Keeler: McGrady told truth about Vietnam

Newsday's Mike McGrady Newsday's Mike McGrady Photo Credit: Newsday/

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What do Mike McGrady and Bill Buckner have in common? Or Mike McGrady and Mookie Wilson?

It is the curse of the One Big Thing that pushes its way into the lead of their obituary.

In baseball, it was a ground ball by Wilson that Buckner, a good fielder and a great hitter, let get past him in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. Wilson's Mets went on to beat Buckner's Red Sox. That will lead their obits, but there's so much more to their careers and their lives.

The same is true of McGrady. In his case, sadly, we don't have to talk about the obituaries in the future. Mike died May 13, and the accounts of his passing were far too full of one famous prank he and others played, cowriting a sexy hoax book, "Naked Came the Stranger."

But Mike was a substantial person and writer, who helped shape this newspaper for the better in many ways. So some of us have chosen to chime in and say basically the same thing: Remember him for something beyond that book.

Let me start by saying that I was once Mike's boss. He was the restaurant critic, and I was the editor of The Newsday Magazine, where his reviews appeared. Even to say I was his editor borders on the absurd. He was a writes-like-an-angel guy, in the best Irish tradition. To me, that meant that messing with his words was unthinkable. As a result, "editing Mike McGrady" was the easiest job I ever had in journalism.

In terms of this nation's and this newspaper's history, Mike wrote some pieces that helped ease the sting of one of Newsday's least lovely episodes. A former colleague, Stan Isaacs, mentions it in his column on TheColumnists.com. (Honest, Stan, I'm not plagiarizing. I've wanted to say this for a week.)

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Harry F. Guggenheim, who started Newsday with Alicia Patterson, had an eye for the stars, including the great novelist, John Steinbeck. It was Patterson who first recruited him to write for Newsday. An easy sell: Steinbeck, the writer of fiction, yearned to be a journalist.

After her death in 1963, Guggenheim also wanted him writing for the paper. Steinbeck agreed, suggesting a "Letters to Alicia" format. An odd choice, given that she was in the grave, unable to read them.

The letters did have their charm, until Guggenheim pressed Steinbeck to go to Vietnam. In that campaign, he got some help from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who met with Steinbeck and also urged him to go. Guggenheim and LBJ both thought Steinbeck would see the war their way. And he did.

Beyond railing against the protesters and lionizing the military, Steinbeck privately wrote to Guggenheim, asking for help getting a truth drug or LSD to interrogate Viet Cong prisoners.

His widow Elaine said he had changed his mind on the war, but died before he could rectify it in writing. Mike McGrady rectified it publicly, in real time. He didn't like Steinbeck's letters from the war and proposed that he go there to write a series called "A Dove in Vietnam." The publisher, Bill Moyers -- LBJ's former press secretary -- liked the idea. The resulting stories told the ugly truth about the war. They also soured Guggenheim's relationship with his star, Moyers.

Steinbeck's pieces have just now come out in a book, "Dispatches from the War," many years after Mike's became a book, "A Dove in Vietnam."

When people talk about Mike, that book should leap to mind -- not the naked hoax book. The Vietnam War was a far more deadly hoax, and Mike wrote powerfully to expose it for what it was.

In the pages of Newsday, on that poisonously divisive war, John Steinbeck was flat wrong; Mike McGrady was absolutely right. That is no small epitaph for a great life.

Bob Keeler, a member of the Newsday editorial board, is the author of "Newsday: A Candid History of the Respectable Tabloid."

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