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Well, it’s been 50 years that I’ve served as a spokesperson for various organizations, including some of the largest and best-known in the world. I’ll be telling that story when I present a new essay called “Spoke Smoke,” at the Chicago Literary Club in later January. Here’s a small excerpt.

My real life indoctrination into spokesmanship was a failed bargain I made with the devil himself, during the Vietnam War. I had earned an Army commission after graduation, and had been assigned to the staff of the Army War College, as an operations officer. I really wanted to gain some military experience in public relations, so I applied to the Department of Defense Information School for their officer’s career course in public affairs. This is the school where every military service’s communications people learn their stuff. To be accepted, I had to volunteer to be assigned to Vietnam. I knew that when I graduated, I’d have only 6 months of service commitment remaining. A tour of duty in Vietnam was then one year, so I thought the Army would not even bother to send me over there. I was wrong, and after graduation was promptly assigned to serve as a press escort officer at the press camp closest to the border with North Vietnam.

 

While at the Information School we had been indoctrinated with the philosophy that our mission was to provide the press with “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.” The reality was that we were directed to be more helpful to those news media people who were friendlier to the government’s version of the war effort’s progress. Our government had an agenda, and press officers as spokespeople were obliged to support that agenda. The truth for us was the truth that political leadership wanted it to be. Like lawyers, our loyalty was to our client’s interest, within the limits of the law. I was lucky enough to come home early from Vietnam, but I had learned a valuable lesson about the limits of spokesmanship. About what a later generation would come to know as “spin.”

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