Opening up a reporter’s notebook that spans seven decades

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent for Associated Press. He spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France. 12.08.2015

Sol Sanders is among the last of a dying breed, an international journalist with access to a range of senior sources, some of them national leaders, some scoundrels, some both. Finally, at age 89, he has put the highlights of his life and career down on paper, pulling no punches. 

Sol Sanders

People!: Vignettes gathered along the way through a long life (Deeds Publishing) is a freshly written and often self-deprecating memoir told in 55 short chapters, each focused on a character or an incident from his well-thumbed reporter’s notebook. 

Sanders warns readers to be “mindful of my sometimes unconventional (conservative) views of geopolitics, human conduct and general historical trends”.  But, he adds, “hopefully it will be amusing, if nothing else.” 

This book has its comic moments but it is much more than amusing. Sanders always had the chutzpah to penetrate high places as he reported for a range of media, including Business Week, U.S. News and World Report and The Christian Science Monitor, while writing five books and contributing op-ed pieces to The Wall Street Journal. He has lately been a columnist for The Washington Times where he now writes anonymous editorials.

Sanders is strongest in his pen-portraits of prominent global players he came to know, including the mercurial Ayub Kahn of Pakistan, Ne Win of Burma and Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore. On the American side he provides warm memories of Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Casey and some prickly snippets on Robert McNamara, all of whom he knew personally.

His memories of Singapore stand out as the best in the book.

“I was not going to be intimidated by the prime minister of Singapore,” Sanders recalls, “as he bullied everyone else in the old British colonial city.” Kwan Yew was famous for his irascibility “but no, dear reader, he was not the founder of modern Singapore”. Such an honorific would belong to “my old friend David Marshall, the first elected chief minister of the city-state.” Marshall negotiated the formation of Malaysia and it was Kwan Yew’s “arrogance,” Sanders recalls, “which blew the federation apart, separating the overwhelmingly Chinese Singapore from the Malay-majority states, and deepening the racial divide which always threatens to explode in both areas.”

Singapore has just celebrated 50 years of independence (Aug. 9) but Sanders does not approve. “(Kwan Yew’s) authoritarianism created a model new society but stifled freedom and much of the incredible ingenuity of the Overseas Chinese. Indeed, the Singapore of Kwan Yew was a near police state.”

As his tenure rolled on, Kwan Yew “had to admit that the old formulas were not working.” Many bright young Singaporeans departed for opportunities that awaited them in the US, the UK and Australia, “creating a talent shortage, and indeed a population problem for the island republic”. He concludes ruefully: “My friend David, of course, has become a footnote, if that, for historians.”

Sanders maintained a personal friendship with Muhammed Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s second president (1958-1969), a “quintessential product of the British Indian Army, and a Sandhurst granduate. He recalls the relationship fondly: “The routine was that I would conduct a fairly formal interview … and then Ayub would say, ‘Okay, now let’s talk.’  He was interested, of course, in my gossip, serious and some not so serious, that I brought from the Indian capital of New Delhi and other parts of Asia.” 

Turning to Burma, Sanders labels dictator General Ne Win as “something of a monster” who wanted to move the country toward socialism. Among his public tantrums, he is reported to have beaten a partner to death with a golf club on the Rangoon golf course. “We all wondered,” Sanders writes, “whether he would hang on to his sanity”. But his reign continued for four decades “to almost destroy the country”.

His memories of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Ms. Kirkpatrick, in the chapter titled “Jeane”, are the most poignant in the book. They had been friends as students at the University of Missouri (both on the left). She was “rather shy and knobby-kneed” at the time. They hooked up later in New York while he was doing his “International Outlook” column at Business Week and she served as the “somewhat flamboyant” ambassador to the United Nations (both on the right). 

Sanders admired her analytical skills and her commitment to conservatism. Ultimately, however, Ms. Kirkpatrick began to show signs of drift. At their last meeting, “Jeane’s rather sweet and thoughtful minder told me the doctors believed her condition was part physical and part mental.” She had lost her appetite for the political joust, and as they spoke, she looked out the window and remarked on how beautiful was a tree outside. “It was a strange experience to see that wonderful mind, not gone, but parked on life’s roadside at a dead end.” She died nine years later, in 2006, of congestive heart failure.

His memories of William Casey are equally personal and absorbing. “We should put our networks together!” Sanders remembers Casey half shouting at him across his desk at Langley, Virginia, where he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The two men met almost weekly. Sanders carried a load of professional credentials, with his long reporting career, mainly in Asia, plus a two-year stint with McNamara’s World Bank in Tokyo, and finally a stint as a visiting professor at the Chinese University in Hang Kong.

“With those connections, it was not at all hard for me to see and exchange views with Casey”, he writes. Casey welcomed the visits “as an alternative to wrestling with the career spooks that bitterly resented his political smarts and tried to thwart him at every turn.” They swapped information freely, Sanders recalls, concluding that their friendship was not that unusual. “(T)he line between espionage and news reporting can be a very thin one, as some foreign regimes have correctly maintained when they wanted to nail a visiting reporter.” (For the record, this was not my experience as a Moscow correspondent for Associated Press. The spooks never trusted me. They knew I had far too big a mouth.) 

Sanders gives U.S. intelligence the brush-off by noting that after Casey left, it became a more and more bureaucratic institution, “bereft of the kind of eccentrics who have always characterized successful intelligence organizations.”

He shows no more patience for McNamara, who became president of the World Bank in 1968 “leaving behind his disaster at the Pentagon”. “Perhaps beginning his long apology for his role in Vietnam, he began a transformation of the bank … into a social welfare institution exploring everything from community development to birth control”. In the end, Sanders writes, the bank ended up “like the corrupted UN itself,” taking on causes “for which it is as ill-fitted as most of the other corrupt UN organizations”.

Sanders’ writing was always crisp, analytical journalese, but in this book he loosens the bonds and begins to enjoy himself. Describing Dutch colonials as their time ran out in Indonesia, he remembers their meals “in large Teutonic quantities”. “And the Dutch drank huge quantities of their own famous gin, Bols, which to our American whiskey taste was close to motor oil. It was enough to fuel the almost always more-than-plump Dutch who danced the cooler nights away like huge elephants on a trampoline.”

Sol Sanders has captured here a lifestyle now almost forgotten, the adventures of the globe-trotting journalist in a day when foreign editors in the U.S. and Europe had the budget for and the interest in the exotic and often crucial stories that affect us all. His perspective covers more wars, more eras, and more scoundrels than most of his fellow-scribes managed to report.

Sanders’ career is all the more remarkable for his refusal to shut up as he pushes 90. 


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