I’ve finished reading Taking on the World, Robert W. Merry’s biography of Joseph and Stewart Alsop, two of the most influencial American commentators/journalists of the 20th century. In addition to serving as an overview of some of the major foreign-policy debates of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, it’s a sort of nauseating portrait of an intimate relationship between a couple of influential journalists and the major policy makers in Washington. The Alsops were born into America’s old ruling elite of East-coast WASPs — their mother came from the Roosevelt clan — and so they were often rather closely knit with those in power, which resulted in some rather unprofessional reporting at times.
Joseph, the flamboyant socialite of the two brothers, was especially guilty in this regard — he was well known for hosting galas at his Georgetown home, where he would wine and dine with Acheson, Bundy, Kennedy, etc. on a regular basis. Granted, reporters have always wined and dined their sources, but the level of incestuousness in the case of Joseph was just a whole other level. Take, for example, this exchange from one of the many dinners Joseph and his wife had with John and Jackie Kennedy (p. 402):
“Joe, I have the best joke to tell you,” said the president. It seemed that a Soviet defector, then in the hands of the CIA at a New York safe house, had revealed that French military intelligence services were riddled with Soviet spies.
“Our people believe him,” said the president with a laugh, “and so I had the pleasure of sending our friend de Gaulle a handwritten letter by courier telling him that he had a problem.”
Kennedy added that de Gaulle’s office had called immediately to request an opportunity to debrief the defector.
“They’re sending a top general over next week,” he said.
“Who is it?” asked Joe [i.e., Joseph Alsop].
You’ve probably never heard of him—fellow named Jean Louis de Rougemont.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Susan Mary [Alsop], “he and his wife Louise are two of my closest friends.”
They all laughed at the small world they inhabited.
The book makes me wonder to what degree ‘insider’ journalists and politicians today form a closely-knit aristocracy. Is Jonathan Alter’s wife one of David Petraeus’s wife’s “closest friends”? Has Bob Woodward ever invited the Obamas over for an evening of wine and croquet, perhaps after taking in some opera? Or is that whole Georgetown aristocracy a thing of the past, now?