“Joe Alsop was one of Washington’s most eminent chroniclers of American political life and international diplomacy. This fascinating posthumous memoir, written with the elegance, candor, and integrity that were his hallmark, is his reassessment of a lifetime’s observation of the world’s leaders and their grand designs. Above all, they are the personal reflections of a journalist who knew all the players and who never hesitated to express his opinion.”
“Joe Alsop is one of the legendary reporters of this century, and he gives a memorable portrait of a changing America in this wonderfully vivid, entertaining, and irascible memoir.”
—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007)
“During the half century that I knew Joe I cannot remember ever agreeing with him on any political matter but I found his company ‘a vast joy’ (an Alsopian phrase) as I find, now, his memoir, I’ve Seen the Best of It, where for once, we do agree: we did see the best of it.”
“Joseph W. Alsop played a unique and pivotal role in the transformation of Washington, DC, from a specialized government town…to being the center of power not only in the United States but in the world at large. . . . I’ve Seen the Best of It is the best insight into the essences of our era that has yet been written.”
—Paul Nitze (1907-2004)
Joseph Alsop (1910-1989) was raised on a gentleman’s farm in Connecticut among the remnants of what he calls the “WASP” Ascendancy. Elegiacally he describes the social and culinary rituals of this vanished world.
From FDR’s New Deal until the Vietnam War, Alsop became one of America’s most influential journalists. A fixture in Washington society, and unusually for that society, an esthete, Joseph Alsop knew intimately everyone who mattered in American politics, including all the presidents of his day, but was especially close to John and Jacqueline Kennedy.
In addition, Alsop was well known around the world, visited Churchill in London, de Gaulle in Paris, and describes these and other larger-than-life figures. No journalist since Henry Adams had such a long and prominent career in the nation’s capital or became such a social arbiter. No journalist since Henry Adams so brilliantly described the habits of the great and near-great of his day, in government and elsewhere.
About the Author
Joseph Alsop (1910-1989), born on a gentleman’s farm in Connecticut, was arguably the most influential journalist of his era. When he died, these memoirs were nearly completed.
Adam Platt is a Washington-based journalist. He has written for Newsweek, The Economist, and The American Spectator, and is a contributing writer at Mirabella magazine.
1: My World
4: Dining-Out Washington
5: Working Life: The Senate
6: The Column
7: “Dr. Win the War”
8: Early Maneuvers
9: The AVG (September 1941-July 1942)
10: To China, Again (Fall 1942)
11: Palace Politics (1943)
12: Stilwell’s Recall (December 1943-October 1944)
13: “Matter of Fact” (1945-1946)
14: A New Europe (1946-1948)
15: Truman’s Washington (1948-1950)
16: In Korea (July-October 1950)
17: McCarthy’s Washington (1950-1952)
18: Ike’s Washington
19: The Weather in the Streets
20: Suez and Beyond
21: Senator Kennedy
22: Election Politics
23: Kennedy’s Washington
24: Last Days
From Chapter Two: Avon
Although we were certainly not poor, it was universally agreed that the Alsops were “not at all well off.” This meant we were much less well off than my mother’s family, although not my father’s, and much, much less well off than the majority of my mother’s and father’s friends. It must be understood that in the small, peculiar world I was born into, being “well off” commonly entailed having a house in New York or Boston with a staff of five or six, usually including a butler; another similar establishment for the summer in Maine or somewhere else along the coast; a chauffeur who appeared early and went home late if the senior members of the family were dining out; younger children at the most expensive schools, daughters coming out at eighteen in the old-fashioned way, and sons going on to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton with allowances permitting something close to undergraduate luxury; memberships in half a dozen clubs in town and country; and enough money left over to indulge in any favored sports and to patronize all the best suppliers of everything from clothes to marmalade.
It is hard to believe nowadays, but until the Second World War it was possible for a couple to live in this way with hardly more than $50,000 a year, provided they were satisfied with a reasonable number of children. For this simple reason, a great gulf was fixed between being well off and being rich. As an adolescent, I once stayed with a friend from one of the really rich clans who then inhabited the North Shore of Long Island, and I still remember the chilly consciousness of downright indigence that came over me because of an anecdote told by the lady of the house with no sign of shock or much amusement. It seemed that at lunch that day with Secretary of the Treasury Ogden L. Mills, someone had raised the question of how much one could live on comfortably. Someone else had timidly suggested $50,000 a year, whereupon Mills replied with open scorn, “On $50,000 a year you can’t even keep clean.”
In the large, rambling house I was born in, on the 700-acre Woodford farm in Avon, Connecticut, we certainly managed to keep clean. Indeed, it took a Japanese internment camp to cure me of the Avon-learned habits of bathing at least twice a day and sending all personal linen to the laundry after it had been worn just once. But we had far less than $50,000 a year, so there was no butler or chauffeur; we could not afford a second place for the summer; and there were other necessary economies that set our way of life apart from that of most of my mother’s and father’s friends. On the other hand, we had a superlative German cook, Emma Schunck, who called me “Lambie” (I was the oldest of my generation of Alsops) and was largely responsible for making me a fat boy and thus, alas, a fat youth and a fat young man. We also had two maids and a nurse, Agnes Guthrie, a wonderful, strong-willed woman who came to us straight off the boat from Scotland when I was six months old and stayed until she died well over fifty years later. And finally we had an “odd man” who cleaned shoes, polished floors and brass, laid fires, and helped with the garden, as well as a laundress who lived down the road and weekly washed and ironed countless female undergarments, even more numerous sheets, pillowcases, towels, tablecloths, and napkins, and, when my father and his three sons were all at home, approximately two score shirts, two score sets of male undergarments, socks in mountains, and pajamas and handkerchiefs on the same scale.
As for food and drink, I still miss our farm table. The young in the family were allowed no alcohol until they had reached eighteen, a rule that, in those remote days, was not thought a hardship. The things I miss most are the heavy cream and fresh butter from the farm dairy, our own chickens (which meant full-grown roosters and tiny broilers, both now all but unknown), the ripe summer berries from the berry patches of early and late strawberries and red, black, and “white” (really yellow) raspberries, our own melons, vine-ripened and still warm from the sun, and, above all, the fresh vegetables from the enormous vegetable garden.
My father was a vegetable snob, so peas were picked when they were hardly larger than big pinheads and also at their sweetest; lettuce, string beans, lima beans, and brussels sprouts were culled when they were barely more than gleams in the eye of Mother Nature; and the asparagus bed began to be ravaged when the first spears were still in adolescence. Even eggplant, squash, and okra were harvested as young as possible; tomatoes were the only vegetable Father considered better when fully mature.
Moreover, the “corn relay” was an almost daily ceremony throughout the season for sweet corn through all the years when we children were still fairly young. The corn relay began after sundown, or about forty-five minutes before dinnertime—7:00 p.m., when the family had no guests. My sister Corinne and I and my two brothers Stewart and John would proceed to the corn patch, bearing baskets suited to our sizes. The best ears would be pulled from the corn stalks until a basket was full. Taking turns in order of seniority, each of us would then run (no mere walking was tolerated) to the back door of our farmhouse to deliver the full baskets to the kitchen, where the ears would be rapidly shucked. The water already would be boiling in a large kettle, and four full baskets would provide enough Golden Bantam or Country Gentleman to give each member of the family, young or old, four or five ears apiece for our first course at supper. In all my life, I have never had anything better than that young sweet corn, newly snatched from the stalk, downright sugary, and slathered with fresh butter from our own dairy. All the fashionable luxury foods seem seedy by comparison.
From Chapter Eight: Early Maneuvers
Of all the ridiculous beginnings I have ever engaged in, my departure for the war in the summer of 1941 was without doubt the most ridiculous. Although my future duties as a “naval observer” in Bombay remained vague, the sartorial requirements for the post were most specific. Since I was to represent the navy, I was required to buy what must have been the last ceremonial costume naval outfitters ever sold—a fore-and-aft hat, not far from the kind worn by Admiral Nelson during his famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, a sword belt, a sword, and a few other expensive trifles of the sort not seen in serious naval circles from that day to this. I saved some money by borrowing the sword from an old friend, Assistant Secretary of State James Clement Dunn. In addition to my ceremonial costume, I was given a huge Colt .45 pistol, terrifying to look at and a full 8 pounds in weight.
I was to cross the Pacific by Pan American clipper, the grand but ponderous propeller aircraft of that era, and so my baggage-weight allowance was limited. Since the navy gave me no money to pay for overweight, I wore my ceremonial naval finery, including sword and pistol, onto the plane, where they could be stored in my berth. We left very early in the morning from San Francisco. A heavy mist had come
off the bay, making the rubber matting of the walkway to the clipper extremely slippery. As I strode off to war, I slipped, causing extensive traces of the fine black rubber to come off on my formerly crisp dress-white trousers, making them unpresentable.
From Chapter Eighteen: Ike’s Washington
At the deepest level, McCarthy’s success was made possible by America’s recoil from the discovery that the world was a very dangerous place, even for those favorites of fortune—Americans. We had never had to consider an external military threat; we had never been without vast continental spaces waiting to be developed and exploited; we had, in fact, as Bismarck said, been taken care of by God Almighty. The Korean War, with its losses and frustrations, brought home the disagreeable fact that this country was no longer being taken care of by the Almighty and, therefore, had to face all the unpleasant necessities of taking care of itself in a larger, much less hospitable postwar world.
But that does not alter the fact that prominent, respected American politicians could not resist the temptation presented to them by Joseph McCarthy. As I have already said, few men in politics have been more decent or more honorable, in my judgment, than Senator Robert A. Taft. But the way Taft responded to McCarthy reminded me of the behavior of the kind of drunk who cannot resist “just one more for the road.” Taft was not alone in his weakness. But among those politicians who contributed to the double-talk and appeasement that predominated at the highest levels during McCarthy’s bull’s rush to prominence, none was more feeble in his response or less defensible in his actions than President Eisenhower.
I will not bore the reader with a rehash of well-known history. Suffice it to say, the opening months of the Eisenhower presidency were among the most peculiar the American government has ever passed through. The new president’s rule for dealing with Congress was “I speak my piece, and then it’s up to them.” His “piece” was, to some extent, influenced by the isolationist views of Senator Taft; for until his illness struck him down, Taft, in effect, exercised a power of veto on all the administration’s actions. This situation did not make Eisenhower happy. Indeed, he gradually became so disgusted with his own party that he began to talk in private of the need for a new party, vaguely formed of men of good will. But the president’s unhappiness was not remedied in the usual way—by a firm assertion of the great powers of the presidency.
As a consequence, McCarthy continued to run roughshod over the new government. Going back over those days, both in the many books that have subsequently been published and in my memory, mulling over the events and trying to find coherent patterns in them, I think it can be argued that the reason Dwight D. Eisenhower dealt with McCarthy and his crew with feebleness for so long and agonizing a period was not because he was confident that McCarthy would destroy himself if given enough rope, but simply because McCarthy, his allies, and their methods frightened Eisenhower deeply. And, I have slowly come to believe, the truth is that President Eisenhower had good reason to be wary, given the lunatic atmosphere of that time.
From Chapter Twenty-One: Senator Kennedy
I can still remember John Kennedy that evening, looking inordinately young on the sofa in my big living room in Georgetown, talking with great eloquence about how the Democratic party had better change its ways or it would end without a single Catholic vote, either Irish or Italian, Lithuanian or Polish. He seemed very confident of his own future when we said good-bye on the high stoop of my house. I remember that some of my neighbors came to their windows, recognized my guest, and clapped. This made the senator smile with delight, for he liked applause, especially spontaneous applause. I told him that he had convinced me of the seriousness of his candidacy and that I was sure he would be offered the vice-presidential nomination at the next Democratic convention.
The senator started descending the steps at a half run, for he was always rather showily athletic if his back was not hurting him. Near the bottom of the steps, he suddenly stopped and turned back with an enormous grin on his face. “Thank you, Joe,” he called back to me. “I enjoyed myself this evening. But you have to remember, I am completely against vice in all forms.” That was how I learned that if I were to take Kennedy seriously, I would have to take him seriously as a presidential candidate. After some further thought about the matter, I concluded that he could be highly successful as the Democratic candidate and, with luck, could be elected president.