Century Club, New York City, 2001
The question was never whether she would live or die, for that had been decided long ago.
Danforth had said this flatly at one point deep in our conversation, a conclusion he’d evidently come to by way of a painful journey.
It had taken time for him to reach this particular remark. As I’d learned by then, he was a man who kept to his own measured pace. After our initial greeting, for example, he’d taken an agonizingly slow sip from his scotch and offered a quiet, grandfatherly smile. “People in their clubs,” he said softly. “Isn’t that how Fitzgerald put it? People in their clubs who set down their drinks and recalled their old best dreams. I must seem that way to you. An old man with a head full of woolly memories.” His smile was like an arrow launched from a great distance. “But even old men can be dangerous.”
I’d come to New York from Washington, traveled from one stricken city to another, it seemed, a novice member of the think tank that had recently hired me. My older colleagues had manned the desks of what had once been called Soviet Studies. They’d been very assiduous in these studies. There’d hardly been a ruble spent on missiles or manure that they hadn’t recorded and scrutinized. But for all that, not one of them had foreseen the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union, how it would simply dissolve into the liquefying fat of its own simmering corruption. That stunning failure in forecasting had shaken their confidence to the core and sent them scrambling for an explanation. They’d still been searching for it years later when the attack had come even more staggeringly out of nowhere. That had been a far graver failure to understand the enemy at our gates, and it had sharply, and quite conveniently for me, changed their focus. Now I, the youngest of their number, their latest hire, had been dispatched to interview Thomas Jefferson Danforth, a man I’d never heard of but who’d written to tell me that he had “experience” that might prove useful, as he’d put it, to “policymakers” such as myself, “especially now.” The interview was not a prospect I relished, and I knew it to be the sort of task doled out to freshman colleagues more or less as a training exercise, but it was better than standing guard at the copying machine or fetching great stacks of research materials from the bowels of various government agencies.
“I remember that line of Fitzgerald’s,” I told Danforth, just to let him know that, although a mere wisp of a boy by his lights, I was well educated, perhaps even a tad worldly. “It was about Lindbergh. How ‘people set down their glasses in country clubs,’ struck by what he’d done.”
“A solo flight across the Atlantic that reminded them of what they’d once been or had hoped to be,” Danforth added. Now his smile suddenly seemed deeply weighted, like a bet against the odds. “Youth is a country with closed borders,” he said. “All that’s valuable must be smuggled in.”
I assumed this remark was rhetorical and found it somewhat condescending, but our conversation had just begun and so I let it pass.
Danforth winced as he shifted in his chair. “Old bones,” he explained. “So, what is your mission, Mr. Crane? The grand one, I mean.”
“Our country’s good,” I answered. “Is that grand enough?”
What remained of Danforth’s smile vanished. “I was young like you.” His voice was even, his tone cautionary, as if he regarded my youth as an animal that could easily turn on me. “Clever and self-confident. It was a very good feeling, as I recall.”