Joseph Alsop, Columnist, Dead at 78 : Powerful Political Writer Known for His Interpretation of News

Times Staff Writer

Joseph Alsop, power-wielding syndicated political columnist for three decades, died Monday in his home in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. He was 78.

Patricia Alsop, widow of his brother and writing partner, Stewart Alsop, said death was attributed to lung cancer, anemia and emphysema. He had been ill for several months.

Alsop, a fixture in Washington society and political commentary for a half century, went to Washington in 1932 as a reporter for the now-defunct New York Herald-Tribune. In 1937, he began his first column, "The Capital Parade," with Robert Kintner for North American Newspaper Alliance.

He later joined his brother, Stewart, in writing "Matter of Fact" for the Herald-Tribune syndicate from 1946 to 1958. It appeared in more than 200 newspapers, and they won citations from the Overseas Press Club in 1950 and 1952 for the "best interpretation of foreign news."

Stewart went on to work at Newsweek until his death in 1974, and Joseph wrote the column alone for the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times Syndicate from 1958 to 1974.

"Joe Alsop helped to invent the political column in its modern form and had enormous influence in this city for around half a century," Meg Greenfield, editor of the Washington Post's editorial page, told Reuters new service.

The two brothers began as New Deal liberals, reflecting the philosophy of their cousin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But they became increasingly conservative about world politics and consistently took a strong stand against Soviet expansionism.

They were sometimes called "Old Testament prophets" and "disaster experts" because of their gloomy predictions. Too often, the predictions proved accurate--as in the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.

The Alsops' hard line about Soviet aggression was not reflected in their attitude toward civil rights. The two brothers were among the first journalists to oppose McCarthyism, the reckless campaign of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy to expose and condemn alleged Communists in the United States.

In the 1950s, the brothers sounded desperate alarms about the Communist threat in Indochina, the philosophic foundation of Joseph's subsequent largely unpopular writings defending the U.S. war efforts in Vietnam.

Wanted to Rescue French

In his column, Alsop raised the possibility of sending American troops to avoid a French withdrawal from Vietnam. One document declassified in 1982 quoted Alsop as telling the French minister for Indochina policy, Marc Jacquet, in 1954: "I intend to force the hand of the American government in this matter as the only means of saving the situation."

Alsop's pro-Vietnam War columns, many observers believe, weakened his considerable national influence. But he never wavered in his conviction that the United States must fight in Vietnam in order to protect the world from Communism.

"He is . . . courageous," Evangeline Bruce, wife of Ambassador David K. E. Bruce, observed at a Washington party in 1977. "He did not want to be disliked . . . . He would sometimes lose his friends, which he minded very, very much, but he would not bend."

Between his two column-writing stints with Kintner and his brother, Alsop leaped enthusiastically into World War II, first joining the Navy and then transferring to Gen. Claire L. Chennault's volunteer air force, the Flying Tigers.

Alsop was captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong but, falsely claiming civilian status as a journalist, was repatriated in an exchange of civilian prisoners.

He then became chief of the Lend Lease Mission to China in 1942, and, once back in China, became a captain on Chennault's staff until the end of the war.

The erudite and well-read Alsop wrote or co-wrote several books throughout his career on politics and his myriad other interests, such as archeology and art. The titles included "The 168 Days," about Roosevelt's attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court; "Men Around the President," about the Roosevelt presidency; "We Accuse! The Story of the Miscarriage of Justice in the Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer," a defense of the atomic scientist against charges that he was a security risk; and "From the Silent Earth," about the Bronze Age of Greece.

Although Alsop jokingly referred to himself as a "has-been" after his retirement as a columnist in 1974, he remained intellectually and socially active in his later years and was often seen at Washington's toniest dinners.

In recognition of his expertise about art, Alsop was named to deliver the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in 1978.

In 1982, he published a monumental book on the history of art and culture that he had spent many years researching.

The book, which detailed the difference between art patronage and art collecting, the development of the art market and social responses to art, was entitled, "The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared."

Suzanne Muchnic, writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, termed the tome "annoying in style but engrossing in parts and impressive in scope." A Chicago Tribune Book World critic called the book "a landmark" and added: "No book in recent memory deserves closer attention. None informs, startles and exhilarates to the same degree."

Wrote Essay on Roosevelt

Also in 1982, Alsop wrote a biographical essay about his famous cousin, "FDR, 1882-1945: A Centenary Remembrance."

Although he was known as a dashing dresser who set a high sartorial standard for the Washington press corps, Alsop had been very fat as a young man. He lost 80 pounds from his 250-pound frame during a three-month stay in the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1937 and never regained the weight. He paid the large hospital bill with an article he sold to the Saturday Evening Post, called, "How It Feels to Look Like Everybody Else."

After heart surgery in the early 1980s, Alsop wryly commented to a New York Times reporter: "It's been my observation that you go on living like a young man until suddenly you're an old man. It's a bore. There's absolutely nothing to recommend old age. It's a great deal easier if you can have a pleasant house and a good cook (as he did) . . . so long as it lasts."

Alsop was born to privilege on Oct. 11, 1910, in Avon, Conn., the son of Joseph Wright Alsop Sr., an insurance executive, and Corinne Robinson Alsop, a state legislator. He was educated at the private Groton School and Harvard University--where he was the only student to score 100 on the English entrance exam--and obtained his first job as a journalist with the Herald-Tribune through family connections.

He married Susan Mary Jay Patten on Feb. 16, 1961, and they were divorced in 1978.

He is survived by a brother, John deKoven Alsop of Old Lyme, Conn., and a sister, Corinne Chubb, Chester, N. J.

Funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday in St. John's Episcopal Church at Lafayette Square in Washington.

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