With the ayatollah, not to say the Redskins and the weather, continuing to defy reason, who else should Washington and the electronic village have turned to for soothing yesterday but George Wildman Ball -- the man who was right all along on Vietnam, who didn't make secretary of state, but by many learned accounts should have.
George Ball was on "Meet the Press yesterday. Joseph Kraft was on the show, too, which meant that only Walter Lippmann and a bottle of Haig & Haig were missing. By his own guessing, Ball has been a guest on the show -- network television's oldest -- nine or 10 times. But who counts? Not even the show's producer could say for sure how many times he's been on.
"I once got to an 'Issues and Answers' just as they announced I wasn't going to be on. My plane was late. When I walked in, they erased everything they'd just said and we started the program from there. It was one of my better entrances."
At 69, about to turn 70, George Ball is one of America's certifiable village elders, who happens to live now in the village of Princeton, across the street from former attorney general Nicholas de B. Katzenbach (who is not as famous as he is) and next door to "Jaws" author Peter Benchley (who is more famous than he is) and just a couple of tennis lobs from the folks at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
He spends his time as an investment banker for Lehman Brothers in New York and by writing articles for Foreign Affairs magazine (his next is due in January) from a statesmanly office that is reputed to have a telecopier, a secretary and a bank of researchers.
"He plays tennis at my house," says George J. W. Goodman, who writes under the pen name Adam Smith. "When his serve is in, it's a thing to behold." (Tennis is known to be very big in Princeton.)
George Ball didn't come to town yesterday with his 10-pound briefcase (it has "G.W.B." and a three-dial lock on it) to talk tennis. He came to talk the Iranian crisis. Last December, he was the Carter administration's specially commissioned point man in reevaluating American policy in the Persian Gulf.
Though as has often been his fate, his recommendation -- that the shah move toward a broad-base civilian government as quickly as possible -- went largely ignored. Once again, he was a Cassandra in pinstripes.
Yesterday, with the sense if not clang of doom in the hallways, the man of global vision came riding into town as fireman: form and function, advise and consent. Washington needed him. It is a part he has loved to play, from the New Deal on.
He came down from his hotel suite at precisely 11 o'clock, as he said he would. He was in tortoise-shell glasses and a blue, muted-stripe suit and semicurls of Santa hair. Later, at the studio, in his pancake, he would look like a bewigged, powdered, reassuring representative off the Queen's Bench.
In the lobby of the Madison, a lace of his shoe was untied. He popped a couple to Tums tablets from a stash he kept in his right pocket. His voice was full of reason and monotone, equanimity. The trick is not to let these crises crush you, he said. "Anybody who's lived through the insides of the Cuba missile crisis, as I did, when we thought we were going to blow up the world, has a tendency to take these things in stride."
In the Cuban missile crisis, Ball was an undersecretary of state, the No. 3 man in the department. Later, under Lyndon Johnson, he was the department's No. 2 man, the consistent dove in a hawkish administration. Johnson, Ball has said, would often go around the table in the White House on a policy decision and then say, "Now let's hear what George has to say against it." Later, Ball and Dean Rusk, his friendly antagonist, would have Scotch together.
On the way to the studio for yesterday's show, Ball leaned forward about three degrees in the back of a taxi and said to the driver -- in a kind of parenthesis to a discourse on what might happen in Iran this coming week -- "If you pass a drugstore, I'd like to stop." Damn glasses, he said. wThey keep sliding down his nose.Get some rubber tabs for them.
He hopped out at a Peoples's Drug at Dupont Circle to get the tabs. When he came back, he said, "A diplomat talks in solemn tones about long-range strategies, but what it comes down to is improvisation." With that, he improvised and tongue-licked the tabs on to his glasses.
Any number of scenarios might develop in Iran, he said. "The ayatollah migh die -- he's an old man, after all. The shah migh die, though I don't see that as likely. On the other hand, the shah might leave the country.
"If the ayatollah dies, two things could result: It could evoke emotions of grief and panic, causing desperate action. Or it could result in a calm, a simmering. If the shah should die, the belief unhappily would be that we killed him. That's the way it would be done in other countries."
And Ball pointed out that the current wave of nationalistic fervor in Iran, spawned by the hostages situation, neatly coincides with both Moslem holy days and a national referendum for a new constitution that would give the ayatollah immense power. The referendum is scheduled for a week from yesterday. "If they accept the referendum, it will be a step backward of a couple hundred years." he said.
This man isn't about to pull punches, not at 69. "What shines through everything about him (the ayatollah) is his ignorance. The man has no idea how the world works. One could debate on just how sane he is -- but that involves a Western judgment. I don't see his regime lasting more than 18 months before an overthrowal. Actually, it could be sooner."
There is a kind of glistening, friendly certitude, a panache, about George W. Ball and his views. It is a certitude redolent of that club that really doesn't have a name, that is variously praised or inveighed against as The Power Elite or The Foreign Policy Establishment. The club is post-World War II. It is silk ties. It is old leather. It is sherry in the afternoon and service with a large S. Pax Americana and sophisticated trade agreements.
This urbane-cum-forceful style is evident in Ball's writing, too. In his book "The Discipline of Power," published in 1968, he wrote: "Today America is in an ugly mood. By a series of small steps, taken in good faith over a period of years, we have mired ourselves in a frustrating war that turns our otherwise sensible countrymen into placard-carrying hysterics. Already we hear the querulous frogcroaks of an old isolationism."
In a sense, that sentence could have been drafted yesterday.
He is 6-foot-2. The encircling girth of years has caught him, but not much. His step can surprise you.
So might this: He was born in Des Moines, not Cambridge, the son of an official of Standard Oil of Indiana. He went to Northwestern, got a law degree, came to Washington with the Farm Credit Administration. In 1952 and '56, he was for Adlai Stevenson (they were once in the same law firm in Chicago). In 1959, he became a Kennedy man.
"Can I take you to makeup?" a woman at WRC said yesterday.
"If you think it can do any good," he sallied back.
Led to his desk, facing the panelists, with the floor director counting down the minutes, he angled himself in his chair, smiled, and stage-whispered to his interrogators: "Gettysburg Address, Lord's Prayer whichever you guys want first."
He several times praised the administration's, and especially the president's, conduct of the Iranian crisis. He said, just as you would have expected him to, that we should "wait for events to create opportunities -- then exploit those opportunities."
Afterward, Joe Kraft gave him a lift in his car. The two argued about Iran, discoursed on presidential candidates ("I can't go with Teddy; that guy Conally ended awfully fast, didn't he?"), and allowed as how, oh, every couple days he gets this itch to call up friends in the administration to get the latest inside dope on the ayatollah's craziness.
"All informal. I'm just curious. I call them, they call me."
Would he care to name whom he calls?
"Not really," said George Ball with the most delicious, inside of smiles.