It was two parts humor and two parts poignancy when four authors presented their books at The Washington Post Book & Author Luncheon at the Sheraton Washington yesterday.
Dan Jenkins, the quip-a-second Texan, has not pulled his punches with his latest, "Life Its Ownself," an even saltier sequel to his tell-it-all book about the world of professional football, "Semi-Tough."
Jenkins lofted savory one-liners into the audience like so many shuttlecocks as he talked about his 35 years' experience as a sports journalist, in which he learned, among other things, that "the only thing worse than track is field."
"Like all of you," he drawled, "I fell in love with Mary Lou Retton because she could do everything my cat can do."
His goal in his books, he said, was "to quote athletes saying the things and speaking the way they do, like they really talk. Not like you read in the sports magazines."
Syndicated political cartoonist Herbert Block of The Washington Post, who has just published his satirical prose-and-cartoon book, "Herblock Through the Looking Glass," followed Jenkins in talking shop when he pointed out that Famous Authors do not write to their publishers about "social change or spiritual values or the eternal problems of men or women."
Instead, said Herblock, they write, " 'Where are my royalties?' " Furthermore, book readers should be regarded as pandas, he maintained, "to be cared for and encouraged to multiply." He added that unlike so many authors nowadays, he doesn't "use a word processor because those are related to computers, which are the work of the devil."
The poignancy came when James and Sybil Stockdale spoke about their coauthored book, "In Love & War," a true-life account of Cmdr. Stockdale's imprisonment during the Vietnam War and his wife Sybil's struggle with Washington bureaucracy to locate him.
"This is not a story about young people going to war," said an emotional James Stockdale, pointing out that he was in his forties during the war.
In the book, he said, "I go from the highest-ranking POW naval officer in Vietnam to something like Ivan Denisovitch . . . and Syb goes from a supporting -- I think I can say quiescent -- wife, a teacher and mother, to a national figure." He was referring to Sybil Stockdale's cofounding of the League of POW/MIA Families.
"I stand before you as a man who started a major war under false pretenses," he declared. In 1964, Stockdale was a pilot sent to the Gulf of Tonkin after a report of a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. ships -- a report that led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, used by the Johnson administration to justify widening the Vietnam war.
After he was captured by the North Vietnamese, Stockdale was systematically tortured until his release 7 1/2 years later.
But, he said, "It's not a prison book . . . not a book of agony . . . it's a true story about coping with ugly times."
Sybil Stockdale told of discovering a letter from her husband submerged in junk mail, the spring after he had been reported missing in action. She told also of the time she looked Alexander Haig cold in the eye and insisted on seeing Henry Kissinger -- who had had to cancel a meeting with her -- in two days and not the two months Haig had offered.
"Am I communicating with you?" she demanded of Haig, whom she described as digging his hands deeper and deeper into his pockets with anxiety.
According to Stockdale, Haig told her she was communicating so well, he had worked a hole into the pocket of his pants.
It was Sybil Stockdale who concluded the luncheon, summing it up by saying: "The best friend you have when your back is to the wall is a free press and let's never forget that."