The Dissector and his Agnew

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Danny Schechter, the News Dissector, had a peculiar, almost lisping delivery, exemplified by his inability to pronounce the words “Leonid Brezhnev”. It sounded like “Glolonod Blozhnod”. He reported on the air every day about the leading problem of the day, the Vietnam War. He never used the words “Viet Cong”, but spoke about the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. It was as clear to me as to anybody else that the VC were representatives of the national aspirations of the Vietnamese people, communists and our allies. Why then, I asked Danny, not join the Communist Party of the United States? His answer had to do with Leonid Brezhnev. Danny knew a lot about Marxism. It was he who first pointed out to me that “Marxism is not economic determinism”. To me it seemed like a logical progression: The NLF were our allies and friends; they were communists. The Soviet communists provided the material and ideological support for the Vietnamese communists. The American communists were allied with the Vietnamese and Soviets. So why not join the CPUSA? Brezhnev, to be sure was an unimaginative apparatchik. Everybody knew about the Prague Spring. But if there had been a Khrushchev Thaw, could there not be another? And was there not a greater danger to world peace than any Soviet activity in their sphere of influence? Danny just shook his head and said, “no, don’t join the CP, man”.

I spent several months in Danny’s apartment on the third floor of a three-decker on Norfolk Street in East Cambridge. My bedroom was between the living room and Danny’s office ( a large closet stuffed with books and papers ), so there was some coming and going by Danny, but I had more privacy than sleeping on Steve Leech’s day bed. In the corner of my room was a black Bakelite dial extension telephone with a large electrolytic capacitor hanging out of it. This phone was known as the Agnew. Danny used it to receive free long distance calls. AT&T’s billing system relied on a d. c. connection established at the time the phone was picked up. With the capacitor in series with the phone and the line, no d. c. could flow, but voice came through just fine. When Danny wanted to talk to somebody, usually Andrew Kopkind, he would call him up (on another extension; outbound calls did not work on the Agnew), long distance, let it ring once, and hang up. There was no charge, of course for an unanswered call. The single ring was the signal for Andy to call Danny, and when the call came in Danny would answer it on the Agnew. This could be annoying, since the Agnew was in my room. I could be in there, maybe with a girl friend, or trying to develop film in the dark, when the Agnew would ring and Danny would come busting in.

Linda Gordon, the historian NYU professor, who was then a graduate student at Harvard, Danny’s nominal girl friend, also lived at Norfolk St. in a room on the other side of the kitchen with a desk, a bed and hundreds of books, where Danny kept his clothes and occasionally slept. Linda, a serious scholar, didn’t seem to be too negatively affected by the dysfunction around her: the Agnew ringing in the corner; the piles of dirty dishes in the sink; me, my developing tanks and my girl friends, coming and going drunk, enveloped in marijuana smoke; Danny in the Combat Zone. Once I picked up three young New York Jewish women in the Plough and Stars. Even they had heard about WBCN. After a romp in a large empty apartment in Brookline I ended up with them at the Norfolk Street apartment. Danny came in about six in the morning and stumbled over their sleeping bodies in the living room. “I would have tried to make all three of them, man” was his wide eyed comment to me after the women had left.

Danny took care of business. He got up early enough or stayed up late enough to do the morning newscasts at WBCN. He went everywhere with a large plastic cassette recorder, made in the U. S. A., with a built in microphone, which he would hold up right in the face of whomever he was interviewing. Then he would work in the production studio, dubbing his cassettes to 1/4″ tape and producing his newscasts.

Woo Woo was happy with Danny, because being against the war and for progressive causes sold time, but Danny, like the rest of us, was very threatened by Woo Woo’s periodic attempts to fire Charles. If Woo Woo could fire Charles, he could do anything: impose play lists; censor the news; up the spot load to twelve an hour.

Six weeks or so after I moved in with Danny and Linda the weather began to break. The tortuous, icy wind around the John Hancocks and the Prudential began to soften. At the beginning of May the maples shed their green flowers all over the cars parked along Newbury Street. It was broad daylight when I left work. In ten minutes I could walk from the studio to the Root One, grab some sprouts and brown rice with bechamel sauce, then catch the Mass. Ave. bus to Central Square in Cambridge. Then it was a fifteen minute walk to Norfolk Street.

One Saturday morning after a night at the Plough I decided to go into the studio, then stop by the transmitter. After reading the meters and checking the nitrogen pressure I went up the first flight of stairs and outside to my favorite perch in a nook of the bronze clad roof, right at the base of the great vertical hypodermic, and reclined there for a few minutes, a gargoyle, looking out gratefully at the emerging foliage on the streets of the Back Bay, along the Charles River and in Cambridge, easing my anxieties and my hangover to the point at which hunger became a factor and I descended to find some lunch.

There wasn’t much business at the Root One – just a shadowy blonde with her chopsticks and bowl in a corner. As I waited for my rice, sauce and salad at the window I admired the Root One workers washing and drying each salad leaf individually with paper towels. “There’s other ways to dry it, you know”, said the blonde from behind me. I sat near her. I could hardly not sit near her since there were only five seats in the Root One. She explained the principle of the lettuce centrifuge to me. The Root One was in the basement and shook heavily from traffic on Mass. Ave. I ate, got up and left hurriedly, not wanting to miss the bus. I sat up front. Crossing the river, I looked to the rear, and there she was, two seats behind. I got off in Central Square. She got off, too. I went into the liquor store and came out with a bottle of wine. She was standing there. I walked up Prospect Street and she walked behind. Every fifty steps or so I looked back to check if she was still there. She followed me up the dark steps at Norfolk Street and into my room. Her name was J.

After a while the Agnew rang and Danny came rushing in. J. covered herself hurriedly. Danny picked up the Agnew and glanced at her, then looked again before disappearing into his office trailing the wire under the door. J. got up and dressed herself, not too hurriedly. She smiled at me. We could hear Danny talking rapidly, muffled by the closed door to his office. “I’ll be seeing you,” she said, truthfully, and left. Later Danny said to me “she’s certainly good looking enough”.

One night the Agnew rang about midnight. Danny was on an expedition to the Combat Zone. I answered it sleepily. It was Andy Kopkind, asking if he could stay there that night if he arrived about 4:00 AM. “No,” I said, “I can’t take it”. That was the end of my time at Norfolk Street. When Danny heard that I had rejected Andy all he could say was, “How is that possible, man? How is that possible”. Everyone agreed that I should find a place of my own. So I moved again. It was not hard. I had four cardboard boxes: one for my t-shirts and jeans; another with my photographic equipment; and two with my books.

Danny Schechter (L) Copyright (c) 1971, 2010 William J. Spurlin

I still have most of those books. One is a pamphlet I picked up in France in 1970: “Léonid Brejnev; L’Oeuvre de Lénine vit et Triomphe “. In 1971 we were midway through the cycle of anti-communist wars of the second half of the twentieth century. Korea was behind us, forgotten. The release of M*A*S*H in 1970 was met with bewilderment. Oh, they must really mean Vietnam. Oh yes, Korea, brainwashing. The Manchurian Candidate. I know what you mean. The outcome of the Vietnam War was uncertain. It had already gone on for three times as long as the Korean War. We didn’t know what to expect. Life was hard; probably short. We only had each other.

The war waged by the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, our proxy against the Soviets, was yet to come. All these wars of course were disastrous failures. We are living yet with the terribly dangerous and unstable situation on the Korean peninsula; with the plague of drugs unleashed by the alienation of youth at the time of the Vietnam war; and with Osama Bin Laden and the other Mujaheddin we created in Afghanistan. Any initiative for stability and progress in the world cannot come from us. Our record for sixty-five years has been twisted by a demented, failed ideology. Leadership must pass to the former third world countries, those that have been liberated.

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  1. Interesting rationale for the CPUSA, but the rot was deep and the faith would not be rewarded with victory.

  2. Thank you for your well written, and heartfelt tribute. It captured the spirit of the time. He was the conscience of those of us who had the good fortune of being in Boston in the sixties (70’s). He changed forever what the news could be, and a generation of us will never forget him.

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