Media Matters

Remembering David Brinkley

From the July 1988 American Spectator: Brit Hume reviews his then ABC colleague David Brinkley's ''irresistibly quotable'' book, Washington Goes to War.

6.13.03

From the July 1988 American Spectator: Brit Hume reviews his then ABC colleague David Brinkley's "irresistibly quotable" book, Washington Goes to War.

For decades, David Brinkley has prepared for a live broadcast on election night or at a political convention in the same way. He reads through mounds of research looking for nuggets of color and anecdote. He writes them down in longhand in a black looseleaf notebook now frayed from years of use. By the time he goes on the air, he has most of these notes memorized, and from them he draws the material he recounts on the air, often with a sardonic chuckle.

In a sense, Brinkley's Washington Goes to War [Alfred A. Knopf, $18.95] is his black notebook on the city of Washington during World War II. This 282-page volume is distilled from sixteen legal-size file drawers filled with research, much of it gathered for Brinkley by Harvard students under the direction of Brinkley's son, Alan, a Harvard history professor. The book's basic structure is drawn from Brinkley's memory of wartime Washington, where he was a young reporter newly arrived from North Carolina.

It is a richly readable account, written with elegance and flair, and a reviewer finds it irresistibly quotable. There is, for example, this passage describing the New Dealers whose energetic presence had already done much to change the atmosphere of Washington before the war:

"They were social workers, farm economists, liberal lawyers, union organizers, all of them political chiropractors eager to get their thumbs on the national spine, to snap it and crack it until the blood again flowed outward to all the extremities of American life, returning it to health and prosperity."

But it is anecdotal detail that makes Brinkley's description of drowsy, rigidly segregated prewar Washington vivid. Then, and for many years to come, it was a place to which poor blacks migrated by the thousands, hoping for a better life and usually not finding it. They lived in desperate circumstances, often in alley hovels converted from stables. There were 15,000 privies in the city limits of Washington before the war. They stood in striking contrast to the genteel formality observed by some better-off whites. Despite the jungle heat of Washington summers, Brinkley reports, some men still wore lightweight white wool suits.

"When they sent their flannels to Mr. Viner at the Sunshine Cleaners on Mount Pleasant Street, he took each suit completely apart at the seams, stitch by stitch, hand-washed each flannel piece separately, laid them all out on the roof to let the sun dry them out and bleach out the yellowness and then sewed them back together and pressed the reassembled suit. All this took one week -- longer in cloudy weather -- and cost ten dollars."

THE AUTHOR'S EYE FOR HUMAN vice and excess, apparent in his political broadcasts, is even more evident here. Brinkley describes at length the remarkable tolerance the government displayed for the diplomats of Germany and its allies in the days before the U.S. entered the war. He depicts the ambassador from France's Vichy government as a whining conniving pipsqueak who used his embassy for all manner of pro-Nazi activities. "It was bizarre," writes Brinkley. "An ambassador for America's oldest ally, claiming to represent France, but in fact representing the Fascist government of Pierre Laval, who looked in news pictures like a likely candidate for a rat trap. An Ambassador who had turned his embassy into a base for Nazi spies."

There were more reasons than espionage for these diplomats to remain in prewar Washington. The city, writes Brinkley, "had well-stocked stores, interesting women, Cuban cigars, docile blacks servants willing to work at low pay -- in all a far more pleasant life than they could hope for in their own countries." And there was money to be made by padding expense accounts and passing on newspaper information as the fruits of diligent spying. "And so they remained, a gaggle of fascists representing rulers who deserved the gallows, enjoying life in a city where that was still possible, spying and propagandizing while swindling their own governments on the side."

There are two things missing from this book, happily. One is a lot of talk about Brinkley himself. He makes a few appearances, anonymously, as a "young reporter," or a "reporter from NBC." That's all. Also absent is any hint of political bias. The book is full of Brinkley's sometimes caustic opinions, but there is no sign they spring from any political philosophy. For example, he has been quoted as saying Franklin Roosevelt was a great President, but Roosevelt's shortcomings as the administrator of a burgeoning government are amply detailed. "This weakness," he writes, "would in time be costly to Roosevelt and to the country, and the cost would be counted in the coin of delay, confusion and waste. The United States eventually was prepared for war, but at far greater cost than if presidential leadership had been more exacting and if administrative power had been detailed quickly and firmly."

Others come off far worse. Second only to the Nazis in Brinkley's scornful eye seems to be Congress. whose foibles, both institutional and individual, are detailed in depth and brutally summarized. "Among the thousands of people loaded onto the government payroll were the hacks and misfits ordered hired by members of Congress who never saw the war as any reason to change their old habit of loading the federal payroll with their friends, hangers-on, unsatisfactory sons-in-law, unemployable cousins, courthouse idlers, maiden aunts fallen into straitened circumstances and relatives addicted to the bottle."

As the war raged on in 1944, the Senate was hard at work on a successful filibuster to block repeal of the poll tax, a fight whose outcome, unlike that of the war, was never in doubt. "While four thousand American bombers attacked Germany," writes Brinkley, "while the Russians recaptured Sevastopol from the Germans, while allied troops in Italy opened a spring offensive, and while Americans in New Guinea fought their way onto two Japanese-held islands, the Senate played through its scripted and choreographed performance."

Part of the problem was that Congress couldn't run the war or the nation's foreign policy (though that has not kept it from trying repeatedly to run both war and diplomacy since), so it didn't have enough to do. But it could spend money, and did, then as now.

"It was simply the way the government worked, in both war and peace, although in wartime it was worse. The single fact most clearly differentiating government employers from private employers was, always, that government agencies did not have to earn their money. Congress simply handed it over every year and almost always more than the year before, so it was there to be spent and it was unthinkable not to spend it. Nobody in government ever benefited in any way from saving money. Whatever was not spent had to be handed back to the Treasury and if an agency had money left over at the end of one year, how could it ask Congress for more money the next year?"

Sound familiar?

Yet even in dealing with Congress, Brinkley seeks to be evenhanded. "It was not the system," he says, "that made the wartime Congresses unruly, politicized, argumentative, unresponsive and occasionally vulgar. It was the course of American history."

THE WAR, OF COURSE, WAS LARGELY responsible for the phenomenal growth of Washington in the 1940s. But with it came a new factor that has helped make government a growth industry ever since: income tax withholding. It was passed after much wrangling and took effect in July 1943. It was, says Brinkley, "a revolution in American public finance. When people became accustomed to paying taxes as they had always paid for automobiles -- on the installment plan -- Congress and the president learned, to their pleasure, what automobile salesmen had learned long before: that installment buyers could be induced to pay more because they looked not at the total debt but only at the monthly payments.… The term 'take-home-pay' now entered the language."

Throughout all this, the war, the shortages of housing and, during rationing, of nearly everything else, there was one surprising constant: an endless round of Washington parties that were extravagant even by the gaudy standards of today. When Cissy Patterson, empress of the Roosevelt-hating Washington Times-Herald, went out to dinner one night at Evalyn Walsh McLean's Georgetown house, Brinkley reports that she arrived just after a little custom had been observed in the McLean household. "Thomas Saltz drove out from his men's store downtown to do for the McLeans what they were unable or unwilling to do for themselves, tie the men's neckties." Mrs. McLean, of course, had no need of neckwear. She wore "the Hope diamond dangling down the front of a Hattie Carnegie dress."

Brinkley relates such details with evident relish and seeming ease. So it's surprising that this book came close to never being written. At the height of the popularity of "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" twenty-five years ago, Brinkley was besieged by publishers wanting a book from the famous anchorman. "I had almost a stock answer," Brinkley says. "I told them I didn't need the money, didn't need the notoriety, and didn't want to do the work." But as many of those who lived and worked in Washington during the war began to die off, Brinkley felt he was among the last who might be able to write such an account. "It seemed to me that there was nobody really competent to do that left, and I thought it was worth doing," he says. After starting it in 1972, though, Brinkley says he nearly abandoned the project many times, finally finishing it with the help of an IBM personal computer, which, he says, took much of the pain out of revision.

Brinkley describes Washington Goes to War as "less a work of history than of personal reminiscence and reflection." That gives Brinkley too much credit, and too little. Its framework and some of the detail may spring from the author's memory, but this book is plainly the product of extensive research -- some of it done by Brinkley, but, as he acknowledges in the book, much of it done for him. And despite the author's protestations, it is an informative and unique history of what the book's subtitle calls "the transformation of a city and a nation." There is one inexplicable oversight: no index. Brinkley says he has no idea why, that he expected the publisher to provide one and was unpleasantly surprised to find otherwise. He should be. And the publisher, the esteemed Alfred A. Knopf & Co., should be ashamed.

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