Q&A: Playwright David Auburn on “The Columnist,” Joseph Alsop, and a Cold War Sex Scandal That Never Quite Was

Q&A: Playwright David Auburn on “The Columnist,” Joseph Alsop, and a Cold War Sex Scandal That Never Quite Was
Auburn on Alsop: "He was a very serious, gifted, and thoughtful man but at some point became a very compromised one."
(Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

In 1954, the powerful American political columnist and cold warrior Joseph Alsop discovered that the KGB had photos of him having sex with a young Russian male in a Moscow hotel room. His response figures in the denouement of “The Columnist,” the new Broadway drama by David Auburn, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of “Proof.” The play, which Daniel Sullivan is directing, begins previews on April 6 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre and stars John Lithgow. Alsop, who had the ears of presidents, becomes a ferocious defender of the Vietnam War in the 1960s,  pitting himself against such skeptics as  James “Scotty” Reston, then Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times, and David Halberstam, one of his eager young reporters. In the play, the latter contemptuously dismisses Alsop as the arrogant standard bearer of a “dying WASP elite.” But while Auburn debates the polarizing issues of the period, he insists that his play is not “polemical,” but rather an attempt to understand a complex and ambitious man trapped not only by his sexuality, but also history. 

What did you find so theatrical about Alsop?
In the context of the times, he certainly had a secret that would have destroyed his career had it become publicly known. So the idea of someone operating at a very high level under that kind of pressure just seemed inherently dramatic. This person is under strain all the time. Also just the idea that someone who was so vociferously anti-Communist was himself a victim of Soviet treachery out to humiliate and destroy him. Everything must’ve been very personal to him.

How was he able to navigate under that pressure?
He was an extraordinary egomaniac who had tremendous enthusiasm for the work, knowing powerful people, and exercising his influence. He lived to inhabit and charm that world very aware of his ability not just to discuss policy but  to effect it. We discovered a recording [from the Lyndon Johnson presidential tapes] in which Alsop is on the phone with Johnson just after the Kennedy assassination. They are talking about what would eventually become the Warren Commission Report. And Johnson can’t get a word in edgewise! Alsop keeps interrupting the President of the United States — “No, no, Lyndon, you don’t understand …” He had that kind of power.

Was Alsop blinded by it?
I think it’s important to say that he had real integrity both as a reporter and a very fine writer. He was a very serious, gifted, and thoughtful man but at some point became a very compromised one.  

What was the turning point?
The Kennedy assassination. He had been at the zenith of his power, his golden period. He had backed this horse and the horse had come in. And then this incredible loss pushed him in a direction that was more and more inflexible and more and more intolerant of other opinions. The tragedy is that someone so smart and knowledgeable, who had so much access and wielded such influence,  could become so wedded to a disastrous idea [the Vietnam War]. The idea of writing about someone whose political opinions are so different from mine appealed to me but I didn’t want to write about someone who I just despised or found uncongenial.  Many aspects of him were courageous and admirable.

Why was his rivalry with Halberstam so bitter?
Part of it was Alsop’s idea of “earned authority.” That only people with a certain age, experience and background were allowed to speak about the world, an older elitist vision of America. What was so impossible for him about the Vietnam era was that suddenly you had this younger generation, who he saw as having no credentials, challenging him … He was caricatured and mocked fairly widely.  There was an Art Buchwald Broadway farce in 1970 [“Sheep on the Runway”] which had crazily hawkish character, a journalist,  called “Joe Mayflower.” It infuriated Alsop.

To what extent  is your play a cautionary tale about being “inside the citadel,” as you put it?
Well, if you look at the run up to the Iraq War, the people who got it right, who came out looking good,  were the mid-level journalists, the Knight-Ridder journalists and editors, who were interviewing the mid-level CIA analysts and people closer to the ground. The people who were getting their information from top sources ended up looking very foolish. Joe only identified and worked with generals and cabinet heads and that warped his perspective. I could gas off but the play doesn’t have a polemical intent.

Is there someone of his power and stature out there today?
No. That’s one of the interesting thing about Alsop’s period. You really had a handful of newspaper columnists who spoke with real authority and with the object of influencing not just opinion but policy. That’s simply not true anymore and that’s a good thing. Opinion has become so atomized and democratized by the web and the decline of newspapers.

And is there a downside?
Yeah. Absolutely. I think the good side of that old elite gate keeping was that in Alsop’s era something like the “death panels” could never have made it into the public discourse; they wouldn’t have let a lie like that stand. And we don’t have that anymore and so this stuff can now circulate more easily.

Given Alsop’s enormous power at the time — and his lust for it — what made him so reckless when it came to his sexual life?  A pick-up in a Moscow hotel bar? In 1954?
That’s a good question and I’m not sure I have an answer for it. I don’t know to be honest. Maybe that’s something we’ll figure out in the construction of the play. He was certainly constrained by the times but still wanted to have a sex life which would have entailed that kind of recklessness. He had an enormous arrogance and that made him pretty fearless. It seems incredible that he wouldn’t have been aware of the risk but it must’ve seemed irresistible in the moment. 

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