Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on June 27, 1976 · Page 101
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 101

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, June 27, 1976
Page 101
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SPEAKING OF BOOKS Ehrlichmann, yes, Agnew, no. More Hellman memoirs "THE COMPANY," by John D. Ehrlichmann, Simon Schuster, .$8.95 "THE CANFIELD DECISION," by Spiro T. Agnew, Playboy Press, $8.95 Besides being a slickly plotted, fastpaced, all-around professional job of novel-Writing, The Company, by former assistant to the President for domestic affairs, John D.- Ehrlichmann, has two things in particular going for it. First, it's a roman a clef -- that is, a novel in which the characters seem to resemble certain actual people--and an especially clever one at that, because not only do the characters wear sandwich boards that make paiem as easily identifiable as people in a Jacqueline Susann story, but they also bear little labels that give you the feeling you are being let in on a secret by one who knows. For instance, President Richard Monckton, the character in the story who sets up his own intelligence team to plug up White House leaks, has the habit of slamming the tele u phone receiver into its cradle as hard as he can whenever he'~ finishes a conversation. "For years this unintended punctuation had brought him some subjective affirmation of his superiority over those mechanical and technical empires, which he neither controlled nor understood." - I don't know whether this detail is based on anything actual or not, but it sure sounds plausible enough. So it doesn't matter that Ehrlichman's characters have silly political-novel names such as William Archer Curry (a wealthy young president who was killed while still in office), or Esker Scott Anderson (Curry's vice president and successor, a former power in the Senate), or Dr. Karl Tessler (Richard Monckton's assistant for national security affairs, out of Harvard). They could be called Bushy, Bagot, and Green, and they'd still assume a substance of reality uncommon to most novels of this sort. Second, Ehrlichrnan sucks in the reader and sets up his expectations in a way that is especially cunning. The mainspring of his novel's plot is a Central Intelligence Agency director, Richard Martin, who is trying to cover up a dirty little errand he ran for President Curry in aborting "The Rio de Muerte Operation" (amphibious military landing in the Caribbean that failed disastrously for reasons known to the public). Curry's successor, President Anderson, or ESA, as he is commonly called, has used his dirty little errand as blackmail to compromise the "company's" independence from 'the Oval Office. So halfway through The Company you are certain that what Ehrlichman is about to demonstrate is that while President Monckton may have played a dirty trick or two on the United States Constitution, he was forced to do it by the fact that his predecessors played even dirtier ones. But that's not the point at all. The point, as it turns out, is not that Curry and Anderson were just as bad as Monckton but that Monckton is just as bad as Curry and Anderson--only dumber. And f u n n i e r , too. Trashy sex novel "AN UNKNOWN WOMAN," by Frederic Morton, Atlantic-Little, Brown, ?8.95 * . This is a trashy, sexy novel about a social activist named Trudy Le- tarpo who marries wealthy and powerful men. She also has a son by a presidential candidate as the result of a tryst on flour bags in a bakeshop basement during a demonstration. The presidential candidate is killed in a skiing accident. The son grows up into a teenager who hijacks a private plane belonging to Trudy's oil millionaire husband, because the old boy is exploiting the masses in Macedonia. As Trudy waits for the oil millionaire to arrive and talk the kid ^tiown, she flashes-back to key points in her life. The bakeshop tryst is'good stuff, but others may prefer: The part where she-marries a philosopher famous for his paintings done on coffin lids. The part where she visits the oil millionaire's private island and has · ""the size of her breasts admired by his peasant mother. The part where she inadvertently creates a fashion trend by showing '·'· 24m CHARLESTON.'W.VA. up at a ladies luncheon in a rain- soaked floppy hat. The part where she does battle with a New York social dragon over giving a benefit gala for earthquake victims. The part where she walks into her son's bedroom and finds him sandwiched between a Macedonian princess and the headmistress of his school. There is also a lot of material illustrating her concern over the plight of senior citizens living on fixed incomes and how the system thwarts her attempts to help. The author, Frederic Morton, has written other novels and a biography. The Rothschilds. At moments, in the saga of Trudy Letarpo, he slips into a trendy, short-hand style usually found in descriptions of expensive cosmetics and dresses designed for thin, rich women. This style and the great numbers of people, places and events packed into the novel sometimes make it difficult to follow what is happening. But there is enough of the bizarre and exotic in the novel to make it worth reading. When it comes but in paperback. Ann Hughey. W h e t h e r w e ' r e w i t n e s s i n g Monckton slamming down the phone receiver after a conversation with his mother; or Monckton on the eve of his election saying to his chief of staff, Frank Flaherty, "By God, Frank, that's the first time anyone has called me Mr. President. You may want to make some little note of that; the question may come up later. The press likes to know those little things. Footnotes to history."; or Lars H a g l u n d , White House operative, opening up a box of cuff links he has just received from Monckton ("I.have · these specially made up for my visitors, you know. But you don't have to worry--they are worth less than ten dollars, so you don't have to declare them"), only to find the box empty--we have to laugh at Ehrlichman's wickedness. I'm sorry, too. I'm no-more an admirer of the author than you are, in case you happen not to be one of his most fervent admirers. But let's face it: he has written an extremely entertaining book, and no one, not even the federal court of appeals, can take that away from him. It's a whole lot easier to dislike Spiro T. Agnew's novel, The Canfield Decision about a vice president who tries to jump on American exasperation with detente to bounce his way to the presidency, for one thing, Agnew's potboiler is based on the inflamatory premise that "American Jews exert an influence on American opinion that is far heavier than their numbers w o u l d i n d i c a t e . They a r e t h e strongest single influence in the big media--the media with worldwide impact. They control much of the financial community. Therefore, they heavily affect, through propa- g a n d a , the majority of the Congress. Oh, they scream anti-Semitism whenever anyone mentions this power, but it's true." (Of course, it's an Iranian terrorist who utters these words in the novel, so one can't quite "scream anti- Semitism" at the a u t h o r , even though the plot Of The Canfield Decision bears the terrorist out.) Worse, at least from an artistic point of view, the story is overde- tailed, the dialogue overexplicit, the characters overcliched, and the work left to the reader's imagination overlooked. Indeed, where most writers trying to construct a plausible story experience the sensation of sawing away at Uneven table legs until there is nothing left but slab, Agnew appears to have gone about his carpentry by adding on to the legs until whatever it was he was trying to support has disappeared from sight--everything, that is, except his theory about ov- erinfluential Jews. But one positive t h i n g you can Say for The Canfield Decision: Despite all the speculation to the contrary, Agnew appears to have written it all by himself. In fact, it is an insult to the writing profession to suggest that anyone was paid to help perpetrate this bilge. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Mr. Lehmann-Haupt is a staff .writer.for the New.York Times. "SCOUNDREL TIME," by Lillian Hellman, Introduction by Garry Wills, Illustrated, Little, Brown, $7.95. Lillian Hellman was of course a witness to the time in the late 1940's and early '50's when the voice of (Joe) McCarthyism was heard in the land. She was then all but married to the writer Dashiell Hammett, who was probably a Communist party member and who went to jail in 1951 for refusing to give the names of the contributors' to the bail bond fund of the Civil Rights Congress, of which he was a trustee. . She knew and had worked in Hollywood, a focal point of the House Un-American Affairs Committee hearings. She herself was called to testify before HURC in May, 1952; and she. was the first who figuratively speaking told the committee to go to hell and got away with it (for which she was admired by everyone from Arthur Krock to Murray Kempton). She has a long and precise memory. She has been systematically recalling what she remembers, first in "An Unfinished Woman, which appeared in 1969, then in Pentimento, published two years ago. So one might expect her memoir of the McCarthy period, Scoundrel Time, to be one of several possible things--an indignant denunciation of those who fought the Cold War, perhaps; or an exhaustive recollection of the many Hollywood people she knew who testified before the committee--in short, a strongly ideological work, or a book rich in historical detail. But Scoundrel Time is really n e i t h e r of these things. True, Miss H e l l m a n expresses her share of strong opinions--about "the children of timid immigrants . .. ( w h o ) often . . . make it so good that they are determined to keep it at any cost": about "the educated, the intellectual . . . only a very few (of which) raised a finger when McCarthy and the boys appeared"; about the intellectuals' "Cold-War anti-Communism, (which) was perverted, possibly against their wishes, into the Vietnam War and then into the reign of Nixon, their unwanted but inevitable leader." And she has her memories of Hollywood people--of C l i f f o r d Odets, the playwright and screenwriter, first shouting in her presence that he was going to tell off "those bastards on the committee," then "apologizing, (when he actually testified) for his old beliefs and identifying many of his old friends as Communists": of Elia K a z a n , the director, telling her shortly before he testified as a friendly witness, "It's okay for you to do what you want, I guess. You've probably spent whatever you've earned": of Harry Cohen the producer vainly begging her to sign a loyalty oath dictated by the studios, and pleading, "Listen, do you think I like ( i t ) ? I'm a loner. I don't like dictatorship. So let up on me, will you?" But essentially Scoundrel Time is neither ideological nor historical. Basically, it is a series of anec- dotes.and ruminations leading up to and away from an account of her . testimony before the committee. At heart, it is a meditation on Miss Hellman's self--wry, ironic, not quite apologetic but close to it, suffused with that curious combination of diffidence and determination we have come to know from her earlier autobiographical writings. What is Miss Hellman trying to tell us? It is not to be-understood too easily. But what I finally understand Miss Hellman to be doing is to show as accurately as she can how the McCarthy era affected the person whose life she knows best- namely herself. · Here she was, a person without any deep belief in a political program. (In fact, despite her having taken the Fifth Amendment during her HURC testimony, she never had joined the Communist party.) Yet she had her white Southern be- 'lief that "we had a right to think as we pleased, go our own, possibly strange ways," and her "thin morality book" that said "it is plain not cricket to clear yourself by jumping on people who are themselves in trouble." No very big deal. And for those principles her life was disrupted. Her livelihood was taken away from her. She was spied upon by people she thought were her friends. She was made to feel afraid. Also no very big deal, she implies, when you think what happened to some people. But it is significant, the reader can't escape feeling. Not because we are supposed to feel sorry for Miss H e l l m a n ; pity is about the last thing she would expect or want. Nor because we are persuaded one way or the other about the justification of the Cold War (we aren't: the closest she comes to commenting on that issue is when . she admits that Stalin Communism committed sins "that for a long time I mistakenly denied"). It is significant simply because it illustrates in highly personal terms what the Cold War did to decent people--how fighting in the name of freedom can undermine the very freedom in whose name one is fighting. This is an old story to people who lived through the period, though the particular way Miss Hellman tells it is unique. But it is a story worth at least recalling at a time when many are asking for the Cold War to be revived, and when some are retrospectively justifying McCarthyism for having brought home the Communist threat abroad (see Norman Podhoretz's .Unking the World Safe for Communism in the April issue of Commentary magazine). The danger is that when big ideas clash, people get trampled. Miss Hellman reminds us. Or to put it her way, "Truth made you a traitor as it often does in a time of scoundrels." In the latest installment of her memoirs, she offers one illustration of the truth as a case in point. By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Mr. Lehmann-Haupt is a staff writer for the New York Times. ·Iunf'27. J976, Sunday (!azi'ttr-.\-fail

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