04 June 2007

H. Norman Schwarzkopf

Answer in the form of a question:
Who is a helluva nice guy?

I was fully prepared to dislike Norman Schwarzkopf. He was the highest-ranking American military officer I’d ever spent time with, the hero of a war I didn’t think much of, and the living embodiment of a culture with which I am, at best, uncomfortable. I expected a pompous ass, infatuated with his own rank and glory, unable and unwilling to bother with the enlisted men.

That expectation was probably colored not only by ignorance (I’ve never served in the military) but by a cousin whose husband had been a high-ranking Army officer, and who was herself the biggest military snob imaginable. Schwarzkopf outranked my cousin’s husband, and he was famous besides. Surely he’d be a jerk.

But Schwarzkopf turned out to be a great guy. Sure, since the Gulf War and the success of his best-selling memoir, It Doesn't Take a Hero, he had developed a taste for single-malt scotch, and he enjoyed a fine meal in a five-star restaurant with influential people like Dan Rather, but he was genuinely, transparently and unabashedly happy to put back a couple of beers and swap stories with the enlistees (in our case, the camera crew) and with raw recruits like me. He didn’t pull rank on anybody, didn’t give himself airs, and didn’t have to. He’s a big man, with a physical presence that commands attention, and a quiet confidence that commands respect. He didn’t have to remind you to follow his lead, he didn’t have to bark his orders — in short, he didn’t have to behave like a general. (Or what I thought a general behaved like.) He was thoughtful, observant, polite, one of the most decent people I met during my time at CBS.

The network had hired him as a consultant on military affairs, and in real terms this meant making him a kind of co-anchor with Dan on a few documentaries. Their first collaboration was called Return to Vietnam, and from what Dan wrote about it in The Camera Never Blinks Twice, neither one looked forward to the project. The men barely knew each other, each held certain (inaccurate) preconceptions about the other’s politics and wartime activities, and both were making their first trip back to an emotionally charged landscape of bad, bloody memories.

I didn’t get to go. I came thisclose, but in the end, the network wanted to save the money, to keep the crew sleek and swift, and to avoid pissing off the Vietnamese by inundating them with visa requests. So I wasn’t there when Dan and the General made their peace — though I did take Dan’s notes and the transcripts of their interview footage in order to craft that chapter in Dan’s book (one of the best editing jobs I ever did, by the way). The reporter and the soldier came to a meeting of minds, and it was pretty terrific.

Still, it might have been an act. People will say things when they know they’re on camera, things they think they’re supposed to say, things they think the public will like. They try to present a desired image. I’d seen plenty of interview subjects do this — hell, I saw Dan do it almost every day for years. Schwarzkopf had displayed abundant proof of his media savvy during the first Gulf War, and now he was getting paid by the same network that paid Dan to command its news division. He’d have to be an idiot to do anything that would make either of them look bad. And Norman Schwarzkopf was no idiot.

So I was still skeptical when I joined Dan and the General to shoot a documentary on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day and the end of World War II in Europe. Since we were shooting in France, my potential utility was clearer to the bean-counters, and nobody objected to my coming along. It was a great trip. Jean Rather, who’s also a Francophile, joined us, and she engineered the highlight of our stay: a seven-course gourmet meal in the Relais-Château where we stayed in Normandy. The best meal I ever ate — though I was sick as a dog afterward. (I blame the kippers I ate in London a few days earlier.)

As we tramped around the beaches and countryside, I got a chance to watch Schwarzkopf, his interactions with the rest of the crew, his lack of pretension. I got to shmooze with him, too, and the result was the overwhelmingly favorable impression I carry today. If there must be wars, then there must be generals, and if there must be generals, let ‘em be guys like him.

A year later, we chartered a jet and went island-hopping through the Pacific, preparing a documentary on the end of the war with Japan. At the time, the General held the title of top money-winner on the game show Jeopardy!, and that, more than his gold stars or record-breaking book sales, was a distinction he bore with pride. Somebody had brought Trivial Pursuit aboard the jet, and neither the crew nor the General could resist the opportunity to match wits. Several players clustered around the little table on board, and the rest of us hovered around, watching.

Dan was sitting at the front of the jet, reading a book of Mark Twain essays I’d lent him. He looked up, saw the game getting underway, and beckoned to me.

“I have never said anything like this to you before,” he said in a low voice. “But the General’s contract is up for renewal. And this is not a request. You will not play against him. Do I make myself clear?”

He did indeed. So I returned to watch the game. The General wiped up the table, winning game after game, meeting no serious competition among the crew, in any subject category. Finally, he decided to sit out a round, and the crew invited me to take his place.

It was my turn to wipe up the table.

This did not escape the General’s notice. He wandered back toward the table and watched the game. Intently. And after I’d won, he put a hand on my shoulder and said, “You know, you really ought to think about going on Jeopardy.

Understanding this as a great compliment, I thanked him.

When the time came to renew his contract, the General went to NBC, who offered him more on-air time. But I had the satisfaction of knowing that CBS’s loss was in no way due to my skill at Trivial Pursuit.