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Heroes of My Time.

Heroes of My Time Harrison B. Salisbury Walker & Co., $19.95

By Daniel Schorr

When The Washington Monthly called to ask me to review a new book by Harrison Salisbury about 20 of his personal heroes, I ventured the guess that they would include a New York Times publisher, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and a figure from Salisbury's China experience. I was almost right about the publisher (Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger was the owner who desiguated publishers from her family) and about Khrushchev, but hardly prepared for seven entries from China.

The 20 make an odd assortment-- some dead, some alive, some famous, some largely unknown. The author says that he deliberately "passed over the most renowned figures of our times" like Churchill, DeGaulle, the Roosevelts, and John F. Kennedy, but then Robert F. Kennedy makes the cut. The Chinese nominees are mainly victims of the regime's oppression, but then there is Premier Zhou Enlai, "the consummate courier" of Mao Zedong for 40 years.

About the time one is ready to conclude that the ticket for admission into the Salisbury pantheon is having been part of his vast journalistic experience, one comes across two whom he has never met--Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and Edgar Snow, the biographer of Mao Zedong. Snow is one of four journalistic heroes, along with Homer Bigart, longtime correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune; David Halberstam; and Roger Wilkins (who shares billing with his law professor wife, Patricia King).

Salisbury's principal domestic theme is civil rights. Aside from Wilkins and King, there are sketches of Cecil Roberts and Bessie Edsell, white and black women who fought for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama. Also, he chooses Sue and Lawrence Brooks, warriors for desegregation in Boston with whom Salisbury climbed mountains in the Adirondacks. And then, hardly needing more posthumous attention, there's Malcolm X, whom Salisbury met during a stint as national editor of the Times.

An odd assemblage, but why not? This is Salisbury's book, and after a long and distinguished career, he should get to name any heroes he wants. But, lacking any new perception, any real unifying theme, this becomes a conceit, a gathering together of left-over file folders. One could have hoped for more from a Pulitzer Prize laureate with more than 20 books behind him. These biographical sketches, though occasionally interesting, lack a sense of recollection in tranquillity that Theodore H. White, for instance, brought to America in Search of Itself and In Search of History--A Personal Adventure.

With Salisbury, we get less insight than hyperbole. "The Bobby [Kennedy] of 1968 knew there were questions to which no one, not even a Kennedy, had the answers .... He understood life as he had never understood it before, because he understood death."

Or this: "David Halberstam's exploration of the faded American dream, powered by a relentless mind and ever-renewing physical strength, was transforming him into the conscience of the American heritage."

On matters of which I have independent knowledge--like Khrushcbev and the Soviet Union--I am troubled to find Salisbury shaky about his facts. Salisbury writes that after his 1959 tour of the United States, "Khrushchev was as happy as a small boy. He rushed back to Moscow to prepare" for a reciprocal visit by President Eisenhower. In fact, after his American trip, Khrushchev rushed off to Peking to face a Chinese Pofitburo seething with resentment over his romance with capitalist America. On the way back to Moscow from Peking, he stopped at Baku for a speech to renew pressure on the Allied position in Berlin. His romance with Eisenhower was already in trouble.

Salisbury writes that when word of the downing of the U-2 spy plane on May 1, 1960 reached Moscow, "Khrushchev sought out the Amencan ambassador, Llewellyn (Tommy) Thompson, at a diplomatic reception. 'You have to help me,' he told Tommy, 'I'm in a terrible spot."' That does not square with what the late Ambassador Thompson told me at the time--that he had no knowledge of the flight, let alone the downing of the U-2, until Khrushchev publicly announced it before the Supreme Soviet, pointing to a flabbergasted American ambassador in the diplomatic gallery.

Salisbury also has a way of stating as fact what can only be matters of conjecture. Consider this almost novelistic surmise about Khrushchev's visit to the IBM building in San Jose, California. "I caught a glance exchanged between Khrushchev and one of his aides. They knew what [Thomas J.] Watson was showing them, even if Watson didn't. I too, because I had read my Marx. I knew that the great goal of communism, and hence of the Soviet system, was to abolish the distinction between blue collar and white collar .... But, here in America, the citadel of capitalism, the historic distinctions of blue and white collar had been obliterated .... That was the nuance that underlay the quick glance between Khrushcbev and his aide" ....

What a glance! To think that I was there and missed the story of Khrushchev in San Jose facing up to the coming defeat of communism!

Salisbury continues, "When later Khrushchev proclaimed, 'We will bury you,' and 'Your children will live under communism,' I knew that he was only whistling in the wind." But those remarks were made not "later," but earlier. "We will bray you" was in 1956, in my presence, at a reception in Moscow amid rising disillusionment with communism in East Europe. "Your children will live under communism" was actually "Your grandchildren will live under socialism;' and was uttered in 1957 in Khrushchev's "Face the Nation" interview on CBS and again in 1959 during his "Kitchen Debate" with Vice President Nixon.

Details, details. But they suggest that under the exterior of a journalist, there lurks in Salisbury a romantic novelist who can rearrange history and divine meanings from glances. No one but a romantic could write of Khrushchev, "No man could have married a woman so straight and warm and intelligent as Nina Petrovna without a good heart. Nor possess a son so sympathetic, understanding--realistic--as Sergei Khrushchev."

No one should begrudge Harrison Salisbury his eclectic collection of heroes, however much time may have blurred some details. Whether they help to illuminate the past is another mailer.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. He opened the CBS News Bureau in Moscow in 1955.
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Author:Schorr, Daniel
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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