How a Book Lifted the Fog of War for a Father and Son

The Fiscal Times

OP-ED: Publishers have begun to serve up memoirs from likely 2016 presidential aspirants - Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul - the books already available or their authors soon to be on bookseller campaign circuits. 

There are also leftovers from the 2012 primaries and explanations and justifications from Robert Gates and Timothy Geithner. Left to me, I’d campaign for Bill Geist – for president. He writes his own stuff without mockery or skewering and lets us in on the unusual, the otherwise uncelebrated.  

With appreciation, and delight not tinged with barbs, he tells stories of people who would not be invoked to make a partisan point in a campaign speech. He tells of places that are not on any candidate’s campaign route (a one-person town, for example). 

Often humorous, Bill Geist’s chronicles of quirky people and places for CBS Sunday Morning broadcasts have provided a respite from the ultra-predictable talking-points blather of the other Sunday morning “news” shows.  

Sadly, Parkinson’s disease precludes his presidential candidacy. Parkinson’s might also stall any grass-roots campaign to have him named the commissioner of Major League Baseball. But his recently published collaboration with his son Willie (MSNBC’s Morning Joe and NBC’s Today) is surely a public service – and reading those father-son exchanges should be a national pastime.   

Reminiscences, Reflections, But No Recriminations
In contrast to the self-serving stewings of politicians, the Geists’ Good Talk, Dad is the book equivalent of a kitchen table – home style, family style; nothing “cooked up.” 

In the introduction, Willie explains that his father “grew up in the middle of the stoic Midwest in a time and place where you didn’t sit down and talk about your feelings a whole lot.” By way of context, Bill explains that psychiatrists weren’t thriving in Champaign, Illinois, where he grew up.

So father and son share with us their point-counterpoint regarding sports, summer camps, imbibing, girls – and what their boyhoods and fatherhoods have taught them. Stuff that would not be in any candidate’s campaign bio, but all the more interesting and entertaining – and more worthwhile than any candidate’s biopic. 

Revealing, too, in meaningful and poignant ways: For the first time, Bill reveals what he did, saw, heard, and felt as a combat photographer in Vietnam in 1969.  

Capturing the Vietnam War
Given all that Bill and Willie Geist shared with each other, over the past thirty-plus years, it may seem surprising that Bill never spoke about his year in Vietnam with the First Infantry Division.  

At a book-talk Q&A, Bill Geist explained that he never spoke of his Vietnam service because he never wanted to make it “an entertainment.”  He never wanted to seem to be “trading on it” – say, at a bar “for a free beer or two.” But there were clearly other reasons to “lock it away.” 

Willie writes, “Among the many conversations my Dad and I danced around [sex, for example], there is one we never even pretended to have.... There were things I wanted to know, but I knew my dad didn’t want to revisit. His military service made me proud... I respected my dad for his tour, even if I knew hardly anything about it at all...he always stopped short of opening up.” 

Willie goes on to explain:  “This book gave me an excuse to ask my dad to tell me and you about his time in Vietnam. He writes here more than any of us have ever heard.” 

The Vietnam chapter in Good Talk, Dad is a product of several developments: a 38-year-old journalist son who is keenly interested in politics and political decision-making, and a growing despair that decision-makers in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon may not be attuned to past mistakes.  

Bill explains: “We’ve never had a talk about my year in Vietnam. I’ve never had that talk with anyone, even myself. Denial has always worked for me.”  

Bill then recounts his deployment to and arrival in Saigon. His descriptions bring to mind the opening scene of Platoon, which won the Oscar as the best picture of 1986. As the new arrivals “walk solemnly in single file across the tarmac,” they register a line of soldiers who are heading home: 

“As the lines passed each other, the vets glanced at us in our starched fatigues and spit-shined boots, with signs of trepidation on our faces; then they looked back at the ground. And we looked back at them for signs of something. Their uniforms were faded from the sun, their faces emotionless masks. They appeared weary and not in this moment. And, to me, they looked older.”

There, in his first moments in the field of operations, Bill Geist wondered why those heading home were not jubilant; or why they didn’t “scoff at us greenhorns.” There were no words of encouragement, pity, or wisdom. No salutations. No platitudes.  

Forty miles north of Saigon, in what became known as the Iron Triangle, “there were rocket attacks most every night.” During a most persistent attack, Geist took shelter under his bed, waking up to find “some of the rough wooden flooring beneath my nails.”  

A Reaction to the Drug of War
In the concluding paragraph of the Vietnam chapter, which is quite different in tone from any other chapter and any of the many entertaining one-pages headed, “A Geist Date in History,” Bill Geist delivers the book’s one unalloyed sobering thought:

“When I see TV commercials using patriotism to sell military service to impressionable young men and women, it seems that there really ought to be the voice of that announcer in pill commercials warning – ‘May cause neuroses, psychoses, severe burns, paralysis, loss of limbs, premature death, and lifetimes of sorrow.” 

Geist then reveals his lifetime of sorrow, “for the fifty-eight thousand who had died for nothing, not even to serve as a cautionary lesson to never make the same mistake again. We already have.” 

Anybody seeking a ballot line this November, and most certainly anybody seeking a 2016 nomination, should read Good Talk, Dad – for lessons in humility; and to learn what verbal shots fired as campaign rhetoric (or from the commander-in-chief’s podium) can mean in an actual battlefield campaign.

 

 

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