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ANDREW ELIOT’S DIARY. It was really great to see Jason Gilbert again after all these years
June 2, 1973
It was really great to see Jason Gilbert again after all these years. And also a bit disconcerting.
On the one hand, the guy has barely changed physically. He still looks like a twenty-year-old athlete, making me feel more like a middle-aged slob than I already do.
And yet there was something strangely different about him. I search for the appropriate adjective, but the only thing I can come up with is “somber.” While he’s obviously happily married and adores his kids, he seems to have lost something of his old joie de vivre. I mean, he smiles a lot when we talk about the escapades of the past. But he never laughs. Nothing seems to amuse him now .
Of course, I’m aware that he’s been through a great deal these past few years — most of which he avoided talking about. I mean, when your fiancée is murdered and you’ve been in the thick of a real shooting war, that’s certainly reason enough to be somber. But I sensed there was something more bothering him, and I tried my best to dig it out. At one point he said, “I’m really lost, Andy.”
That kind of shook me. Because if there was anyone in The Class who I thought knew what he was doing and why, it was Jason. I mean, he’d dedicated himself to a cause and sacrificed a lot of the glittering prizes that would have come his way if he had stayed in the American rat race. After all, he was the best rat in our whole damn pack.
I got a glimpse of what was weighing heavy on him when I told him how the press — and even the man in the street — admired the exploits of the Israeli Army in the Six Day War. It was kind of a David and Goliath that really captured the American imagination.
To which he replied that the media must have glorified it. Because no matter how much you believe in what you’re fighting for, it’s a terrible thing to take another person’s life. He was having trouble living with the awareness that there were probably kids in the world he himself had orphaned.
I replied that it must be pretty hard to be a soldier if you have thoughts like that.
He looked at me with a sadness in his eyes that I’d never seen before and said softly, “It’s impossible to be a soldier and a complete human being.”
Up till then, I was convinced that I and our other classmates were feeling the weight of the world-stalled careers, mortgages, divorces, custody fights, rebelling kids — and all the stuff of which middle-age crises are made.
But, unlike the rest of us, still in hot pursuit of fame and fortune, all Jason wants to do in life is be a human being.
And he’s far from certain he can do it.
During his first week in New York, Jason had to face twelve different audiences, ranging from a few political leaders to more than a thousand Friends of Israel at a luncheon in the Biltmore Hotel.
There were more than just “Friends” at the gathering. During the question period, several New Left sympathizers attacked him vehemently for representing an “imperialist nation.” He calmly replied that, far from aspiring to empire, Israel wanted only to be a democratic country just like any other. And — in his personal opinion — would surely relinquish territory in exchange for the Arabs’ acknowledgment of her right to exist.
For a long while afterward, crowds clustered around the podium. Talking to him. Shaking his hand. Wishing him well. Finally, there was only one couple left.
He was standing face to face with his father and mother.
Each of them was afraid to say the first words. But the glances they exchanged spoke eloquently. Of admiration and affection on their part. Of relief and love on his. Of the passionate desire for a reconciliation on both sides.
“Hello, Mom, Dad. It’s… good to see you.”
“You look wonderful, Jason,” his mother said softly.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I guess danger agrees with me. You guys look pretty good yourselves. How’s Julie?”
“She’s fine,” his father answered. “She’s in California. Married a lawyer from Santa Barbara.”
“Is she happy?”
“Actually, she and Samantha will be moving back this summer. When the divorce is final.”
His father nodded. “Julie hasn’t changed.” He then added hoarsely, “We… we’ve missed you very much, son.”
Jason hopped off the platform and put his arms around his parents. For a long moment they held this triangular embrace.
“Do you have time to come out to the house?” his mother asked.
“Sure, I’d really like to.”
The next evening at dinner he showed his parents pictures of Eva and their two grandsons. They were very moved just to see them and delighted that his marriage was so successful.
“Can we keep any of these?” his mother asked.
“Keep them all,” Jason offered. And then confessed, “Actually, I brought them for you.”
Just after eleven, his mother pleaded tiredness and excused herself, leaving Jason and his father alone for the first time in ten years.
Jason was the first to speak. “Dad, I know how much I must have hurt you and Mom —”
“No,” his father interrupted. “If there are going to be any apologies, let me go first. I was wrong not to respect your convictions.”
“No, let me finish. You’ve taught me a lesson about our heritage. I realize that it’s possible to be one-hundred-percent American and at the same time still be a Jew. The Six Day War was a catalyst for a lot of people like me. There was such a sudden outburst of pride.…” He paused.
Jason did not know what to say. His father’s voice lowered as he continued.
“Then, of course, I knew you were in the thick of it and I was worried as hell.” He raised his head, “Oh God, son, I’m glad you made it through so we could have this talk.”
The two embraced.
Eva and the boys were waiting when his plane landed in Tel Aviv. As they hugged and kissed, little Ben asked, “Daddy, did you bring us any presents?”
“You bet I did, Benjy. But the best one will be coming here in October.”
“A grandma and a grandpa.”
“Come on in,” Richard Nixon called to George Keller. “You can use a little exercise.”
It was a hot day in August 1973, at the Western White House, in San Clemente, California. The President was conferring with Kissinger as they sat waist deep in the shallow end of the swimming pool. George Keller was seated nearby, taking notes as Henry called them out. (“Be sure I call Pompidou at 0700 GMT.”)
Nixon again repeated his invitation to George.
“I’m afraid I can’t, Mr. President, thank you,” George replied awkwardly. “In fact, I didn’t even bring a suit along.”
At which Nixon turned to Kissinger and joked, “Henry, don’t tell me this boy of yours can’t swim.”
“Oh, he most certainly can, Mr. President. In fact, he couldn’t have gotten his college diploma without being able to swim fifty yards.”
Dr. K. always scrupulously avoided saying the word Harvard unless absolutely necessary. Nixon had a phobia about that institution, dating from the time he was on Joe McCarthy’s investigating committee (and in fact, its president, Derek Bok, was on the current White House “enemies list”).
“Well, okay,” the President replied. “But, George, I want you to promise me you’ll do a few laps before dinner. I need my team to be in tip-top shape.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. President,” he replied. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go back to my room and type up some of these memos.”
George dutifully gathered up his papers, zipped them into an attaché case, and strode to the guest cottage where the various White House aides were billeted.
He could not have been at his desk for more than five minutes when Kissinger, wearing a terrycloth robe, entered without even knocking.
“George,” he said excitedly, “you won’t believe what the President just did.”
“Is it good or bad?”
“Well, that depends on your vantage point, my boy,” said Kissinger, a smile beginning to cross his face. “He’s just asked me to become Secretary of State.”
“Gosh, Henry, congratulations.”
“Listen, can I use your phone? I’d like to call my parents and tell them.”
At 11:06 A.M. on September 22, in the East Room of the White House, Dr. Henry A. Kissinger took the oath of office and assumed the duties of the fifty-sixth American Secretary of State.
George Keller was privileged to be among the few nonmedia people present at the swearing-in. For he was joining the new Secretary as a Special Assistant.
Kissinger’s short remarks of gratitude were spoken from the heart. “There is no other country in the world where it is conceivable that a man of my origin could be standing here next to the President of the United States….”
George could not keep from hoping that America would also offer unlimited opportunity to a man of his origin.
“Henry, can I have a few seconds of your time?”
The new Secretary of State looked up from his desk and replied affably, “Certainly, George. What unsolvable new crisis do you wish to bring to my attention?”
“It’s not a crisis exactly, it’s more of a puzzle. You know I’ve always been liaising with Andreyev at the Russian Embassy —”
“Of course. Our best friend with the enemy.”
“Well, he’s invited me to lunch at Sans Souci.”
“Good.” Kissinger smiled. “At least we’re still salvaging a few meals from what’s left of détente.”
“Seriously, Henry,” George responded, “he wants to introduce me to their new Cultural Attaché.”
“Ah yes,” Kissinger replied with his near-photographic memory. “Fellow named Yakushkin.”
George nodded. “What do you think he wants?”
“That, my dear boy, is precisely what I expect you to find out. But will you take a word of advice from your old professor?”
“Certainly,” said George.
“Try their aiguillettes de canard . They cook them in cassis.”
It is a Washington paradox. Under other circumstances it might be decried as giving aid and comfort — and in this case, haute cuisine — to the enemy. But in America’s capital city they call it “gastronomic diplomacy.”
Some of the President’s men, like Haldeman and Ehrlichman, were regular clients of the Sans Souci, by far the best restaurant within walking distance of the White House. And they were fully accustomed to seeing high government officials (and even middle-rankers like George) sit down to dine with representatives of the nation that was supposed to be their mortal enemy.
This was not the first such meal in George Keller’s government experience. Though he could not fathom why, the Russian Embassy seemed to have taken a particular liking to him. At first he thought it was because of his fluency in their language. And yet all their conversations were held in English. And not even in hushed tones.
Still, always following the ground rules, he would furnish the FBI with a “Memorandum of Conversation” detailing the topics covered in each dialogue he had.
Far from arousing suspicion, the esteem in which the Soviets seemed to hold George actually raised his stature. For there were strategists at the State Department and the CIA who thought he might one day be useful in sniffing out a potential Communist defector.
It was a nice day, so George walked across Pennsylvania Avenue and down 17th Street to the restaurant.
Andreyev, middle-aged and bald, in a typical shapeless gray Russian suit, waved him over to the table, where a younger man, wearing a blue blazer and striped tie, rose to shake his hand.
“Dmitri Yakushkin, this is George Keller,” said Andreyev. He then added jocularly, “Be nice to him. He knows more about Eastern Europe than we do.”
“I’ll be on my best behavior,” said the diplomat in impeccable English.
George could not help but think, My God, his accent is almost as good as mine.
“What would you prefer to drink,” Andreyev asked, “Bloody Mary or champagne cocktail?”
“Since they have excellent Russian vodka here, I’ll have a Bloody Mary.”
Andreyev raised three fingers to the Maître d’, who simply nodded, having no need for further elucidation.
The conversation was extremely cordial and exceptionally superficial. George sat there waiting for the hidden zinger.
Yet, when the crème brûlée arrived, Yakushkin was asking him whether he ever went back to Hungary, which was now feasible since he was a U.S. citizen. And other trivialities.
George discoursed perfunctorily — but not too chauvinistically — about the pleasures of living in a capitalist society and how much he enjoyed the social life in Washington, which was a veritable cornucopia of lovely women. As Dmitri would soon find out.
At this juncture, he thought he saw a sparkle in the young man’s eyes. Perhaps he’s a candidate, George mused. Perhaps he’s asking in an oblique way how well a former Communist could live if he went to the other side.
This, at least, was the only conclusion he could offer in the Memorandum of Conversation he dictated to his secretary when he returned from lunch.
Sometime after three o’clock, the Secretary of State peeked his head through George’s door and asked, “Well?”
“You were right, Henry. The duck was absolutely great.”
Five days later, Yakushkin called George at his office “just to touch base” and confirm how much he had enjoyed their meeting. In fact, he wanted to invite George to dinner.
They set a date and a gastronomic venue — the Russians’ favorite restaurant, appropriately called La Rive Gauche, on Wisconsin Avenue. According to the State Department in-jokes, this was the most exclusive place in Washington. For its clientele was made up almost entirely of CIA and KGB agents watching one another watching other people.
Again, the chat was casual. But this time the beverage was vintage Bordeaux — and plenty of it. Each of them sat nonchalantly, trying to make out that they were just a little drunker than they really were.
“George,” Dmitri said casually, “this city’s so expensive. Do they pay you a good salary at State?”
“Not bad,” said George, and added almost as an afterthought, “thirty-six thousand per.”
“How much is that in rubles?” the young Russian asked.
“I really don’t know,” George responded with a smile.
“To be honest,” the diplomat laughed, “I’m not so sure myself. But anyway, between the two of us, I’d rather get my pay in dollars, eh?”
“That’s the only thing they take in America,” George replied, sensing that they were approaching a topic of some importance.
George casually lobbed the ball into the Russian’s court.
“Tell me, Dmitri, can you make ends meet on your salary?” There was a pause. The two chess players eyed each other, and the Russian said in candor, “Frankly, that was just what I was going to ask you.”
And George thought, What an ass. He’s trying to recruit me . Do the Russians think I’m such a patsy?
Still, he had to keep his cool.
“I’m fine for money, Dmitri,” he responded casually. “My needs are very simple.”
“Yes,” the Soviet concurred, a tinge of mystery in his voice, “you seem to lack for nothing. So is there no way we can… help you?”
George knew that he had to play along.
“That’s most considerate,” he said almost facetiously. “But why should your embassy want to help a person like myself?”
“Because you were brought up a Marxist and because perhaps you sometimes have nostalgia —”
“I don’t mean for the system, but for the old country. Don’t you feel the slightest bit deracinated?”
“I’m an American,” George Keller answered firmly.
Dmitri pondered his reaction for a moment, reached into his pocket, and withdrew two thin silver canisters.
“Cigar?” he asked. “They’re Havanas. We bring them over in our diplomatic pouch. I bet you’ve never had one, eh?”
“No, thanks,” George said politely. “I don’t smoke.”
He wanted the FBI observers to note that he would not even touch a Communist cigar.
Yakushkin lit up and started blowing little rings.
“Dr. Keller,” he started with deliberate slowness, “I have some information that may be of interest to you.”
The Russian’s sudden change of tone made George uncomfortable.
“I’m always glad to receive information from the Russian Embassy,” he replied with nervous humor.
“It’s about the status of your father,” said the diplomat. “I thought you might like to know that —”
“I know my father’s risen in the party,” George interrupted with annoyance.
“I mean the status of his health.”
“Is he ill?”
“He has lung cancer.”
“Oh,” George said gravely. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It will no doubt be very painful,” the Russian added.
“What do you mean ‘painful’?”
“Look,” Dmitri began with fraternal consolation, “you’re an expert on East European affairs and you know the level of hospital facilities in Hungary. We don’t have the abundant supply of medication that you have in the West. So it’s not clear how long he’ll live. It could be one year. It could be several months….”
Yakushkin sighed like a world-weary physician. “George, this wretched arms race sometimes makes humanitarian concerns a secondary matter. If your father were in America, he would be so much more comfortable. You are so far ahead of us in — what’s the word? — analgesics.”
“I’m sure Party officials don’t lack for Western medicine, Dmitri.”
“True,” the Russian conceded. “But as you and I know, your father’s rank is not that high….”
He paused and blew another Cuban smoke ring.
“I don’t see what all this has to do with me,” George protested quietly.
“Well,” Dmitri said with a little smile, “a father is a father. I mean, if I were in your place I would want to help him. At least to die peacefully. It’s possible I could be in a position to help him.”
“Then do so.”
There was a pause, like the rest period between rounds of a fight.
Yakushkin replied simply, “It doesn’t work that way.”
“What the hell are you driving at?”
Dmitri refilled George’s wine glass and then spoke in friendly, reassuring tones.
“Please, Keller, if you think I’m going to ask you to commit espionage, you’re sorely mistaken.”
“But you do want me to do something,” George insisted.
“Yes. Something perfectly legal. It is simply a matter of unblocking the logjam of your government’s bureaucracy. We have been trying for months now to obtain a piece of equipment —”
“Which, I suppose, you would like me to steal,” George interrupted.
“No, no. This is a small device that we are trying to buy. Do you hear me? Buy . It is merely a gadget for enhancing photographic images from weather satellites. There’s no hanky-panky here, but your Department of Commerce just won’t get off the fence.”
“And you want me to push them?”
“ ‘Push’ is too strong a word,” the diplomat replied. “I would prefer to say ‘gently nudge.’ Look, all I want you to do is satisfy yourself that the Taylor RX-80 is of no military value. Take your time and give me a buzz when you’ve checked it out. Anyway, I’ve had a very pleasant evening.”
“Yes, George replied, trying to keep his psychic equilibrium. “Thanks very much.”
In his Memorandum of Conversation to the FBI referring to his second meeting with Dmitri Yakushkin, Cultural Attaché at the Soviet Embassy, George Keller wrote succinctly:
I tried to recruit him. He tried to recruit me.
Game ended in a scoreless tie.
But in fact, in the days that followed, George was haunted by thoughts of the father whom he hated. And by thoughts of that same father lying in agony in a Budapest hospital. Whom he could no longer hate.
After three days and nights he was still in an anguished quandary. The thought even occurred to him that the Russians might be bluffing. For all he knew, his father might be hale and hearty in some elegant resort for Party officials. How could he be sure?
Dmitri Yakushkin had anticipated this. On the fourth morning, when George went downstairs to get the mail, he found a large manila envelope that had been delivered by hand.
It contained two chest X-rays and a short note from the diplomat:
I thought these might be of interest.
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