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April 7, 2005

Saul Bellow at the White House

Roy Meachum

Nobel Prize winning novelist Saul Bellow's passing this week brought to mind the first and only White House Festival of the Arts, conceived and directed by Bess Clements Abell, the White House's truly remarkable social secretary during the Lyndon Johnson Administration. It was my happy privilege to assist that June day in 1965, as an adviser and writer.

Under Mrs. Abell's gifted direction, an astonishing collection of America's creative talents gathered: The casts of Broadway hits traveled south and performed acts from their shows in the East Room. Duke Ellington led the parade of music greats that appeared on the South Lawn. Much admired dancing companies drew cheers and sustained applause. To give some measure of the occasion, the narrators were Helen Hayes, Marian Anderson and Gene Kelly.

All around the grounds and through the halls were displays of sculpture, paintings and other products of the most important American artists at mid-century, selected and personally installed by Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Arts late and venerated director.

And Saul Bellow was on hand, joining an assembly of literary and intellectual figures who celebrated the most comprehensive salute ever rendered by a White House to the nation's creative spirit. That was the year his "Herzog" won the best fiction National Book award.

Hanging over the occasion, however, was Vietnam, which brought glitches of protest fostered by anti-war protestor Dwight McDonald, an Esquire magazine columnist. The threat of protest had reduced President Johnson's cultural adviser to nearly total inertia, leaving Mrs. Abell and her office solely responsible for the Festival's success.

When a Newsweek writer, allied with Mr. McDonald, attempted to enlist Mr. Bellow in their protest, I was at his side. The incident occurred on the Pennsylvania porch in late morning, before the festival had really gotten underway.

The future Noble laureate answer to the provocative prodding provided the thought I freely adapted and used more than several times during those troubled times. As I remember it:

If you're asking am I troubled by America's role in Vietnam, the only possible response is "Yes." But if you want me to endorse speedy and unilateral withdrawal, I refuse. We have a responsibility to those people who made commitments, including their families, to South Vietnam based on the expectation the United States would not abruptly withdraw, leaving them vulnerable to possible death and certain persecution.

Those are not the exact words, hence no quotation marks, but they express the sentiment of the gentleman whose extraordinary conscience informed and elevated America's literary morals and ethics during the life, which ended this week.

Saul Bellow, go in peace with deep gratitude for your rich contributions to the nation.

Shalom, shalom, shalom.

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