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Part One: September–December 1953
In the era of security clearances to be an Irish Catholic became prima facie evidence of loyalty. Harvard men were to be checked; Fordham men would do the checking.
—DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN
Chapter One: September 28, 1953
Tim counted four big fans whirring atop their stanchions in the newsroom. Every window here on the seventh floor was open, and summer had officially departed six days ago, but that was Washington for you. When air-conditioning might come to the Star seemed to be a perennial matter of sad-sack speculation among the staff: “When hell freezes over,” went one answer Tim had heard in his three months here. “Because then we won’t need it.”
Miss McGrory, one of the paper’s book reviewers, arrived with a bottle of whiskey, which she set down next to the punch bowl and cake, whose single chocolate layer and frosted inscription, “Happy Trails, Sheriff,” would soon be cut into by the retirement party’s guest of honor, Mr. Yost, a pressman who’d been at the Star since 1912 and took his nickname from a weekend job he had as a constable over in Berwyn Heights.
More people drifted in. “We could use a piano,” opined Miss Eversman, the music critic. She’d covered Liberace’s concert two nights ago at Constitution Hall and was telling a police reporter that the pianist’s mother had been in the president’s box with one of Liberace’s brothers, Rudy, who’d served in Korea.
“So she’s got one boy who’s a soldier?” asked the reporter. “Maybe she’s got hope of grandchildren after all.”
Miss Eversman laughed.
“Forget Liberace,” said Mr. Yost, who’d started to reminisce about his first years here at the paper. “I remember seeing Wilson himself—that’s Woodrow Wilson, not Charlie, to you youngsters—up in his box at Keith’s Theatre. You wouldn’t have figured it from an egghead like him, but did that man ever love his vaudeville. You could sell him any player-piano roll the minute it came out.”
“We really do need a piano,” Miss Eversman sighed, as the national and managing editors walked in. Mr. Corn and Mr. Noyes took up positions off to the side of things and remarked to each other, a bit shamefacedly, on the smallness of the spread.
“Well,” said Mr. Corn, quoting the late Senator Taft’s famously impolitic advice about higher food prices: “Eat less.”
The party was making Tim feel nostalgic, and thus a bit foolish, since he’d been, after all, only a summer hire allowed to stay on through September—or, more exactly, this coming Friday afternoon. They’d put him in the city room, even though he’d never been to Washington before June and knew nothing about the District as a place where many citizens lived life quite oblivious to the federal government. His placement, he’d come to understand, was typical of the Star, a paper both venerable and feckless, produced each evening by an eccentric, occasionally brilliant staff. He had liked it here and would miss the place, but given the shortness of his tenure he wasn’t sure he should even take a piece of the cake once it got cut.
A small stack of the paper’s early edition lay atop an open drawer of the file cabinet he was leaning against. Ambassador Bohlen was flying home from Moscow to talk with Secretary Dulles, and this morning Louis Budenz, a Fordham professor and former red, had testified to the McCarthy committee that, in his “humble opinion,” parts of an Army-commissioned pamphlet about Siberia—something put together to educate the Far Eastern Command—contained large chunks of Soviet-sympathizing stuff that had been taken, without footnotes or refutation, from Communist writers.
Cecil Holland, the reporter who’d written the Budenz story, now saw Tim reading it and asked, “Laughlin, you just graduated from Fordham, didn’t you? Ever study with this guy who says the army’s been indoctrinating itself?”
Tim smiled. “I had somebody else for Economics, Mr. Holland.” He grimaced. “I think I got a C-plus.” Holland laughed and walked over to claim a piece of the cake that had finally been sliced.
At Fordham, Tim had mostly studied American history and English literature, and his plan in coming to Washington remained, even now, to combine his major and minor into a job writing for a politician, though throughout the city’s hot, depopulated summer he’d made little headway finding anything on Capitol Hill. Well, he’d have plenty of time and motivation come Friday afternoon!
The party conversation had turned to Senator McCarthy’s imminent wedding. “What kind of guy picks lunch hour on Tuesday to get married in a church?” asked the financial-page editor.
“A guy who’s busy taking over the world,” answered Cecil Holland.
“That’s why he’s marrying a girl on his staff,” added the police reporter. “Maximum efficiency. She’ll be able to crank out the press release for Joe’s firstborn as soon as she’s cranked out the baby.”
“Well, from what I hear,” said Miss Eversman, “McCarthy’s mother might be more surprised by all this than Liberace’s.” Everyone had heard the rumors.
Would the president show up for the wedding? People began to take bets. Ike’s contempt for McCarthy was by now well developed, but it would be hard, some argued, for him not to put in an appearance, now that he was back from vacation, and with St. Matthew’s being only a few blocks from the White House.
Miss McGrory, who appeared to regard this talk of McCarthy on the order of a frog in the punch bowl, returned to an earlier subject and insisted that they didn’t need a piano. She patted Mr. Yost’s arm and dared him to get everybody started singing “Oh, You Beautiful Doll”—Woodrow Wilson’s absolute all-time favorite, the retiring pressman had reminded them.
Tim, who had been to all the West Side weddings of his uncountable cousins, right away felt Irish instinct trump shyness. He joined in as soon as Mr. Yost and Miss McGrory got things going, and within a moment, even as he remained alone with his thoughts, was singing the same words as everyone else:
Let me put my arms about you,
I don’t want to live without you.
His job at the Star had come through the nephew of an old pal of his dad’s from Manhattan Criminal Court, where Paul Laughlin had worked during what everyone in the family now called the old days—the ones before Mr. Laughlin, nearing forty, put himself through LaSalle, by correspondence and then at night, completing his transformation from process server into accountant, making possible his family’s move from Hell’s Kitchen to the unimaginably big and bright new rooms of Stuyvesant Town. Those rooms seemed even larger now that Tim’s older sister, Frances, the Laughlins’ only other child, had gone off to Staten Island to live with her husband.
If you ever leave me, how my heart would ache,
I want to hug you but I fear you’d break—
While singing these lines, Tim realized that most of the partygoers’ eyes were on him. His pleasing tenor voice—a surprise to those who’d heard only his soft, polite speech with its occasional stammer—had risen above everyone else’s in volume, though to anybody paying attention to the lyric, it seemed far more likely that any hugging to involve this five-foot-seven, 130-pound young man would result in his breakage, not the girl’s. Realizing what had provoked the attention and smiles, Tim blushed and lowered his voice, while everybody else raised theirs for the song’s big finish:
Oh, oh, oh, oh,
Oh, you beautiful doll!
Mr. Yost led the revelers’ applause for themselves, and when it subsided, Mr. Brogan, Tim’s boss on the city desk, announced: “It’s clear to me that we kept too much of Laughlin’s light under a bushel this summer. I wish we’d had more for you to do, Timmy.”
Tim smiled and thanked him. Since June he’d mostly typed and done rewrites, bringing the perfect grammar of the nuns to the fitfully produced copy of the oldest city reporters, who teased him about being a college man, and about a pretty girl named Helen, another summer hire who answered a phone in Classifieds and sometimes stopped to chat at his desk.
They might have kept on teasing him now, but they didn’t really know enough about this conscientious, if cheerful, boy, and so the spotlight soon moved elsewhere. Tim shrank back into himself as Cecil Holland redirected the conversation to—what else?—the senator from Wisconsin.
What would McCarthy do next? people wanted to know. Holland advised them to watch what was going on up in New York: Cohn had been running subcommittee meetings there, taking testimony in closed sessions when he wasn’t snooping around Fort Monmouth over in Jersey. You watch: McCarthy would soon be taking shots at the army for whatever security breaches he could discover or invent.
“I’m gonna love you, like nobody’s loved you, come Cohn or come Schine,” crooned the police reporter, reprising a song spoof from last spring, when McCarthy staffers Roy Cohn and David Schine, colleagues and pals (some people said more), had gone on their tour of USIA libraries in Europe, ridding the shelves of anti-American books by Ameri- can authors.
No one ever talked half so much about Eisenhower as they did about McCarthy, Tim reflected; the senator was as constantly on people’s lips as FDR had been when he was a boy, even if the only other thing Roosevelt and McCarthy might have in common was the admiration of Tim’s father. Paul Laughlin still revered FDR (Mrs. R was now another story), as he had since the First Hundred Days. Before the arrival of the New Deal, already the father of two babies, Mr. Laughlin had spent plenty of afternoons playing stickball on the pavements of the West Fifties, unable to scare up any work pushing dress racks or plastering or even delivering groceries to widows in their Ninth Avenue walkups. But by the end of ’33, Paul Laughlin had become, according to the family joke, “the oldest man in the CCC,” upstate for weeks at a time, cutting down trees or planting new ones for what was at least half a living wage. Some kindhearted supervisor took notice of his hard work and referred him to a pal in the courts, where he worked his way up toward something like security and, at last, the cessation of sleepless nights.
Nothing—not even Grandma Gaffney’s cutlery-tapping recaps of every Father Coughlin broadcast—had ever put Mr. Laughlin off Roosevelt. He remained true to the president’s memory even when the war ended and the accounting money started coming in and he began bringing the Journal-American instead of the Post home to Stuy Town, which he eventually took to reminding them had been built by a private insurance company, not as a government project. By the time Tim was finishing high school, he’d gotten used to hearing his father say that Bishop Sheen—fine anti-red that he might be—nonetheless had a foolish sympathy for some of the labor unions. And a couple of years after that, once the television came into the living room, Dean Acheson could not come on it without Mr. Laughlin announcing, in sarcastic imitation: “I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss.” The line always made Tim and Frances laugh, as if Acheson were not a person but a corporation with a trademark pledge, like “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.”
But for all that, Tim saw no reason why his father—the mildest of Cold Warriors, really, looking eastward not so much for invading Soviets as for the house he now hoped to buy in Nassau County—wasn’t right about the fundamentals of politics.
Mr. Brogan, Tim now noticed, had been buttonholed by Betty Beale, one of the society reporters.
“Miss Canby isn’t pulling her weight?” asked Brogan, laughing. “You shock me, Miss Beale.”
“Joke if you want,” said the reporter, to whom the women’s-page editor was a constant thorn in the side. Miss Beale took her own work seriously and made a point of actually going to the events she covered, not just relying on a phone call to the hostess to ask what cabinet wife had “poured” for which white-gloved ladies in attendance. “I cannot do this wedding alone,” she now told Mr. Brogan. “We need more than one piece out of it—something for tomorrow’s edition, something for the next day, and something for my weekend column. You know, Mr. Brogan, tonight McCarthy and his fiancée are having a buffet supper at some friend’s farm out in Maryland, and thanks to Miss Canby there will be no one present from the Star.”
The city editor continued listening as Miss Beale thrust home. “It’s McCarthy, Mr. Brogan. It may be just a wedding, but surely this spills into your bailiwick—and even Mr. Corn’s. May I please get a little help?”
Brogan looked around thoughtfully, until he spotted Tim, still standing against the filing cabinet. “How about making use of this fine fellow, Miss Beale? He can spell, he’s got a few Hibernian freckles, and he can even sing. Surely he can get the goods on an Irish wedding.”
“How about it, cookie?” Miss Beale asked Tim. “Do you think you can get the names of the people in as many pews as possible? And get as many quotes as they’re willing to sling along with the rice? The reception’s at the Washington Club right afterward. You can go to that, too.”
Tim moved away from the filing cabinet and said sure. It was the only word he’d ever spoken to the still youthful but formidable Miss Beale.
“Good, then,” said Brogan, having settled the matter.
“Better than good,” said Cecil Holland, who’d overheard the exchange. “If Laughlin ever gets hauled in and investigated for anything, he can always say, ‘But, Joe, I was at your wedding, for God’s sake!’ ”
The bottle Miss McGrory had brought in was by now pretty well drained, and a sizable body of those in attendance were thinking about adjourning to the Old Ebbitt Grill over on F Street. Tim’s momentary celebrity earned him an invitation to join the group, but he decided he’d be better off boning up for this opportunity he’d just been given, however late in the game it had come. And so within ten minutes he was on his way home with someone’s copy of the Congressional Directory, the deluxe edition with photographs. He could study the pictures tonight and increase the percentage of guests he’d recognize.
Passing the Old Post Office on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, he was reminded that he’d yet to mail home the letter he’d been carrying around for the past two days. In it he made his job prospects sound a lot rosier than they actually were—but then again, who knew? Maybe this assignment was a portent of better things that might be coming once he left the paper and got back to passing out his résumé, this time in earnest, on Capitol Hill.
Should he go up to Hecht’s and get a new white shirt? The collar was frayed on the only laundered one he had left. No, too expensive, he decided; he would settle for getting his shoes shined at Union Station tonight. Walking along Fifth Street, above Indiana and D, he continued on his career-conscious train of thought, contemplating the signs for lawyers and bondsmen, knowing that the former profession was still too much to aspire to, even if the latter one, like process-serving, now resided in a realm his father had lifted the Laughlins permanently above.
He bought a pint of milk and a sandwich before reaching his room on the Hill, in the two-hundred block of Pennsylvania, one flight above a hardware store. His occupancy was illegal, the lower floors of the building being zoned only for offices, but a landlady with no vacancies a couple of blocks away had tipped him off to the nice Italian owner here, who told him he could have the room cheap and not to worry. It came with a hot plate and tiny icebox, and a hall shower one flight up, where apartments were legal.
Tim always made sure to keep the radio low; he clicked it on now and waited for the tubes to warm up while he poured his glass of milk. A promo for One Man’s Family became audible as he sat down and began to drink.
The job ads from Sunday’s paper were on the table, and for a few minutes he gave them a second, mostly hopeless, look. The “Situations Wanted” had a hierarchy as discernible as the legal pecking order on Fifth Street.
YOUNG MAN, COLORED, desires evening or night work of any kind. Phone LI 8-5198.
After three months down here, the “colored” had ceased to shock; it was the “work of any kind” that now arrested his attention and made him wonder how many weeks might be left before he’d have to consider putting that phrase into an ad of his own.
YOUNG MAN, college education, desires a responsible position. Call WO 6-8202.
Pretty vague, to say the least, but except for the telephone, which he didn’t have, it pretty much matched his own circumstances. He certainly couldn’t compete with the ad just above it:
YOUNG MAN, 27, B.A., Yale, 3 years experience legislative research. 3 yrs. formal legal training, desires position with trade assoc. or law office. Box 61-V. Star.
He wondered if Helen had taken any of these down over the phone.
Setting the paper aside in favor of the Congressional Directory, he decided to put a ruler over the names beneath the pictures. He would see if he could correctly distinguish, say, Prescott Bush (R-Connecticut) from Bourke Hickenlooper (R-Iowa). At least he was familiar with his assignment’s location, having gone to St. Matthew’s last month on the Feast of the Assumption.
He wished he’d done more sightseeing this summer, or just spent a little less time in this room. He had gone to wait outside St. John’s Church one Sunday morning in June, hoping to catch a glimpse of Eisenhower, but a disappointed tourist had told him that Ike was out of town. Everyone waiting by the church had had to settle for watching a small group demonstrate against the Rosenbergs’ execution. There had also been an evening, back in July, when the second-string theater critic had comped him to a production of Major Barbara. They’d gone to see it together, and afterward the man had bought him a drink at the Hotel Washington’s rooftop bar, then walked him all the way home and given him a funny little hug, which he somehow hadn’t minded, even though the man was old enough to be his father and didn’t really live, as he’d claimed, on Capitol Hill.
Excited about tomorrow, but a little restless after half an hour with the Directory, Tim thought he’d like to go out to a movie, but he’d been to see The Robe just last night, a quasi-religious act he’d used, pretty Jesuitically, as an excuse not to go to church this morning. He realized now that Miss Beale hadn’t told him whether Senator McCarthy’s wedding would be just a short ceremony or a whole Mass. If it was the latter, he’d have a legitimate excuse to sleep a little later tomorrow instead of starting his day at the seven o’clock inside St. Peter’s on Second Street. Actually, he’d better go to St. Pete’s either way. Even if it did turn out to be a Mass at St. Matthew’s, he’d be too busy taking notes to line up for the Communion rail.