With a gold likeness of Independence Hall pinned to her red jacket, and a dog-eared copy of the Constitution tucked into her evening bag, Ruth Friendly, 81, stood under the lights at Avery Fisher Hall and said it wasn't so hard seeing her late husband portrayed by George Clooney.
"George isn't bad to look at," said the retired school teacher. "But Fred, you knew Fred. Fred was louder."
This was Friday night, at the debut of Good Night, and Good Luck, and I had the opportunity to stand on the other side of the velvet rope, as a guest of the Friendly family. Fred Friendly's youngest son, David, was my college roommate for four years, and we've stayed close even though he's gone over to the dark side; once he covered Hollywood, now he is Hollywood.
"My father took on McCarthy and I'm producing Big Mama's House II. Genius skips a generation," David said beforehand in the hotel. "But I'm also making Little Miss Sunshine with Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear." Apparently, the ability to get off a good line, while placing a product, is inherited.
The black-and-white film captures one of broadcast journalism's finest moments, how CBS News and the See It Now program punctured the red-baiting U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954. David Strathairn plays the great reporter and announcer Edward R. Murrow. Clooney, who directed and co-wrote the film, plays Friendly, who was Murrow's producer.
"A large man with an enormous head" is how I remember a description of Friendly in The New Yorker. The poet Carl Sandburg said Friendly "always looks as if he had just got off a foam-flecked horse." Clooney plays Friendly unglossed. His face looks a little puffy. He wears horned rims and hair tonic. And he is subdued in a way Friendly was not.
Fred Friendly was a force of nature, able to fill any room - even if he was outdoors. Together Murrow and Friendly set the bar with such journalistic jewels as the See it Now shows and Harvest of Shame, an expose of the conditions that migrant farm workers faced.
In a way I owe my career to Fred Friendly. He wrote a recommendation for me for grad school in journalism. I suppose one incident gave him confidence I wouldn't dishonor him completely. Friendly was teaching at Columbia and advising the Ford Foundation. He had launched a series of Socratic seminars that brought together journalists, judges and other public figures to explore complex issues. Sunday mornings, his home in Riverdale, N.Y., would turn into a high-powered salon.
One weekend I was visiting, and awoke to an intense discussion about the volunteer Army with Max Frankel, then editor of the New York Times Sunday magazine, his son, and a rabbi from Providence, where Friendly was once known as Ferdinand Wachenheimer.
David and I had been out late somewhere and were keeping to the sidelines, just trying to get some breakfast and avoid direct fire. Someone asked what percentage of the volunteer Army was black and Frankel answered. Without thinking, I corrected him. Mr. Friendly swiveled and his booming voice broke the silence, "How do you know that?"
My answer did not endear me any more to Frankel. "I just wrote a paper on the topic," I offered. "I saw the number in the Sunday Times Magazine."
While my political instincts were clearly lousy, I showed enough promise in the requirement that reporters speak the truth to power.
Clooney has been giving interviews about the McCarthy era and the need in these times for a vigilant media. Before the screening, he told the crowd that the film is "about the importance of information. The importance of the Fourth Estate. The importance to always question authority." He also said it was about "eroding civil liberties through fear."
It's a nice evolution for an actor who once failed to land a guest spot on the Joanie Loves Chochie show. Clooney has said that part of his inspiration in making the film came from his father, a former Kentucky television announcer, who hated broadcast news' easy drift toward style over substance.
The film begins with a See It Now story segment called the Case Against Milo Radulovich, A0589839, that begins the take-down of McCarthyism. Radulovich, 26, was losing his Air Force commission in the reserves because his father and sister were alleged to be radicals. Radulovich had not been allowed to face his accusers or read the charges placed against him. The CBS team has to battle not only the government but their own network and advertisers.
The high point is the March 9,1954 show about McCarthy. You can read the entire transcript here. It is strong stuff, as Murrow has realized that there are not always two equal sides to a story. These words should be chiseled somewhere:
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men -- not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.