10 October 2012

CHARLES McCARRY: The Tears of Autumn

[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.  


  1. Thanks, David.

    Charles McCarry -- obviously I'm going to HAVE TO read this guy! He sounds right up my alley. I really appreciate you letting us in on his writing.

    On the PBS subject, I'd like to make a positive comment about PBS, presented from somebody who lies pretty far on the right wing of the political spectrum: ME.

    What program filmed an Iraqi bomb-making facility that included an airport detection gate, with other evidence the Iraqis, under Hussein's leadership, were planning to blow up commercial airliners? The PBS program FRONTLINE -- not exactly a stable of far-right folks. They did so in a terrific episode that I believe was entitled "Inside the Special Forces" in which they tailed an A-Team or two around Iraq. Great stuff, and it appeared only here; it was ignored in any other media I saw, read or listened to.

    Do I enjoy the leanings of programs like Independent Lense? Personally: No. My solution? I don't watch it much.

    As a parent, I also believe shows like Seseme Street probably helped shorten kids' attention spans (with the help of parents who employ TV as a babysitter), but I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Speaking as a guy with a J-school degree, I think PBS news reporting is unquestionably the most in-depth available on television. They're about the only folks who aren't hung up on sound-bites, and still take the time to actually discuss the issues.

  2. As a nation, we're becoming an educational third world country. We've thrown aside the things that made us great and grown anti-education, anti-science, anti-history, and Americans are pathetically innocent in geographic and world terms.

    Minutes ago, I read an article that in the Bush/Cheney and Obama eras, university high-profile sports, particularly football, have become a financial drain on universities and instead of cutting back, schools are charging higher tuitions to pay for college basketball and football. Meanwhile, I've seen rants that Obama should finish the job Bush started and kill Pell grants and government-sponsored scholarships entirely. PBS has been one of the few institutions that fought back against the yawning ignorance facing this nation.

  3. Good piece- and the Tears of Autumn goes on my reading list.

  4. The McCarry book sounds like a good companion to the one I just finished reading, Stephen King's 11/22/63. There's a lot of suspense as the time traveler protagonist tries to figure out whether Oswald is indeed a lone asshole, making it justifiable to kill him before the crucial moment. But the book overall is character-driven, not a thriller, and the heart of it for me was the tremendously nuanced comparison between now and 1958-1963--a historical period that I myself lived through.

  5. "The mystery is, as always, the rough draft of history." There's a quote I will keep. Beautiful job!!

  6. Never read McCarry, may give him a try. Personally, I don't understand your last sentence. "rough draft of history" usually refers to newspapers, I think. Care to elucidate?

  7. Thanks, all. I'd also recommend a later McCarry title, THE BRIDE OF THE WILDERNESS, based on the Deerfield Raid in the 1600's, which isn't a spy story.
    @Rob: I meant that, in the event, nobody knew exactly what had happened, and even in the first 72 hours---and after Ruby shot Oswald---there were already competing narratives. 50 years later, we're still arguing about the Grassy Knoll, say. One of the more intriguing books is EJ Epstein's LEGEND, about Oswald and the KGB. In other words, we'll never know for sure, any more than we did at the time. That's why my use of the phrase, "rough draft."

  8. The Republicans are correct about one thing only, that PBS should not receive public funding any more. Besides that significant source of income, they show just as many commercials as the regular TV stations, not to mention the delightful beg-a-thons they run several times a year. CBS, NBC, HBO, etc. get along just fine without beg-a-thons and public funding, so why can't PBS?

  9. I suspect Ramsey Clark got it right, that Oswald didn't act alone. I was astounded at the forces brought to bear against Stone's JFK, which was pretty solidly based on Mark Lane's work. That great Texas comedian Bill Hicks, had a great take on the assassination.

    PBS has been one of the few institutions that fought back against the yawning ignorance facing this nation. It was painful to see Orlando's WMFE television station sold to yet another Christian broadcasting company. Meanwhile, its sister radio station, once the radio voice of NASA, stopped broadcasting original news and classical music… apparently too few people understand it.

  10. @ Leigh: My own take on JFK is that the first half was fascinating, why Garrison smells a rat and gets involved, but the second half fell down when Stone tries to explain what really happened. On the other hand, the hostility the movie generated is puzzling. There are, of course, an enormous number of open questions, not least the later Golitsin-Nosenko controversy at CIA: Nosenko claimed to have been Oswald's case officer during Oswald's time in the Soviet, and told his debriefers that KGB had no interest in the guy (a totally unbelievable assertion).

  11. David, you've piqued my interest. I'll have to check this guy out.

  12. I will definitely have to read "The Tears of Autumn." Back in grad school I wrote a research paper on the Diem assassination, and learned what a CIA manipulated coup it was. The chilling transcript of Diem's desperate phone call, begging for protection as his assassins were banging at the gates, to US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (who basically told him, "tough shit") must be read to be believed. Ten hours later (if not sooner), Diem is dead. I've always thought the fact that Diem was assassinated on November 2, 1963, and JFK on November 22, 1963, should have every conspiracy theorist in the world foaming at the mouth. Nice to see that someone has run with it.

    (Re PBS - I know that the argument on the right is that PBS should face the same market forces as any other TV station. My immediate responses to my conservative friends (and I have many) is that I'll agree to defunding PBS if they'll agree to defund oil companies; why shouldn't Exxon, et al, make it without government handouts? This intrusion of politics is now over)

  13. @ Eve: According to the Thomas Powers CIA book, still one of the best, Kennedy didn't understand what he'd set in motion, that the Viet generals didn't intend Diem and Nhu to survive the coup. Ambassador Lodge and almost certainly the Saigon station chief knew exactly what the results would be, and signed off without second thoughts. Lodge, to my knowledge, never expressed any remorse.

  14. A fascinating column. I too now plan to start reading McCarry.


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