From: Courage is a Three Letter Word
It was Good Friday, April 17, 1981, and I had just asked John Ehrlichman why he had not committed suicide.
He sat across from me at a small table in a rear corner of Danny Stradella’s Restaurant on East Forty-Sixth Street in Manhattan. We had walked there from my office, which was only a half-block away. Our conversation was polite, correct. As we spoke I wondered whether I had made a mistake by agreeing to meet this former presidential aide, a character I remembered from the Watergate hearings in 1973 as arrogant, contemptuous – frankly, to my mind, a man who had threatened my country.
Yet, there he sat, now bearded and bespectacled, only inches from me.
“My life is different today,” he offered. An understatement, I thought, as I noticed that he spoke tentatively and not with the pompous self-assurance that had alienated millions of his fellow Americans who watched him on television defending Richard Nixon. I noticed something else, too. His bearing. No longer the mighty bull, he was more a calf stepping out of the barn into the sunshine for the first time. His steps were hesitant. He spoke softly, leaning away.
I did not order a drink.
I ordered an appetizer.
He ordered an appetizer.
I ordered the special
He paused. “The special,” he told the waiter.
“John,” I said, “as editor of Parade magazine, I have a responsibility to readers in more than twenty millions homes….” He nodded quickly, assuring me, “I understand.”
“Good,” I said, “because some of what you will hear from me will be painful. If you are to write for Parade, though, I need to know first who you are, who you really are.”
Again he said softly, “I understand.”
Released from Swift Trail Federal Prison Camp in Arizona on April 27, 1978, three years to the month before this lunch, John Ehrlichman had already written two successful novels about the presidency, including “The Company,” which became a popular TV movie, “Washington Behind Closed Doors, starring Jason Robards, Jr. His prison time behind him, divorced and remarried, he was trying to expand his range as a writer and, with a young family dependent on him, he needed to earn more money. His indomitable literary agent, Mort Janklow, had arranged our meeting, although I warned Mort, “He will have to answer some tough questions.”
“Walter, my friend,” Mort replied, “John Ehrlichman has answered tough questions. Please meet with him and let me know what you think.”
What I thought was that John Ehrlichman had lived my darkest nightmare; he had been shamed before an entire nation, ridiculed and stripped. How, though, could his experience be my nightmare? We seemed to share so little. He was a convicted criminal, a former high government official who had been ostracized by many of his countrymen; I was the editor of the largest-circulation magazine in America, the chairman of the board of a fine college, a respected citizen in my community. Yet, although I had broken no law, I found myself asking, What if I, like John Ehrlichman, lost everything? My concern, though groundless, was nonetheless real to me. I was groping with an important difference, as you’ll discover later, between fear and anxiety.
“There’s not a city you can enter,” I said, eye-to-eye with the man across the table, neither Ehrilichman nor I eating, “not a cab, a hotel, a school, a theater, a store you can visit in which someone might not hold you in contempt. Your very name can inspire revulsion in almost every nook and cranny from coast to coast. How can you live with this?”
I took a breath. “Why have you not taken your life?”
Deep down I knew I had asked the question not for the readers of Parade, not for journalism, not for history, but for me. I wanted to understand how any person could survive such terrible public shame. John Ehrlichman, after all, had been a trusted aide to the President of the United States. His fall – going from the White House, where he wielded enormous power, to the prison in which he served his time – had been steep, complete, and humiliating. What, I wondered, kept him alive?
“I thought about dying,” he said. “Actually, I thought about it a lot. My name is John Ehrlichman and I know better than anyone else that what you say is true. I had to decide for myself whether to live or to die. That was the choice. No one else could pull me out of self-pity. If I couldn’t live with the truth that many people will never accept me as a person, if I have to depend on others for my self-esteem, then I must choose death. If I wanted to live, I had to quit my depression. I had to say my life had value, and I had to mean it. I chose life.”
John Ehrlichman’s voice had been soft until his last sentence: “I chose life.” I’ll never forget those words or the voice in which he spoke them.
“I have one more question.”
“Please ask,” he said, softly again.
“Would you accept an assignment?”
During the last few years I have had the rare and wonderful opportunity to come to know many extraordinary people, some of whom you’ll find in these pages. I begin this book with John Ehrlichman, a man scorned, because in his ordeal we can see a person grasping for dignity – a struggle each of us lives through in our own way every day even without having committed any crime. In this book you’ll also meet a prince and an astronaut, two men whose challenges are considerably different from John Ehrlichman’s. You’ll be introduced to the presidents of some important corporations and a sculptor, a Nobel Prize winner and an Olympic athlete, a comic genius and a courageous priest, several acclaimed actors and acresses, writers, photographers and artists, people of exceptional power and apparent confidence, people who I once believed were without the fears you and I share. But in this book you’ll find that they often feel insecure, that they have failed, that many of them fear that others will discover their inadequacies. Even more important, though, you’ll see how these successful men and women have learned to do more than simply cope with their most agonizing fears by actually turning those feelings into assets. You’ll learn how they, and you, can summon courage, once you understand what courage really is. But I promise you no easy formulas. This book is about real life, real people, real problems. I’m sure that many names will be familiar to you, but most of the stories, many of which are personal and intimate, will be new. I hope they will touch you as they have touched me. I have published many of these talented people, been their editor and their friend, have been privileged to see their minds at work and, sometimes, the secret places of their hearts revealed.
Hundreds of times I have looked into the eyes of a successful person and asked, “When it is dark and you are alone, do you ever say to yourself, What will I do when they find out I’m me?” I’ve never failed to make a friend with the question. And I’ve never failed to get a nod. It was as if I knew who they were, that I understood and, because I understood, I could be trusted. I’ve seen the cool, disciplined, practiced composure of some of America’s toughest business leaders melt.
What about me? How did I, a boy raised in a tenement on the outskirts of New York, an adolescent who quit high school at sixteen to join the Marines, become editor of America’s most widely read magazine before I was thirty-six? This book, as you’ll soon see, is that journey too. I know now that making the decision to tell my story was as difficult as it was to write it. Why? What was it I had been afraid – and in many ways still am – that others might discover?
That I am inferior.
That I am vulnerable.
That I deserve to be rejected.
How about you? When it’s dark and you’re alone in your most troubled moments, do you worry that someone will find out that you’re not good enough, that you can be hurt, that you don’t belong? If so, read on. Your fears, my fears are shared by millions of sane people. We are not alone.
Truth be told, it is we who are the majority, and it is we who are normal. Fear, once you understand it, can be OK. In fact, sometimes it can save your life.
John Ehrlichman leaned back in his chair at Danny Stradella’s Restaurant. Our “special,” a mixture of pasta and seafood, had grown cold.
“Yes,” he said, “I want to write for you, but what do you have in mind?”
“John,” I began, “you must find a white family in Appalachia, a black family on the south side of Chicago, a Chicano family, and an American Indian family out West.”
“Why?” he interrupted.
“– and they must all be poor. Why? Because I want you to meet these people – folks whose names I don’t even know – and tell our readers how, despite their poverty, they manage to live with dignity. I want you to report their struggles and their victories over hard times. As I said, I don’t know their names, but I know that they’re there and I know that you will find them.” “Why me?” He asked the question gently.
“Because,” I told him, “I know no one else who will search as hard as you will for the members of these courageous American families and who will understand what they have overcome.” If I’m wrong, I realized, he’ll fail more than this assignment; he’ll fail himself. John Ehrlichman needed to find dignity, maybe more than anyone else I’d known. Would he try?
“I’d like to start immediately,” he volunteered, learning forward.
“Can we eat first?” I asked.
Fear is what kept our primitive ancestors alive in a hostile world. They had no time to wonder or ponder. They had a minute, maybe two, to make the life-or-death choice: “Should we fight or should we run?” Adrenaline flooded their bloodstream, adding speed, energy and strength. Their veins and arteries simultaneously constricted to slow the bleeding if they were wounded. Their pukes quickened, their bodily defenses stiffened. This physical response to a clear and present danger is fear, the fear that we depend on to save our lives.
Today, most of what we call fear is something else. It is anxiety, a response not to danger itself but to anticipated danger. The cave dweller was rightly concerned about being some creature’s breakfast on the spot. What he felt was real fear. When we worry about something that might happen later – when we say, “I just know I’m going to fail!” – that’s anxiety. When the brakes in your car stop working on a hill or a mugger demands your money, what you feel is fear. When you worry over what you’ll say at a meeting next Tuesday, that’s anxiety – and anxiety is a lot more agonizing than fear. Fear usually ends with the event: the car stops, the mugger is arrested, the fear’s over. Anxiety can be endless.
Why do I emphasize the distinction?
I do because your body often does not.
Have you ever noticed how your body responds when you’re anxious? Quickened pulse. Sweaty palms. Dry throat, just as if you were face-to-face with a creature who wanted to gobble you up for breakfast! Anxiety is so frustrating. All that energy and nothing to do with it. You can’t run or fight, because there’s nothing to run from, nothing to fight. You sit with a knot in your stomach, anticipating danger.
We all know that anxiety can produce symptoms ranging from mild discomfort, like the uneasiness I felt when I first began talking to John Ehrlichman, to psychological and physical incapacitation and death. Yes, anxiety can kill you – or it can ruin your day. That depends on you. Because in many of the stories you are about to read I use the word “fear” when “anxiety” would be the better choice, we’ll have to remember the difference: anxiety is a response to anticipated danger.
And nothing can arouse that anticipation more quickly in nearly everyone I know than a simple request: “Will you stand up before our group?” My most vivid memory of this kind of fear goes all the way back to my seventh-grade class at Immanuel Lutheran School in Mount Vernon, New York.
I had turned thirteen only a few months before, and I believed all eyes were on me, burning right through to the back of my neck as surely as if they were spotlights. I wanted to scream or cry or die. My heart beat so loudly in my ears I was sure that others nearby could hear it too. As I look back over my life, despite thousands of other mistakes and embarrassments, this was my most humiliating moment.
Our teacher had ordered me to remove my shirt and stand at my desk. What bothered him was that I had my shirt collar up, an adolescent style in the fifties. He was going to make me an example before my classmates.
“Take off your shirt!” he ordered.
I promised not to do it again.
“I’ve caught you twice,” he said, striding to my desk. “Take it off!”
He had me and he knew it. Mount Vernon – four squre miles of seventy-five thousand people living just beyond the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City – is a town with a tear in its belly, a railroad cut right down its middle. I lived deep in the south side of town in a tenement on a street where kids often wore motorcycle jackets, greased their hair, talked hard and tried to look unafraid, a neighborhood where the corner, however violent, was safer than the explosive tension at home – my home. Immanuel was deep in the north side – the right side of the tracks in a section called Fleetwood, which might just as easily have been halfway across the world. It had prosperity and it had peace. I crossed the tracks to go home every night, home to a block where kids wore their collars up.
“Take it off!” the teacher ordered again, hovering over me.
He was a tall man and his body blocked any chance I might have had to run. Somebody giggled.
“Please….” I pleaded.
I unbuttoned the front of my shirt.
I opened my cuffs and slipped the shirt off, draping it behind me on my chair. My undershirt had holes. Several people giggled.
I stood up.
The phenomenally successful British author, H. G. Wells, who wrote the Time Machine and “The War of the Worlds,” is reported to have shuddered with fright one night during the Blitz of England in the forties. But, he told a visitor, “It’s not the bombs; it’s the dark. I’ve been afraid of darkness all my life.” Logic has it that it was the bombs and not the darkness he should have feared. But what he feared was the darkness. What is our darkness? It is the fear of all we do not know. Knowledge, then, is the first step to making fear a friend.
We human beings share a universal experience that can be described in a word, a word that applies to the child born two thousand years ago or the child yet to be conceived. It is true of every culture, every tribe that has ever existed or will ever exist – all people, all races, all languages. The word is struggle. From the first slap on your behind until your last heartbeat, you struggle. We all do. And we all survive, we all endure until that last heartbeat. A few, a rare and precious few, seem to do more. They prevail. It is from their stories we can learn how to do more than live with anxiety. We can learn how to live better because of it.
Yes, better because of it. Throughout this book you’ll share tender moments with some people from whose experiences you’ll be able to gain greater insight into your own life. This, though, is a working book. It needs your effort.
There’s an often-told story in the Far East about the Chinese grandfather who, each day of his life, rose early, climbed to the top of the nearby hill that blocked the early morning sunlight, picked up a small stone, walked back down the hill and dropped the pebble on the other side of a stream near his home. His son and grandson joined him in this task. “Why do we do this?” the grandson asked.
“As long as you continue to do this and teach your children and grandchildren to carry the pebbles,” the grandfather promised, “we’re going to move this hill.” The boy persisted, “But, Grandfather, you’ll never see the hill moved.”
The old man nodded: “Yes, but I know that someday it will be moved.”
The spirit of this book is hope, the certain knowledge that you and I are not helpless. As small as our first steps may be, let’s take them: Find a pebble, carry it, save it as a reminder that you can, when you set your mind to it, move a hill – or a mountain of fear.
The teacher, who had been standing beside my desk, marched back to the front of the classroom. He had been bullying me all year. I thought then and understand now that it was because I was different, or at least seemed different. My clothes were unlike what the other students wore; mine were familiar in my neighborhood, but unfamiliar in that school. Having forgotten to turn my collar down, I had given him what he had been looking for.
I stood alone.
“Turn to page….” he said, ignoring me.
I heard my heart beat even louder in my ears; the heat at the base of my neck was becoming unbearable. For that thirteen-year-old boy, his worst secret had been revealed. The undershirt with its holes for all to see proved I was poor, proved I was a south-sider, unworthy of the northsiders in the room.
Maybe it was seconds, maybe it was minutes, before I reached for my shirt. It seemed a long time.
“I didn’t tell you to move,” the teacher said from the front of the class.
I ignored him as I buttoned my shirt and sat down. The bell rang for recess before he got to me.
“Wait!” he ordered. Everyone stopped.
“Just Walter,” he amended.
One or two students hesitated by the door, hoping to hear what he was going to say. “Move,” he told them.
“You are going to learn to listen to me,” he said. I was silent.
“Go to recess.”
I walked to the door, turned back to the teach and called out his name.
“Why don’t you go to hell,” I said, my eyes filling with tears.
From the depths of my anxiety I had found the right response. It was not my words, which, because of the provocation, were deliberately disrespectful. It was that I had asserted myself. In that moment I discovered the roots of my own dignity. I had dared to be myself. My mother, though she certainly did not condone my behavior, understood it, and stood by me when I was threatened with expulsion. The following night she pleaded with the school board to allow me to remain as a student until June, when – she promised the members who patiently heard her plead – she would transfer me elsewhere.
“Anywhere,” she was advised.
Vindicated, the teacher for the most part stopped the bullying; I quietly finished the school year.
In my anxiety that I would be seen as inferior to my classmates, I found the courage to face down a bully. Anxiety can help you. That is the message of this book.
Living with the endless crises of everyday life, we often see anxiety as the problem, rarely as a solution. But to claim our dignity and to find our courage, we need anxiety to help us. Dignity is the courage to be yourself. Courage is acting with fear, not without it. Courage is a three-letter word – and that word is, yes. Yes, as you will see in the lives of others, you can dare to be you.
John Ehrlichman called me Tuesday morning, September 15, 1981. His article had appeared the previous Sunday. Entitled, “Chronicles of Courage Among America’s Poor,” it had been warmly received by readers and was one of the most popular articles Parade had published in years. Above his byline had appeared this message: “Poverty has a human face. Every day, real people cope with diminishing means in order to survive. But some prevail. These are their stories, written by a man who searched for a lesson.”
“Walter,” he said, his voice strong and excited, “these people genuinely inspired me. I want to thank you again. If there’s anything more I can do….” he volunteered.
“How about another assignment?” I asked.
He didn’t hesitate. “I’d love to!”
I paused. “I have an idea,” I said, “but, my friend, it would be the toughest assignment you’ve ever accepted.”
“What is it?”
“The questions will never stop,” I began, “until you share with the American people what you’ve experienced, what, in fact, you’ve learned from the Watergate experience. Americans are fair-minded, John. If you tell them the truth, they’ll respond to you. Some will even forgive. Once, just once, you’ve got to tell it all. Otherwise it will hang lik a dark cloud over you for the rest of your days. Say it and be done with it.”
He was silent.
“This is very hard for me,” he said, finally.
“Can I think on it,” he asked, “and call you back in a few days?”
“Of course,” I said.
What will I do when they find out I’m me?