Arnold Beichman Marches On

Friday, July 2, 2010

“He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.” This is the first sentence of a once wildly popular, now entirely forgotten novel, Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche. The book came out in 1921, when Arnold Beichman was eight years old. He loved Sabatini, Arnold told me once, and then declaimed those wonderfully garish words. And in declaiming them, Arnold Beichman was speaking his autobiography.

Arnold loved to laugh—and argue, and eat, and drink, and fly planes, and ride motorbikes, and learn languages, and tell stories, and brag on his children and grandchildren, and tell more stories, and listen to your stories, and say kind things to you, and give Commies hell for their role in rendering the world mad.

We lost Arnold in February. He was ninety-six years old, born four years before the Russian Revolution installed the evil regime whose power and influence and authority he would devote himself tirelessly to combating. And he lived for eighteen more years after that regime’s collapse, an event that added a grace note to his final two decades.

Anti-communism was the cause of Arnold’s life; anti-communism was his great “no.” He said no to communism in all its forms, from the thuggish workings of a newspaper labor union to the noxious ideas spouted at a 1949 conference of so-called “progressives” at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, from Che Guevara to Ho Chi Minh, from the character actor Lionel Stander trying to convey the need for revolution by whistling The Internationale as he waited for an elevator in the 1938 movie No Time to Marry to Jane Fonda and her 1972 Hanoi press conference.

He was still saying “no” after the Wall fell and the Soviet Union was no more, assembling a carefully researched volume of essays debunking CNN’s shameful 1998 documentary series on the Cold War. (The book came out when he was eighty-five. His final volume, a study of the novels of his old friend Herman Wouk, was published in 2004, when he was ninety-one.)

Arnold Beichman

But what made Arnold a great man was not that he said no, but that he said yes. He said yes to the world. He threw himself upon the world. He was unstoppable. He got into Columbia in the late 1920s from the slums of the Lower East Side and became editor of its newspaper. He then worked as a publicist for Warner Bros.—though the department was not called Publicity but rather Exploitation!—and made up a cock-and-bull story about Jimmy Cagney’s being a man of great culture that Cagney later upbraided him for.

Anti-communism was the cause of Arnold’s life; anti-communism was his great “no.”

He knew everybody; he saw everything. He became a working journalist and an activist; learned French and covered the uprisings in Algeria and the Congo; went back for a PhD in his fifties; learned Russian and became a Sovietologist, the biographer of the short-lived Russian dictator Yuri Andropov, and the co-author of an important book on Mikhail Gorbachev; and spent a quarter-century writing literally thousands of columns for the Washington Times.

Arnold Beichman was never a journalist of the very first rank, or an intellectual of the very first rank, or an academic of the very first rank, or a columnist of the very first rank. He was something better. He was a man of the very first rank—a man who taught everyone who ever knew him what it meant to be fully and completely alive. He cursed God once to me for the fact that he had lost a child to suicide—“if that’s what God does, then to hell with him,” Arnold said—but the anger revealed not the atheist he claimed to be but the believer he was. His rage was, I think, a manifestation of the divine spark itself. As was his gift of laughter and his sense that, even though the world was mad, it was also wonderful.