Name droppers

My friend Don Cushman is one of the few people I know who actually liked the third Godfather movie, but this has to do with Don’s views about the Vatican and all its works, views hanging over from his years as a seminarian. On that topic, I preferred Don’s 1996 novel Visitation, though perhaps Coppola had simply set too high a bar with I and II. About the Vatican I know almost nothing beyond what I see in such popular sources, but I did know an obscure trivium, namely that the American magazine editor Norman Cousins had once been sent by JFK to feel out both the pope (John XXIII) and Nikita Khrushchev about some matters of world peace. I knew this from reading the dust jacket of the book Cousins wrote about it; in the early 1970s, I worked for a while for an organization called the World Federalists, in whose ranks Cousins was a luminary, and our storeroom had piles of unsold copies. “I knew Norman Cousins”, I said.

Now this is a name I should have dropped long ago, since most of the people who would be impressed by it are by now no longer with us. Timing has never been my forte. Don and his wife Joann, however, being American intellectuals somewhat older than myself, were the right audience and it seemed to make an impression. Joann could probably drop the names of most of the civil rights leaders of the early 1960s if she wanted, and then I’d use them second hand, but she’s too modest and self-assured to help out in that way.

Cousins was much better about sharing names. Having been evidently bored in a meeting he said, when it came to a break, like a player hoping to be asked to bring out the cards, “Have I told you about my meeting with Arafat?” Arafat was then, as they used to say of Dick Cheney, in a secure location, presumably somewhere in Lebanon. The US government was not openly talking to him; somebody had asked Cousins to do so. We sat spellbound. All I remember of the story – probably, all he could tell us – had to do with being blindfolded and driven around for a while so that he would have no idea where he was when the meeting took place.

After dropping his name I figured I ought at least to read Cousins’ book, The Improbable Triumvirate. After fifty years, nearly-new copies remain available at remarkably reasonable prices, as if the World Federalists’ storeroom had just been emptied. It’s a funny book, for two reasons. One is that the famous literary editor had written something which seems to have been composed mainly from his old appointment books and memoranda from meetings – the clunkiest narrative I’ve ever read. The other is that the big character in the book is Cousins himself, the only real energy amongst all these minutes of meetings is him setting both Kennedy and Khrushchev right (he doesn’t actually meet with the Pope, and whatever he said to Vatican diplomats can’t leave the same impression). Underneath this is a remarkable story – and the behest of JFK, he’s staying with Khrushchev at his Black Sea retreat, talking about capitalism, communism, war and peace, I’m all ears – but the surface is just an advertisement for Cousins.

Luther Evans could drop a name with more finesse. I have just dropped his, a name which the passage of time might have rendered worthless were it not for Wikipedia, which will fill you in if your really must know. Working in the cause of world peace we often found, as in any political organization, that our most menacing enemies were rivals within, and some of us youngsters were perhaps rash in our plans for thwarting one such person. “I am reminded of something Macleish once said to me”, said Luther to us: “don’t kick a dog ’til you know it’s dead.”

Location can help. Walking through Berkeley with Stuart Hampshire and Nancy Cartwright, we came across a notice – as one would, those days, in Berkeley – for some event involving Ivan Illich. “Illich”, quoth Stuart, “old chum of mine. Went a bit off the rails with that Medical Nemesis stuff, I’m afraid.” And then – I want to make this the same walk, though that seems too lucky – upon seeing a notice for an event celebrating EE Cummings, almost the same: “old chum of mine. Terrible reactionary, really.” These opportunities would not have presented themselves had we been walking through Omaha. But then, we would not have been.

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