Close Encounters With American History Makers. BOOKS


by Henry Brandon, New York: Atheneum. 436 pp. $24.95

THE title of journalist Henry Brandon's book actually refers to two ``special relationships.''

As a British subject stationed in Washington for the London Sunday Times for 34 years, Brandon had a front-row seat from which to observe the Anglo-American ``special relationship'' in good times and bad.

And through the years he developed remarkable ``special relationships'' with prominent Americans from presidents and diplomats to artists and literary figures.

The book traces in straightforward, chronological fashion Brandon's experiences, such as his first presidential press conference (a joint affair in December 1941 with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, at which veteran Monitor correspondent Richard Strout helped lead him up to the front of the pack) and a World War II encounter with Army Lt. Ronald Reagan.

Showing his considerable journalistic skill, Brandon weaves personal anecdotes with analysis of world events. Just when it appears he will overindulge in a subject, such as the 1956 Suez crisis, Brandon switches to a lighter vein, such as his chance meeting with actor Charles Laughton on a steamship, or Marilyn Monroe's stunning entrance during an interview with her husband playwright Arthur Miller.

These cameos add enjoyable variety to a book that easily stands on its own as meaty historical analysis.

Did General Eisenhower blunder in allowing the Russians to occupy Berlin and Prague at the end of World War II? Berlin was probably beyond Eisenhower's grasp, but Prague was not, Brandon believes.

What was the lesson of the Yalta summit with Stalin? ``That the Russians must be treated with great circumspection and their strength must be matched with equal strength,'' he says.

Did Nixon's opening with communist China require any real courage on his part? Yes.

In the ongoing debate over relationships between reporters and their sources, Brandon argues that personal and professional lives can be kept separate - in fact, that personal relationships are most helpful. What matters, he writes, is ``not the lack of `air space' between the `princes' and the reporter, but the reporter's resolve to maintain his independence and integrity, and to criticize when necessary without regard to whether or not `special relationships' will be at stake.''

``Access to the men at the top,'' he says elsewhere, ``whether presidents or secretaries of state, defense, or the treasury, matters when it comes to predicting the likely outcome of crucial decisions or when editors request a character sketch; for to be able to analyze the man it is necessary to take into consideration not only his record, but also one's own sense of him. And that needs `eyeball to eyeball' encounters, impressions of the man's behavior at private occasions outside his office.''

Despite being unjustly wiretapped by FBI chief Herbert Hoover during the Nixon years (for which Nixon has never apologized), Brandon makes it clear he has thoroughly enjoyed his Washington years, watching the city move from little more than a sleepy Southern town to the world's center stage.

At one point Brandon quotes a man who had worked in the British embassy in Washington for 68 years: ``I have had experiences and contacts that come only to a few,'' he writes. ``King and queens and prime ministers don't often come into people's lives. People love to read history, but few see it and live it at such close quarters as I did.''

The quote seems a perfect summation of Brandon's own career.

``Special relations lead to friendships that make life worth living,'' Brandon writes, ``that lead to the sharing of memories of wonderful times spent together, to consolation in times of stress, to satisfactions and affections that can linger on for a lifetime....''

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