Friday, February 24, 2006

So Busy Was I All Last Week Trying to Reclaim My Lost Luggage, that I

didn’t comment on the Big Dick Cheney shooting episode—and now it’s history, supplanted by the Big Ports story. To show how media can react to different circumstances when it has an ideological axe to grind, compare two stories.

Story 1.

Suppose the news came out that Cheney had actually, accidentally killed a person—shot her to death when he was 12. Do you suppose that would be spun out of proportion? Sure, despite the fact that he was a 12-year-old boy, the gun accidentally went off, etc. Do you think David Gregory would accept that if it just came out now? Why didn’t Cheney acknowledge all to the White House press corps in his official bio?

Now suppose this actually had happened to a liberal icon? As it did to Adlai E. Stevenson, former governor of Illinois, two-time Democratic nominee for president and UN ambassador under Kennedy. Stevenson, soft-spoken, with a literary flare, a devastating sense of humor, self-deprecating, became the role model for the Kennedys. The image of a thoroughly literate, historically conversant politician, flavoring his statements with literary allusions began with Stevenson (who largely wrote his own stuff). That’s why he became an idol for journalists who pictured him as (a) thoughtful, (b) intimately familiar with the arts and history.

The story seeped out in 1952 and was posited on the most understanding terms by Time magazine. This is how the story was told, buried within a cover profile of the then governor, which reflected how the story has been told to history.

In Adlai Stevenson: His Life and Legacy [William Morrow & Co, N.Y., 1989] by Porter McKeever, Stevenson’s media person at the UN.:
It was 1912 and Stevenson was 12. It was at grandfather Adlai Stevenson’s house in Bloomington; the senior Stevenson had been vice president of the United States under Grover Cleveland and vice presidential nominee with William Jennings Bryan.The Christmas season was a lively round of gay parties and family feasts. Buffie [Stevenson’s sister] was given permission to have a supper party the evening of December 30 for her friend from Charlevoix summers, Margery McClelland, who had come for a holiday visit. Adlai was considered “too young,” so he was given his dinner early after which he went up to his room. As Buffie and her friends gathered in the drawing room, Lewis [Stevenson, Adlai’s father] and Helen [Adlai’s mother] went out to pay a neighborhood call. One of the boys lamented that he did not have a gun with which to demonstrate the manual of arms he had learned at military school. Buffie called upstairs to Adlai and asked him to go to the attic and look for an old .22 rifle she thought was there. Adlai ran down with it and handed it to Bob Whitner who examined it to be sure there were no bullets in it, proudly explaining that such checking was always required at school. To the applause of the group, he smartly executed the manual, then handed the gun back to Adlai to be returned to the attic. As Adlai excitedly imitated the older boy’s movements, the gun went off. One of the girls, Ruth Merwin, dropped to the floor dead.

She had been a close friend of Buffie’s at University High and was a cousin of cousins.

In the echo of the blast, Lewis and Helen walked in the door. Adlai turned to his father and exclaimed, “I did it.” Then he ran upstairs to his mother’s room and threw himself on her bed, gasping moans that could be heard through the closed door.

Latrer examination revealed that the ejecting mechanism of the gun had a rusty spring that probably had prevented the emergence of the single bullet. No one ever doubted that the discharge was entirely accidental.

Ruth’s mother, Mrs. Charles Merwin, arrived and faced the situation with a courage the family ever after gratefully acknowledged. She told Adlai he must not blame himself. In her own grief, she sensed that the experience would be devastating to a sensitive and exceedingly conscientious boy. Only Lewis and Buffie attended the funeral. Helen had taken Adlai, Dave Merwin, Margery McClelland and the new French maid to the Chicago home of Aunt Julia Hardin. When they returned home, the tragedy was not referred to; not then, or ever again.

Forty years later, William Glascow of Time magazine, in researching for a projected cover story found the report of the event in The Pantagraph and somewhat hesitantly asked Adlai about it. After a painful silence, Adlai said: “You know, you are the first person who has ever asked me about that since it happened—and this is the first time I have ever spoken of it to anyone.” Then, Glascow reported, he “told me the whole story in a quiet matter of fact way.”

No one can say with precision what impact the tragedy had on the man Adlai Stevenson became; but it can be said with certainty that the effect was profound. Does it account, at least in part, for his repeated self-deprecation, for the expressions of self-doubt and unworthiness, for making himself the butt of many of his jokes? Does it account for his incredibly calm acceptance of such wounding blows as his divorce and crushing defeats in two elections? Does it account for his intense concern with the careers of young people, both individually and collectively; for his visit to the bedside of the son of a UN staff member dying of leukemia, even though he did not know either father or son? A definitive clue to the mysteries embedded in these questions can be found in a letter he wrote in 1953 to a woman he did not know, whose son had been involved in a similar accident.

“Tell him,” Adlai wrote, “that he must live for two.”

Wow. Now notwithstanding the blamelessness of the accident, let us reflect that whenever journalists referred to the Stevenson act—which was seldom—it was done so with a similar tornado-like spin. This tells me two things, my friends. First, that the ``50s were vastly more gentle times. Second that all depends on whether the media agree with your politics (as they did with Stevenson’s). (I even feel guilty inside bringing this up, so much has the spin from 1912 enveloped the story). Compare that to the shouting from the White House press corps and the name-calling (“jerk!”) from the outraged moralist NBC’s David Gregory to the president’s press secretary Scott McClellan. Harry Whittington was hit with bird shot.

Story 2.

The huge ports controversy. Assuredly, some of the hijackers were United Arab Emirates citizens. But the London subway bombing was done by Brits. There is no proof beyond Lindsay Graham’s vague speculation that Dubai Ports World was insufficiently vetted. The deal was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment which consists of representatives from Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security. UAE has been one of the most cooperative of the Arab countries in our war on terrorism. The company will not be in guard of protecting the security of the ports; the Coast Guard and other U.S. agencies will do that. I’m not shaken by news that Secretary Rumsfeld never heard of this until last weekend or that President Bush didn’t know about it until he read it in the papers. That’s the way government should work when things are being done in an orderly fashion, folks.

My only beef is with Bush’s statement that he would veto a congressional bill to extend the period of study: this is the first time he would veto anything! Not McCain-Feingold, not massive spending—this!

He should allow the extension and tell the media, Frist, Graham and others to lighten up!

1 comment:

  1. John Thomas McGeeanFebruary 24, 2006 at 7:23 AM

    If Stevenson had been of a more conservative bent, that story would have been headlines.

    I came across something on the internet a few days ago that said "I would rather go hunting with Dick Cheney than go for a ride with Ted Kennedy."