Getting it Right the First Time

March 28th, 2014 Comments Off on Getting it Right the First Time

Writer and Professor Jonathan Schell at Occupy Town Square in Tompkins Square Park, in the East Village of Manhattan in New York. Wikimedia Commons.

Writer and Professor Jonathan Schell at Occupy Town Square in Tompkins Square Park, in the East Village of Manhattan. Wikimedia Commons.

The news this week that the reporter Jonathan Schell had passed away at age 70 saddened me. Jonathan was a star writer at The New Yorker when I started there as a fact-checker in the mid-1970s. Already famed for his reporting on the Vietnam War, he was writing regularly about the unfolding Watergate scandal, and soon after the conclusion of that drama he published a remarkable book, The Time of Illusion.

What Schell managed to do in that book was tie together aspects of nuclear deterrence doctrine, the domino theory (the idea that allowing communism to triumph one place—such as Vietnam—would hasten its spread globally), and President Nixon’s obsessive concern with domestic protest and dissent into a single, seething mass. The very unusability of nuclear weapons pumped up the importance of the “credibility” of any threats to use them, and so placed remarkable strains on the way Presidents managed their, and the nation’s, image. Nixon’s dirty tricks and campaign subterfuges were part of a string of causation that could be traced back to the hydrogen bomb. If that sounds implausible, just read the book.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, there is still no book that gets at the essence of that Constitutional crisis as deeply, and as clearly, as Schell’s take on it. Usually contemporary accounts of historical events fade swiftly, as new evidence and new insights recast our understanding of the meaning of a particular event or time. But Schell appears to have got it right the first time.

He is better known these days for his writings against nuclear arms, and for his early Vietnam work. But I think The Time of Illusion is his masterwork, and still repays close attention today. RIP, Jonathan Schell.



Evan W. Cornog, Ph.D., dean of The Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, served as an associate dean at the Columbia University School of Journalism for more than a decade and handled a variety of responsibilities during his tenure there. He led fundraising efforts, coordinated the development of a new curriculum, directed the school’s new Master of Arts program in Journalism and served as publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. Dr Cornog is also the author of several books on politics and the press – expertise he honed as press secretary to New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch and as a freelance writer and editor whose stories have appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Slate and the Boston Globe. He also served as director of external relations at Bennington College in Vermont and as special assistant to the President of the New School in Manhattan. Dr. Cornog earned his bachelor’s degree in history and literature from Harvard University, and his master’s and doctorate degrees in history from Columbia. The Art of Making Magazines: On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry, edited by Dr. Cornog and Victor S. Navasky, was published in 2012.

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