Dick Walters, R.I.P.

Posted: Feb 18, 2002 12:00 AM
The Quiet Man departed this world at Good Samaritan Medical Center, the cause of death, as he'd have wished, unstated. On hearing of his unobtrusive death in Palm Beach, Fla., friends and admirers took it for granted that the Good Samaritan hospital took the very best care of the good samaritan dying at its hands. If Vernon Walters was conscious, he'd have received the last rites of the Catholic Church, whose God he thought himself as having committed his life work to, although what he did was work for the United States, an ungodly nation much of the time Walters was active, but reasonably adjudged the best-intentioned country of the 20th century.

Walters was at once the invisible man, and the man, when asked to speak out, utterly plainspoken, wittily dogmatic, searchingly thoughtful. He was a consummate craftsman: You had to be out of sight when you were interpreting for Eisenhower and de Gaulle, Kissinger and Pompidou, note-taking for Truman when he fired Douglas MacArthur, sneaking Kissinger into Paris to meet secretly with the Vietnamese, serving as deputy chief, then acting director of the CIA. But when his views were asked, on questions he thought himself entitled to speak out about, the words, thoughts, reflections, history, witticisms poured forth, ingenuous questions corrected, sarcasm and cynicism handled, the questioner left barely alive to tell the tale.

It happens that I saw him often, because he spent many days on passenger liners participating in seminars we both engaged in. He was getting creaky, at 85, and needed his nephew to get him about, but he omitted nothing that was going on, in part a preternatural disposition to do his duty, in part an appetite to see and hear everything. The intelligence officer off-duty is sometimes governed by the habits of an intelligence officer on-duty. In his company one found oneself supposing, on hearing Walters handle German and Spanish, French and Italian, Dutch, Portuguese and Russian, that his mind traveled from any one language to any other seriatim, because his mind worked that way, taking it all in.

Although his business in later years was diplomacy, his craft was intelligence, and the two blended in his hands. His mien was grouchy, the corners of his lips turned down, his arms crossed, as he might have looked receiving a tirade from Khrushchev with duties to pass the ordure on to Jack Kennedy. I asked him, on a television program at a time that the CIA was under especially heavy pressure, about his calling. He replied in one breath:

"We have a great ambivalence toward intelligence. The average American thinks it's something that isn't very clean, it isn't very American and the Founding Fathers wouldn't like it. Well, I have news for them. George Washington was one of the most prolific readers of other people's mail. Benjamin Franklin was assistant postmaster of British North America before the Revolution when we were all loyal subjects of George III. He was busy opening all the British mail. They caught him. They sent him to London to stand trial before the Privy Council. They found him guilty. Before they could sentence him, he skipped off to France to conduct the covert operation that was to bring France into the war on the side of the Revolution. Now this was a remarkable achievement, seeing that Anthony Eden's great-great-great-grandfather had fully penetrated Benjamin Franklin's office. Franklin's valet was a British agent, his secretary was a British agent, and we have some doubts about one of the three commissioners."

That was a mouthful, and he spoke in mouthfuls. But he was, in spite of it, a man of great diffidence. My most memorable encounter with him was at the steps of the White House. He was passing through the usual checkpoint at the west gate and had his sister with him. The Secret Service would not let them in: They had no data on his sister, and for all the Secret Service knew, this septuagenarian lady was really Mata Hari.

I was behind in line, and behind me was Ted Williams, conversing with the chancellor of the University of Chicago. Ours was a line of people invited to the White House that day in January 1991 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and there the former head of the CIA was holding up the line. He just stood there, waiting for something to happen, so that he could have a family member at hand when the president of the United States hung a medal about his neck.

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