A new production on Broadway, The Columnist, which ran April through June 2012, examines the life of famed Cold War–era journalist Joseph Alsop (1910-89), whose op-ed column “Matter of Fact” ran in hundreds of newspapers for nearly 40 years and whose influence in Washington was legendary. Starring John Lithgow as Alsop, the play opens with a secret that Alsop tried to protect his whole life—a 1957 tryst he had in Moscow with another man who turned out to be a KGB spy. The Soviets had taken photos, but the staunch anti-Communist went to the U.S. Embassy to report the scheme. The play jumps four years ahead to his friend President John Kennedy’s inauguration day, when the president stops by Alsop’s Georgetown home for a nightcap, following the round of inaugural balls.
Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright David Auburn said he became interested in Alsop when he was researching the Vietnam War. “The name Joe Alsop pops up in histories of the war,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “He’s now so obscure, I got interested in the question of how do you go from being a central, authoritative voice to being almost forgotten?”
The answer is that Alsop’s hawkish stance on Vietnam and his heavy-handed influence on presidents tarnished his image among colleagues. “He counseled presidents, whether they liked it or not—for decades,” wrote AP drama critic Mark Kennedy. Alsop’s nemesis, reporter David Halberstam (played by Stephen Krunken), who covered Vietnam for The New York Times, said that Alsop would drop by the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to be chauffeured around by Army helicopters and confer with top military and diplomatic brass over fine wine and French fare. Inevitably Alsop would report, said Halberstam, that “the war was proceeding swimmingly, save for a few…Communist sympathizers among the American press corps there.”
The play, which opened in April for a two-month run at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, features Boyd Gains as journalist Stewart Alsop, Joseph’s brother, with whom he cowrote “Matter of Fact” from 1945-58.
Alsop’s most oft-cited comment on the war appeared in his Sept. 13, 1965, column: “At last there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Alsop was predicting that the United States, whose troops “already number more than 100,000…likely to reach 200,000,” would eventually defeat Ho Chi Minh’s troops, unlike France, which lost because the troops fought “with grossly insufficient resources.”
According to the Times, at one point during the war LBJ was reported to have commented, when he decided to deploy another 50,000 troops, “There, that should keep Joe Alsop quiet for a while.”