For years, Stewart Alsop wrote the full back-page socio-political column for Newsweek magazine. In those days there wasn’t a bulier pulpit to be had. I started reading him while still a teenager and got hooked for some unknown reason. He was a great writer, one of the very first guys I ever saw who could shoot thunder and lightning from a page. He didn’t do it every week but he did it when he wanted to. Sometimes you would come to the end of his column and simply sit and stare at the page because you did not know what to think. I thought he was a Commie one week and a Nazi the next, but most of that might have been the mirror he held up to America in the last years of the 1960’s and the first few years of the 1970’s.
The guy had everything going for him. Vast audience, great writing, dinners with the President, luncheon meetings with Congressional leaders. Smart politicians courted him and smarter ones never crossed him. He was often a guest on Sunday afternoon TV political talk shows. He wasn’t handsome, kind of a plain-looking man. He knew this. He was bald and was the first one to point it out on panel shows and then laugh about it. No one laughed until he laughed. Then everyone laughed at once and stopped at once and watching their actions gave you the understanding this was a powerful man.
By then I had the habit–like many others–of reading Newsweek backwards. You opened the back cover of the magazine first to see what Alsop had to say about the previous week’s glory/horror/tragedy/amazement/bewilderment. Imagine a guy like that coming to his full power in the 1960’s. There were endless new things a columnist could write about but one week he wrote of surgeons and doctors and bad luck and closed his column by telling his readers that he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and was given six months to live. He said he would stay at his typewriter as long as he possibly could.
And then the world gathered around to watch him die in inches, a little each week.
Sometimes he’d fool them. He’d go for three or four weeks, hammering and railing about this or that and we all wondered if he had forgotten he was supposed to be a dying man. Then he would write a column that haunted your soul and told you precisely what it felt like to be in his shoes and it was not a pleasant feeling. If memory serves, he said one surprising thing that bothered him were ticking clocks. He could wrap himself in his work and usually stay busy enough to distract himself. But…ticking clocks. They were another thing that came out of nowhere to trouble him. He wrote about how silly that was. He joked that he’d watched Alfred Hitchcock too often and followed that with what Hitchcock said to him just the other day about the matter. And why he suddenly felt sorry for Hitchcock. And then how everything hit him at once like a locomotive. He’d made a sad and terrible mistake. Hitchcock was not dying. He was. He said moments like that we becoming more frequent and harder to shake.
We all stepped inside his hospital room. He said he’d made his peace with God and was as prepared as he could make himself. But now the cancer had advanced to the point he had to schedule his writing around medication times. And he described how badly it hurt and we all felt the pain in his words as if we were there.
And that’s when he wrote the column, one of his last, that said something unexpected from an old Cold Warrior.
He was dying in a time of ignorance, he said. Only morphine–or better yet–heroin could ease this level of pain. No amount of synthetic painkillers could touch it. He’d already had the conversations with his doctor and attending pharmacologist. He knew this time would come. But knowing that and bracing himself against it had done no good. He had hoped and prayed they were wrong, like all terminal patients do, but they were not.
President Nixon had been wrong too, Alsop wrote. He’d been wrong on one count with his new declaration of war on drugs. The new-found DEA had been set loose with the wrong sense of direction. They should have been tasked to beat away the terrible man-made street drugs, to wipe America clean from them indeed. But not opiates. Not heroin. You could almost hear the man struggling to breathe at this point.
No, he said, not them. They should be reclassified. They should never have been classed with other street drugs that were dangerous and highly addictive because they were more than that. They held the final glimmer of peace in this world for the dying, the freedom from pain. They alone were all that man had at the very end. Alsop said Nixon had done well when he rightfully championed billions of dollars into research and challenged America to find the illusive cure for his other highly publicized war, the one on cancer. But it would never come in time for Alsop or millions of other Americans every year and it has not arrived yet. Alsop pretty much called Nixon and Congress out of the saloon for one last showdown to rectify their mistake, but he would not live to reach for his pistol. I think this was his next-to-last or third from last column. They said he was lucid to the end but in unimaginable agony.
There remains to this day a controversy whether Alsop was provided heroin at the final stage of his life. Even under a doctor’s care that would have been illegal, both then and now. But he seemed to rally at the end, writing with his same power and grace. We may never know and, in my book, it’s best not to question such things. What is left for us all to question is how we will exit this world, and if the federal government will hound us to our very graves claiming that it is correct.
Today many doctors refuse to prescribe pain killers powerful enough to be worthy of the name. Others will not prescribe any. The curse of addiction and all its attendant evils needs to be fought, no question of it. It’s easy for an innocent person to become addicted to painkillers and narcotics prescribed for a variety of reasons. It would be easy for you, too, unless you are a superior life form which will never break a bone or succumb to a painful illness. But you might take a few moments to ponder, as Stewart Alsop did when faced with his eventual death, the risks and benefits of powerful drugs for those who will not live long enough to become a problem to society yet have nowhere else to turn.