Saturday, December 31, 2011

In the Time of the Assassins


So here we are, hours from 2012.  Will it bring fiscal redemption, a stock market surge, the decompression of sovereign debt?  Is the rapture genuinely imminent?  For those whose chips are properly positioned?

We shall certainly see.  Meanwhile, the world we live in is becoming more and more Byzantine, literally, as in the stagnant and ominous final stages of the Ottoman Empire.  There seems to be a bomb under construction in every basement, a blade behind every arras.  Send whatever you can spare to The Department of Homeland Security.

In 2003 Tree Farm Books published a novel that anticipated a lot of this.  The Nature of the Beast came out of perhaps twenty years of mixing it up with spooks, matching wits with the gentleman spymasters who put together the early decades of the CIA -- my preparation for writing The Old Boys.  The Beast, as shocked members of my wife's family soon came to refer to the book, made its way on several levels.  It was a chase -- a recently retired senior officer from the Agency, Owen Rheinsdorf, was tasked by his patrician ex-boss, Munson Dickler, to hunt down and deal with an operative under contract to the Agency who seemed to be running amok.  The operative on whom this contract was being put out was a young -- late twenties -- socially primitive backwoods kid with a predilection for the young.  Pruitt Rumsey was a child molester. 

Still, the Agency hated to part company with Pruitt because of his uncanny inventiveness and efficiency when it came to his specialty, wet work.  Rumsey was a natural, the sort of assassin his case officer at the Agency could send out confident that the target wouldn't be a problem much longer.  An obituary was all but guaranteed inside of a month or so, usually specifying natural causes.  But Rumsey had recently been arrested and thrown into a local jail for losing control of himself with a seductive little girl, and now he threatened to talk freely unless the Agency intervened.

All this seemed startling -- over-the-top -- when the novel appeared.  It was generally ignored.  The larger theme -- the ethical consequences of a life in the shadows of uncontrolled intelligence work, nicely elaborated during the exchanges between Rheinsdorf and Dickler over the course of the narrative -- never seemed to become apparent to the casual reviewers.  But intelligence professionals understood.   "You have truly captured the dark world of intrigue and crafted a splendid plot," John Waller, himself a much-published historian and for many years the Inspector General of the CIA, wrote me upon discovering the book.

As it happened, throughout the eighties and nineties I formed close friendships with several CIA contract operators who actually took on the sort of missions at which my villain Pruit Rumsey had been so adept.  One, a mild-seeming retiree whose origins were undetectable in several languages, with whom we often overnighted in Connecticut enroute to Manhattan, encountered The Nature of the Beast as he attempted to fight off a cancer.  I got a posthumous note from him thanking me for writing the book, which he maintained he read and reread throughout his terminal months.  Somehow, it provided him a lot of comfort.

So literature can involve some unanticipated rewards.  One now presents itself.  One of the astonishing side-effects of computerization is to permit small publishers like Tree Farm Books to offer a digitized edition, either PDF or HTML format, of both The Nature of the Beast and The Old Boys directly, at a gratifying discount from the cost on Amazon.  Just go to the following variation of the Tree Farm Books site and bring your credit card.  Pruitt Rumsey will all but land in your lap.  The address: .

Good reading.  We will be in touch before long.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

On Productivity


Ho ho ho.  Tis the day before Christmas, and all through the house my children and grandchildren and all the lizards and cucarachas and fruit rats and assorted hangers-on are muttering carols as they eye the giftwrapped boxes and swig the wassail and dart out to nibble on the crumbs of fruit cake that have hit the tiles during the revels of the midday.

The holidays in Florida.  I just returned after acquiring a new cell phone, a gift from our son.  The store manager who sold it to us, a recent immigrant from Durban, South Africa, was extraordinary for his endless patience and total competence.  Clerks these days so often seem a little at a loss as to how to make change, let alone the intricacies of the warranty. 

Which leads me into the subject of the day.  I recently watched Donald Trump bitching about the time he spends grinding his teeth on his phone while some purported technician from Mumbai or the Falkland Islands or wherever attempts to talk him through a series of confusing steps that just might get his computer back on line.  Frequently in an English incomprehensible outside the Third World.  Every subscriber his own electronic repairman. There really aren't a great many issues, political, sociological, what have you, on which Donald Trump makes a lot of sense to me.  But this was one.  I am considering writing Trump in when the Republican primaries reach Florida.

The real point here is the genuine cost, in time, money, and frustration, of the supposed efficiencies many of the Great Corporations have engineered and managed to hang on us. AT&T and AOL might save money offshoring their back-up services, but what is an hour of Donald Trump's time worth?  I know I've brought this up before, but what kind of outcomes does, say, one of my publishers expect when he turns over publicity and promotion responsibilities on my latest book to some sweet, utterly inexperienced -- and unpaid -- intern with an empty rolodex and a lot of apprehension when it comes to dialing up even those individuals on whose radio and TV shows I had appeared a few years earlier, whose contact information I had long since provided.  So the calls don't get made, the opportunities are thrown away, and the new book doesn't sell nearly as well as the earlier book, which got a push from accomplished professionals.  If only, my disgruntled publisher mutters, my latest work was up to the previous book.  But at least he cut his losses in advance by economizing on staff.

What I am obviously getting at is the extent to which our companies, by adopting policies that seem to save money at the time, are undermining a respect for professionalism throughout the economy, discouraging the development of oncoming generations well enough trained -- and well enough paid -- to inherit the work load during the decades coming up, and compromising our industrial future.  These days there is virtually no push-back from the dispirited labor unions.  Our discussion across most of the political spectrum seems to be about what the rest of us can do to help the rich get richer; every year we seem to be pouring more sand into the cement on which the structure of our future is going to depend.  By permitting the lobbiests to shape our tax laws so as to give advantages to the corporations that manufacture and provide services largely overseas, we are expediting the coming economic implosion.  The law school graduate subbing as an unpaid intern in some enormous law factory  -- and sleeping on her parent's couch, and sweating her graduate-school loans -- faces quite a slog. 

Every competent parent knows that he has to invest in his children.  The time is long overdue for our leaders to understand that we have got to invest in all our children.

Let the Holidays roll!


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

About Marilyn


Again, a film rumbling through the theaters triggers a blog.  Like J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn alights on an iconic personality, a name still smouldering with our secret emotions.  The focus, of course, is Marilyn Monroe.  From the moment she wriggled across the screen as Louis Calhern's vagrant mistress in The Asphault Jungle until she literally broke Clark Gable's heart in The Misfits, Marilyn inhabited our fantasies.  Bobby Kennedy would recall his brother Jack, helpless in yet another hospital bed, jacking off to a poster of the naked Marilyn plastered across his ceiling.

The Weinstein brothers have turned reimagining the secret anguish of the English upper classes into an late-life avocation.  What surprised me was how closely the Marilyn Monroe of this film touched on the celebrity herself -- succulent, as manipulative as an empress, apprehensive to the point of neurotic paralysis yet unable to keep from indulging every vagrant appetite.  The plot here concerns the shooting of a film in England, The Prince and the Showgirl, over the course of which Marilyn's bridegroom, Arthur Miller, gives up on her and returns to Manhattan while the star toys with a good-looking young English go-for.

Marilyn off the screen first came to my attention during the nineteen-eighties.  I was digging up the history of the CIA for The Old Boys.  During the 1950s Eisenhower's crusty Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was alarmed when the new postcolonial nations of the South Pacific attempted to coordinate their policies as "neutralists" at the Bandung Conference, which Dulles dismissed as "The Dark-Town Strutters Ball."  Their leader was Indonesian President Achmed Sukarno, a swart, wiry activist in a pitju well known to appreciate the ladies.  According to several sources, the CIA arranged a romp for a Sukarno look-alike with a very energetic blond, which the Agency filmed in Los Angeles and subsequently released around the workl to discredit the disobedient Indonesian before the upcoming elections.  What was an embarrassment to the Presbyterian Dulles was one more proof of their leader's boundless vitality to the Indonesian voters, which returned him to power with a much-expanded majority.  A rumor went around the Agency that Marilyn had done the CIA a favor.

I suppose that nothing I have ever written has upset people as much as my treatment of the 1962 romance between Marilyn and Bob Kennedy in Bobby and J. Edgar.  Like everything else in that controversial book, each episode was built on very hard evidence.  Testimony by Ethel Kennedy's brother is backed up by interview and written material from Peter Lawford.  I myself spent a day with the FBI agent who accompanied Bob around Los Angeles much of that fateful summer.  The details of how Marilyn died is revealed in the important book, Double Cross, by Sam Giancana's brother and stepson.  The Los Angeles Coroner's report -- declassified recently, after forty years -- corroborates the Giancanas' insistence that Marilyn succumbed to a lethel enema.

Like incontrovertible proof that JFK died in a crossfire in Dallas, the final infatuation and murder of Marilyn Monroe elicits disbelief in many.  Americans these days operate according to the precept:  "This can't be true because I don't want it to be true."  At times readjusting reality gets to be a lot of work.  Nevertheless, over the long run, the truth turns out to be a lot easier to live with.  But this is something we are only now beginning to discover.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Bill Colby -- Viet Nam Redux


Again, events have overtaken me.  My friend the astute Merle Allshouse has alerted me to the piece in the December 6 Huffington Post by Christina Wilkie.  Filmmaker Carl Colby, the son of ex-CIA Director William Colby, has produced a documentary dealing with the controversial life and -- especially -- the final moments of his father's life.  Colby disappeared in a canoe, leaving his dinner half eaten, into the Wimlico River in Maryland one evening in 1996.  Rumors circulated as to whether he had died of a heart attack, whether he had been dispatched, or whether Colby had taken his own life, an explanation Carl seems to favor.

Everybody familiar with Colby recognized that he was self-controlled to the edge of utterly cold-blooded.  As it happened, I knew Bill Colby fairly well.  The night after he disappeared I appeared on the Lehrer Show to speculate on his whereabouts. Colby had a history freighted with contradictory performances.  He ran the "Phoenix" program in Viet Nam, an initiative which resulted in the arbitrary singling out and assassination of somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 alleged Viet Cong agents, largely on hearsay evidence or to settle village feuds or eliminate prominent Buddhists.

After he came clean before the Church Committee and revealed the Agency's notorious "family jewels," Bill left the CIA and developed a law practice heavy with arms merchants and druglords.  Such clients had played a very important if carefully classified role in the later years of the Viet Nam War itself.  I would guess that they were the ones that did him in.  Nelson Rockefeller had been openly alarmed by Colby's impulse to divulge Agency secrets before committees of Congress -- to "go to confession," as the ubiquitous Henry Kissinger remarked at the time.

The recurrent allegations that Bill Colby might have committed suicide strike me as unfounded -- Colby was a devout Catholic.  The Agency had traditionally done a great deal of business with dope dealers, who supplied a lot of the financial resources stashed away in off-the-books accounts for operations the Congress would no doubt have refused to fund had they ever been disclosed.  Once, when I brought that up with Richard Helms while researching The Old Boys, he literally threw up his hands.  "Don't ask me about that," he laughed.  "You could not overestimate the amount of money we sloshed in and out of bank accounts all over the world."  The presumption was always that the gentlemen operatives at the top of the Agency were far better equipped to decide when to step in and rejigger Third-World governments than those bumblers in Congress.  It could be that his post-CIA legal clients were starting to get alarmed at the possibility that Colby might go public one more time.

The paradox in Colby's case was the fact that he was a very serious Roman Catholic.  Perhaps the extent to which Cardinal Spellman and his like pushed us into Viet Nam -- see my treatment of Vatican politics and the lead-up to the war in Bobby and J. Edgar -- justified Colby's ambiguous moral stance.  Colby personally never gave up on defending our military presence in Southeast Asia, and later wrote a book with the inimitable James McCargar, Lost Victory, to justify his conviction that we were that close to winning over those elusive Vietnamese hearts and minds.

Personally, I always found Colby likeable and a bit shy, but straighforward.  Find and read my piece in The Washingtonian on Colby and Jim Angleton (Sept., 1985, Dragons Have To Be Killed).  Both of these intractable cold warriors are very much front and center in The Old Boys, my group portrait of the first few generations of the American  intelligence community. 

I suppose that it is interesting that the media are starting to heave up these remnants of our disastrous war in Southeast Asia just as we are starting to face reality and extract ourselves from Afghanistan.  As Von Clausewitz said, "Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."