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The Diplomat as Dandy and Cad : SO CLOSE TO GREATNESS A Biography of William C. Bullitt by Will Brownell and Richard N. Billings ( Macmillan: $24.95; 368 pp.)

June 26, 1988|Robert Scheer | Scheer's "Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death: Essays on the Pornography of Power" will be published next October by Hill & Wang.

Long before Lt. Col. Oliver L. North was born, William C. Bullitt was clandestinely running about the world making it safe for democracy. Better educated and more upper crust than North, Bullitt was a scion of mainline Philadelphia society who shunned a career in steel, law and banking to dabble instead in the American propensity for personal diplomacy. He, too, was good at catching the eye of doddering Presidents who required a sturdy and energetic youth to carry out their missions. And once entrusted, he, too, came to call the shots.

First Bullitt was Woodrow Wilson's man checking out Russia right after the revolution and concocting schemes about what we might do with, or to, this new man Lenin. Later, after a few minor successes and much failure, he would re-emerge as the first U.S. ambassador to Bolshevik Russia and Franklin D. Roosevelt's apparatchik on the Continent. Whether it was a deal with Stalin on paying the czarist debt or a grand strategy to bring Nazi Germany and socialist France together, Bullitt specialized in crafting his own foreign policy while blithely ignoring that of the State Department.

Like North, his batteries were ideologically charged, but Bullitt's career produced wild swings left and right that seemed more dependent upon how he was being treated than any larger world view.

North has the world view of a voice-of-the-people letter writer to the New York Daily News that postulates an America that is always the aggrieved innocent in a treacherous world. Bullitt had no such faith in popular American virtue, but rather felt it was his duty as a gentleman to save his countrymen from making fools of themselves as they ventured out into the larger world.

Indeed, reading now about the shenanigans of this F. Scott Fitzgerald character, one is reminded of just how frivolous and superficial the American elite could be in the days when the conduct of foreign policy was exclusively the pro bono work of the rich.

"If it were not for Chantilly, I would never be able to go on as I do," Ambassador Bullitt wrote on the eve of the war, referring to the deal he'd pulled off in renting a dwelling near the famous chateau, enabling him to host huge champagne parties on the grounds. He was delighted with his horses and the racing nearby, not to mention the tennis court and swimming pool that he insisted be installed.

No big deal in such indulgence except that his smug and arrogant style also led to a dangerous underestimation of the unique horror represented by the threat of Nazism while the party played on.

Bullitt had become convinced that the Russian Bolsheviks represented a greater danger than the German Nazis whom he tended to view as aggrieved nationalists still smarting over the unfavorable terms of the Versailles agreement. He also thought that the arrival of airplanes had rendered Germany militarily unimportant because of its small territory.

He was at the same moment contemptuous of his colleague, U.S. Ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd, for being too critical of his Nazi hosts. "It should be possible," Bullitt reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "for our ambassador in Berlin to establish the same sort of relationship with the heads of the Nazi government" that Bullitt had with the French. "If we had an ambassador who could do that . . . he and I could at least be of some assistance in bringing France and Germany together," Bullitt said, adding that his counterpart was "ill-equipped for his present job. He hates the Nazis too much."

Later Bullitt would himself grow disillusioned with the Nazis and develop an instant and equally grand new theory justifying his own shift. And like most of his views, the new theory did not seem to be grounded in any serious way.

Not that this is the viewpoint of this adoring biography, delayed, as it happens, for a year by a copyright question. One may be titillated, Walter Mitty fashion, by sartorial and romantic minutiae from the life of a man who was a dandy and a womanizer at a time when both habits were socially condoned. But on close reading, the man is revealed as a sexist who used women simply as social props and failed in his efforts to develop more enduring relations. In the end, the man just does not seem to be worth so much attention.

Remember Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant in "Reds"? Bullitt married Bryant after the death of John Reed. But the cad exhausted the energies of that brilliant and beautiful writer with his endless preening neurosis, got her to give up her trade to provide him with a child and then when she had been reduced to alcoholism and physical illness arranged for his Philadelphia cronies in the courts to grant him full custody of their daughter. True to form, once having won the battle, Bullitt lost interest and later placed the child in a proper finishing school.

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