The Knife in Studs's Back
Writing comes hard to some old pros, but for others it's a piece of cake. Last week I described the inchoate responses of thunderstruck Chicago columnists the morning after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But Steve Neal didn't fumble for words. With the most overwhelming American catastrophe in at least half a century as his subject matter, he coolly spotted an angle all his own: he seized the opportunity to say that a couple of old Weathermen were "self-absorbed nitwits" and Studs Terkel was "the village idiot."
In the wake of 6,000 violent deaths at the hands of unfathomable fanatics, these were the hard truths uppermost in the mind of Neal, the political columnist of the Sun-Times. If readers who didn't know how to spell "bin Laden" needed someone to hate, Neal accommodated them. "They are without shame," he began. "On the morning that the World Trade Center was razed by terrorist attacks, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn defended the use of explosives in the New York Times."
The Times interviewed Ayers and Dohrn because Ayers had just published a memoir, Fugitive Days, a book Neal had already reviewed and denounced--angrily but fairly--in the Sun-Times. Taking his second bite at this apple, Neal saw no reason to make the fine point that the article offering Ayers and Dohrn's reminiscences was written before the attacks and they weren't reacting to them. Neal called the two of them "a disgrace to this town and an embarrassment to this country," and he told his readers exactly when and where they'd be making a public appearance the following night in Chicago. (The appearance had already been canceled, something Neal could have found out with a phone call.)
Ayers and Dorn weren't the column's only target. Neal also pulled the trigger on Terkel, noting that "the former radio personality...who does a pretty fair impression of the village idiot, gushes that this book is 'a deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world. Ayers provides a tribute to those better
angels of ourselves.'"
In the days ahead, Neal would pass other judgments. Weighing the president's first address to the nation, Neal declared that Bush "came across as tough and firm." He called defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld "a cool operator" and "the right person to direct the war on terrorism." Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was "showing what leadership is all about."
Then Neal returned to Terkel. He wrote last Friday that "Terkel, a noted tape recordist, and [Jerry] Falwell, a television evangelist, have comic-book visions of the world and are blissfully ignorant of history. They are simple-minded, melodramatic, and talk with pious certitude."
Neal jeered Falwell for appearing on Pat Robertson's 700 Club and blaming the terrorist attacks on pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU, and People for the American Way, all of whom had angered God. As for Terkel, he "was also quick to blame America."
Neal had heard an interview with Terkel that WBEZ taped September 12 and broadcast two days later on its Eight Forty-Eight show. "By all means, find the perpetrators," Terkel said, "and obviously, put them out of commission one way or another. Obviously." But he didn't want Americans to think only of doing that. "The more important thing," he went on, "is who we are in this world."
Neal accused "this silly old man" of questioning American militarism without mentioning that 40 to 60 million Soviets had died in Stalin's purges. "With scorn in his voice," Neal wrote, "he described America as 'the only country in the world that has been fighting a war since 1940.' Terkel went on: 'Count the wars. Count the years. We've built up a body politic of old men who look upon military service as a noble adventure. It was the big excitement of their lives.'"
According to Neal, "while most Americans pulled together last week, Terkel and Falwell were dumb and dumber. Both polluted the airwaves with their silly nonsense." Both "have made careers running down our country."
Terkel, under the impression that his many oral histories celebrated it, read Neal's column and struggled for words. "You feel embarrassed for everybody--for him," he told me a few days later. "It's all so mucky. It's the sort of feeling--clammy is the word." Friday afternoon, the 89-year-old Terkel hand delivered his reply to Steve Huntley, editor of the Sun-Times editorial page. Then he helped me get my hands on a tape of the WBEZ interview.
To my ears, there was no scorn in Terkel's voice. Admiration perhaps. When Terkel said, "Count the wars. Count the years," he was quoting retired admiral Gene LaRocque, a Defense Department critic Terkel greatly respects. Twice Terkel acknowledged LaRocque by name, but either Neal managed to miss the attribution or this was another fine point that didn't matter.
Neal wrote: "Terkel asserted that the United States 'knocked off a lot of women and kids' during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. According to more reliable sources, less than 2 percent of the casualties were civilian." Terkel was commenting on war's law of unintended consequences. "Who did we knock off?" he mused. "We didn't knock off Hussein. We knocked off a lot of women and kids." He was being rhetorical, and it was rhetoric grounded in reality--a British UN official posted to Baghdad said when he retired in 1998 that 4,000 to 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of five were dying each month as a result of the sanctions against their country.
Eight Forty-Eight editor Cate Cahan called Neal, whom she knows, and asked him to come on the air with Terkel. Neal thought about it but called back and said he'd let the column speak for itself. He didn't return my calls.
Neal and Terkel used to be friends, or at least that's what Terkel thought. Even in a 1987 letter to the Reader lamenting the Sun-Times's decision to move Basil Talbott out as political editor and move Neal in, Terkel praised him: "I know Steve Neal and his two superb biographies of Governor Tom McCall of Oregon and of the state's Senator McNary. Neal knows his stuff....He's a good student of the political animal, no matter what the region."
But Terkel's letter went on to call Talbott "one of the best political journalists Chicago has had in years" while failing to hail Neal as even better, and today he wonders if that's where it all began. Two years later Neal struck. His occasion was a column praising Saul Bellow for adding "a touch of class" to Mayor Daley's inauguration the week before. "With eloquence and quiet dignity, Bellow spoke of the city's rich literary tradition. None of Daley's 44 predecessors had invited a writer of Bellow's stature to share the stage at their inaugural ceremonies, although former Mayor Harold Washington had the noted tape-recordist and transcriber Studs Terkel on the program in 1983.
"Bellow's performance," Neal went on, "was more reminiscent of Robert Frost's reading at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural than of Terkel's stale polemics."
Terkel had this dumbfounding gratuitousness in mind when he composed his response to last Friday's Neal column. "I've known Neal ever since he first arrived in Chicago from Portland, Oregon," Terkel wrote. "He had just joined the staff of the Chicago Tribune. In fact, I was one of the first people he approached."
Recalling some of the times they spent together, Terkel continued, "On all occasions he had greeted me with an ingratiating smile and a firm handshake. It occurs to me now that the one was a bit too ingratiating, and the other a bit too firm. I was somewhat slow to catch on, being 'silly' and 'idiotic.'"
But while reading Neal's latest column, "I experienced an epiphany. Like Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, I was struck by a blinding light. Suddenly, I realized who Steve Neal really was: a stunning reincarnation of Uriah Heep. Charles Dickens, were he alive today, would have been enthralled. His wretched creature, Uriah Heep, is alive and well and living within the body and soul of Steve Neal."
On Tuesday the Sun-Times published all of Terkel's letter but the postscript, which noted that Neal had declined to join him on the air. It said, "I am relieved to know that he remains faithful to the tenets of Uriah--shaft irresponsibly and when encountered, run."
At a time when journalists are under an extraordinary obligation to speak of what matters to a nation in turmoil, it's puzzling to see Neal apparently using his platform to settle scores. It's his business if he considers Terkel a doctrinaire windbag, and it's ours if in his view the doctrine's dangerous. Public debate is essential. But a careless ad hominem attack on someone trying to think through a catastrophe is an abuse of a privilege.
Not that Neal's likely to run into trouble from the top by getting after liberals. A Sun-Times editorial last Sunday made the important point that understanding what happened is not the same as "accepting, excusing or forgiving." But, it went on, "some of this nonsense that the United States deserves what it got Sept. 11 is a perverted form of old fashioned self-loathing. We must be guilty because we are bad. This translates into the kind of antipatriotism you hear on National Public Radio, the simplistic 'My country, right or wrong' met with the equally extreme 'My country--wrong.'"
So maybe Neal was sicced.
W's New Teflon Coating
The Tribune praised President Bush's "shrewd" restraint because three days after the terrorist attacks he hadn't already bombed most of the Middle East back into the Stone Age. An editorial Sunday recalled his "forceful speech to the nation." We are all Bush's well-wishers now, and we have set the bar low enough to let our praise clamber over. If he inspires us, it's largely because we need him to.
But condescension among journalists is flying just below the radar. I spotted it September 18, when Nightline set out to examine how the president was doing.
ABC correspondent Claire Shipman offered a clip of his brief speech to the nation on September 11. "That was the Bush the nation was used to," she said in a voice-over. "Certain but somewhat stiff in such a formal setting. Bush's aides admit he is at his worst in front of a TelePrompTer, and outside White House advisers were very unhappy with the speech.
"Wednesday was to be a pivotal day in reshaping his image," Shipman went on. "First, Bush and his foreign policy team decided the message had to change, the rhetoric had to toughen. They had to use the word 'war.'"
Cut to a tape of Bush, the day after the terrorist attacks, declaring that they "were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war." Then Shipman: "And Karen Hughes and her communication shop laid out a series of fixes to demonstrate more passion and involvement....A trip Bush had been pushing for to the Pentagon was quickly arranged. That brought out an emotional element."
Moments later, Shipman showed us Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the streets of New York, looking strong. Shipman: "The New York mayor was everywhere just when it was critical that the president be perceived as the nation's leader. He suggested reaching out to the mayor and the governor of New York. Hughes suggested making that call a public photo op."
Cut to Bush on the phone to Giuliani and Governor George Pataki, telling them, "My resolve is steady and strong."
Shipman: "It seems stilted, but still, just after that phone call, a president who doesn't like to ad-lib suddenly captivated a room full of reporters."
Bush: "This is a terrible moment. But this country will not relent until we have saved ourselves and others from the terrible tragedy that came upon America."
Reporters: "Thank you."
Shipman told us that even Democrats called Bush's speech at the National Cathedral "a home run," and she revealed that according to aides, he'd memorized it beforehand. "He often does that when he believes a speech might render him unable to control his emotions."
Cut to Bush, who appears to be reading: "This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger."
Shipman: "Bush himself had pushed to get up to New York as soon as possible. And that Friday afternoon when he mounted a pile of rubble at ground zero, his aides were calling it, perhaps, the best day for the president they had ever seen."
Moments later anchor Ted Koppel said to Shipman, "I guess it's fair to ask how much of this is vintage George W. Bush and how much is being fed to him by some of his advisers and handlers?"
Mostly Bush, she replied. "His advisers are working hard now to put him in public positions where they know he'll excel, but they're not feeding him scripts at this point." He's still getting "mixed reviews" from his staff, she said. "Take yesterday, for example, where he used the phrase 'dead or alive' talking about Osama bin Laden. That was very much George W. Bush. Not all of his advisers loved it."
"And why is this in the final analysis important?" Koppel wondered.
Shipman told him, "I think it's important, and I think his advisers believe it's important because they know this is a critical part of his job, especially in a time of crisis. The president has to be able to lead a nation."
Nightline's approach to the subject of presidential leadership was to ask Bush's staff to assess it as their responsibility.
The biggest thing Bush has going for him right now is the public impression that he's served by strong, competent people. That's fine. Winston Churchill may have been the one who rallied England, but George VI, who was sickly and stammered and backed into his job when his brother abdicated, made an inspiring head of state, refusing to evacuate Buckingham Palace and walking fearlessly through his cities' rubble. He was a king who is a model for the president.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.