Thursday, July 30, 2015

Paranoia and The Presidency: A Story of Richard Nixon

Never have so many owed so much to one president, and you can add University of Virginia researcher Ken Hughes to that list of writers with his book, Chasing Shadows:  The Nixon Tapes, The Chennault Affair and the Origins of Watergate.

The book, published last year, is based mostly on released tapes from Nixon’s Oval Office days and also covers the ’68 election, when he was interfering with President Johnson’s Vietnam policies and, it’s alleged, breaking a number of laws, including ones covering treason.

One of my favorite parts of this book is United Press International.  My old stomping ground is mentioned often and Rox (slang for The Associated Press, as in “dumb as a box of rocks”) doesn’t see the light of day.  Even UPI’s Washington bureau staffer Norman Kempster has a story that’s excerpted in the book – with his by-line.

The book came to my attention recently when it was mentioned by a Rutgers University professor in The New York Times Book Review as one of the best at capturing Nixon’s personality and detailing events leading to Watergate.

Nixon continues to provoke many emotions but Hughes does an outstanding job of keeping his in check, letting Nixon speak for himself, showing how his actions and personality led to his 1974 downfall.

This is one of the gems of Hughes’s book.  You gain insight on Nixon’s personality and thinking – with his own words.

To be certain, Chasing Shadows is far from a complete look at the Nixon presidency.  It focuses on Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and the beginnings of the Watergate scandal and its ensuing cover up.

At this point, it’s difficult to read an honest assessment of Nixon that neither leans left (he’s the Devil himself) nor right (he just got caught) but this book might be it. 

A question – one that will likely never be answered by historians but is touched on by the author – is, given the other candidates or possible ones in 1968, could the United States have found someone else with the same chops as Nixon for the job?  

Furthermore, did Nixon’s sense of paranoia ultimately take him down?  The author believes so; if that’s the case, should we do a better job of assessing the characters of the people who seek the presidency? 

Nixon’s critics can pan him for Watergate and extending the Vietnam War past the ’72 election, as well as invading Cambodia.

But Nixon is also something that few want to admit – one of our most successful presidents.

He ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam; opened diplomatic relations with China; successfully negotiated a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union; started the Environmental Protection Agency; removed the country’s currency from the gold standard; and desegregated the schools more than previous presidents, to name a few of his accomplishments.[i]

This doesn’t mean he’s a saint.  Far from it!  It means he knew how act like a chief executive officer and get things done.

None of this, of course, excuses Nixon’s very serious and profound breaches of power with the Watergate cover up – and the possibility that he knew and/or ordered the break in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters – and the possibility that his actions were treasonous when he interfered with President Johnson’s attempts to end the Vietnam War.

Those events, combined with his accomplishments, make Nixon what he will likely always be – a very disturbing figure in American history.

Chasing Shadows:  The Nixon Tapes, The Chennault Affair, and The Origins of Watergate, by Ken Hughes, (Charlottesville, Virginia:  University of Virginia Press, 2014)


Friday, July 24, 2015

The Prisoner and Atticus Finch

If you believe conventional wisdom, Atticus Finch is right up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and maybe even Jesus Christ himself.

He’s the great savior, hero and progressive – at least as portrayed in Harper Lee’s first published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird – even though he fails to acquit his African-American client of raping a white woman.

So if you read her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, published 55 years after the first book, you’re taken aback to learn that this great Southern litigator is a segregationist at best, a racist at worst.

It’s as difficult to accept as it would be to learn that Jesus was a thief and a womanizer.

Say it ain’t so!

Historians and political scientists are constantly writing about what influenced the country’s leaders. 

The changes in their thinking, maturing if you will, came slowly, often with great struggle, because they were debating society as they saw it, the teachings they were handed, formally or informally, against new ideas, for which there was little support.

Writing his will, George Washington decided to free slaves he owned upon his death and while it’s often passed over, by doing so, writes Henry Wiencek, it represented “a repudiation of a lifetime of mastery.

“… he (Washington) had been conditioned to be indifferent to the aspirations and humanity of African-Americans.  Something happened to change him and to set him radically apart from his peers (Southern plantation owners) and his family.”[i]

While it might be easy to dismiss this act, it’s important to know that Washington’s native state, Virginia, according to the country’s first census, taken in 1790, when he was president, held nearly half of the country’s slaves – 292,627 out of a total enslaved population of 694,280, as it was originally reported.[ii]

Washington’s experience as battlefield commander, where free blacks were often armed in the fight against the British, changed his views on slavery and, in time, helped him accept the humanity of African-Americans, Wiencek shows.

Washington even met an enslaved woman in Cambridge, Mass., at his headquarters during the Revolution, who was one of the most successfully published poets in her day, Phillis Wheatley – nothing short of incredible given the times.[iii]

Imagine if today’s media were covering the event.  The cameras would close in on this humble African-American woman as the man nearly greater than life itself greets her at the door.

It can be argued that Washington didn’t do enough to correct a serious and profound wrong, especially for a country that claimed to be founded in liberty. 

But it’s equally important to understand that Washington was an 18th century man, a member of the landed gentry, and, as Wiencek reminds us, someone who wasn’t about to tamper with someone else’s property by issuing an executive order to free the slaves.

The single best thing Washington could do was set an example to his peers and countrymen by freeing his slaves at his death.  He was the only Founding Father to do so.

Like Washington, Abraham Lincoln defied his beginnings – which should have made him white trash – to become the great emancipator.[iv]

There’s nothing to suggest he’ll become the president of the United States and, more importantly, hold views on African-Americans that are contrary to what many people likely held during his earliest days.

It’s hard to pinpoint when Lincoln saw African-Americans as his equal, Anderson University History Professor Brian Dirck writes. 

Was it during his days of working for his father, Thomas; when he worked on flatboats traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers; when he saw New Orleans’s free blacks; or when he observed how a group of slaves on a Mississippi River boat named the Lebanon?

We’ll likely never know.

What we do know is that through much of his reading and interpreting of the U. S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence as well as other documents and books, perhaps even his faith, he came to reject popular views of African-Americans. 

And this is the problem with both of Harper Lee’s novels, although somewhat less so in her second one.

In Mockingbird, the first time we see Atticus Finch, he’s a 50-year-old father correcting his daughter’s language, forbidding her to use “nigger” because it’s a word of the uneducated.

Readers are also supposed to accept that Finch is the great progressive because he’s defended African-Americans and holds off a lynch mob at the local jail where his client is held.

What we don’t see is how Finch came to those views.  Was he born with them or, through years of studying legal and historical writings, plus his own interactions with African-Americans, did he come to see them just as human and endowed with the right to life, liberty and justice as any white person?

The latter is likely the answer but it remains a question that’s never resolved.

Lee does a better job of explaining Finch’s racial views in her second book.  He’s worried about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's interference in local events and government overreach. 

In some ways, the racist and segregationist version of Finch is easier to accept.  His entire life is spent in the South – as we know it – so why wouldn’t he hold views that are not all that kind to African-Americans?

It’s a shame Lee doesn’t do a better job of explaining Finch, showing how he grew one way or the other.

But maybe Lee did something no reader or critic expected:  Maybe she shed light on our mental shortcomings, showing, very indirectly, that we’re not as free to change our minds and reject our experiences in defining our views as we prefer to think.

Are we, as Noble laureate Doris Lessing suggested, living in mental prisons, where we’re comforted because our views are unchallenged?[v]

How are you going to know?

[i] Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God:  George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), page 7.

[iii] Wiencek, ibid., pages 205 – 214.

[iv] Brian R. Dirck, Abraham Lincoln and White America, (Lawrence, Kansas:  University of Kansas Press, 2012), page 30.

[v] Doris Lessing, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, (New York:  Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1987).

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Court ruling only The Wall Street Journal could love

Note:  The following was sent to The Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor.  Needless to say, it was a little to "out there" for The Journal's tastes.

A ruling only The Wall Street Journal could love

My, my, my, the view from your perch on the Avenue of the Americas must be horrifying:  Soon Heather’s two mommies and Larry’s two daddies will be infiltrating the local school board, whether it’s on the Main Line or Westport, Wellesley, Grosse Point, Shaker Heights, Lake Forest, Highland Park or South Pasadena, Newport Beach and Mercer Island.

Next thing you know the gays and lesbians will be preaching family values, saying it’s imperative that children be nurtured by, horrors of all horrors, two parents who are actually married – to each other no less!  Only now the gender of those parents is a non-issue.

Seriously, what are we, the heterosexual, middle class community, to do?  Head to the hills, run for lives?

I can appreciate the legal qualms the distinguished editors of The Journal’s editorial page have with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-gender marriage.  It’s another incident of judicial activism and, in some cases, runs rough shod over states’ rights, especially those states that have deemed marriage only legal when it’s between a man and a woman.

But as my late, great mother suggested, let’s take 10 deep breaths and consider the issue.

The ruling’s upside is something one might think The Journal’s editorial page could celebrate:  It significantly reduces the role of the government, whether it’s federal, state, county or municipal.  

In other words, what the Supreme Court did is deregulate the marriage market.  Isn’t that what you want, less government, or did I miss something?

Here’s what The Journal’s editorial page might enjoy:  The Court put marriage in a place that many a liberal likely never considered.  They made it perfectly competitive, allowing anyone to marry anyone, regardless of their gender. 

How long before the Democrats start screaming for regulation?  Five years?  Ten?  Want to put a wager on it?

Now imagine the competition.  You’re single and you’re really serious about someone who doesn’t share your gender.  You’ll need to work that much harder – the details of which, for the sake of decorum, we can keep to ourselves – to gain their affection; otherwise, they just might turn to someone whose gender they share.  After all, now they have a choice.

The same is true if it’s a guy trying to get the guy or the gal trying to get the gal.  And let’s not forget the transgendered.  They’re in this market, too, winning and losing, like everyone else.

Who knew marriage was a market?  But soon, very soon, the liberals will know it is.  And then The Journal’s opinion editors will have the last laugh.  But will they call for regulation?  Doubtful!

Douglas R. Page is the co-author, with the late Philip L. Kilbride, a former Bryn Mawr College anthropologist, of Plural Marriage for Our Time:  A Reinvented Option? Second Edition, published by Praeger, Santa Barbara, Calif., 2012.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Barbara Lou Allison Page, 1942 -- 2015

WINFIELD, Ill. – If the adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln is true, then Barbara Page’s years spilled over with more life than anyone could imagine for a girl growing up in a rural, Iowa farm town.

She was about seven months out of Charles City High School, when, in January 1961, at 18, in Des Moines, she met a small-town man, Bob Page, from Springfield, Ill., who happened to be a 25-year-old United Press International reporter, on the floor of the Iowa House of Representatives, where she worked part-time for E. Wayne Shaw (R-Charles City) while attending secretarial school.

It was love at first sight, many in the press corps observed, so much so that the “handsomely compensated” Unipresser went crazy, spending his “high” earnings that day on the biggest lunch he could afford for her – half a cheeseburger at a nearby restaurant.

A child bride, she was married six months later, at 19, and gave birth almost a year to the day after the wedding, when she was 20. 

Or, as she liked to tell her son, Doug, with a wink, “You were born on July 24, and we were married on the 30th.”

Hours after the wedding, they drove to Detroit, so Bob could take up his duties as the UPI bureau’s night editor. 

Their adventure was one only UPI could provide, moving them nine times during 13 years, with stops, in addition to Detroit, in Grand Rapids, Mich., Indianapolis, Chicago, New York, Boston, London and Hong Kong before returning to New York in 1974. 

She died Monday, Mar. 30th, at around 8 p.m. CDT, at Central DuPage Hospital, after battling Alzheimer’s Disease for more than 10 years.  She was 72.

In her prime, she could host and prepare a dinner party for anyone – from UPI reporters in Hong Kong, returning from covering the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, to the company’s senior executives and clients – without ever breaking a sweat. 

She was an extraordinary diplomat, gifted with an uncanny ability to engage in conversation with anyone, regardless of their corporate or social position.

Some of her best friends at UPI included Rod and Evelyn Beaton, Jim and Helen Darr, Bob and Angie Schnitzlein, Richard Growald, Al Webb, Vicky Wakefield, Frank and Mary Beatty, Leon and Carobel Daniel, Theresa and Joe Galloway, Sylvana Foa, Annette Holst, Tracy Wood, Arnold and Lee Dibble, Al and Diana Kaff, Marcia and Ted Marks, Luce and Claude Hippeau and Julius and Gabriella Humi.

She could also be very brave.  In the summer of 1969, while vacationing with her sons and Luce Hippeau, and her younger son, 9-year-old Roman, on an Italian beach, Barbara noticed Roman was missing, soon spotting him, as she told the story, about 100 yards offshore on a raft.  She swam out and brought him back.

“You saved my life,” Roman said to her years later.

Her survivors include her sons Doug and Steve, their wives, Liz and Theresa, and four grandsons, Jeff, Chris, Ethan and Nicholas.  Her sister Judy, her husband, Bob, and their children, Leslie and Bobby, also survive her as does her former husband, Robert Page, a retired newspaper publisher and a former UPI general manager, and his wife, Rebeca.

Barbara Lou Allison Page was born June 1, 1942, in Charles City, Iowa, to Phyllis and Raymond Allison.  She worked at the Darien High School library in Connecticut from 1984 to 2004 and moved to Illinois, to be near Doug and his family in September 2004, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years earlier.

She lived in an assisted living home, Belmont Village, in Carol Stream, where her health and mental faculty declined in safe, secure and warm setting while receiving excellent care.

She came down with a hernia three years ago and the best medical advice then, and again last week, was not to repair it because, as an Alzheimer’s patient, she wouldn’t understand the recovery. 

Her health declined so precipitously last week, due to an infection in her intestines, a result of the hernia, that surgeons thought she’d survive an operation but likely wind up on a respirator, which was contrary to her Do Not Resuscitate order.

She received hospice care at Central DuPage Hospital, in calm, peaceful setting, for about four days before dying Monday night.  She died pain free and her sons spent the weekend at her bedside, telling her they loved her and that she was the best mom in the world.

~ This report prepared with generous assistance from my dad, Bob Page.  The picture below, from Barbara's high school graduation, was generously provided by Leslie North Kebschull, her niece. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Recollections of Al Webb

Note:  This is a letter to a fellow writer, who asked for my recollections of our late, mutual friend Al Webb.

Walking into Al’s apartment was like entering the life of man who put his on hold.  The white walls were barren.  The furniture was old and any woman would replace it.  There was nothing in the refrigerator.  Maybe some beer and cheese.  Cat food, too.  Two or three were roaming or sleeping on the couch.

His most prized possession – the Bronze Star and its citation read by the Marine Commandant three years earlier, in 1980, for his actions in Vietnam – was on a wall just outside of his bedroom.  The “Mar-neez” he called them.  “Good folks,” he described them.

It was Christmas 1983, either December 23 or 24, when I arrived.  I was 21 and a DePauw University senior, spending my first semester in Strasbourg, France, attending classes at l’Université des Science Humaines de Strasbourg while living with a family in a nearby suburb.

Al was one of those fixtures of my childhood along with the likes UPI’s Roderick Beaton, Jimmy Darr, Tom and Frank Beatty plus Annette Holst, Ted Marks, Bob Schnitzlein, Bob Kaylor, Leon Daniel and Joe Galloway.  And there were others, including Danny Gilmore, Al Kaff, Julius Humi and Claude and Luce Hippeau.

Alvin B., however, was special.  Dad told many great stories about him and, as a result, I grew to admire him and wanted to follow in his footsteps.  To me, a wet-behind-the-ears college kid, being a war correspondent was the coolest.  So what better place to be, figuratively speaking, than at the knee of my hero, especially at Christmas?

The only other person I admired so much was Dick Growald.  Dick gave me a number of history books – many of which I still have – and it stoked my passion to learn the subject, becoming my collegiate major. 

I first met Al in 1973, when we were in Hong Kong with UPI.  Compared to many others, he was very down to earth, extremely confident, never put on any airs and didn’t treat me any differently because I was the boss’s kid. 

Al was a frequent guest at our apartment in Hong Kong.  The best story involved my younger brother, Steve, about 7 at the time.  One of Al’s cats went missing and turned up dead.  So dad gave Al a few days off to grieve and, that weekend, he was over for dinner. 

“So, Mr. Webb, I understand you have one dead cat,” Steve said.

Dad was so dismayed he felt obligated to give Al an extra two or three days off.


After settling in Europe in September of ‘83, I called Al two or three of times, and we always chatted at length.  He returned to London from Beirut that spring.  On my last call, in November or early December, I inquired about visiting him during the Christmas holidays.  No problem, he said.  Come on over.

I hadn’t seen him in four or five years, the last time likely being when mom invited him out for dinner to our house in Connecticut just before he returned to London.  He was always thin as a rail.  But when he opened the door to his Hammersmith flat, he was overweight and rumpled, with a full head of graying thick hair, along with his signature moustache, also graying, and glasses, wearing grey sweats.

Fun, talkative, curmudgeonly, with a soft side that every so often showed itself, although never too much – he was the same, old Al.

“I’m cute,” he said of himself. 

The game plan was to stay three or four days before departing on the 27th, maybe the 28th, for Paris to hangout with three or four co-eds, one of whom I was dating, sort of. 

As he showed me around his one-bedroom apartment, we picked up our conversation like we’d been speaking since last week.  The front door of his flat opened to a large hallway that included some shelves where he also placed the phone.  Reddish-brown wall-to-wall carpeting was everywhere but the kitchen.  It was big enough to sit in but we spent our time in the living room, where I slept on the couch.

Eventually, we headed to his neighborhood pub, where he introduced me to his friends and even pointed out a nice, young lady – slightly older than me, in her mid-20s and also a regular – with whom he said I should have sex. 

“At your place or hers?” I said.

“Hers, obviously,” he said.

“Okay, I’ll go ask her if she wants to fuck right now,” I said jokingly.

Needless to say, nothing happened.

At some point within the first 24 hours of my arrival, Al asked about my plans to return to France.  Classes started on January 3 or 4.  I was required to take a series of exams before returning to the States that month to finish my last semester.

“Why don’t you just stay until New Year’s?” he said. 

So I changed my reservations and added another day, but when he asked if I’d stick around again, I changed them once more, buying a one-way Air France ticket to Paris on the night of January 1.  (Obviously this was well before the days of terrorism.)  Maybe he was lonely.

Al arranged for us to have Christmas dinner at the pub.  He knew the owner/manager and his wife well.  They were great hosts and very welcoming. 

After returning from dinner – we were both inebriated – I said I needed to call my mother.  So we sat cross-legged in his hallway as I pulled out my AT&T credit card (remember those?) and phoned her.  After assuring her I was still very much alive and just fine and wishing her a Merry Christmas, I passed the phone to Al. 

“You know, Barb, he’s (me) a pretty good asshole,” Al said.  “That’s the best compliment I can say about anyone.”

They spent about 10 or 15 minutes, maybe longer, catching up, and I’m sure, especially given that she and my dad had separated five months earlier, she was relieved to know I was with someone she knew who would look after me well or at least as well as could be expected by Al.


I’d spent the previous three summers working for UPI in New York and Boston. In the summer of ’81, I was a copyboy in New York; in the summer of ’82, I was a summer relief reporter in Boston; in the summer of ’83, I was back in New York, working as a reporter on the Local desk.  Earlier in the year, in January, I snagged an internship at UPI’s London bureau for three or four weeks.

So we both knew many of the same names.  There was the general desk’s Lou Carr, Dan Chisar, Cathy Booth and Don Mullen.  Lou’s background plus his friendships with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg made him the most interesting.  One helluva an editor, too.  I was in love with Cathy and her shoulder-length red hair. 

I hated my job in the summer of ’83.  The editor I worked for was downright mean.  Her staff worked in total paranoia.  She was practically a recruiting poster for the guild.

Al knew her.

“She fucked (H.L.) Stevenson,” was all Al would say about her.  “Word is she’s as exciting as a warm milk bottle.”

Al’s harshest commentary was reserved for those who didn’t take the business seriously or were fakes and phonies or out for their own self-aggrandizement. 

He had little regard for The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, who he accused of plagiarism while working for him at UPI’s Beirut bureau, saying he lifted sentences and whole paragraphs from Middle Eastern journals. 

He snidely referred to one former Saigon hand, The Times’ R. W. Apple, as “Johnny Appleseed.”

Al always called his fellow reporters “hacks.” In 1986, when I was working for UPI in Philadelphia, dad phoned one morning, saying he was heading to New York for a reunion of all journalism types who’d ever been to Vietnam.  Could I come?  So I boarded Amtrak that afternoon and went.  It was a great time.

Al later told me he didn’t attend because he couldn’t see spending the money to hang out with his fellow “hacks” in what would have been “a trans-Atlantic piss up.”


Our routine was pretty much the same.  I was up first and in the shower and dressed before he was.  Compared to me, Al slept in, getting up around 9 or 10.  Usually I’d drink tea or coffee in the living room and read while he slept. 

Because Al never ate, I often woke up starving.  So after showering and dressing one morning, I tiptoed out for the nearest convenience store to buy bread and bacon and cook it back at this place.  He never seemed to mind.

One afternoon he surprised me by taking me to lunch at the original Hard Rock café.  I had many memories of going there in the late ‘60s.  He didn’t seem happy about being there but he was kind enough to entertain me, and I very much appreciated it.

One night, after we came back from the pub, having consumed one too many, he broke out all of his Vietnam memorabilia. 

When I first laid eyes on Al in the early ‘70s, he had long hair and glasses.  What I never guessed or suspected was how he looked when covering Vietnam, especially when he was out with the Marines. 

He was thin, in shape even, and his glasses looked huge.  He looked like a Marine. 

In fact, he showed me pictures of him at the Battle of Hue, just prior to being wounded.  There was one where he was holding rifle while leaning against a stone wall with about 20 other Marines.  They were firing at North Vietnamese troops. 

I caught up with Leon Daniel, who also covered Vietnam, shortly after joining UPI in Washington in July 1984 and he told me the same thing – if you wanted to go out with the Marines, you were required to carry a rifle.  How many former Vietnam War correspondents are, in disguise, combat veterans?  We may never know.

Joe Galloway, another former Unipresser and co-author of We Were Soldiers Once and Young, which later became a movie, made no bones about carrying a weapon in Vietnam. 

On the book tour, he told me, “Inevitably, some asshole would always ask if I killed anyone.  I always said, ‘I hope so.  They were shooting at me.’”

Al was also receiving letters from former Vietnam correspondents, which, if he had really tied one on, he would read aloud, shaking his head.  Some of them had the audacity to accuse him of practically being a Communist sympathizer.  As to who wrote these letters, I can’t recall.

Needless to say, it shows that the debate that raged in the United States about Vietnam extended to the press corps, which had a front row seat and lost a few of its own during the war.

Al’s politics, if he had any, seemed slightly left of center but, frankly, I’m not all that sure.  One thing’s definite – while he might have been intrigued by politics, he was no Washington reporter.

He was much more curious about the human condition, and I think that’s what made war so interesting to him.  He could see every possible human action – the good, the bad, the ugly – in a very short time frame. 

He downplayed the Bronze Star, saying it was as if some had been hit by a car and he was on the sidewalk watching.  What else was he going to do?  Helping was the right thing to do.   That said, he was incredibly proud of the award and always made sure to mention that he wasn’t the only reporter to win one.

During one of our drunken conversations, I asked him if war was romantic.  That’s probably a naïve question, but I wanted his perspective.

“Yes,” he said.  Then, looking at me directly, without smiling, he said, “If you survive.”

And I think that explains where Al was during our visit.  He was just shy of his 49th birthday and coming to terms with his life. 

He’d been roving the world since 1966, when he arrived in Vietnam.   The 30-something Al who showed up in Saigon wasn’t the same Young Turk when he left the Middle East in 1983. 

Plus he was unemployed, living off the money saved during his time in Lebanon, where he was on an expense account full time while working for U. S. News & World Report.  He quit the magazine that spring, shortly after the April ’83 bombing of the U. S. Embassy.  Had he not been waylaid at his hotel’s bar – I keep wondering if he had a premonition – he would have been killed because he was supposed to be in an office just above the explosion.

But, of course, he had to put on a certain bravado.  

"I made a lot of money just talking on the phone," he said, telling how the bartender passed him the phone as each and every English-language radio and television station on the planet called, looking for someone to provide an on-the-spot feed about the attack.

Another factor contributing to his outlook was the attack on the Marines in Beirut that October.  British television scrolled the names of the dead.  He was glued to his screen, he said, and knew some of them from his Vietnam days. 

I wonder how distraught he felt.  Was he alone in his living room, somewhat darkened because it didn’t receive a lot of daylight, holding a beer or a cup of tea, and if tears rolled down his cheeks, as he read the names?

Those two explosions got him thinking about his life, his own mortality and put him on the road to rebuilding it.

His application to become a U.K. citizen was making its way through the Home Office’s bureaucracy, and he was also visiting newspaper and news service editors, inquiring about working for them.

I also think Al was trying to teach a lesson.  He wasn’t going to lecture me but by allowing me to spend a week with him, seeing who he was and what he was going through, he was showing the ransom he paid for his war assignments.

There was no wife.  There was no love interest.  There was loneliness.  His only family was his daughter in Annapolis, Md., and they didn’t have much of a relationship.  There was probably some post-traumatic stress, kept in line with lager and ale.

Clearly, things had to change, especially if he was going to find peace with his past and continue for another day or for many more years. 


Al talked about being previously married and didn’t seem all that high on it, so I was surprised to learn he remarried. 

“Keep the faith,” he said, incredulous that anyone would seek him out for marital advice.  His own marital history – marrying the same woman twice and another woman once – told him this was not his area of expertise.

After graduating from college and joining UPI’s national desk in Washington in the summer of ‘84, I updated Al on my address and phone number.  He called in late August or early September, saying he was in Annapolis to see his daughter and asking if I could join him for brunch during the Labor Day weekend. 

I hopped a ride with a mutual friend and UPI colleague, David Mould, who was on the cables desk.  Like Al, David hailed from Knoxville.  We spent the afternoon eating, chatting and drinking.  It was fun.  It was also the last time I saw him.

Al’s daughter was just like Al.  She had his facial outline and all of his personality, which is probably what contributed to their spats. 

When I moved to Dallas, and later to Philadelphia with UPI, I’d call Al to update him about the company’s woes and what I was doing.  He was always very encouraging and supportive. 

I wish I’d stayed in touch with him after I left UPI in 1987.  But things like grad school, marriage, career and the births of our two sons got in the way.  Maybe they shouldn’t have. 

When I think about UPI, I always come to two very conflicting feelings.  I love UPI and I hate what it became.  It took me around the world as a kid and, as an adult, provided some intriguing professional experiences while allowing me to meet some of the most interesting people.  It’s also given me the ability to reach out to many who spent time with the organization, like you.

In 1985, when I was UPI’s Texas sales executive, we invited T. Boone Pickens to speak to an editor’s conference.  The company was in the depths of Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.  I walked up to T. Boone to introduce myself and thank him for coming.  I then said, “You know, Mr. Pickens, given UPI’s financial condition, some of us think you should buy the company.” 

I meant it as a joke, figuring an oil baron like him would get it.

“Doug,” he said seriously, “We look at every deal.”

Holy shit, I thought, what have I done?

Fortunately, nothing.


Al drove me to Heathrow.  I was so hungover that shortly after checking in, I found myself against a wall being searched and questioned by a police officer.  After landing in Paris, I made my way back to that apartment, fell asleep and got up the next morning for an early train to Strasbourg. 

The next few weeks flew by and, sometime during the second half of January, I was in Connecticut seeing mom before returning to Greencastle, Ind., for my final semester. 

As the taxi left the Indianapolis airport for the dull, 45-minute drive to college, it occurred to me I learned more about life from Al than I did from any book.  I learned the price of success; the price of failure and the price of doing what you want to do just because you want to do it.  Nothing’s free.

In a letter with my sympathy card, I told Elizabeth that I’ll always treasure my memories of him.  He was a helluva guy, a great reporter and a fantastic writer.  May God bless Al Webb.


Best regards,


P.S.  UPI’s Hong Kong bureau in the early ‘70s was filled with characters.  There was Don Davis, the division’s assistant editor, who wore a Confederate military hat to these beach outings.  There was Ted Marks, a former Seal wounded by in a firefight with the Viet Cong before turning to journalism, joining UPI and returning to Southeast Asia.  He had a huge scar across his back where the bullet exited.  There was the division’s photo editor, Bob Schnitzlein, who’d regale us kids with stories about his commando raids with the Navy during the Korean War.  The typical attack involved sneaking up behind some North Korean soldier, deeply slicing their torso from their belly around to their back before saying, “Good luck, Charlie,” and leaving them to contend with their wound.

Danny Gilmore told me about his days as a radio gunner aboard a B-17 above Nazi-occupied Europe.  One day, the plane returned with three engines working; one day, it came with two; and one day it didn’t return.  The Luftwaffe put up every Focke-Wulf it could find to attack Danny’s plane, killing two crew members, wounding others and causing enough damage that the pilot gave the order to bailout.  Danny talked about his struggle to get out of the plane and that it was the Spanish Underground that got him back to England.

Mom and dad made sure I knew about Kate Webb, who spent 23 days as a Viet Cong prisoner.  I can still remember seeing her in the Hong Kong bureau one Saturday.  She was dressed in her trademark battle green fatigues and about my height.  I saw a hero.  I wish I said hello. 

Dad tells this wonderful story about the time he and my mother along with Bob and Angie Schnitzlein went over to Al’s apartment.  While dad and Bob talked with Al, mom and Angie snuck into Al’s kitchen to see what his in the cabinets and the refrigerator.  Nothing, they discovered – with the exception of cat food.

I believe there was also this time in Hong Kong, when Al and dad and maybe others made their way to the Repulse Bay Hotel, which had a veranda straight out of a Somerset Maugham story.  Anyway, it was in the morning’s wee hours and Al identified himself as something like the ambassador from Liechtenstein and demanded breakfast.  The night officer took their orders and then announced breakfast would be served at 8.  Only Al.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Al Webb Recalling the Tet Offensive

Feature: Tet Offensive remembered

By United Press International   |  Jan. 31, 2003 at 2:40 PM
Feature: Marine who took too long to die

(Editor's Note:  Al Webb died last week at the age of 79.  He was one of three reporters awarded the Bronze Star, with the Combat "V", for attempting to save a Marine's life during the 1968 Tet Offtensive in Vietnam.  This recollection was published in 2003 on United Press International's website.)

By Al Webb

It is the noise that haunts across the decades -- the whine of a sniper's bullet that narrowly misses you and the thud of a rocket that doesn't, the eerie keening of a Marine dying with a third of his brain blown away, the thump of a mortar sending another death-dealing round on its way.

And memories that stick like photographs in your mind, unwanted yet unfaded after so many years. A young woman crumpled in death alongside a twisted bicycle, her long, white ao dai dress spattered by blood and mud. Nearby another body, a tiny boy -- perhaps her son, certainly just one more victim of a horror he could not have understood.

In a cage, the sad, emaciated body of a little yellow kitten. I sat in the rubble of the city's wall, exhausted, and wept weary tears of grief for the lost life of another innocent.

After 35 years, the recollections of those murderous days of January and February, 1968, of running and crawling past rotting bodies, through the mounting rubble of Vietnam's ancient, once-glorious imperial capital of Hue may be blurring a bit. But they remain sharp enough to hurt.

What remains engraved in my memory is the sheer cacophony of war -- the sounds of men fighting and dying that greeted my arrival in Hue as a United Press International combat correspondent aboard a truck loaded with U.S. Marines up Vietnam Highway 1 on Jan. 31. Not once in the next three weeks, day following night following day did the noise ever let up for more than five seconds.

In the predawn darkness of that day, an estimated 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops struck at 36 of 44 provincial capitals, plus 64 district towns, across the length and breadth of what was then South Vietnam in what became known as the Tet Offensive.

Not terribly fresh from weeks of diving for cover amid artillery, mortar and rifle fire the North Vietnamese rained down on a Marine outpost at Khe Sanh, a few miles south of North Vietnam, I grabbed my backpack, notepad, pens, canteen and cigarettes and hitched a ride with the Marines into the fury that had now engulfed Hue.

Hue straddled the ill-named Perfume River in the northern quarter of South Vietnam, and somehow it had remained a haven of sanity well into the war, a city of Oriental beauty, culture and education, of history and old tombs of old emperors centered in its walled Citadel.

Hue city had largely escaped the bullets and bombs. Many Westerners, including American correspondents, would call time out from the war to rest and relax at its pleasant little restaurants and bistros, or book a night of rest aboard one of the scores of small boats on the Perfume River, watching the flashes of combat in the distance.

But then was then, and now was now. By the time I arrived in a muddy dive for protection behind a low, gray wall across from the besieged U.S. military compound south of the river, 20th-century warfare had horrifically transformed the city of the Nguyen emperors and their Palace of Perfect Peace. Perhaps forever, I thought.

The emblem was plain enough -- the yellow-starred flag of the National Liberation Front, guerrilla Viet Cong, that waved over the fortress gate of the Citadel, on the north side of the Perfume River. It would flutter there for the next 25 days as the longest and bloodiest single ground action of the Tet Offensive waxed and waned in its shadow.

The battle for Hue was a two-part affair for American forces. They first concentrated their power on the south side of the river, with its broad boulevards flanking its respected university, the mansions of the wealthy and the Cercle Sportif that was their tennis and billiards and barroom playground.

For the next 10 days, Frank and Pancho and Kenny and the scores of other Marines who became my mates in combat battled door to door, in fighting the likes of which Corps veterans had not experienced since Seoul, South Korea, in another war more than 15 years earlier.

I watched helplessly as one by one, Pancho and Frank and Kenny were killed, as the Marines fought to recapture what was left of the city's south. First the university, with its classrooms of bullet-riddled blackboards, smashed test tubes and incinerated books.

Then it was down the wide street to the provincial government buildings and the Cercle Sportif, where in another time I had enjoyed quiet whiskies and sweet coffee by its swimming pool. Now its pool tables were makeshift morgue slabs, drenched with the blackened blood of Marine bodies.

Col. Ernest Cheatham's troops finally raised the Stars and Stripes over the Thua Thien province headquarters -- itself a risky job as North Vietnamese soldiers popped from human mole holes to open fire, until exasperated Marines silenced them with grenades dropped into their crude lairs.

But the job was only half-done. Across the river, inside the Citadel itself, other Marines were battling their way down the walls, capturing perhaps 100 yards in a day only to have to fall back 50 yards after nightfall, when the North Vietnamese struck back.

At one point along the northeast wall, the Marines hoisted an American flag on a slender tree they had uprooted, and supported it with a wooden kitchen chair. They had to take it down that night, but they put it back up again the next day, and the day after, until one day it stayed. To the Americans, it was one small sign that they were, at last, winning.

But horror, sadness and death permeated Hue. The body of the pretty girl in the bao dai, and the child, the tiny yellow kitten, the elderly Vietnamese we found curled, dead, beneath his bed. On a table was a photograph of himself, a smiling woman and three children. It had been taken at Disneyland, in California.

And there was a Marine I had struck up a friendship with, on the truck ride along Highway 1 into Hue south. He had just returned from a week's leave with his wife and two children in Hawaii. Eight days later he lay a few feet from me, his stomach ripped out by two bullets.

On Feb. 19, a sniper's deadly fire had pinned me and a Marine sergeant, Steve Berntson, beneath a wall behind a house. Across a street about 20 yards to our left, one of the sniper's bullets tore off a third of the skull of another Marine. His screams lasted for about 90 seconds that seemed an hour before he, too, became another of the American dead in Vietnam.

Minutes later, about five feet from me, a Marine sergeant took a bullet through his throat -- a Kennedy-assassination style wound that ripped off the back of his head. Berntson and I dragged him out of the line of fire, back to what we thought was relative safety, as we looked for something to use as a stretcher.

My part in the Battle of Hue ended a few seconds after that, in the blast of a B-40 anti-tank rocket that effectively was the death blow for the sergeant we were trying to rescue, crippling Berntson for life, wounding fellow journalist David Greenway and sending me to a hospital with shrapnel injuries.

The battle for Hue lasted another five days, until combined Marine and Vietnam Republic troops finally pulled down the Viet Cong flag from atop the fortress gate.

Military history books record the Battle of Hue as a U.S. military victory, but some critics see it as the turning point in what became the first war the United States has ever lost.

Years later, it is neither victory nor defeat that stirs my memory. What I do remember is a blond Marine who took too long to die, an old man who lay dead a few feet from his own memories of an American vacation, a sad-eyed little Vietnamese girl cradled in a Marine's arms. A tiny kitten.

Thirty-five years later, the land of dreams is sometimes an unpleasant place.

(This story, originally published Jan. 24, has been re-released on the anniversary date upon request. Al Webb, a United Press International writer who covered the Vietnam War, recalls the Tet Offensive, a turning point in the conflict, 35 years later. Webb was one of four civilians to be awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious action in Vietnam after being wounded while dragging the wounded Marine mentioned in the story). 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Al Webb: RIP

The first time I laid eyes on him was in 1973, when we lived in Hong Kong, where my dad ran UPI's Asia/Pacific division.  My dad, mom, younger brother and I greeted Al just outside of the Hilton, where he was staying after being transferred from Brussels.

Al replaced Danny Gilmore as UPI's Asia/Pacific editor, overseeing the company's Vietnam War coverage and, of course, whatever news it could pull out of China, which was just beginning to re-open to the world.

My parents had Al over a number of times during our Hong Kong days.  He later visited us in Connecticut, where we lived while dad was UPI's vice president and general manager.

Al was a trip.  He lived out loud, never hesitating to express his opinions.  In 1983, when I was a college student in Strasbourg, France, I called him at his apartment in London, asking about joining him for Christmas.  Absolutely, he said.  Come on over.

It was supposed to be a three-day visit but Al kept insisting I stick around.  I finally left on New Year's Day, so hungover that a police officer at Heathrow patted me down thoroughly before allowing me to proceed to the ticket counter.

Al and I spent Christmas Day at a neighborhood pub.  As I recall, the manager and his wife lived upstairs; and they invited a few close friends to the pub for Christmas.

We spent a lot of time at that pub or back at his place, always drinking.

It's hard to say why Al kept insisting I stick around but some of it, I think, had to do with what happened to him earlier that year.  In April 1983, Al was U.S. News & World Report's correspondent in Beirut when the U.S. Embassy was hit by a suicide bomber.  Had Al's penchant for the drink at the Intercontinental Hotel's bar not been around, he would have been killed.

Not one to get too wrapped up in what could have been, Al, instead, made a lot of money that day, filing news reports -- from the bar, of course -- to every English-language radio station that called.

The last time I saw him was in September 1984, in Annapolis, Md., at Harry's Bar, no less.  He was with his daughter (her name escapes me); and joining me that day was David Mould, who worked on UPI's Cables Desk.

We talked by phone a few times afterwards.  I called him from Dallas from time to time and Philadelphia, too, when I was working in those cities for UPI.

Al was a great guy.  Not only was he an incredible reporter he was also one of the best writers I ever read.  Al could cover anything, from a battle to a bridge tournament.  He was that talented.

May he rest in peace.

Here's his obit as it ran on the "Downhold wire."

Al Webb, a jack-of-all-trades American reporter awarded the rare military Bronze Star for battlefield heroism as a Vietnam War correspondent, died Jan. 25 in Banbury, England. He was 79.

The cause of death was listed as complications of pneumonia and diabetes, said his widow Elizabeth. 

In a half-century of distinguished reporting, Webb's bylined stories spanned the globe from the civil rights battlefields of the American South to the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to Cape Canaveral and the Houston Space Center for man's first tentative steps to the moon and beyond. 

He spent most of his career with United Press International, 28 years, separated by a few years in the 1980's with U.S. News and World Report. He was a quick-witted, fast-talking and engaging reporter with a built-in knack for news agency work, which placed a premium on fast reporting and transmission, often with difficult pre-Internet communications from far-flung locations. He thrived on UPI's fierce competition with its arch-rival, the Associated Press. 

Like many of his agency's contemporaries, Webb, although trained primarily as a print reporter, was also an early example of today's multimedia journalist, taking photographs of soldiers in battle and filing radio reports as well.   

He  was one of three civilian journalists awarded Bronze Stars, with Combat Distinguishing "V" Devices, for evacuating a wounded Marine in the Vietnam War's bloody Tet Offensive in 1968. The others were Charles Mohr of The New York Times and David Greenway of Time magazine. (Another UPI reporter, Joseph Galloway, received a U.S. Army medal for valor for rescuing soldiers in combat in Vietnam).
Recounting the incident later, Webb said he became more combat corpsman than journalist when a Marine near him was shot in his throat during the battle for Hue. Webb said he and a Marine sergeant quickly "got the wounded guy under each arm and hauled him about 50 yards through some thick foliage."  Mohr and  Greenway arrived on the scene, and the "lot of us managed to find a blown-out door to use as a makeshift stretcher and were loading the Marine onto it" when the group was hit by an enemy rocket.

"I looked down, and my lap was full of blood," Webb said. "Most of the blood, alas, was from the poor Marine, when the back of his head just fell apart in my lap."  Still, Webb had sustained shrapnel wounds in the head, arm, butt, leg, ankle and foot.

Webb, the gravely wounded Marine and Greenway, who was also hit, were loaded onto a truck and hauled to the rear for medical attention. The Marine died there as he lay next to Webb.  As the helicopter was lifting off, enemy fire hit it, but caused little damage. He was later evacuated to Saigon and then to Bronxville, NY, for more surgery.   

Years later, then-Marine commandant Gen. Robert Barrow read about the incident and invited the three journalists to a ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington in 1980 and awarded each the Bronze Star, with Combat "V." 

Alvin B. Webb Jr. was born March 14 1935 in South Carolina, raised in North Carolina and Tennessee and educated at Duke University. His career in news  began at The Knoxville Journal, but in 1956, he joined the Raleigh bureau of then-United Press. Over the next three decades, he would be assigned to a dozen UP and UPI  bureaus on three continents and would report from even more parts of the world.   

His earliest assignments kept him in his native South, including coverage of the emerging civil rights movement there. 

With the U.S. gearing up its infant space program in 1959, Webb was assigned to open a new bureau at Cape Canaveral to cover it. Its internal UPI "bureau code" designation was "BW," standing for "Bird Watch." From there, he reported on the early unmanned rocket launches, followed by the Mercury 7 program of manned U.S. space flight. 

Webb later opened another UPI space reporting bureau at what is now the Johnson Space Center and continued his coverage of the accelerating U.S. effort to fulfill John F. Kennedy's promise to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade. But with a war rapidly escalating in Vietnam in 1966, Webb requested and got a transfer to Saigon.   

Once there, Webb, a cat fancier, insisted to fellow UPI staffers that he got regular early warnings of danger from his Siamese cat Snuffy that was "able to hear rockets coming in" and alert him by furiously spinning around.

He later said he considered the Tet offensive to be "the single most important story" he covered.  

After recovering from the wounds sustained in covering it, Webb briefly returned to Vietnam, but when he was deliberately deprived of field assignments for his safety, he asked UPI for another foreign posting. He became the second-ranking editor at UPI's European headquarters in London and later Brussels, then moved to Hong Kong as the agency's Asia Division news editor. 

In the mid 1970's, Webb was recalled to UPI's New York headquarters, where he edited major breaking stories, including the escape of Martin Luther King Jr.'s killer, James Earl Ray, and the 1976 Israeli commando rescue of 92 countrymen held by hijack terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda.
But he also remained a leading UPI "fireman," covering big stories, including the 1978 Peoples Temple massacre in the South American nation of Guyana, where an unusual  Northern California cult, which mixed fundamentalist religion and Marxism, had set up a jungle commune to get away from mounting legal troubles back in the U.S. At a remote airstrip near the Jonestown compound, named for leader Jim Jones, armed members of the group killed California Congressman Leo Ryan, who had come to investigate reports of abuse and mistreatment from relatives of group members, and four members of his party: three journalists and a would-be cult defector. Several others were badly wounded, including Ryan aide Jackie Speier, who now represents much of Ryan's old district in Congress. Jones then ordered his followers to kill themselves with a cyanide-laced drink, which Webb always pointed out was NOT the Kool Aid of erroneous legend and current jargon, but rather, Flavor-Aid. Jones' armed guards enforced his orders on those reluctant to follow.  

Webb, sent to head UPI's coverage and clad in a black turtleneck sweater in searing tropical heat, overcame communications difficulties to get out the bizarre story to a disbelieving world. He wrote and dictated stories over a single phone line to UPI's New York headquarters, shouting at editors there to keep the phone line open around the clock for days to send stories, photograph and radio transmissions.       
Webb later recalled, "We weren't sure at all at the start as to just what the death toll would be, but I seem to recall we believed it would run maybe a few score - 50 or 60, say."  Then the reported number of dead escalated, jumping up and up, prompting Webb to send new updates around the clock.  It became a grisly task.  

"U.S. authorities started coming out with the real totals, 525 and more, and these were starting to change at the rate of once every 30 to 45 minutes," Webb said. "Then I was told at least 600, maybe more, and I was momentarily stunned, or shocked, or something...I lost my breath about here. 
"It was all turning surreal, and numbers were just grotesque symbols that I really couldn't relate to people. I kept on writing and dictating.  I had barely gotten 750 at least out, when I had to tear that sheet out of the typewriter to put yet another number--this one over 800. Then it became more than 900  and rather quickly - and remarkably, I think, considering the circumstances--911.  The exact number turned out to be 913. It is a number I've never forgotten."

Not long after returning to New York from Guyana, Webb was assigned as UPI manager in increasingly chaotic Beirut, Lebanon. The city once known as the "Paris of the Middle East"  had become the center of a decades-long sectarian civil war. Even in the middle of it, Webb's kindness to homeless felines was again on display. He gathered up a number of stray cats and housed them in his room at the Commodore Hotel -- home also to the foreign press corps.

In the early 80's, Webb moved to U.S. News and World Report and also returned to London, to which he had become increasingly attached since his posting there in the early 70's. In 1986, he returned for a second London turn with a now rapidly shrinking UPI. He later switched to financial journalism for Bridge Information Systems, which was subsequently acquired by Reuters. 

In 1992, Webb became a British citizen and lived in England the rest of his life, occasionally spotted wearing bowler hat and tie that would have shocked colleagues and friends elsewhere in the world and become the rare American to embrace the game of cricket. He was a long-time member of the Surrey County Cricket Club and even became qualified to be an umpire at minor local matches.
 He also liked to host an annual home party for guests to watch the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race as well as his annual "Christmas Party,"  held in July because Webb believed "it's a much better time for Christmas." 

He remained active professionally, with part-time journalistic work for the Voice of America, Religion News Service, The Washington Times  and even a still-smaller UPI.  
On UPI's centennial anniversary in 2007, he told colleagues at The Washington Times: “UPI was my first, last and only love in journalism. The thrill of that competition, the absolute enjoyment of getting a story, of being accurate. It was the most fun I had in my entire life. Our mission was to get the facts down in an interesting order and let the reader make the conclusions. There was real integrity in that.” 

He is survived by his widow Elizabeth and an undetermined number of cats. 


written by Tom Foty with editing by Ron Cohen, Richard C. Gross, Michael Keats and William Wright.