Osnos’s father flourished in the booming new business of air conditioning, and by the early 1950s his parents were building a lakefront vacation home in New Jersey. But their Old World origins, he writes, still shaped his outlook: “Too often in memoirs, the protagonist takes pride in being ‘an outsider,’ ” he writes. “I really was. I came of age in a world completely different from that of the first half of my parents’ lives.”
While he was an undergraduate at Brandeis, a trip to Mississippi in 1962 accelerated his trajectory. Journalists are often outsiders, professional observers rather than participants, and Osnos wrote about the rural poverty and systemic segregation he’d witnessed for the school paper. “Nothing in my life up to that point had made so deep an impression on me,” he recalls. Less than three years later he was headed for Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and by the fall of 1970 The Post had sent him to Vietnam.
Osnos says he “could easily have been killed” at least three times during his tour, and in one case Ben Bradlee, then The Post’s legendary leader, might have accidentally saved his reporter’s life. In February 1971 Bradlee was scheduled to visit Vietnam, and the day before his arrival, Osnos arranged to join a helicopter flight to the Cambodian border with other journalists. When Bradlee arrived a day early, Osnos canceled his travel plans. The helicopter blew up on takeoff, killing everyone aboard. A second foreign tour sent him to Moscow, where he was vilified as an American intelligence asset. The charge was false, but he wears it as a badge of honor, just as other journalists bragged about being on Richard Nixon’s enemies list during Watergate.
After a third foreign assignment, to London, Osnos started to realize a basic truth: Journalism can be a great gig in your 20s and 30s, but not nearly so alluring in middle age, and he recalled a comment he’d heard years before from Robert Bernstein, the head of Random House publishers: “Journalism is not a fit profession for a grown man. If you decide to get serious, call me.” As he approached 40, Osnos made that call, launching his second career as a book editor and executive.
His Russian background served him well, and he eventually worked on four books with Natan Sharansky, the noted Soviet dissident, but it was not always an easy relationship. Osnos recalls a moment when he was suggesting cuts in one of Sharansky’s manuscripts: “He refused, and finally declared: ‘The KGB couldn’t break me, and you won’t either.’ ” The editor faced an equally thorny problem when he worked with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter on a book about combining “social responsibility with a healthy lifestyle.” The former president and his wife had very different work habits, and Osnos had to broker a Camp David-like peace treaty between them. Carter, notes Osnos, “even wrote somewhere that an editor came down from New York and saved their marriage.”
After leaving Random House, Osnos went on to found PublicAffairs, a small but successful publishing venture that produced an “instant book” version of the Starr report detailing Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. The New York Times quoted him saying, “I didn’t know when we chose PublicAffairs for this company’s name that we literally meant public affairs, but that’s the way it worked out.”
This book has many flaws, and Osnos admits that. A “friendly” literary agent warned him that his old friends in the publishing world might not be interested in his project, and he wrote on the website Medium last fall, “I realized that I couldn’t stand the prospect of being put up for auction, let alone outright rejections.” So he created a company, called Platform, to publish this book — the first and only volume it has produced so far.
One problem is endemic to books of this sort. Many Washington luminaries think their memoirs are worth writing, and reading, but they’re often wrong. I think of these as “Dinner With Dean” books, in which the author — with a healthy measure of self-satisfaction — describes meals he (and occasionally she) shared with the noteworthy and notorious, as in “Then I had dinner with Dean Acheson.” (My reference to Acheson, secretary of state under Harry Truman, serves to date me, but the point is still valid.) Osnos falls frequently into this trope, describing for instance a dinner in Leningrad attended by the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and the novelist David Cornwell, who used the pen name John le Carré. “There is a photograph of us all at the table,” he gushes. “What a night!”
More serious is the lack of compelling insights into the people and events described here. Yes, Osnos had a good view of history in the making. But what did it all mean? Of his college years, which spanned the Kennedy presidency, the author writes, “Having the Kennedys coming into the White House made the era seem glamorous, especially in contrast to the Eisenhower years.” Okay, but I am Osnos’s age, and there is a great deal more to be said about John Kennedy’s impact on our generation’s value systems and career choices. Writing about his Vietnam War experience, he reflects: “Did these near-death experiences have any lasting impact on us? I really have no idea.” The young journalists who covered Vietnam changed the entire relationship between working reporters and government officials, making it far more skeptical and less cozy, a tectonic shift that led to The Post’s courageous coverage of Watergate a few years later. Osnos has little to say on the matter.
One editor warned him that his memoir had to tell readers “why they should bother.” He never really answers her question.
An Especially Good View
Watching History Happen
By Peter L.W. Osnos
389 pp. $25.95