Maddow Guest Rhapsodizes About McNamara Assassination Attempt as Metaphor for Vietnam War

On a rainy September night in 1972, a man on a ferry bound for Martha's Vineyard tried to throw another passenger overboard. The target of the assailant's attack -- former defense secretary Robert McNamara, then president of the World Bank.

The assault received considerable attention at the time though was largely forgotten in the decades that followed. After McNamara's death earlier this month at age 93, the incident was recounted by University of Pennsylvania professor Paul Hendrickson when he was a guest on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show on July 7.

As she was about to introduce Hendrickson, an incredulous Maddow described the attack and told her audience, "This is not a metaphor" -- which turned out to be exactly how Hendrickson would describe it to Maddow. To which I respond -- it wasn't the only metaphor at work.

First, a partial transcript of the discussion (click here for audio) --

MADDOW: Late in life, McNamara publicly agonized about the decisions he'd made about the (Vietnam) war, most famously in Errol Morris's documentary "The Fog of War". Against that backdrop, the printed response to Mr. McNamara's death by the great war correspondent Joe Galloway has caused a stir.

Under the headline, "Reading an Obit with Great Pleasure,"  Mr. Galloway writes, "The aptly named Robert Strange McNamara has finally shuffled off to join LBJ and Dick Nixon in the seventh level of hell." That's how it starts. Mr. Galloway then recounts the story of a ferryboat trip that Mr. McNamara took to Martha's Vineyard in 1972. As he tells it, having a drink in the ferryboat's bar, Mr. McNamara was approached by a man who, as it happened, was a local artist. The artist "told McNamara there was a radiophone call for him on the bridge. McNamara set down his drink and stepped outside. The artist immediately grabbed him, wrestled him to the railing and pushed him over the side."

This is not a metaphor -- somebody actually, apparently tried to throw Robert McNamara overboard. Joining us now is Paul Hendrickson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who uncovered the McNamara ferryboat story and writes about it in his book, "The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War." Professor Hendrickson, thank you very much for joining us tonight ...  Did Joe Galloway accurately recount this story of what happened on that ferry to Martha's Vineyard?

HENDRICKSON:  Yes, absolutely, for all intents and purposes. You know, I think McNamara's position just hanging at that bar in kind of a slouched relaxed way, this is what the artist told me when I went to find him. He said, that alone drove him crazy. The artist saw him from about 20 feet away in this lunchroom and he looked at McNamara and all of that anger about the Vietnam War came up. And here was this guy going over to the Vineyard for his weekend holiday in his sporting togs and this kind of murderous rage kept, began crawling up his throat.

And as the artist said to me, I'm an artist, I work in immediate context and so he went over and said, Mr. McNamara, you have a phone call, please follow me. And they got outside, in the darkness and he got McNamara by the collar and the belt buckle and tried to throw him over.There weren't any words between them and, uhm, except McNamara said, Oh my God, no.

I mean, it seemed to me, Rachel, that that was the Vietnam War, that 45 seconds of struggle right there at the railing.

There was also more to it than described by Hendrickson, though in fairness to the man, he could convey only so much in a few minutes with Maddow. Even so, Hendrickson might have peeled this onion a bit deeper.

Notice how he consistently refers to the man who attacked McNamara -- not as an assailant nor, God forbid, would-be assassin, but as an "artist." This is due at least in part to Hendrickson honoring an agreement to preserve the man's anonymity in exchange for information about the incident.

But labeling the assailant an "artist" certainly helps in creating a metaphor for the Vietnam War -- the artist symbolic of youthful dissent, struggling in the darkness against the archetypal warmonger.

How was the assailant described in local press shortly after the incident? In a 1972 column by the late William Caldwell reprinted in the Vineyard Gazette after McNamara's death, Caldwell wrote, "McNamara's assailant was an Island artist of no fixed address or telephone, who had shared a gallon of wine with several friends waiting for the ferry to leave Woods Hole that night ... So despondent and frightened was the attacker after he had been subdued that he later tried to throw himself overboard -- but he was restrained from doing that."

"No charges were filed," Caldwell wrote. "The Federal Bureau of Investigation decided it didn't qualify as a federal case. The Steamship Authority filed a description of the incident with the state police."

In a 1996 interview with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN's "Book Notes,"  Hendrickson described the assailant -- excuse me, "artist" -- this way --

This 27-year-old artist, who had avoided the war, whose two older brothers had served, who was regarded in some ways in his own family as "the shirker," stood there on the other side of the lunchroom and watched Mr. McNamara enjoying himself ...

... Brian, I feel that that kind of see saw battle, which is 45 seconds out of an artist's life and 45 seconds out of McNamara's life, is the Vietnam War. It's that '60s struggle between what? -- between immense authority on the one hand and disenfranchised, '60s, quote, "shirker." Rebellion and authority -- that's what a lot of Vietnam and the '60s and all of this (sic) things we're dealing with now in residue are about.

In other words, the "artist" wasn't just attacking the so-called architect of the Vietnam War -- he was punishing the man who helped create his identity of "shirker" in his own family. Pardon me for seeing metaphoric potential here.

Here's how an editorial in the Vineyard Gazette after McNamara's death described him --

But if Mr. McNamara was always a much condemned figure on the world stage, his life on the Vineyard was precisely the opposite. He was a good citizen of the Island. He cared about the community and the Vineyard citizenry. He spent a great deal of time while here talking not about the affairs of the world but about the state of the Vineyard, about the quality of life on the Island and about how to make it better for those who live and visit this land in the sea. Mr. McNamara backed Island conservation initiatives, supported Vineyard charities, worried about the future of our hospital, joined serious citizen conversations about creating and funding a legal defense fund to fight mindless development.

In addition to the seven years he worked as defense secretary, longer than anyone before or since, McNamara served three years in the Army during World War II, was a top executive at Ford when it became the first domestic automaker to put seatbelts in its cars (and without government mandate), and helped save the world from nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In other words, the "good citizen of the Island" under attack by an intoxicated "shirker" who sleeps where he can find a spare sofa and expresses his alleged pacifism through rage. Ah, but the assailant is an "artist." I see a metaphor for the Vietnam War era, but not the one envisioned by Hendrickson.

Hendrickson told Maddow (and much the same to Lamb) that McNamara's assailant said, "I'm an artist. I work in immediate context." Uh, don't we all? Or is this code for telling us the "artist" is a mime? Perhaps the man's way of warning the world he can't control his impulses? 

Editor & Publisher editor Greg Mitchell also wrote about the incident on July 7 for The Huffington Post, and included this tidbit on possible motive -- "I should note that some people on the island believe that the real reason for the artist's attack was McNamara threatening to cut off access to the nude beach" on land he'd purchased in Chilmark. Metaphor, anyone?

McNamara, hounded for years on the Vineyard by angry nudists and anti-war protesters, eventually sold the land with the nude beach. The buyer? John Belushi. Man, it's raining metaphors!

But wait, there's more. After McNamara sold the property in Chilmark, he built a house outside Edgartown which was used in August 1993 by vacationing president -- and onetime anti-war protester -- Bill Clinton.

No island is a metaphor, but the Vineyard comes close.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts