Vietnam’s Ghost

June 27, 2011

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Ted Koppel (right) moderates a conversation with father-and-daughter journalist team Marvin and Deborah Kalb.

By Menachem Wecker

Introducing a June 24 conversation with father-and-daughter journalist team Marvin and Deborah Kalb at the National Press Club, Mark Hamrick, president of the club, said the event was “really something special.”

Michael Freedman, executive producer of the Kalb Report, moderated by Mr. Kalb, added that the celebration of Mr. Kalb and Ms. Kalb’s new book, Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama, which was moderated by former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, was “a family event.”

“For the past five years, my colleagues and I have been watching in awe as Marvin and Deborah have spent seemingly every free waking hour on research for this book,” said Mr. Freedman, who is also professor of media and public affairs and executive director of the GW Global Media Institute, which co-sponsored the event with the National Press Club’s Eric Freidheim National Journalism Library. “That research has run the gamut from high tech engagement to a lot of good old fashioned shoe-leather journalism.”

Mr. Freedman, who has collaborated with Mr. Kalb on the Kalb Report for 17 years, said the book is “in one fell swoop both historical and very current.”

Before turning the microphone over to Mr. Kalb’s brother, Bernard, Mr. Koppel set a casual and familial tone for the event by praising the entire Kalb family.

“I must say I’m particularly relieved to hear that Marvin and Debby only worked on this book during their waking hours,” said Mr. Koppel. He added that he is particularly grateful to have had either one or the other Kalb brother as a competitor for more than 40 years.

When he was an ABC bureau chief in Hong Kong, Bernard Kalb was CBS bureau chief, and when he returned to the U.S. as a diplomatic correspondent in 1971, Marvin was his competitor, Mr. Koppel said, noting that journalists tend to travel with reporters from other news outlets. “Our friends tend to become the people who have been our competitors,” he said.

Bernard Kalb said the event was a “night of very heavy kvelling” for him, using the Yiddish expression of delight and pride. He joked that his favorite page of the book was the page dedicating the work to him.

“For people like me, Vietnam never lets go,” he said. “I have this deal with Vietnam; I don’t let go of Vietnam, and Vietnam doesn’t let go of me.”

Bernard Kalb said he’d read the book twice, “meticulously looking for errors,” but had found none. “I find it an overdue contribution to the literature of Vietnam,” he said, calling Vietnam “the over-sized gorilla” and “the unwelcome guest in the White House.”

Ms. Kalb reiterated her uncle’s review of the book and said the main thrust of the work was that Vietnam simply doesn’t go away.

Though the “ghost of Vietnam” haunts every White House, different presidents operate in their own environments and times as they seek to resolve particular problems, Marvin Kalb said. “While the overall ghost is there, with any specific president you are going to get a different response.”

Mr. Kalb called the Powell Doctrine of the early ’90s, which advocated “overloading the circuit” with extra troops to ensure success, “a direct consequence of the Vietnam war.” While former President George H. W. Bush had learned a lesson of requiring excess force from Vietnam, former President Ronald Reagan chose to take the opposite lesson away from U.S. frustrations in Vietnam. When 241 Americans were killed in Lebanon in 1983, President Reagan chose to do nothing, fearing an attack on Lebanon would repeat U.S. mistakes in Vietnam.

President Barack Obama, whom Mr. Kalb called “a very smart president,” who “reads history all the time, I’m told,” has framed his statements on U.S. involvement in Libya with an eye toward Vietnam, he said.

Mr. Koppel contrasted former President George H.W. Bush with former President Jimmy Carter, who underplayed going into Iran to retrieve hostages. “Same Vietnam, theoretically the same lessons to be drawn, and yet here are two presidents drawing diametrically opposed lessons,” he said.

The president’s response depends on the crisis, Mr. Kalb responded. “You go in either direction, but you go there for the pressure that the memory of Vietnam has produced,” he said.

One of the greatest parts of the book project was getting to study presidents in greater depth than he had been able to as a reporter, Mr. Kalb said. Though he had covered President Reagan as an actor “without a lot of depth” at the time, Mr. Kalb said his research, particularly reading through President Reagan’s thousands of letters, led him to greater appreciate the former president.

“It says something about journalism,” he said. “We approach the coverage of somebody perhaps too simplistically, and we ought to be a bit fairer to the presidents who have this enormous responsibility.”

Although the conversation was often sobering, it also had its humorous moments. At one point when Ms. Kalb said “my father,” Bernard Kalb, who was sitting in the front row, cut her off.

“My co-author,” he corrected.