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Friday, May 11, 2007

Andy Martin: Forty Years Later in Washington



(WASHINGTON, DC)(May 12, 2007) A few days ago Larry King made a large production of his fifty years in journalism, if you call what King does broadcasting (I would call it sleepcasting).

My 40 years as an investigative researcher, journalist and "etc." won't be celebrated in the same fashion as King's, but it is forty years since I began investigating and writing, and irritating, and doing a little bit of a lot of other things that usually puts me where few people want to be and where I have always liked being. (And I will celebrate 40 years as a broadcaster--in 2008.)

I arrived in Washington this Thursday morning for a series of confidential meetings as well as public news conferences, tired after not having slept all night, and appeared at my favorite hotel, the Capital Hilton, with what must have been a hang-dog look. I looked at the woman behind the desk and asked for an early check-in. She was from the U.K. and we chatted about our neighborhood in London. I took the room she offered.

Then I opened the curtains and looked out on the last 40 years of my life. My room, 582, overlooks 16th and K streets, a couple of blocks down from the White House.

I looked at the corner across the street. It's a Starbucks now. Forty years ago it was the ticket office for Pan American Airways. In 1967 I was told to walk over there and pick up a ticket, and I did. To Saigon.

In 1967 as in 2007, Washington was at war. Then as now we were fighting both a real enemy and an imaginary enemy.

Then the majority party responsible for the losing war was the Democrats. Now the losing party is the Republicans. Candidates up for election/reelection in 2008 are looking for the same exit signs along the war's highway that candidates were seeking in 1967. But the road to war, and the road back from war, is an unmarked turnpike. You keep paying and hoping to find the exit sign. My guess is that it won't any easier for the Republicans to find their way home than it was for the Democrats.

My sponsor then was a retired U. S. Senator, Paul Douglas. Douglas was an unlikely close friend of President Johnson, and a man who had high hopes for me because of my independent spirit and political instincts. I was already an old Washington hand at the age of 21. My plans to enroll in law school in Washington had changed in 1966; I went back to the University of Illinois.

Forty years later I'm a little older now and, I hope, a lot wiser. But I am still independent and committed to the truth.

If the truth be told, my thoughts were a lot more conflicted then than they are now. When you are 21 no one expects you to be a diplomatic expert, or a skilled analyst. They know that young men hunger for experience, adventure, challenge and testing. Maybe in a fairer or more sensible world the old guys would jump out of helicopters and the young men would watch at home on TV. Wars would end a lot faster that way. But that's not the world we live in.

And, as I noticed somewhere along the way, just as paranoids can have enemies, so too can countries. Sadly, sometimes nations are no more efficient and effective than paranoids at dealing with their enemies, real and imagined.

A few days later in 1967 I was to walk through a looking glass from official Washington to jungles and jumbles. From bases to sometimes no base at all. Just myself. A singleton in a singular world. You grow up fast under those conditions. It was to be over a decade later before someone actually stuck a gun in my gut and said "let's go;" in Viet-Nam the enemy was largely unseen. Or not much seen.

I learned some lessons jumping out of helicopters into rice paddies, though, and those simple truths have stayed with me for a lifetime. Indeed.

My initial assignment was a short-term one, and I finished up in time to reregister for law school in the fall. Dan Balz was the editor of the Daily Illini them, and he edited a few columns I penned for the student newspaper. There was muted controversy, but not a lot. The explosions of 1968 were still in the future.

Looking back forty years, and looking ahead to 2008, there are obvious problems for the Republicans. It was not until early 1968 that President Johnson quit. President Bush is under pressure to put up or show up in September. In 2007. We are all more impatient now than we were 40 years ago. If I remember correctly, in 1967 TV network film still had to be sent by plane to Hong Kong before it could be processed for the U. S. Today digital cameras are everywhere, e-mail and video feeds instantly available around the world, to friend and foe.

I saw the impact of changed media in Iraq, one day near Kufa. I knew Iraq would be different long before I got to Baghdad; but it was still jarring to see the truth in action. The margin of error in war, and the margin of lying, had been reduced to zero.

Soldiers get old and retire, and a lot of their wisdom and experience goes with them. But our historical wisdom and experience as a nation should never retire; it should remain there through the ages to guide us. That has not been the case with Iraq. Obviously, some of our leaders in Washington were basing their actions on the last major conflict, not the current one. And opinions too.

Instant communications has made decision-making more difficult, not easier. And it has made political posturing more potent, not more patient.

If Iraq had been fought in 1967 with 2007 media? Good question. Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening would have had a much larger following, much faster, with much more power. Bobby Kennedy might have jumped sooner. Gene McCarthy would have been, well, Gene McCarthy. A lot of the bad things that were happening in Viet-Nam took longer to percolate; today the coffee's ready, instantly.

I grew up in a foreign policy household, being lectured about the Holocaust and Middle East and World War II, not about box scores and motor boats. I actually remember Korea.

Suddenly I found myself transitioning from law school to a clandestine world where laws barely existed and no one would bother to read them. It's hard to seek truth under those conditions, but sometimes truth appears, uninvited. And sometimes we stumble over truths. And sometimes--unbelievably--we actually find them. And so it was with me in 1967.

Now, forty years later, I firmly believe laws and the rule of law are essential, even in the middle of a war. That is why I have been so disappointed by the self-inflicted tragedy of Guantanamo, the mistreatment of prisoners, the unnecessary abuses that have exacerbated the problems in Iraq. The hubris of George Bush & Co. At least President Johnson read the newspapers.

I think (not sure) that Colin Powell was out there in Viet-Nam during the summer of 1967, learning his lessons just as I was learning mine.

My experiences led me to march against any Iraq invasion before the war began. I could not believe we would commit such a blunder. How could another major conflict begin in my lifetime? Was this insanity? It seemed impossible to believe we could be so stupid. But we were. And now it is 2007, not 1967. Where do we go from here?

While I don't think much of Powell as a warrior, he was a more than competent soldier. More's the pity that Powell abandoned his own "Powell Doctrine" for political ambition, and ignored the reality that his undying principles of military engagement (political support, massive force, exit strategy) were being ignored in 2002. Powell knew that ignoring them would lead to disaster in Iraq. He should have jumped out of the Bush Administration's helicopter a lot sooner than he did. His caution made him a casualty of a war he opposed on the inside but could not bring himself to expose on the outside. Blind loyalty and ambition became his own toxic cocktail.

In Iraq, we manufactured paper mache public support, went in with too small a force, and had no exit strategy worthy of the name. And we believed our own nonsense. The same way that today we are believing our own nonsense about Iran.

The world was much smaller in 1967 than it was in 2003, but we made the same mistakes. Computers and satellites and all of the other paraphernalia of modern politics and government did not improve decision-making one whit.

And, of course, Hillary Clinton, who as a presidential candidate says she knows it all, and made the same claim in 2003, now says she knew nothing in 2003. Sergeant Schultz would be proud. If, as Emerson said, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," Hillary is no little mind.

So, I didn't close the shades on my room yesterday, hoping to close out the last 40 years. Time moves on and Bush will move on and Iraq will end. That's one of the lessons I learned one day, one night actually, somewhere in an unknown rice paddy in 1967.

Of course, as I looked out my window across the street at the old Pan Am ticket office, I was once again reminded of one of my favorite poems, by Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken."

That day in 1967, when I crossed the street and picked up my ticket to Saigon, "I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."

Today I went over for a Starbucks.

Chicago-based Internet journalist, broadcaster and critic Andy Martin is the Executive Editor and publisher of © Copyright by Andy Martin 2007. Martin covers national and world politics with forty years of personal experience. Columns also posted at; Comments? E-mail: Media contact: (866) 706-2639. Cell (917) 664-9329 Web sites:;


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