Shot Down With an Empty Gun
We read the news today and, oh boy, did we feel bad for John Tower.
Here's the prime minister of Australia in tears on national TV confessing he had cheated on his wife. Here's the Ayatollah Khomeini, in a statement to a billion Moslems, admitting that "in his lifetime, man is afflicted with carnal desires. He needs self-discipline and I, as the speaker of these words, have not succeeded in this task."
But poor John Tower, whose philandering was never a secret--thus placing him on moral ground well above that held by heads of government and religious leaders of various sects--could not be confirmed to the post of secretary of defense, where the only fidelity demanded is to the nuclear deterrent.
Of course, he also drank. And he also shared the beds of defense contractors. He had his flaws.
But we never could understand why the media took so seriously the FBI report on Tower, a MacGuffin if ever there was one. Washington is a small town and the Senate is a tiny club. Tower had been around a long time. How many senators, other than the rank newcomers, didn't already know what they thought of the guy?
We suspect that Michael Kilian was sharing the experiences of hundreds of Washingtonians when he wrote in the Tribune, "When I've seen him lunching at Washington's oooh-so-discreet Jefferson Hotel with his young lady friends, they've insisted on wearing their fur coats while eating." Concerned enough about national defense to have cowritten a book about it, Kilian didn't want to see Tower confirmed; he pegged him as tacky.
We talked about Tower, with Kilian and Basil Talbott, who covers Capitol Hill for the Sun-Times. One of Tower's problems, Talbott told us, was that most people who knew him simply didn't like him.
But various senators and reporters pretended that the mysterious FBI report was crucial. This reminded us of one of the press's chronic problems. Press investigations try desperately to reach conclusions, however marginal, that warrant language on the order of "in what appears to be the illegal use of . . ." or "could lead to indictments . . ." The press hates to look like it's just picking on somebody; massive testimony of somebody's unfitness for his job is rarely enough. The press likes to take its stands against criminals; it wants a smoking gun.
Because the FBI investigation of John Tower turned up no smoking gun, Tower slayer Sam Nunn was knocked by conservative columnists like George Will and William Safire (and not just them) as a high-hatted moralist, an ambitious prig. Yet all Nunn did was refuse to put the national defense in the hands of a second-rate man.
Nostalgia-Basher Has a Past
We run an item about someone who's trying to make a difference, and sure enough, out of the woodwork scuttle the japers and jeerers ready to cut him down to size.
Can you believe the following letter? It arrived on the heels of our recent piece about Eugene Dillenburg, common man on a mission to stamp out the 60s. "Help make nostalgia a thing of the past" is among the many slogans of his worthy grass-roots movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Time, better known to its three members as NAFTAT.
"My wife and I were shocked," wrote Mark Brady and Donna Grewe of River Grove, Illinois, gateway to Franklin Park. "Could this man possibly be the same Eugene Dillenburg who graduated as valedictorian of his Columbia College class in 1982?
"Could it be? we asked each other. Is this the same Eugene Dillenburg who was given a grant by the college to explore the 'Paul Is Dead' rumor he so fervently and loudly expounded? Is this the same Eugene Dillenburg who then took his 'Paul Is Dead' lecture act out on the road for further fame and profit? Is this the same Eugene Dillenburg who, at the drop of a hat, would launch into discourses on the Beatles with any fellow students who cared (or had) to listen?"
Despite our low tolerance for insolence and disrespect, we read on to the end.
"Please understand," the Brady-Grewe tandem went on, "our intent is not to slam Mr. Dillenburg or to expose him as some sort of charlatan. We didn't know him well, but he seemed like an amiable enough chap. We wish him no harm. We are, however, curious at his apparent about-face, and several questions remain: Is he leading a double life? Did he (to quote one of NAFTAT's slogans) 'Get a life!'? Was he replaced by a pod person sometime within the last seven years? Did he, like Paul on the road to Damascus, experience a sudden conversion on the Lake-Dan Ryan line to Beatlefest? Did he jump off the 60s bandwagon when too many others began jumping on? Is he (and this is certainly no crime) seeking publicity? Or is it the natural order of things for a 22-year-old proponent of all things fab to mature into a 29-year-old opponent of all things--60s? We'd like to know."
So far as we know, the Beatles never even played Damascus, and our impulse was to crumple this missive and send it flying. But instead, we contacted Eugene Dillenburg. He composed the following response.
"Guilty as charged. Indeed, NAFTAT was founded by three Beatle fans who had grown disgusted with the way nostalgia has distorted the Fabs' accomplishments. The Beatles are still a favorite, second only to Bananarama. By way of explanation, let me say that the Beatles are not the 60s and the 60s are not the Beatles. By way of defense, let me say that previously I was not as astute as I am now. PS: I am flattered you remember me after seven years, but please, we must not live in the past."
It must be conceded that this statement does not meet head-on every point raised by Brady and Grewe. We asked Dillenburg if he still ascribes to the theory that Paul died of head injuries suffered one foggy English night in 1966 when his sports car went out of control. Back in 1981, Dave Hoekstra interviewed Dillenburg for the Reader on this line of speculation and then reported: "Even if you never believed before, you might change your mind after Dillenburg glazes you with the 225 audio and visual clues he has spent four years collecting and molding into The Missing Page From Beatle History, a 90-minute show.
"Never really did," Dillenburg confessed. "It was just sort of a ghost story that I enjoyed telling. I still do, although I haven't done the show since '83. I still have all my slides with the clues. But as we say in NAFTAT, that was six years ago and I'm not that person anymore."
Simply put, Mr. Dillenburg is a man of evolving enthusiasms. As to the charge of publicity seeking, let us say on his behalf that anyone with a social crusade on his hands obviously welcomes allies in putting his message across. Does Hot Type feel used? Not at all. After we ran our modest item, we swiftly heard from two radio stations and the Associated Press, all of them seeking a moment of Mr. Dillenburg's time. Last Sunday night Mr. Dillenburg and his associates in Los Angeles and New York were interviewed simultaneously on WLS in a program that the station proudly told us would reach 38 states.
The same weekend, a Chicago sophisticate hailed the Dillenburg column as the finest Hot Type he had read in the past ten years.
Such a disproportionate response to Mr. Dillenburg's wry sallies at the 60s may play into some vague appetite of his for fame and profit. But it certainly supports his thesis.
The Patriots' Priesthood
After we got out of the Navy back in those same 60s, a letter from the government arrived providing us with a new, reclassified draft card (yes, the law still ordered us to carry it) and advising us to destroy the old one. As the old one was the very card that scores of young war protesters were being tossed into the pokey for sending up in smoke, an opportunity to ridicule authority thus presented itself that we have regretted not seizing ever since.
The draft card was always a second-rate symbol of state. But not so the flag. The flag survived the Vietnam war in much better shape than the country.
Which is usually the way with flags. As the empires of Spain and Britain diminished, their flags did not. No one remarked, "We're not what we were, so let's run an old bedsheet up the halyard." Today's Union Jack is as impressive a piece of tailoring as it was the day after the Battle of Waterloo.
But then, everyone knows symbols and the things they symbolize aren't exactly the same. It's one thing to be hanged and another to be hanged in effigy. Laying a flag on the floor is different in more than mere degree from planting a bomb in a post office. It seems to us that Scott Tyler was hostilely but pacifically putting the flag to an interesting test of its authority. Would it have been stepped on without its guard of old GIs?
Back when almost everybody, even athletes, put in their time in the service, a dime and an honorable discharge got you a cup of coffee. Now veterans are becoming a sect. An Art Institute teacher told us at one point that some liberal veterans groups hadn't been heard from yet, and he hoped they'd weigh in on the side of artistic freedom. Military service is so remote from our lives today that we induct anyone who experienced it into a kind of patriots' priesthood.