The last few weeks have seen the passing of some great American figures: Robert McNamara, Walter Cronkite and Frank McCourt. I was fortunate to have met each on more than one occasion, though I knew McNamara very well. In the late 1980s, in the last days of the Soviet Union, he and I were recruited to be part of an international foundation established in Moscow. It did a great deal of work on nuclear arms control and other security issues. But through the conduct of its business, it made many other contributions. For one thing, it was the first US-Soviet board of its kind. And in 1988, we were the organization that managed to bring our fellow board member Andrei Sakharov to the West for the first time. The International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity, named by Sakharov himself, was the source of many stories in my 1995 book, Breaking Free.
Over the course of these years, and after many trips together, I became fond of “Bob” as we called him. McNamara was a dynamic hard-charger, but also a thoughtful man who spent increasing time thinking about his legacy and the impact of his many decisions and personal choices. One could not help but empathize with him, quite aside from the nature of his role and the weight of history’s verdict. He was a man engaged with his conscience, especially in the lengthening days of his life, and he generously shared his feelings with many of us. Bob and I may have seemed like an odd pair of friends—given the age difference and political affiliation—but I valued his friendship and the strong sense of accountability he felt for his past. Like many others, I will miss him greatly.
Walter Cronkite, it has been observed, was down to earth; a man devoid of pretense. The year before last, I spent a few days with him as a guest of consumer advocate Remar Sutton, in the British Virgin Islands. Cronkite, the avid sailor that he was, was still calling on tropical marine ports well into his nineties, and he always stopped to see Sutton. We had several wonderful days together, and I was riveted by his stories of WWII. I can still recall the amusement he expressed when telling his favorite about the Blitz of London and British stiff upper lip. He recounted with appreciation an English waiter who still managed to serve him breakfast without any appearance of crisis—his hand towel draped appropriately over his arm and the tray set perfectly— despite the fact that their building had been directly hit by a bomb while he had been preparing the meal downstairs.
My father, John S.D. Eisenhower, knew Walter Cronkite better, and at a different period of his life. I hope you enjoy his reminiscences about this legendary figure which was written for SusanEisenhower.com. (See his post here.)
Finally, after attending two different dinner parties with Frank McCourt over the years, I was convinced as never before in the power of a truly authentic voice. One gathering was given by Pen/Faulkner Foundation Executive Vice President Willee Lewis, and the other by New York literary arts figure, Ruda Dauphin. He was exactly the kind of entertaining figure that one might imagine. With his passing, our cultural rainbow will be a little less colorful.
McNamara, Cronkite and McCourt had more than a passing influence on our lives and each, in his way, helped shape our world and our American experience.