The people who hand you the news: Jonathan Yardley’s book report is worth the price of the Sunday Washington Post, even before you compute the value of the weekly coupons.
Yesterday, Yardley reviewed the latest book by Gregg Herken—the very same Gregg Herken with whom we graduated from high school in 1965!
We can’t exactly tell you what Yardley thinks of Herken’s new book, The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington. But early in his review, Yardley recalled an evening he spent, long ago, with Joseph Alsop, a famous journalist of the time:
YARDLEY (11/9/14): I met Alsop once, at a small and informal gathering in the late 1960s of youngish journalists at which he was the invited speaker. He was a famous columnist published in and syndicated by the New York Herald Tribune, and we were eager to hear him, but we’d have done better to spend the evening drinking beer at any nearby tavern. He was utterly repellent: arrogant, patronizing, imperious, uninterested in anyone except himself. His “reporting” relied “mostly on official sources,” Herken writes, which was consistent with the attitude he brought to our little gathering: He hadn’t the time of day for us because we were ordinary as opposed to the glittering stars whom he sucked up to and bullied in the Washington he claimed to know so well.Oof! As he nears the end of his review, Yardley extends his portrait of the “self-confident if not unbearably arrogant people” Herken portrays in his book.
For what it’s worth, Yardley is directly quoting Phil Graham in the following passage. Herken sources the quotation to an earlier book:
YARDLEY: This is interesting and more than a little scary, but what it had to do with the self-confident if not unbearably arrogant people who gathered for martinis and terrapin soup at Alsop’s place is a little difficult to discern until you read what Phil Graham once said in a toast at a black-tie party in his own house: “Georgetown [is] an entity unto itself, home to the great, the near great and the once great in government and in journalism. . . . In other cities, people go to parties primarily to have fun. In Georgetown, people who have fun at parties probably aren’t getting much work done. That’s because parties in Georgetown aren’t really parties in the true sense of the word. They’re business after hours, a form of government by invitation. . . . It’s fair to say that more political decisions get made at Georgetown suppers than anywhere else in the nation’s capital, including the Oval Office.”We don’t know what Joseph Alsop was like. We can’t tell you about Phil Graham.
The mood of that gathering was “self-congratulatory,” as Herken puts it, and if anything that’s an understatement. If Graham’s words help explain why there really was a connection between Georgetown parties and Wisner’s antics, they also—albeit inadvertently—help explain why Washington is so roundly detested by so many people elsewhere in the country. The Georgetown Set may have vanished by the 1980s, thanks mainly to attrition, but the culture it represented still flourishes, one of people utterly isolated from the normal run of American life, politicians and policymakers and journalists who talk only to one another.
But Yardley describes a famous journalist of that day as “utterly repellent.” He says the culture within which those famous journalists functioned “still flourishes” today—a culture of “people utterly isolated from the normal run of American life, politicians and policymakers and journalists who talk only to one another.”
Yardley says that Graham’s words “help explain why Washington is so roundly detested by so many people elsewhere in the country,” even today.
We can’t say those claims are true. We do think they’re worth considering.