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September 2017

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Mar. 3rd, 2017

fiona_grady: (fiona)
David Auburn's play "The Columnist" is based on a life of the famous American columnist Joseph Alsop.  Alsop was a syndicated columnist for decades, and in the very first scene he boasts of speaking truth to power and denouncing Senator McCarthy with "guns blazing". "This is the lesson of American great freedom of speech and freedom of press", Alsop educates the young man in his hotel room.  The hotel is in Moscow, the young man has apparently just had sex with the venerable American journalist, and very soon thereafter it becomes clear that this was a successful KGB blackmailing operation.

Even though the Moscow angle is all the rage today, and many critics opened their reviews of the play with the (rather embarrassing) Eurekas! of this suddenly timely and pertinent exposure of the KGB, this is not what the play is about.  It is more about how one of the most powerful journalists in the land who not only has an access to the White House but also speaks into the ear of the President, is in his private life deeply closeted and emotionally repressed. Even though the sordid blackmail details do surface in the play again and again, I thought that it was mostly about the corruption of power.

The powerful and wealthy Alsop entertains presidents, members of the cabinet, and ambassodors in his lavish home.  He has private numbers of everyone who is anyone in Washington and New York, his is an extensive network of friends and acquiantances in high places all over the globe.

When the Vietnam War rolls in, he travels to Hanoi and Saigon and reports about the fighting spirit of the US troops; his columns call for escalation, for victory.

To me, the most poignant scene of the play is not the aftermath of the KGB blackmail, after all, the KGB has always been involved in espionage and sabotage, and the Cold War was never over, Russian reset button notwithstanding.

Far more memorable is an encounter between Alsop and David Halberstam at the bar in Hanoi.  Halberstam ridicules Alsop's "reporting": Alsop stays at the Embassy, travels around in an armored car with a translator and a handler, listens only to his friends at the Pentagon, and his opinion columns about the war are only informed by this limited worldview.

The journalist who was once fearless and principled enough to take on the mighty Senator McCarthy, has gradually become a mouthpiece of the Administration.

Today, most of the columnists and their modern day equivalents travel through the world in their own versions of armored cars, accompanied by handlers.  They hobnob with the powerful, they move in the glittering circles, and then they dare opine about the state of things in the land and in the world.

Perhaps that is why they have only just waken up to Russia's menace, or why the election of Trump to the White House was such a shock to them.
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