Anyone raised in New York state elementary schools will remember the lazy afternoons just before Halloween when teachers read aloud The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving‘s story, with its mention of John Andre’s capture, near Tarrytown, was sometimes used to lure unsuspecting students into a history lesson: How the dashing British major came to be hanged as a spy when Benedict Arnold‘s plan to turn over West Point went awry. Recently I had a chance to look over the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library’s new exhibit, ”Spies: Secrets From the CIA, KGB, and Hollywood,“ and there, among the Minoxes, code wheels and U-2 models, were a couple of period engravings of Andre‘s arrest and execution. There was also a rather more congenial image of General Arnold, America’s primal traitor, who had managed to slip down the Hudson to British lines and, eventually, to a crown pension.
At the opposite end of the exhibit, next to an eviscerated atom bomb, you‘ll find a small display devoted to the Rosenbergs, themselves executed as spies just up the road from Tarrytown at Sing Sing prison. Two forlorn photographs show Julius in a double-breasted suit and Ethel in a white summer dress and matching gloves.
A faint cologne of politics clings to ”Spies,“ though not enough to provoke any man-without-a-country debates about Arnold and John Walker Lindh or, for that matter, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. Indeed, things were pretty cut-and-dried during the exhibit’s preview reception. ”Mike Spann is a hero,“ I was told by Lloyd Salvetti, director of the CIA‘s Center for the Study of Intelligence. Spann was the CIA agent killed during a prison uprising in Afghanistan last December, shortly after trying to interrogate Lindh. Salvetti, a former CIA covert-operations officer, is a tall, scholarly-looking man in a gray suit and American flag lapel pin; he joined the agency in 1970 and is its point man in a new campaign to publicize ”the Company“ to the public after decades of secrecy and negative PR.
”This is a general undertaking to tell our side — we’re not creating response teams to put a spin on events,“ he said. ”The role of intelligence is to reduce the level of uncertainty and to inform decision making. We exist to serve the country and American values — this is central to who we are.“
George Orwell once noted a delusion that gripped Britain‘s Stalinist left during his time — that, somewhere in the USSR, historians were compiling a thoroughly truthful account of Soviet life with all its terrible traumas; listening to Salvetti, I felt that if any one outfit is capable of such a feat for American history, it would be the CIA, with its vast resources and scientific objectivity. Then again, I remembered, Salvetti had told the Joint Military Intelligence College nearly three years ago that ”It is no longer adequate to have the history of intelligence written by journalists and malcontents.“
As the evening’s program began, Salvetti was soon telling about 170 guests, including former Governor Pete Wilson, about ”the greatest museum you‘ll never see,“ a reference to the CIA’s on-site — and very not-open-to-the-public — museum at its sprawling Virginia headquarters. Much of the Reagan Library‘s spy exhibit came from this top-secret facility, as well as from the private collections of Keith Melton and Hollywood screenwriter Danny Biederman.
Biederman, who grew up completely immersed in the fantasy spy world of James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (his children are named for TV and movie spy characters), told me that the CIA called him out of the blue to request he put together for its museum an exhibit of his memorabilia, which includes Diana Rigg’s leather pants from The Avengers, Robert Conrad‘s sleeve derringer from The Wild, Wild West and, most exotically, Don Adams’ shoe phone in Get Smart — which, Biederman claims, the agency curators placed in a special glass case of honor.
As could be expected, the vibe at the Reagan Library preview was unambiguously Republican. A palpable recoil greeted actor Robert Vaughn when he mentioned that he‘d been an anti-war Democrat during his Man From U.N.C.L.E. days, although he somewhat won back his listeners with anecdotes about his friendship with the Reagans.
Vaughn spent the rest of the evening cornered by aging fans who requested autographs and told him how much they had adored his show. I wanted to cheer him up by saying that I especially appreciated his understated role as the weaselly senator in Bullitt, but, like everyone else, only asked about the show that briefly made him a household word 35 years ago and how it had changed his life.
”There would be women waiting outside the gate to my house,“ he remembered. ”And 2,000 girls were at Heathrow Airport when [co-star] David McCallum and I landed.“
The past is nostalgic territory for real spies, too. When I asked the CIA’s Salvetti how he rated the Reagan years, he replied without hesitation: ”We describe it as the golden age of American intelligence.“
Once They Were Kings
The helicopters wheeled like vultures above the motorcade that headed up Highland Avenue toward Sunset Boulevard. This scene, played out last Monday afternoon, might have had something to do with Hollywood royalty, but the yellow chain girding the entrance to CNN‘s studios on Sunset and Cahuenga, along with a small detachment of LAPD officers guarding opposite corners, suggested it wasn’t. Curious, I asked one of the officers who the celeb might be.
”Jodie Foster,“ he said, with a too-straight face.
”That‘s right,“ said his partner. ”It’s Jodie Foster.“
I walked to the other side of the high-rise and asked another cop if he knew who was doing lunch at CNN.
”I do,“ he said. ”But I can‘t tell you except that it’s a visiting dignitary. Sorry, but that‘s one of the rules.“
A call to CNN got me this reply: ”I can’t tell you,“ the woman said coyly, ”but –“ here she paused for effect — ”it might have something to do with Larry King‘s show. If you go to his Web site, it should list who his guest is today.“
This would be King Abdullah II, the suddenly important Jordanian monarch, in town to explain to an impartial arbiter of men — Larry King — why he didn’t think America‘s plan to spread its war against terrorism to the Middle East was a good idea.
Despite all the diplomatic secrecy, it occurred to me that Abdullah was not enjoying the royal treatment his late father, King Hussein, had received during his visits. About 20 years ago I had sat on a bus bench on Olympic Boulevard, when a black car pulled over and two Americans in equally black suits demanded that I show them the contents of my hiking pack: one canteen, an apple, and a ball of cheese sealed in red wax. Suddenly Hussein’s motorcade screamed out from the direction of Beverly Hills and passed by; the men vanished with them.
Today, Abdullah‘s motorcade had taken him past — what? — the Probe, Aron’s Records, Hollywood Motorcycles, Pink‘s Hot Dogs, Ammo. And, even though about 20 CHP cops eventually stood by CNN’s garage entrance, and an equal number of Secret Service and LAPD on the other side of the building, pedestrians were more or less allowed to pass unmolested. Inside, two kings, one named Abdullah, the other Larry, played a polite game of conversational pingpong, as when King asked Abdullah about his reign:
LARRY: Has it been everything you thought it would be?
ABDULLAH: It‘s been nothing like I thought it would be . . .