Ward Just, the novelist, and I, both then a blessed 20 years younger, were working together in a tiny magazine bureau in Washington at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I note that the anniversary of that high-voltage event has already produced a lot of policy "lessons" from the people involved and also that my friend George Will has now heaped reproach all over these lessons. So I wish to declare, up front, as they say, that I have no lessons whatever to impart -- only memories, which I promise shed no light of any kind on national security policy. They do say something however, I fear, about how the press works and what the missile crisis did to our humble line of business.
The Reporter was a relatively small political magazine, and Ward and I were far from being its seniors or its stars. So on a story like this, with all the titans of journalism pressing to be told what was happening, we figured that our telephone messages on the desks of the mighty would probably have about as much urgency as a note from the correspondent of the National Embroidery Journal. What to do?
What we did was to compile a list of just about everyone we knew in Washington, most of them as lowly in their line of work as we. Then we just started calling them. The story that we and all our journalistic betters were seeking was a reprise of how the decision to "quarantine" had come about. It was amazing to me how many bits and pieces of the relevant information could be gathered up from our no- account sources. By the time we did get a couple of big shots on the phone we almost didn't need them. Retrospectively, anyway, everyone had a tiny part of it, and all were willing, even eager, to squeal.
More than that: these people were flattered to have been asked. That was the big revelation for Ward and for me. it was confirmed when a contemporary who worked in the White House and whom we both knew slightly but had for some reason failed to call, sought us out to volunteer a few tidbits. It was then that we realized that our helpers were in fact not in it to help us or because they were blabby people or because we were such hard-hitting journalists (an illusion we loved). No, they were in it because being a source was to be -- by implication -- a powerful, "in the know" person, or at least to avoid the suspicion, fatal in this town, that they had been closed out of the action. Having learned this in my journalistic youth, I have ever after been moved to deep sympathy for those administrations that come to town and decide to enforce some procedures for "stopping press leaks." They will accomplish this on the same day they eradicate lust, avarice, gluttony, sloth and the rest of that reprehensible crowd of which the impulse to leak is, more or less, a cousin.
Still, you acutely observe, President Kennedy did do amazingly well at keeping his secret. Only a couple of journalists knew before the announcement and they didn't print. It is also true, however, that this very success was traumatic for the Washington press, and our reaction to it, in ways that many deplore, goes on to this day. What I am saying is that although you hear a lot about how Vietnam and Watergate marked the end of journalistic innocence and affability in this country and the beginning of that suspicious, nagging, disbelieving rat-a-tat-tat approach to government now so familiar, this isn't the case at all. For a generation of journalists, it was the missile crisis and the way we were made to feel fools that did it. As late as the day of the president's speech, when the guessing was that its subject was Cuba, you could still hear some journalistic wise heads countering that no, the crisis was surely in West Berlin.
Perhaps you are repelled: at a time when people around the country were agonizing over a possible nuclear war, numbers of bureaucrats in Washington were worrying that they wouldn't seem to be "in" and equal numbers of journalists were worrying that they had been made to look foolish. But it is always this way. That is what we will be worrying about on the day, God forbid, that it happens -- some things you can't change. The point is that there was not a reporter anywhere in town, not even a tyro such as Ward or myself, who couldn't look back and recall a dozen signs leading up to the announcement that we should have caught. We could reconstruct decoy conversations with people we knew pretty well, statements by officials intended to divert us. And we resolved not to let it happen again.
I date our increased pushiness from that time. At first it was comic. Some minor official would be late to dinner and another would cancel a meeting and we would leap to a phone -- something's going on! Lights burning late in an unaccustomed government building would have the same effect. And we became professional disbelievers. You can argue that this is what we should have been all along, but a second large effect was, in my view, a disaster. We were so transfixed by the imagery of that crisis that I sometimes think it is as if we never saw anything else clearly again.
The Cuban missile crisis with its executive committee of glamorous, disputing officials; its emphasis on personalities in the subsequent press accounts; its semifictionalized drama; its famous division of the argument into "hawks" and "doves" and (now forgotten "dawks") in terms that came into use in a famous magazine article -- all this became a kind of model for everything we saw thereafter. We kept recreating the picture, insisting on it, looking for that inner room where the individuals, divided along identical hard-soft lines, were deciding history. This caused us, I think, to miss or misreport as many stories in theenext two decades as our earlier complacency had.
Journalistically speaking it was an ice age ago. I remember looking at photographs I could barely make out and accepting without question that these were of Soviet missile sites. And I remember a huge off-the-record session on the Sunday after the Russians backed down in which the secretary of state felt confident enough of our discretion to ask perhaps a hundred of us to play the story a certain way. It wouldn't happen that way now. Having solemnly promised no lessons, I leave it to you to decide whether the change has been for the better.