'Top Secret': Pentagon Papers, for Your Ears Only

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Publishing the Pentagon Papers was, of course, one of the great dramatic events in journalism. But can the tangled episode actually hold the stage?

It will try to in radio-theater style -- actors holding scripts and working behind microphones -- when "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers" plays at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland this Thursday and Friday. The radio troupe L.A. Theatre Works, which first produced the show for broadcast in 1991, is touring this lone theatrical effort by Geoffrey Cowan, a 65-year-old journalism professor who figured he knew a good drama when he taught one.

"I've always loved dramas based on fact," Cowan says from Harvard, where he is a fellow with the Kennedy School of Government. Cowan cites the transcript-driven "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" (1972) and "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" (1964) as favorites, and says he could feel the same kind of intrigue and tension in a media law class he taught at UCLA each time he came to the issues surrounding The Washington Post's decision to publish the Pentagon Papers.

"I thought it was such a great story when I told it in class," Cowan says. "And it just felt like a play. The stakes were enormously high, and the characters were terrific."

The Post, of course, had been playing catch-up in June 1971 to the New York Times, which had received the 7,000-plus-page document from Daniel Ellsberg months earlier. After the Times published for several days, a court order enjoined the paper to stop.

By then, The Post had obtained its own copy of the Pentagon Papers, and reporters and editors huddled over the documents at Executive Editor Ben Bradlee's house. The paper faced a hard choice: Sit on the information for a day or maybe longer as the legal ramifications became clearer, or publish immediately in the name of the people's right to know?

The Times had the scoop, but Cowan saw that The Post's situation "was more dramatic." As Cowan put it together with the late Post reporter Leroy Aarons, "Top Secret" divides cleanly into two acts: the first in Bradlee's house, as reporters scramble to write the story while editors, executives and lawyers wrestle with whether to publish. The second act compresses the next 2 1/2 weeks of court activity as the Nixon administration pursued its case.

"Top Secret" didn't go much of anywhere initially. "Just some staged readings in my house," Cowan says with a laugh. But in 1990, Cowan mentioned that he'd written a play to his acquaintance Susan Albert Loewenberg, the producing director of L.A. Theatre Works.

"I thought, 'Oh, God,' " Loewenberg recalls. She found it "kind of interesting," but it sat around the office until the Persian Gulf War broke out. With the government and journalists again debating national security and freedom of the press, Loewenberg decided that the script "would make an incredible piece."

L.A. Theatre Works has recorded more than 400 plays, mainly classic and contemporary American works, for broadcast since 1985. Loewenberg says it typically takes a week to create a production; Hollywood actors are hired to perform five times in front of live audiences, with the results edited together for broadcast on National Public Radio and, in recent years, XM. (LATW has also collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution and Voice of America on a series of broadcasts.)

Since 2005's "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial," LATW has toured several productions to more than 250 cities. Loewenberg says, "I thought it would be fun to tour, to show people how a radio show is done live." (She says if people picture Orson Welles and his 1930s Mercury Theatre, they'll get the idea.) Cowan is an unabashed fan, marveling at the foley artists who create the sound effects around the actors, and at the imaginative capabilities of a roughed-in production.

"Your mind does amazing things," Cowan says. "Because you're not focused on a set, your mind kind of goes with it."

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