Robert S. McNamara: 1916-2009

Excerpted from a 1972 column by the late William Caldwell in the Vineyard Gazette:

He’s a newspaper editor, decent and stern in his judgments on events and men, including himself, and he is troubled by the decision he made on the Kopechne case. Kopechne. Mary Jo. The Dike Bridge, remember?

“The Kopechne case, in case the item hasn’t reached you yet, is simple enough,” he writes. “A columnist in Philadelphia reported sneeringly Sunday that Mr. and Mrs. Kopechne (the parents of the girl drowned in a car driven by Senator Edward M. Kennedy three years ago) were about to buy a $100,000 retirement home in the Poconos and wasn’t that remarkable for a little insurance agent of modest means? The implication being, of course, that Teddy had settled a wad on Mary Jo’s folks.”

The question before him at that morning’s news conference was: How should that story be handled?

Have a chair. Make yourself uncomfortable. Let’s all of us sit in on that news conference.

. . . Take a case closer to home. Here’s a piece by Sanford Unger of The Washington Post about the confrontation on the ferryboat Islander, between Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense and now president of the World Bank, and a young man thus identified only as the assailant.

It happened on the night of Friday, Sept. 29, and the story has been sloshing to and fro since. Eminent voyeurs in Washington and New York have been phoning the office of the Vineyard Gazette to ask what, confidentially, did in fact occur.

Nothing much. Mr. McNamara was standing at the lunch counter on the upper deck of the Islander when someone called his name. He went to the door. In the darkness a voice said there was a telephone call for him in the wheelhouse aft. Mr. McNamara, who was expecting a call from his wife, started walking across the windy deck. Somebody grabbed at him and tried, says Sanford Ungar, to push him overboard.

Mr. McNamara thrust the assailant away, having either lost or not lost his glasses in the course of the waltzing — a detail that depends on who’s telling the story — and went back to the lunchroom. No charges were filed. The Federal Bureau of Investigation decided it didn’t qualify as a federal case. The Steamship Authority filed a description of the incident with the state police.

And that was that.

Or was it?

Again it can be and is often argued that Robert McNamara has been deprived — indeed willingly divested himself — of his right to privacy, including his right to be clobbered in a public place and to make no fuss about it.

. . . So what have you decided — that anything that happens to Robert McNamara serves him right, maybe?

Be careful. You are not pronouncing judgment on a man. You are deciding what’s news — what the reader has a right or a need to know.

And you may be in water deeper than Vineyard Sound.

Let your decision be that Mr. McNamara is entitled to no mercy. But now go on with the story as Sanford Unger tells it:

“McNamara’s assailant was an Island artist of no fixed address or telephone, who had shared a gallon of wine with several friends while waiting for the ferry to leave Woods Hole that night . . . So despondent and frightened was the attacker after he had been subdued that he later tried to throw himself overboard — but he was restrained from doing that too.”

Well, of course that’s different. One does not hold up pitiful nobodies to scorn or contempt. What public benefit could be served by scratching under that rock for news — and, by the way, are any drinker’s antics and his bouts of remorse news in fact?

Let’s restate the question and let’s precede the restatement with a cordial agreement that there’s no such thing as objectivity anywhere, except in the calculus of the mathematician. A man’s judgments reflect his gentle inheritance, his toilet training, his education, his capacity for systematic reflection, the state of his marriage and digestion and bank balance, and above all they reflect his environment, including his own conscience as a part of his environment.

If he is like most of us, a man tried more or less often to wonder what he expects of himself. Unless he is a Da Vinci or Einstein or Shakespeare he cannot answer the question. So he rephrases it. What, we ask in our small crises, do people expect of me? Beware how you reply, because what you think people expect of you is precisely what you think of people.

If you think your community wants you to be a giggling gossip, Mr. Editor, then aren’t you saying in so many words that your readers are malicious little scatterbrains?

If you think people are entitled as a matter of right to shove Robert McNamara around vicariously, aren’t you endorsing violence as an attention-getting device?

If you think people would rather be titillated or goosed or entertained than informed about the dull, brain-wearying, annoying public issues, what are you saying about the democracy whose life depends on the decisions of its electorate?

The question has nothing to do with God or Goebbels. It isn’t who you think you are. It’s who you think your readers are.

You bear quite a responsibility, my troubled friend.