Two generals, both veterans of brutal, controversial wars. Two angry men, white-haired and with their military exploits behind them, battling Goliaths of the media. Two proud figures, defending their honor and their places in history.
William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, and Ariel Sharon, head of Israel's defense forces during the war in Lebanon, have yet to meet in the echoing marble corridors of the U.S. courthouse here.
But six floors away from each other today, the two generals mounted witness stands in their separate crusades for vindication. In courtroom 318, it was Westmoreland v. CBS. In courtroom 905, Sharon v. Time magazine.
In an uncanny coincidence, these two landmark libel suits, involving important historical figures and events, millions of dollars and potentially major consequences for the conduct of the American press, are unfolding simultaneously.
More than 100 reporters from around the world have descended on the imposing courthouse at Foley Square, and the highly publicized trials have attracted a horde of spectators, groupies and Monday-morning quarterbacks.
"I've heard a lot about him, but I've never met him," said Sharon, 54, smiling at a reporter's question about Westmoreland, as he pushed his way through a throng of television cameras and mounted the courthouse steps.
Moments later, the retired U.S. general, straight-backed and fit for his 70 years, passed through a similar gauntlet as he entered the courthouse through a side door, offering "no comment" to journalists' questions.
Metal detectors have been set up at the door of each trial and U.S. marshals were telling those waiting to get into Sharon's cramped courtroom today that there was "more room downstairs at Westy's."
Sightseers drifted back and forth, comparing and contrasting the generals on display.
"Both of these generals presided over disasters," said George Crile, producer of the 1982 documentary "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," which is at issue in the CBS trial. In Westmoreland's case it was "the only war we ever lost," he said. In Sharon's case, "it was a massacre that happened on his watch."
Sharon, now minister of industry and commerce, was forced to resign as defense minister after a 1983 Israeli tribunal found he had "indirect responsibility" for the murder of 700 civilians in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps.
The massacre was committed by Christian Phalangists who were sent by the Israelis to root out alleged terrorists. Sharon is suing Time over a February 1983 article that said he had discussed the Phalangists' need for revenge before the massacre.
Now, Crile said in an interview, both men "sense a climactic change" in public perceptions. "Both are backed by powerful lobbies -- Westmoreland by conservative groups , Sharon by the Israeli government . . . . Both are presenting themselves as underdogs fighting for their honor."
As much as the trials are about the honor of generals, they are about the reputations of two of the nation's most influential media organizations.
Both the Westmoreland trial, which began Oct. 9, and the Sharon trial, which opened Tuesday, have exposed the inner workings of news gathering and editing in a somewhat unflattering light. Outtakes of interviews in the CBS documentary have raised questions of fairness, while the quality of Time's rewriting and fact-checking are under attack by Sharon's lawyers.
Dan Burt, Westmoreland's attorney, has called CBS "rotten to the core." Sharon told Israeli radio last week that Time was "one of the centers of anti-Semitism in the world," and his lawyers have compiled 150 examples designed to prove it.
The cases come at a time when esteem for the media has fallen in opinion polls. Before 1980, only one million-dollar verdict had been reached against a news organization. Since 1980 there have been 20 such verdicts. Sharon is asking $50 million in damages, Westmoreland $120 million.
The crowds that came to see the generals today expected to witness a drama of anger and emotion. Rhetoric has been high-pitched on both sides, with Westmoreland saying he was "rattlesnaked" by CBS and Sharon accusing Time of a "blood libel," recalling the medieval slander that Jews murdered Christians to use their blood in Passover rituals.
But at the outset of their testimony, both men remained cool. Westmoreland, who has sat like Mount Rushmore through five weeks of the trial, was ramrod straight, his bushy brows and set jaw lending an air of fierceness to his demeanor. His replies were short and to the point.
As he spoke, his wife Kitsy, a favorite with the media for her bubbly manner, stitched away at a gold-and-silver evening purse.
In both trials, the juries seem impassive. Westmoreland's contains no Vietnam veterans nor anyone with a friend or relative killed in the war. Sharon's jury has only one person who "might be Jewish," according to one of the lawyers.
If Westmoreland was the essence of the cool-eyed military man, Sharon, a rumpled man with a generous paunch and ready smile, was almost jovial. He gestured enthusiastically, sprinkling his testimony with anecdotes and long-winded reflections; speaking in heavily accented English, he displayed a certain eloquence.
It was hard to remember that this was the warrior whom critics labeled "ruthless" and "bloodthirsty," and who, former prime minister Menachem Begin once suggested, could easily "ring the prime minister's office with tanks."
Much as Sharon's lawyer tried to direct his testimony to matters of peace, however, the general would digress, repeatedly, perhaps obsessively, bringing up his never-ending battles against "Arab terrorists."
As he spoke, an 80-year-old rabbi with trembling hands and a long white beard listened raptly, his eyes filled with tears. During a break, he grasped Sharon's hand, saying, "Shalom, shalom."
Behind the rabbi, Michael Mathias, 40, a playwright with tousled hair, took copious notes. "I'm doing a play on the mythological theme," he said. "It is all part of a larger epic called 'The Assassination Mass.' "
Downstairs, Harold Fruchtbaum, a Columbia University history professor, sat near two reporters from Advertising Age and Tokyo television. "It's interesting to see what happens when journalists undertake to reconstruct history," he said.