vietnam resonate deeply today with a generation that has lived amid the conflicts of the Iraq war and the expanding battleground in Afghanistan. The book raises questions and offers insights into how Vietnam might determine the way and the reasons presidents send people to war — in other words, the power of the past on the present.

“All major books about Vietnam have been about the war; what is different about this book is that it’s about the legacy of that war,” said Marvin Kalb, who looks 10 years younger than his 81 years and has a lush head of white hair. “Obama fancied himself a post-Vietnam, post-Cold War president, yet he was haunted by Vietnam. It’s all just a fascinating topic that impacts Washington today.”

Hardworking duo

Writing a book seems hard enough, though it’s something the elder Kalb has done eight times. But what was it like for Marvin Kalb to write a hefty intellectual tome with his daughter? For that matter, what was it like for the daughter? Were there arguments?

“Not many at all,” Deborah Kalb said on a recent morning when the writing duo sat in the cafeteria of the Brookings Institution, whose press published “Haunting Legacy” in May. “It was a great learning experience to work with my father. I feel really fortunate to be in my 40s and yet have an older generation, especially my father, to learn from. Plus, we broke down the chapters. He focused on the foreign policy side. I did the politics and Vietnam.”

The result is “a very timely book of reportage, and it deals with one of the questions that may go unanswered forever. People are still debating if we are still haunted by World War I,” said Stanley Karnow, 86, author of “Vietnam: A History,” who covered the war for The Washington Post and lives in Potomac. “But they hit a timely issue with people wandering around the Pentagon right now wondering if Afghanistan is another Vietnam.”

“Haunting Legacy,” for instance, attempts to reach inside the mind of President Obama and his worries that Afghanistan would become his Vietnam. In a riveting account, it paints a picture of Obama’s July 2008 trip on a U.S. military plane headed from Andrews Air Force Base toward Kuwait City and to Afghanistan.

On the plane, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) describes a sort of “seminar,” where Obama, then a presidential candidate, asks Reed and a carefully selected “troika of consequential senators” to talk to him about the lessons of Vietnam. “Not so much the history, which he thought he knew, but the powerful legacy of the war, which he sensed at every turn in his rising career,” the pair write.

In interviews, Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and co-chair of Obama’s National Intelligence Board, paraphrases Obama for the Kalbs as saying: “We’re not going to be held hostage to what happened in Vietnam. This is a new ballgame, a new day, a new world.”

Destined for the effort

While there are other father-daughter and husband-wife writing teams, the Kalbs seemed destined for such an effort. In their home, writing, and talking geopolitics and history, was as normal a family activity as birthday parties or movie night. Marvin’s wife, Madeleine, wrote the definitive book on the struggle for Congo, “The Congo Cables: The Cold War in Africa — From Eisenhower to Kennedy.”

Madeleine Kalb helped husband and daughter shape their book’s central theme. She’s “a very good editor,” Marvin Kalb said, with “a very uncluttered mind.”

But the Kalb-family writing careers don’t stop there.

Marvin Kalb’s other daughter, Judith Kalb, an associate professor and Russian program director at the University of South Carolina, is author of “Russia’s Rome: Imperial Visions, Messianic Dreams, 1890-1940,” an examination of Russia’s identification with Rome during the revolutions in 1905 and 1917. His brother Bernard Kalb was a foreign correspondent at CBS News, NBC News and the New York Times and was based in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Paris and Vietnam. The brothers co-wrote books, including a biography titled “Kissinger” and “The Last Ambassador,” a novel about the collapse of Saigon in 1975.

The family sounds serious but has a playful side.

“As a family growing up, we loved to get together at Chinese restaurants,” Deborah Kalb said, laughing. “We were not always discussing geopolitics.”

Karnow has been a friend of the family for years and said “Haunting Legacy” was a good use of collective family interests.

“I’ve known Deborah since she was born,” Karnow said. “They are a real journalist family. You put the family together and they sometimes resemble a Woody Allen movie, with everyone talking over each other.”

A writer in the making

At a recent reading from the Kalbs’ book at Politics & Prose, some attendees had served in Vietnam, while others had studied the war; others seemed to be interested in the father-daughter dynamic.

Deborah brought her son, Aaron, who’s almost 6. Not surprisingly, he recently wrote a short book about Pluto for his kindergarten class.

At the bookstore, he “sat there reading a collection of stories about pirates and other adventures the whole time,” Deborah Kalb said.

So maybe Aaron’s next book could be a collaboration with his mother and grandfather?

“Well, that’s a good idea,” said Marvin Kalb with a laugh.

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