13 February 2014

George Wilson: A Legendary Reporter Remembered

(CS Note: this is a slightly edited version of my original emailing)

Today, the Washington Post reported that its legendary defense reporter George Wilson passed away at 86.  I remember him fondly, and working with people like him was one of the great blessings of my career in the Pentagon.

George Wilson was one of the great reporters and a friend.  I will miss him and his reporting.  His call sign when phoning, at least among my group of friends in the Pentagon, was Captain Black.

Captain Black always identified with the troops and low rankers at the pointy end of the spear, either on the battlefield or in the bowels of the Pentagon.  And he always did it with humor, modesty, and grace ... and occasionally indignation, especially when the troops were being hosed, but never with any sense of self - importance.  Captain Black did some great reporting on some really big serious issues, and he was at home as much on the battlefields as in the General's offices and on Capital Hill.  But he also loved to walk the halls of Pentagon and pop in unannounced to shoot the bull and gossip -- always laughingly -- about the lunacy in the Pentagon.   It was this ever present humor coupled with Captain Black's ability to skewer the high rollers that I remember the most.

I particularly remember one morning in the Pentagon when I got a call from an Air National Guard one-star general, Dave Hoff, asking me for some help in getting him into the Pentagon.  The civilian guards would not let him thru the gate because he did not have a Pentagon pass. That was because Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger had just approved a stupid policy saying visiting military officers could not enter the Pentagon without a special Pentagon pass; so hundreds if not thousands of officers of all ranks visiting the Pentagon each day needed special escorts just to get them through the door.  Dave was the wing commander of a Guard A-10 wing that was based in Wisconsin.  His wing was part of the NATO war plan, and in this capacity, he was a full time active duty officer.  He had been called to DC for one of those never-ending, boring planning conferences.  He didn't want to be there.  Of course he had his military ID and was in full uniform, but that did not matter; the guards said no.  I got him in and he came up to the my office for a coffee before going to the meeting.  Coincidentally, Capt. Black popped his head in the door, as usual for no particular reason, and after introductions, I launched Dave -- who went into a half hour tirade about how stupid Weinberger's door plugging policy was.  The next day, a short hilarious story about how generals whose units were part of  the NATO war plans could not get into the Pentagon appeared on the front page of the Post, and the following day the policy was rescinded.  

Then there was the joy Captain Black had in penning a series of front page articles that shut down Weinberger's hysterical plan to plug all leaks by hooking everyone in the huge Office of the Secretary of Defense into the flutter box, even though the lie detector test had just fingered the wrong person.  The witch hunt was triggered by a story Captain Black wrote about the estimated long-term costs of the Reagan spendup made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  On his own responsibility and at considerable risk to his job at the Post, he wrote to Weinberger to tell him he had the wrong guy and was prepared to say so under oath in court; but he would refuse to name the person who supplied him with the information.  How many reporters would take such a risk to correct the record in this way?

George Wilson did some really serious work on important issues and wrote some great books. On balance, and I did not always agree with him, no one would say he was not a force for good.  But what I remember most was his prepossessing humanity -- he was a character and he was great fun to be around.  Young reporters would do well to learn from his example. (see also James Fallows' remembrance in The Atlantic)