By Bruce van Voorst
Ben Bradlee, my first Washington bureau chief, constantly rasped out the Spartan warning when giving assignments: "Come back with your shield or on it." Early on in my career I got a kudogram from foreign editor Arnaud de Borchgrave. "Frame it,” Ben said, “it's the only one you'll ever get." He was right. Bradlee went on to fame as editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon.
Honey Traps: Dwight Martin, a much travelled foreign correspondent and New York editor in the 1960s, learned that I would be traveling in East Europe communist countries. He advised me on dealing with "honey traps." These were beautiful female seductresses working for the local intelligence services who aimed to set journalists up in sexual trysts. The reporter was then presumably vulnerable to political blackmail, or embarrassing expulsion, when agents burst in and photographed.
"When they show you the incriminating picture in 8x10,” said Martin, “look pleased and ask if you can have it in color and 12x16." Dwight had been around.
To Err: I was German bureau chief in 1965, chatting quietly with Willy Brandt, candidate for chancellor of West Germany in the city hall of Luebeck. He traditionally went there on the eve of an election. Brandt, smoke swirling around his head as always, turned to me. He had seen polling reports: "Herr van Voorst," he said, "Tomorrow I will lose the election. My political career will come to an end." Brandt was right on the election. He lost to Ludwig Erhardt. But he was dead wrong about his future.
The next year he entered a "Grand Coalition" as foreign minister and vice chancellor and in 1969 was elected chancellor in his own right. Brandt went on in 1971 to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at reconciling East and West Germany. His policy of Ostpolitik (East policy), which aimed to gradually undermine communism by opening trade and cultural relations with East Germany, achieved a historic success in 1990. Germany was reunified, with Berlin its capital.
Later I had a chance to joke with him about his "end of political career" comment. "Irren," he said with a broad smile, "ist Menschlich." “To err is human.”
Wild Ride: In July, 1973, as Buenos Aires Bureau chief, I learned of an attempted coup against Chile's Salvadore Allende. Airline routes into Chile had been shut down. I and my BA assistant hired a car to drive in the middle of the Southern winter over the Andes--at 22,841 the world's highest mountain range outside of Asia. . Horrendous winds. Boulders the size of Volkswagen Beetles bounced past us down the road. The car veered all over, skidding to the rim of steep precipices plunging thousands of feet down. We overnighted in a log cabin at the
summit with grizzled railway workers.
Next morning revealed an awesome snow storm--visibility six feet. Fortunately, our driver was smuggling whiskey. I bought his entire cache and bribed the rail workers to dig us through three foot snow drifts that stretched for what turned out to be more than a kilometer. We pulled into Santiago with the gas gauge on zero. There I learned that the coup had failed; Allende was still in power.
I called Ed Klein, the New York editor assigned to write the story. Klein responded without passion, "No coup, no story. Go back to Buenos Aires" No kudos; no pat on the back, no "you earned a raise for risking your life." Just get back to BA. Foreign editor Bob Christopher, a wonderful gentleman, later called to raise my spirits.
I did manage to get back to interview Allende for a Newsweek article late in August, his last foreign interview before being shot down in a successful coup the next month.
Henry the K: A few weeks later Rod Gander, the chief of correspondents in New York, put in a call. "We want you back here as diplomatic correspondent in Washington." Again, my lucky star. Henry Kissinger had just become Secretary of State, there was war in the Middle East, and "Henry" (except to his face) set out to resolve it. This turned into three years of constant travel. Each time we took off Henry would call us reporters up front to his cabin for a briefing. I soon learned his argot.
When Henry said, "Look..." at the beginning of a sentence, it meant he was about to be "devious." (Some might call it dishonest, or even lying.) Henry, aware that we reporters were on to his deceptions, would on occasion add (with a big smile), "And it has the added virtue of being true." But when he said, "If it's going to come out eventually it's better to have it come out immediately," it was we who smiled. We were about to receive an item of bad news spun so intensely that it would wind up sounding almost good.
Henry had a catalogue of pet phrases. After a glowing introduction he always said, "My mother would agree with that.” Or, "The nice thing about being a celebrity is that if you bore people they think it's their fault." Or, with relish, "Power is a great aphrodisiac.” Or, "Even paranoids have enemies!" (Henry was assuredly paranoidal but he unquestionably did have genuine enemies as well.)
When I asked a question early in the week, Henry typically responded, "van Voorst, you're a weekly, you don't get a question until Thursday." On Thursday or afterward, Kissinger would respond with an especially pithy remark, and add, “that’s a good news magazine quote.”
The Emperor: Traveling with Kissinger was unique. In those days a 707 Boeing first generation jet was very intimate--in contrast to the bulbous 747 used today. As a result of the 1972 stunning Nixon-Kissinger opening of U.S. relations with communist China, Kissinger was treated like a prime minister everywhere we
went. We 10 or 12 reporters from the major national media were regulars, serving as Kissinger’s mini “White House” press corps. Henry briefed us relentlessly, but always on background. This meant his remarks were attributed to “an official travelling on Henry Kissinger’s plane.” Such a phrase let Kissinger deny he was the source if problems developed, even though the cover was diaphanous. Kissinger curried favor relentlessly, taking us inside every big news event possible. We were, for instance, with him in Golda Meir’s kitchen when he handed her the list of Israeli prisoners held by Egypt after the Yom Kippur War.
The shadow of danger heightened the excitement. Once at the Cairo airport, several gunshots rang out. Believing this was an attack, K's security men knocked him down in the aisle and covered his body with their own. It turned out the shots were fired by a security guard who had failed to secure the safety on his weapon. None of us will ever forget that moment. On a trip in Damascus, K's caravan became blocked by traffic. Tensions rose. Suddenly a Kissinger security man jumped on the hood of K's car, waved his automatic weapon around, and said, "Don't any of you bastards come close." Of course, none of the Arabs could understand a word.
Sadat Says No: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat cost me a small fortune. In November, 1973, Kissinger, his team and the "Kissinger 12” were at the Knesset in Jerusalem--along with the entire Israeli cabinet. An interim agreement on ending the Yom Kippur War had been negotiated between Israel and Egypt. We were now shown the map of the lines. The "Top Secret" stamp had been crossed through. I'm most assuredly not an autograph-collector. But this was history. Kissinger signed, so did Shimon Peres, Yigal Allon, and Moshe Arens among others--plus then-Deputy Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin. (Rabin was later prime minister). That afternoon we flew on Kissinger's plane to Alexandria for a reception with Sadat. By that time I knew Sadat quite well. But when I showed him the map and asked him to sign too, he demurred (even though he was to sign it publicly the next day at Kilometer 101.) "Sorry but I really can't," he said. My map with its autographs is certainly worth a great deal of money. With Sadat's signature along with Kissinger and Rabin it would have put me on easy street.
Come See Me: Publisher Kay Graham and I came to Newsweek at the same time (1963) and I always felt we understood each other. Everybody in the Washington bureau sensed some of the tensions she lived under, beautifully related in her Pulitzer Prize memoirs, "Personal History." Kay would always tell me, "Whenever you get back to Washington from overseas be sure to come and see me." I did; she did. And she asked serious questions. Kay was truly interested in her magazine, the news, and her people. A great woman. We were all so lucky.
Bruce van Voorst worked at Newsweek from 1963 through 1975.