For the past few years I've been immersing myself in the 1970s, trying to reconstruct what it was like to live and go to school in New York City at that chaotic time, as the student left was giving way to punk. Lately (in an effort to think about something other than Trump), I've been re-reading old newspapers that were published at City College, like The Campus, The Paper, and Observation Post (OP), which I edited.
In 1975, when I was in grad school, the Pentagon invited me to be a speechwriter for Air Force secretary John McLucas. Despite strong anti-war and anti-military sentiments, I accepted the offer. It was a paid writing gig, an “internship,” the Pentagon called it—the Air Force hoped that upon completing my degree, I’d make the military my career. Gerald Ford was president, the Vietnam War had just ended, and I was an ambitious, rebellious 22-year-old, hungry for experience.
Upon returning to City College for the fall semester, I sat down with three OP editors—Herb Fox, Mark Lipitz, and Fred Seaman—to discuss my stint at the Pentagon. They published their interview with me in the November 5, 1975, issue. Reading it now, more than 40 years later, my unguarded anger and the way I shot off my mouth startles me. I’d apparently not yet developed a filter and did not fully understand the effect my words might have on a wider audience, especially my former Pentagon coworkers. The interview, however, does serve as a window into my unruly consciousness and the mindset of the military in the immediate aftermath of having lost a war for the first time since 1812.
Here are some excerpts from the interview, with the names of my former coworkers redacted.
What was your first day at the Pentagon like?
I couldn’t sleep the night before. I didn’t know what I was getting into. In the morning I had to wait at the main information desk with about 20 other interns. After an hour, some Air Force people took us to be “processed in,” which was filling out tax forms, taking loyalty oaths, and having your arms checked for needle marks. Then I went up to the speechwriting office and met the people I was going to be working with. I was terrified. It was the first time I ever came in contact with the military. There were three lieutenant colonels and a captain. Lieutenant Colonel A_____, the chief, asked me to come into his office and said: “Well, Bob, you’ve got to hang loose. This is a very loose place.”
What did he mean by that?
He meant speechwriting was a very frustrating job. It takes about ten days to write a speech. It’s a very long process, involving a lot of research and interviewing. You spend entire days talking to people on the phone, running around the Pentagon tracking down “experts,” going through microfilm files, and reading up on relevant material. Then you write a rough draft and finally hand in a polished speech. But McLucas is a callous pig. He looks at a lot of speeches and says: “I don't like this. Do it over!” Then you’d have to do the whole fucking thing over. When he actually gives a speech, he usually reads the first paragraph, throws the rest away, and spins off on his own. It killed everyone in office. It wouldn’t have bothered me if he was a good impromptu speaker, but he was terrible at it. He’d go off on all kinds of boring tangents that put people to sleep. He did it to gratify his ego, to prove to himself he was more witty and more articulate than his speechwriters. He treated us like garbage. A couple of times he said things that got him in trouble. For instance, during a speech to a group of scientists in San Francisco he started to ad-lib and called the Vietnam War a “debacle.” That made banner headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle. It got people in the Pentagon really pissed at him.
You said that at first you tried to be as “truthful” as possible [when writing a speech]. What do you mean by that?
Okay. Let me use my first major speech as an example. McLucas had to speak to a group of ROTC cadets who were graduating from college this year and expected to join the Air Force right away. Now these cadets had entered college during the Vietnam War, when the ROTC program was going full force. However, since the end of the war, the size of the Air Force has been reduced by about 30 percent, and there’s going to be no room for these cadets. McLucas had to explain to them they had to wait up to two years before they could join the Air Force, and he had to come up with something to tell them to do during these two years. So I wrote a speech suggesting these cadets should run off and become hippies, and then when the time came they would be able to go into the Air Force with a completely new perspective on life.
I suppose they killed the speech right away.
No, they didn’t kill it that fast, which surprised me. Each speech, before it gets to the Secretary, has to go through a chain of about 15 experts. My supervisor, Lieutenant Colonel A_____, actually liked it, so I figured that there really was a chance it might get through. It passed three people before someone realized I was subtly suggesting these cadets go off and become hippies. I got an angry memo from the Pentagon Commandant of ROTC saying: “I don’t think the Secretary of the Air Force should suggest our future pilots become hippies.”
Another weird thing happened to me with that speech. After I had finished writing it, I typed a separate paragraph they wanted to include, mentioning there had been a 69 percent increase of women in the Air Force since 1969. I showed the paragraph to one of the officers there, Lieutenant Colonel B_____, and he said: “You can't use this 69 percent.”
“Why not?” I asked. “I triple-checked it. There’s a 69 percent increase.”
“Well, you see,” he said, “you’re going to be speaking to a group of ROTC cadets and they’re all males. Here you are talking about women. You just can’t use 69 percent when you’re talking about women to an all-male group. Some of their minds might not be in the right place. You have to change that.”
I thought he was joking and started to laugh. When I looked around I saw nobody else was laughing. It wasn’t a joke. I had to change the 69 percent to something else.
Are there many religious people at the Pentagon?
That’s another incredibly weird aspect of the Pentagon—the way people there are into religion. This one speechwriter, Captain G_____, tried to convert me to Christianity. He was a Charismatic Christian. He’d tell me how he talks to Jesus every night when he drives home in his car. There’s something very frightening about an officer in a high government position telling you how he talks to Jesus every day. He also gave me religious books to read that painted horrible fire and brimstone visions of hell. These passages would always be followed by a paragraph that said, “But, if you accept Christ you don’t have to go there.”
He told me I was in the Pentagon because God wanted me there.
“Why would God possibly want me in the Pentagon?” I asked, and he said: “Well, when the Messiah comes maybe He’ll want you to be His speechwriter. He has you here to learn about speechwriting and to learn about Him.”
Tell us about your trip to Florida.
I’d written a speech for a graduation exercise at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, and I got to fly down there with McLucas, his military aide, and Lieutenant Colonel A_____. [In Florida, A_____ and I shared a hotel room. It] was the first time I’d ever roomed with a lieutenant colonel.
He liked to talk to me about my politics and drugs. A_____ had been in the military for 19 years and he only came into contact with other people in the military. I’d say, “I take drugs and opposed the war.” He’d say, “Gee, I never met anybody who admitted he took drugs. I don’t know people who opposed the war.”
I told him there were a lot of people like me. He had only seen them on TV and read about them in the newspaper, and now he’s suddenly rooming with one. He used to ask me a lot of questions whose answers seemed obvious, like: “How come you didn’t like the war?” I’d give him a pretty standard answer about the United States having no right to destroy a country halfway around the world for its own selfish interests. Then I’d ask: “How come you did like the war?” He’d tell me he’s a patriot and the Communists were the aggressors, the usual story. He’d keep on saying we didn't bomb civilian targets. It was the most “surgical” bombing job in the history of the Air Force. He’d use expressions like, “We didn’t want to destroy the whole country, we just wanted to twist the Communists’ arms till they saw things our way.”
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