Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor Geoffrey Cowan hosted a discussion with New York Times journalist Adam Nagourney and Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning author and director David Auburn at the West Coast premiere of his new play The Columnist.
The Columnist tells the story of journalist Joseph Alsop, who for more than 30 years worked in Washington, D.C. and passionately supported an escalation of the war in Vietnam. Alsop was a friend of politicians in a way that few journalists or columnists are today.
But to his foes, Alsop was relentless, calling all those who did not support a push for victory in Vietnam “cowards,” and few escaped his pen’s wrath — including President Lyndon B. Johnson. When Johnson chose to deploy another 50,000 troops to Vietnam, he is reported to have said: “There, that should keep Joe Alsop quiet for a while.”
As The Columnist demonstrates, however, Alsop was not so forthright about everything in his life. The writer was a closeted homosexual, and was married to his wife Susan only to conform to the period’s social norms. A work that follows the life of a man who yielded such force, and yet whose memory today is shrouded in obscurity, however, is partially justified by the fact that Alsop was not a typical antihero. As Cowan pointed out in the post-play discussion, “We have a tendency to romanticize the past, but Alsop, we liked him even though he was a bastard.”
But the nature of the performance, which was done without sets or costumes and with the actors using scripts, provided an interesting opportunity for the actors to demonstrate true emotional depth.
The performance was interesting not only due to its characters and subject matter, but also in the execution its dialogue. Rather than moving around the stage, the actors, all of whom remained onstage throughout the play, delivered their lines into a radio microphone because the performance will air on L.A. Theatre Works’ syndicated radio theater series, which broadcasts weekly on public radio stations nationwide. This made it all the more powerful when Stewart Alsop (John Getz) — who, unbeknownst to his brother, was suffering from leukemia — begged his brother Joseph to listen to the voices of the students against the war.
Equally as powerful was JoBeth Williams’ performance as Susan, a woman trapped in a marriage devoid of physical contact. Williams had to use only the slightest bit of inflection to demonstrate her true anguish.
Nagourney said one of the play’s most interesting developments is that Alsop was a true Washington insider, hosting dinner parties and schmoozing with political bigwigs such as former Ford Motor Co. president and President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
What has changed most drastically since Alsop’s time, Nagourney said, is that journalists can now be open about their sexuality. At the start of his career, Nagourney, who is openly gay, feared his sexuality would prevent him from getting a job at The New York Times. Now, he jokes, it might be easier to get a job at the Times as a gay individual since many current political reporters are. One of his openly gay colleagues even had a wedding announcement in the Times, something that was simply unheard of for Alsop.
Comparing today’s media and the news organizations of the 1960s is what drew Auburn to Alsop’s story. Today, there are many more columns or opinionated articles available to readers.
“I think it’s more democratic now,” he said.
But Nagourney said that with the plethora of material available to readers today, columnists are seen as less of an authority because people have more choices to make and can choose what news and opinions cater to their interests.
“It’s much harder being a news consumer these days,” he said, noting that technology has changed the way readers react to material.
“Alsop would never have gotten 500 tweets about a story,” Nagourney said.
Often, it seemed as though Alsop was writing more for himself than for his readers, and he fought a tireless campaign against journalists such as the young David Halberstam, who wrote extensively in opposition to the war. Auburn said he appreciated the commitment Alsop had to his beliefs — though sometimes these beliefs were not popular among his peers. Alsop’s autobiography ended with his coverage of the Kennedy administration, choosing not to venture into later debates over America’s role in Vietnam.
“He was a man of strong opinions and informed and I liked that,” Auburn said, “but he was flawed in his ability to moderate himself and even toward the end of his career he was turning into a joke.”
During his research for the play, Auburn said he spoke to Alsop’s family members, including his stepdaughter Anne. In their discussions, Anne told Auburn of her stepfather’s difficult personality. “She told me, ‘You have to bully a bully,’” Auburn said. For the purposes of the play, Anne and her brother were combined into the character of Abigail, played by Tara Lynne Barr.
Auburn said he was somewhat fearful when Anne told him that the Alsop family reunion was taking place in New York during The Columnist’s Broadway run and the whole family bought tickets.
“I could just imagine how awful it would look when the center five rows of a Broadway theater got up and walked out,” Auburn said.
But his concerns were unfounded since the family enjoyed the play.
Still, much has changed since the beginning of Alsop’s career. Nagourney said presidents are no longer seen as friends with the press, and scandals such as Watergate shifted the journalist’s relationship with the government from a partnership to a more adversarial one. For someone who wrote stories for a living, however, Alsop’s story was worth retelling.
“I’m not sure there are any journalists on the scene now that people 30 years from now will be writing a play about,” he said.
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