by David Edgerley Gates
[A late-breaking rant---
PBS. It means to me, of course, TINKER, TAILOR, and DR. WHO, and THIS OLD HOUSE. If you’ve got kids, it would conjure up Fred Rogers, SESAME STREET, and THE ELECTRIC COMPANY. Some people first learned to read, or count, from watching these shows, and they introduced a framework for basic social skills, learning how to play well with others.
Quite a few years ago, the early ‘60’s, in fact, I worked as a cable-puller for WBGH in Boston. This was back in the day of Julia Child and Joyce Chen, say, before they got to be household names, and before ‘GBH became one of the major PBS content providers. It was pretty much a shoestring operation, and it wouldn’t have survived without viewer contributions and a subsidy from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
For reasons I’ve never understood, public television has been a target of the Right since the get-go. Perhaps there’s a perceived Leftie, or elitist, bias. Or, going in the other direction, the risk that so-called “public” broadcasting would simply be a government propaganda tool, like the Voice of America. (In its early days, for example, the BBC was usually seen as a mouthpiece for whichever party was in power, Tory or Labor.) But the most widely-used argument has always been the creeping Socialist one: taxpayer money shouldn’t support television programming. PBS first got legs, it should be remembered, in the heyday of the commercial broadcast networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC, their shows collectively labeled by Newt Minow as a “vast wasteland.” The point of public TV, known back then as “educational” television, was in fact that it wasn’t market-driven, and this alone seemed to lacerate the Right into a fury---public TV didn’t pay for itself.
Well, it’s not supposed to. Public television is like public transportation. It serves a greater good---okay, that’s the creeping Socialist in me, but the benefits seem so self-evident, to society at large. Public TV provides a window on the world that isn’t hostage to money, although they’re always short of it. Some of it is pablum, while some of it might be outside your comfort zone. Its purpose is to entertain, certainly, but also to provoke thought. It’s not meant to numb, it’s meant to evoke your curiosity. That’s what makes it necessary.
We now return you to your regularly-scheduled post.]
Charles McCarry doesn’t need me to plump him up. I got turned on to him when a friend loaned me THE SECRET LOVERS ---one of the best titles in spy literature, if I may be so bold---and then another friend recommended THE TEARS OF AUTUMN. (This is where I give a shout-out to Matt Tannenbaum and his long-running independent bookstore in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. McCarry hails from Pittsfield, and Matt knows him well enough to call him Charlie.)
McCarry was career CIA, or close enough as makes no difference. Reading, for example, THE MIERNIK DOSSIER, his first book, where farce veers into tragedy, you feel a visceral sense of how the real world unhappily intrudes on the hermetic calculations of the spymasters. McCarry is nothing if not unsentimental. Nor does he have much patience with the Ayatollahs of Langley. His concerns are more parochial. He works in the trenches. This isn’t to say his books have no political dimension, and in fact McCarry is well to the right of, say, LeCarré, whose active dislike of the Thatcher regime, for example, pushes his compass off true north, as a storyteller. McCarry shows a few of these same weaknesses, on occasion, although from the other side of the aisle. We can take the longer view, and forgive a partisan outlook, if these guys simply tell a rattling good story.
No single event, in my living memory, generated more sorrow and more controversy, than the Kennedy assassination. I’m of course of a certain age. There are people still alive who’d say nothing affected them more than Pearl Harbor, or the death of Franklin Roosevelt, and younger people who’d point to John Lennon, or Princess Di, or the attack on the World Trade Center. It depends whose ox is being gored, or what importance we attach to it, and where our sentiments lie. It’s easy to forget that Jack Kennedy wasn’t really a very popular president. He was roundly hated in certain circles, foreign and domestic, so when he was shot, fingers got pointed in a lot of different directions.
The first to circle the wagons were the Russians, who of course didn’t want it laid at the feet of KGB. Then there was Castro. Lyndon Johnson apparently believed up to the day he died that the Cubans were behind it. And then there was the mob, in particular the New Orleans boss, Carlos Marcello. They said he’d hooked Jack up with Judith Exner, or even Marilyn Monroe. But maybe that was Sinatra.
The genius of THE TEARS OF AUTUMN is that it doesn’t speculate about any of this crap. McCarry cuts right to the chase. In late October of 1963, a plot to depose the Diem regime was floated by disaffected Vietnamese generals and Kennedy signed off on it. The coup was effected, and Diem didn’t survive. Kennedy was by all reports shocked by what he’d put in play, not realizing what the consequences had to be. THE TEARS OF AUTUMN suggests that Vietnamese personal family honor, not politics at all, was behind Kennedy’s death, and McCarry lays in an utterly convincing back story, from Cuban mercenaries in Angola—--a great scene where Paul Christopher half-drowns a guy in a latrine trench---to their Russian patrons.
Do we believe any of this? Does in fact McCarry? I don’t know. There are a lot of big ifs. If, however, you happen to believe that Oswald wasn’t the only shooter, or that he was a patsy, THE TEARS OF AUTUMN has credibility. Not some horseshit scenario, not Oliver Stone and how Clay Shaw was a right-wing queer in the pay of the CIA, or Howard Hunt was in Dallas that day, wearing the same fright wig he wore at Martha Mitchell’s deathbed, or why Marina Oswald’s dad was a GRU general. (Actually, an intriguing question, that last.) None of this is answered.
My own opinion, Lee was a lone nutjob who got lucky. He was a Marine, you shoot iron sights at three hundred yards. He was a discontented cranklypants. He couldn't get it up, he had thinning hair or bad skin, who would care less? The plain fact is, he was just an asshole. They always are.
Why, then, is McCarry’s book so compelling, and what makes it so convincing? Well, because the mystery isn’t in the end the assassin, the guy who shot Jack Kennedy, or the Archduke Ferdinand, or Abraham Lincoln. The mystery is, as always, the rough draft of history.