Faster, Please!

The Obits: Denton, Schlesinger, Walsh and Davis

Quite a quartet.  Quite a variety of famous men, and a woman no one ever heard of, all members of a generation rapidly headed for judgment and reward, all dead in the past few days.  I knew two of them — Admiral Jeremiah Denton and Secretary James Schlesinger — fairly well, and I spent years in the nightmare supervised by Judge Walsh when he was special prosecutor in the Iran-Contra matter.  I never knew Wendy Davis, but her obituary is a disaster, and I’m going to correct it.

But first the famous men.

It’s hard to render more honor to Admiral/Senator Denton than he has received from the great New York Sun.  He was the Platonic ideal of the hero, an almost mythic embodiment of courage and honor who informed and inspired us by repeatedly blinking out the word “torture” in Morse Code during an interview with a Japanese television reporter designed by his Vietnamese captors to deceive us into thinking Denton and his fellow POWs were being decently treated.  As befits an officer, he was among the last prisoners released from that Asian hell, and he served one term in the Senate before retiring.  He was a fine senator who was shabbily treated by most of the leading journalists.  He’d attended the Naval Academy, after all, not the anti-war bastions of ignorance and narcissism that were hard at work to indoctrinate our intellectual elites in the ways of anti-Americanism and multiculturalism.

Jim Schlesinger was a brilliant man, one of few capable of running CIA, Energy, and Defense, under Democrat and Republican presidents.  An evening with him was always delightful, as well as a learning experience.  I’m sure he was tough to work for;  he wasn’t very patient with people less talented than he, which means most of mankind.  He had a fabulous wife, which says a lot.  He was very academicky, from his manner of speaking to the ever present pipe throughout his public career.  He did several surprising things, converting from Judaism to Lutheranism, and going public with some of CIA’s most cherished secrets, the so-called “crown jewels,” including stories about James Jesus Angleton that effectively ended the career of CIA’s long-time counterintelligence chief.  He served as SecDef at the same time Henry Kissinger was at State, and one can only hope there are some tape recordings of their debates, both for their literary and intellectual content.  Surely one of the major figures of recent American history.

Lawrence Walsh’s public career goes back to the Eisenhower years, when Walsh was secretary at the National Security Council.  He never doubted his own importance, and when he served as attorney to some of our biggest corporations, he was celebrated for taking three suites at the Watergate Hotel:  his own and the one above and below.  He didn’t want to be disturbed, you see.  He wanted the job of special prosecutor and avidly pursued every scalp he thought he might carve from Reagan’s people.  In the course of his investigations he once dropped off a briefcase of highly classified documents at curbside at Los Angeles airport, a violation of security regulations.  It was never found, nor was Walsh ever charged with anything.  Despite the very high profile of the investigation — and the miles of nonsensical ink written about presumed malfeasance by the Reagan people — he managed to destroy only a few small fry who couldn’t bear the costs of legal defense, a retired Air Force general for evading taxes on arms sales to Iran, and Oliver North for accepting a security fence.  For the rest of us, he issued a report that essentially said “if he did anything wrong, I can’t find it.”  Of the three famous men, he did the least for the country and got the best press coverage.

Now for Wendy Davis, who dropped dead in a bridge tournament in Great Britain while holding a really big hand.  The obituary in the New York Daily News was clearly written by a non-player, since much of the description of her cards is incoherent.  It says she held 29 points, but a) the graphic shows a hand with 21 points, b) it says she had a “pat hand” for 6 Notrump but the hand is not suitable for that contract, and, worst of all, c) it ascribes her death to the excitement she presumably experienced when she saw her terrific hand.

But a “pat hand” isn’t exciting, really, and Ms Davis knew that, having played tournament bridge for half a century, and having achieved the high status of highest-ranking player in Cornwall.  Excitement in bridge comes from highly competitive deals, or from very difficult problems in playing the hand or defending against opponents.  The sort of hand she held was not exciting, it did not put her under any pressure, she had only to add to thirteen to see what she should do.

Such stories get written by people who don’t know much, if anything, about the game, which is in decline.  It’s a hard game to learn, let alone master, and it takes a lot of concentration and a lot of time.  Most of our young game-players prefer faster, noisier and more colorful competition, which is a pity, since bridge is the game that best encapsulates the varieties of life.  It requires lying, for example…and deception, as Obama is seeing, is an essential part of the real world.

The only case of a fatal bridge hand in my experience came a long time ago in St. Louis.  I was playing in a minor tournament, and a woman at the next table made some bid.  Her opponent yelled “DOUBLE!” in a suitably vicious tone.  The poor woman died on the spot.  There are many doubles in bridge, and I couldn’t help pointing out that that one was truly a penalty double.

Nobody doubled Wendy.  Denton would have done it quietly, but firmly.  Schlesinger would have done it with a slight sneer and good humor.  Walsh would have doubled ex cathedra.