By Chris Daly
A new play about to open on Broadway takes us back, not only to a different era but to a different America. The play is “The Columnist,” by playwright David Auburn, who also wrote the marvelous drama “Proof” in 2000.
His latest play tells a version of the story of Joe Alsop, who was one of the mandarins of the Washington pundit class during its heyday. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about “The Columnist” is how deftly it reminds us of what a different media world it was in the 1950s and 1960s from today. It’s not just the period details — Alsop’s smoking or his typing (on a real typewriter!~). What is most telling is the way Alsop thinks of his role and the way he is treated by other powerful figures.
Alsop, who teamed up for periods with his brother, Stewart, knew everyone in Washington, of course. But his most strategic alliance was probably with John F. Kennedy, who, on the night of his inaugural in 1961, said good night to Mrs. Kennedy, then headed over to Joe Alsop’s for a nightcap. This was all very pre-Watergate, in an era when journalists and politicians actually knew each other, spoke off the record, and even drank together.
To his credit, Auburn wastes no time on nostalgia. Yes, his play acknowledges, something has been lost in the distance that now separates journalists from political leaders, but “The Columnist” also makes the point in several ways that something has been gained too.
At the same time, the play makes the point that the Democratic Party was a militaristic, center-right party not much different from the Republican Party of that era. Without saying so, the play hints at how much effort it would take in the 1960s and 1970s to turn the Democratic Party into more of a progressive, inclusive, anti-war party.
As played by the marvelous John Lithgow, this portrayal of Alsop pulls no punches. Yes, he could be witty, perceptive, and disarmingly charming. At the same time, Alsop was a martinet, a bully, and a war hawk. Lithgow deserves high praise for a smashing portrayal in a role that has him on stage for every scene and that requires him to age about 2o years in two hours. Witty, mannered, polished — Lithgow is the perfect embodiment of Alsop.
In the play, Alsop has several shouting matches (via telephone; Lithgow does all the shouting) with Scotty Reston, the Washington bureau chief and lead political columnist for the New York Times for much of the Cold War. Many of them help to advance the play because they involve Alsop’s fury at Reston’s protege, David Halberstam. So, it is quite natural and historically accurate that Alsop is portrayed teeing off on Reston.
But from the standpoint of the history of journalism, a better foil for Joe Alsop would have been Walter Lippmann. After all, Lippmann was, like Alsop, a syndicated columnist whose beat was The Big Picture. Like Alsop, Lippmann was a pillar of the American Establishment. In the post-War years, there was no office-holder or opinion-shaper who would not drop everything to take a phone call from Walter Lippmann. Yet unlike Alsop, Lippmann was a critic of Kennedy’s involvement in Vietnam and warned the president repeatedly (and publicly) to get out.
When I was writing my book on the history of journalism, Covering America, I considered including Joe Alsop, and I very nearly did. But in the end, I decided that he did not make the cut because he was not enough of an innovator. I wanted to focus on those men and women who changed the field of journalism or who used journalism to make some kind of broader change. Joe Alsop struck me as one of those who dedicated his life to holding off change. More’s the pity.