A father who never fully came in from the cold

A writer seeks out his father, both as a man and a CIA agent

"Dear Diary - yesterday my father was in a plane crash in communist territory.... We had a New Year's Eve party. I stayed up until 3 o'clock. It was fun."

So scribbled young Jennifer Richardson in her pink Barbie Diary, circa 1962. It's an entry that epitomizes the odd lives that she and her brother John led.

Their father (John H. Richardson) was a CIA agent thrust into the midst of some of the most dramatic chapters of 20th-century history. Yet his children ignored his work as best they could, as children often do - even those who grow up on three continents.

But "My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir" by John H. Richardson (father and son have the same name) only parenthetically tells the tale of the Richardson children.

The younger Richardson's real purpose in writing the book, he tells us, was to fill in gaps in his understanding of his father, a man so secretive by nature that the boy was a teenager before he learned that his father had had a brother.

Yet anyone who picks this book up assuming that Richardson Sr. was a cold, Machiavellian spymaster will be surprised. This man who was head of the CIA's Saigon bureau in the tense mid-1960s was once a sensitive, idealistic youth who hoped to be a Baptist minister. The book tells the tale of how he became instead a professional opponent of communism.

It's also the story of how Richardson's career at the CIA - characterized largely by intelligence and conviction - eventually went off the tracks.

His children, meanwhile, were busy courting disasters of their own (it was the 1960s, after all) which their father could not even begin to understand.

That's not to say that Richardson comes off as a martyr. He does not.

As a father and a husband he drinks too much, gets so absorbed in his work that he manages to lose his young son twice on a trip from Washington to Manila, and suggests reading lists when other dads might offer hugs.

As an intelligence officer, he is hardworking, cultured, and bright, but becomes damaged goods at the Agency when - during his tour of duty in Saigon and at the apex of his career - he is exposed as an agent in the press and accused of having failed to obey a White House command to support a coup against Vietnam's Diem government.

There are conflicting reports as to what exactly Richardson's role was at the crucial moment when the coup attempt was fumbled (another later succeeded). The son relies on interviews and secondhand accounts as well as statements his father made in later years.

For the younger Richardson it's all part of the process of finding his father - not only as a CIA agent but also as a man. He mines family documents and memories, and interviews as many of his father's former colleagues as were willing to talk. (It's no surprise that many were not.)

This method works better in the beginning of the book, where a series of thoughtful, self-revealing letters the youthful Richardson wrote to a close friend illuminate his thinking.

But for much of the middle of the book, and particularly during the Vietnam years, Richardson never really seems fully present. His actions are described but we almost never know his thoughts - a shortcoming that gives the narrative an oddly hollow quality.

That's not to deny the memoir's other assets.

Richardson's life story offers interesting tidbits galore. He was a student at Whittier College at the same time as Richard Nixon (and recalls him as a politician even then). He worked in military intelligence in Italy during World War II.

His various CIA postings included Trieste, Vienna (where he met and married the writer's mother), Athens (where he fished with the Queen of Greece), the Philippines, Saigon, Washington, (where he was banished to a training assignment after his professional disgrace), and Korea. After retirement he and his wife chose to live in Mexico.

Touches of glamour and a certain amount of star power are sprinkled through this account. The Richardsons regularly donned tux and gown and attended embassy parties. They once entertained Sophia Loren. During the Vietnam years, Richardson rubbed shoulders with Howard Hunt, Richard Helms, William Colby, Henry Cabot Lodge, McGeorge Bundy, and David Halberstam.

It all makes for a colorful narrative that the younger Richardson (a writer for Esquire magazine) competently shapes.

There is also a compelling human dimension to the book. It's hard not to be touched by this tale of a well-intentioned man who spent much of his life facing impossible dilemmas.

Yet at the same time - despite its intrigue - the book finally suffers from its own ordinariness.

There's a dad who tried hard but didn't always succeed. Then there's a son who had to become a man before he appreciated what his father must have faced. Add to that the story of a career begun with conviction but ended with a fair amount of disillusionment and regret.

These are not bad stories in themselves - it's just that they've been told so many times before.

There's a moment, late in Richardson's life, when father and son discuss the fall of the Berlin Wall and the father seems rueful. "All that work," his son imagines him thinking, "and the damn thing flops over like a cake."

In some ways, in the end, Richardson simply comes across as a man who should have known better when to come home from the office.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Book editor.

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