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Robert Timberg
Robert Timberg
The Nightingale's Song
ISBN: 0684826739
The Nightingale's Song
Robert Timberg discussed his book, "The Nightingale's Song," published by Simon and Schuster. Timberg, also an Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran, researched the careers of Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, Admiral John Poindexter, Senator John McCain, and Navy Secretary James Webb. He spent seven years interviewing and writing in an attempt to answer such questions as, How did North, McFarlane and Poindexter become involved in the Iran-Contra controversy?
The Nightingale's Song
Program Air Date: August 27, 1995

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bob Timberg, what's "The Nightingale's Song"?
ROBERT TIMBERG (Author, "The Nightingale's Song"): "The Nightingale's Song," Brian, is a tale of five men -- five larger-than-life men: Oliver North, John Poindexter and Bud McFarlane, the three men who were caught in the Iran-Contra scandal, Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war for five and a half years in North Vietnam; and James Webb, perhaps one of the Marines' most honored heroes of the Vietnam War, a critically acclaimed novelist and later Secretary of the Navy. This is their story, but what it also allowed me to do was to explore a fault line that I think first appeared within a generational divide, if you will. A fault line that first appeared during the Vietnam era in the 1960s and which I believe continues to haunt the nation three decades later. Essentially this fault line is between those who fought the war in Vietnam -- I'm talking about liberal conservatives and everyone in between -- and those who used money, wit and connections to avoid serving in that war.
LAMB: You live where?
TIMBERG: I live in Bethesda.
LAMB: Full-time job?
TIMBERG: Full-time job, I'm deputy chief of The Baltimore Sun Washington bureau -- a great American newspaper I might add.
LAMB: How many years did you work on this book?
TIMBERG: I worked on it for seven years. I had a one-year leave of absence that lasted five and a half years -- figured I'd be finished in two years. It wound up taking me seven. And so for five and a half years, I was doing nothing but this book, and then for a year and a half I was doing a full-time job and this book.
LAMB: What do you personally have in common with these five men?
TIMBERG: Well, this is the key. I mean, all five men are graduates of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis as I am. All were touched in varying ways by the Vietnam War and its aftermath and all became well-known during the Reagan years. I was also, like Oliver North, like James Webb and like Bud McFarlane -- I served as a Marine officer in Vietnam.

Interestingly, though, I was also at the time that the so-called Watergate of the 1980s broke -- the Iran-Contra scandal -- I was the White House correspondent for The Baltimore Sun. And suddenly, in this strange juxtaposition of circumstances, suddenly there were three men -- Oliver North, Bud McFarlane and John Poindexter -- suddenly at the heart of this scandal and there I was, as the White House correspondent, with very similar background. And it was this background, I think, that made me feel I needed to go off and try and answer the question of, how the heck did this happen? And after a year of covering Iran-Contra, that's what I did.
LAMB: At no place in this book do we hear your story.
TIMBERG: No. That's right. I'm a reporter. I'm a journalist. And it now looks like I'm an author. But this isn't my story. And you my story is of interest to close friends and family and a few have heard it. But this is their story and it's a better story.
LAMB: Do you mind me asking you about your story? If you -- even if you do mind me asking about your story, I'm going to ask you anyway. You can ...
TIMBERG: Well, let me say this. I've asked a lot of people a lot of questions and I've never let them squirm off the hook -- so if the role is reversed, I guess it's reversed. But this is -- I will tell you that this is not something that I'm especially happy to talk about -- but what do you want to know?
LAMB: Vietnam -- when did you go?
TIMBERG: Went in 1966 and got home in 1967.
LAMB: And what year were you at the academy?
TIMBERG: I was there in 1960 -- '60 to '64. Interestingly, everybody in this book brackets me. In other words, John Poindexter and John McCain, with the Class of 1958; Bud McFarlane was the Class of 1959; Jim Webb and Oliver North were the Class of 1968; I was the Class of 1964, so I didn't overlap with anybody. Actually I overlapped with Oliver North for a year. I was a senior when he was a plebe. I didn't know him. And I think, if you wouldn't mind, I'd also like to make it clear that this book is not a book about buddies of mine. These are people that I have never been social friends -- were not even, in fact, good sources, but they were these common experiences that we shared that I thought would give me an insight into how at least three of them had -- why they may have acted as they did.
LAMB: Who spent the most time with you?
TIMBERG: Everybody spent a lot of time. McFarlane, Webb and John McCain spent a lot of time right from the beginning. John Poindexter wouldn't agree to speak to me until something like three and a half years in. And Oliver North probably four years into my research. At that point, I probably spent a little less time -- substantially less time with Oliver North. At that point, though, he had written two books of his own and his story was very well known. At the same time, because I didn't think I would get a chance to speak to Poindexter or North, I did a lot of research around them. And so when I got to the point where their voice was -- when I could speak to them and explore things with them, at that point I knew a lot. I mean, I had to spend a week in their hometowns. I had talked to -- everything that moved I had talked to, everything from Boy Scout leaders to old girlfriends to family to people on the fringe. I just talked to a lot of people and so I knew a lot when I finally had a chance to actually speak to Poindexter and North. I mean, it was very important for me to hear their voices and for their voices to be in the book; particularly Admiral Poindexter, who was perhaps the least known or at least known with any sort of depth and perspective. That was really important to me and it would have been a major loss if Admiral Poindexter hadn't taken time to talk to me.
LAMB: Now a technical question: how can you be a Marine and go to the Naval Academy?
TIMBERG: Well, actually, as an old Navy man yourself, Brian, the Department of the Navy includes the Navy and the Marine Corps. And so the Naval Academy is the Academy for the Marine Corps.
LAMB: How many of these gentlemen on this page were in the Marines?
TIMBERG: Three. Bud McFarlane, James Webb and Oliver North.
LAMB: And after you got out of the academy in '64, where did you go first?
TIMBERG: The first place I went was Quantico, Virginia, which is Marine officers' training. It's equivalent, in a way, to boot camp for enlisted men, but tougher.
LAMB: And then where?
TIMBERG: Then I went to Camp Pendleton, California, for about eight months and then I was in the Marine Corps -- what you call mount-out. Essentially the Marines were going to Vietnam, and we were all going in units. It wasn't as in years later where there would be individual replacements. I went with my own unit as did mostly everybody else. We didn't go singly; we went as a unit.
LAMB: So what year did you get shipped to Vietnam?
TIMBERG: I think it was March of 1967. I think it was March.
LAMB: What were the circumstances when you got there?
TIMBERG: In Vietnam in 1967, this was still a rough war and we were still -- as it was, in fact, for another five years -- we were feeling our way. We were starting to build up. We were doing some large unit operations but, again, it was a lot of small unit operations. And, frankly, it seemed a lot of chasing ourselves.
LAMB: And what was your assignment?
TIMBERG: I was the assistant operations officer for what was called the first anti-tank battalion. It was a unit that no longer exists. It was essentially a very small -- we had these very small ugly vehicles called Ontos, which is the Greek word for thing. They had six 105-millimeter recoil-less rifles mounted on them and they were used against tanks, had there been tanks, which their weren't. They were used for direct support of the infantry and also on convoy duty.
LAMB: Did you see combat?
TIMBERG: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: How long were you in combat?
TIMBERG: Well, just about everybody was there. Even the people who were in the rear echelons in Vietnam saw something approaching combat. I mean, no place was safe. We were always out, but we weren't always, on a daily basis, under fire. So, it's hard to quantify.
LAMB: If you got there in March of '67, when did you come home?
TIMBERG: I came home in February of '68.
LAMB: And what kind -- I mean, when you read through this book and all these connections with everybody, how much of this was you yourself working out your experience there?
TIMBERG: Well, actually, you might -- I mean, I think the point we're edging to is, was I wounded over there? Yes, I was. And I came home and I had a few bad years and I then said it's time for me to go on with my life. And I did. I mean, I put Vietnam very much off to the side. In a way, this was -- in this way, at least, I think I feel particularly close to Senator McCain, who I think said, "Whatever happened, it's over. And whatever I'm going to be -- good, bad, whatever -- whatever destiny has in store for me, I'm going to make it happen, Vietnam or no Vietnam." And I essentially moved on from there.

I became a journalist almost by throwing a dart. There comes a time sometimes when you just have to do something, and it doesn't much matter what it is. And I was at a stage in my life where I just needed to do something and that meant I decided I was going to go to journalism school and I went -- got a master's in journalism at Stanford. And I became a reporter. And I went from there. I found out I was good at it. But I had no reason to really think that at the time. All I knew was I had to do something.
LAMB: Now when you came back from Vietnam, were you coming back because you were wounded?
LAMB: Where did you go, initially?
TIMBERG: After I was wounded?
LAMB: Yeah.
TIMBERG: I went initially to a field hospital in Da Nang; then I went to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines; then I was in a hospital in Japan for about two months; and then the next year or so, San Diego Naval Hospital.
LAMB: For a year?
TIMBERG: Yeah, but it was -- you know, what I would have was -- yes. Yes. Yes. But I would have an operation and then I would spend a week in the hospital and go home for two or three weeks, come back and have another operation, go home for two weeks and I just did it over and over again.
LAMB: How many operations?
TIMBERG: A lot. It was a lot.
LAMB: When were you through with operations where you could go on with your life and you didn't have to worry about it anymore?
TIMBERG: Probably even after I went to Stanford and even after I got my first newspaper job there were times when I went back and would have some more surgery. Plastic surgery is the kind of thing that -- it's not like you can be a German war criminal and you go into the operating room and you come out and you're Robert Redford or vice versa. It doesn't happen that way. I mean, skin is like -- in many ways like a baseball glove. It's got to go through stages and there would be contractions, there would be healing, there would be setbacks and so there would be times when I would do it and I would go in to get another operation even -- I'd take a couple of weeks off and I'd get some operations. Started my first newspaper job at the Annapolis Evening Capital in 1970 and then I took off for another year and had some more operations and then I started it -- I went to work for The Baltimore Evening Sun in 1973. And when I came to my last operation there -- you can go on forever doing this stuff and I said, "That's it. I don't want to do this anymore." And so I haven't.
LAMB: When you sat down to talk to these five men, the fact that you had been through all this -- did it make it harder or easier?
TIMBERG: Well, you know, that's the thing. If I had done this book in 1973, '74, '75, it would be junk. I needed to get away from this. I needed to get it way, way out of my life and go on and do what I needed to do. And I did -- I never, frankly, had a compelling need to write this book until 20 years later when suddenly things happened and I could provide journalistic distance, where I could do something that I thought was worthy and not just a complaint.

And, you know, people have said to me, "This must have been really hard for you to go through this again -- go back through all of this." And the fact of the matter is, it was hard but it wasn't hard for that reason. It was hard because it was a hard book to research and write. And whatever frustration or anger that I felt -- it was the anger and frustration of a journalist because sometimes I thought this story isn't coming together. It's not -- there's something I need to know and I don't know it and -- but it was never, you know, afterflash. It was just journalistic craziness, if you will.
LAMB: "The Nightingale's Song," where did you get the title? What's it mean?
TIMBERG: There's a tale which may, in fact, be scientific truth, that a nightingale raised in isolation from other nightingales can never sing, but once exposed to the song of another nightingale it begins singing like it's been doing it all its life as if it has a template in its brain that gets triggered by the song of another nightingale. And as I working to try to make this all make sense, for this to fit together the way I thought it should, I heard this tale and in effect, it arrayed the iron filings for me. I mean, in this elaborate metaphor, Ronald Reagan is the nightingale -- the singer of the nightingale's song. And it was my sense that a good portion of this generation that I'm exploring -- those who went, if you will -- but in the aftermath of Vietnam, their voices, once very lusty and full-throated, had been stunned into silence by the homecoming. And throughout the '70s, that was the case.

And then, as we get into the late '70s, we have Ronald Reagan who says Vietnam was a noble cause. He didn't say it was a great war. He didn't even say it was a war that we should have won given the way we fought it, but he said what we did, what we tried to do when we went was just. And in a way, Ronald Reagan became the parade that nobody -- that Vietnam veterans never had. He was like a one-man welcoming committee when they came back and in many ways he rehabilitated the Vietnam veteran in the eyes of the nation. I mean, suddenly, veterans were not being viewed as baby killers. They weren't being spat on. Reagan said, "I'm proud of you. You did your duty. You're men I can count on, men I trust. Wear your uniform with pride." And it was as if he had given back -- given veterans back their voice. He re-empowered them. They became part of the body politic again in a very positive way, for the most part. And that -- in fact, those words of Ronald Reagan became the nightingale's song.
LAMB: Let me read you the last line of your book. "And Oliver North, testing his wings, perfecting his songs, had become the nightingale." Those are the last words you wrote for your book. Why did you decide to end it that way?
TIMBERG: Because I felt that President Reagan, whom -- as I'm sure you know from reading this book, does not walk away from this book in a very particularly positive way. Nevertheless, he was able, as a public figure, as a politician, as a president, to go, in many ways, over the head of the press. He was able to strike chords with the American people. In my sense, it was that Oliver North had many of those same qualities, that kind of charisma that led people to stand up and cheer and rally around him by the millions when he appeared before Congress and said to Congress, "I lied. I lied to you." And when I wrote that, Oliver North had just lost the election in Virginia for the United States Senate and I began -- as I wrote it, I felt that strongly, but I still questioned whether it was true in the final analysis, because he was, in fact, it seemed, flat on his back after that Virginia campaign.

And then I noticed like a month or so later, it said Oliver North is going to become a radio talk show host and it said he had like three stations he was going to be on and I thought, "Boy, old Ollie, he's going to have problems." And I looked about a week ago and I saw in the paper that North now has something like 121 stations that carry his talk show and I remember Chris Matthews -- he used to be Tip O'Neill's press secretary -- once referred to Reagan as the fastest man off the mat in American politics. And it may well be that we have not heard the last from Oliver North, that he may be pretty fast off the mat himself.
LAMB: Now this isn't -- you may not want to answer this question but right here are the five men that you write about. If you had to pick one of these men to spend an evening with in conversation, who's the best?
TIMBERG: I would enjoy spending an evening with all of them and for different reasons and probably with different things on the top of the bar -- like I might -- but I think the thing that I found that was surprising to me, given his image -- that was how much I enjoyed talking to Admiral Poindexter. And Admiral Poindexter -- there's kind of -- I think my book is filled with ironies. And one of my favorite ironies involves Admiral Poindexter and Senator McCain. Admiral Poindexter was the number-one man in his class at Annapolis. He was also the brigade commander at the highest leadership post. That stature that dual honor has been achieved probably by a handful of men at all the nation's service academies.

Senator McCain, on the other hand, graduated in that same class fifth from the bottom in a class of about 1,000. He was a congenital screw-up. Nevertheless, on Election Day 1984, as word of the Iranian arms sales -- the sale of arms to Iran supposedly in exchange for hostages -- at least as it was presented at that time -- was making its way back to the United States -- the story had originally appeared in a newspaper in Beirut -- and Admiral Poindexter was, in effect, on the verge of professional ruin -- John McCain, the fifth from the bottom of the class, was being elected to the United States Senate.
LAMB: There's the boxing story.
TIMBERG: The boxing story -- Jim Webb and Ollie North, same class -- Class of 1968 -- never really liked one another. It was like they were oil and water. At any rate, North had been in a terrible car accident in his plebe year and it was questionable whether he could ever return to the academy. By an enormous force of will and rehabilitation, he managed to come back and he was in Jim Webb's class. Both of them were boxers, but Webb had been boxing for years, almost from the time he was 12, 13. And he was very, very good. North was what somebody called a good Saturday night boxer. I mean, he just seemed to rise to the occasion. Webb, on the other hand, knew he could -- under ordinary circumstances -- could just take North apart. But Ollie had knee braces from his car accident.

People went up to Webb and said, "Hey, Jimmy, you hit Ollie too hard, you might kill him." And Webb knew this was baloney. How -- I mean, no one was going to let somebody in the ring with a steel plate in his head, which is one of the things he had heard. But somehow Webb got himself psyched out in this and when you box -- particularly when you box at the academy, because no one is a great stylist, you've got to go in there and you've got to meet -- you've got to fight to win, you've got to have -- you've got to be psychologically attuned to taking your classmate's head off, if you will. And Webb wasn't. I mean, he went in there, he was tentative, he was very stylish. He ducked, he moved and North looked kind of sloppy. But North landed some punches and this fight ended up with Ollie North beating Jim Webb in a fight that everybody else felt Jim Webb was going to win hands-down.
LAMB: Let me ask you about these five and just a quick thumbnail sketch of what they did in Vietnam. Let's just start with Jim Webb.
TIMBERG: Jim Webb was a platoon leader, a rifle platoon commander and he was also a company commander. He won the Navy Cross, which is the nation's second highest award for battlefield gallantry after the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Marine Corps very rarely awards the Congressional Medal of Honor to anybody that survives the experience. He won two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, several Purple Hearts. Webb is one of the toughest people I've ever met and remains so to this day. And yet -- and Webb was a superb Marine, but in one -- and this sort of in some ways lays a base line for what a lot of Vietnam veterans brought home with them and that -- during one two-month period, he had 56 of his men either killed or wounded. It was this grisly alchemy of war. It just turned his men into statistics. And Webb has -- he has never forgotten his men. He has never forgotten their names. He is perhaps a man who has been closer to his men than any officer -- you know, years later -- to this day --than anybody I know.
LAMB: Where is he today?
TIMBERG: Jim Webb today is not far from here. He's working on a -- as you know, he was Secretary of the Navy. He is now attempting to make his book -- the book he wrote shortly after Vietnam called "Fields of Fire," widely viewed as perhaps the best war novel to come out of the Vietnam War -- he's working to try to get it made into a movie. And Webb will do that. Webb was able to come back from Vietnam -- he never would have gotten out of the service. He was forced to get out because of combat wounds. And one day he was sitting in law class at Georgetown University, a class -- 125 -- of which he was the only Vietnam veteran and was hearing the war debated day after day, almost invariably in an anti-war setting and he just said, "I'm going to write a book that tells people what it was really like." Webb's credentials for doing this were zip. But he said, "I'm going to do it." And four years later, writing in longhand, 11, 12 drafts, several rejections, he did it and it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and it's widely, widely acclaimed. And if Webb says he's going to make a movie out of it, Webb's going to make a movie out of it.
LAMB: Bud McFarlane's Vietnam experience?
TIMBERG: Bud McFarlane's Vietnam experience was -- he was an artillery officer. He went in with the first wave of Marines and the first wave of American forces in March of 1965. He was only there at that point for about a month, a month and a half, and his tour ended. He came back a second time. He was there during the Tet offensive of 1968, where he just saw incredible carnage. I mean, he was never wounded himself but he certainly saw friends, comrades killed and maimed. And he is, of course, as you know, perhaps the most intellectual of all the five men in this book.

But there's no question that for all that intellect, Bud McFarlane was there in a very, very serious way. And he left and he never -- like most of his other men, he could not quite put together what had happened. I mean, he thought the senior military leadership was seriously flawed, if not incompetent, but the thing that he really couldn't quite make fit together was the thing many of us couldn't fit together, which was the homecoming.

It wasn't that the war was so bad. I mean, war is just a terrible thing. But the Korean War was terrible. World War II was terrible. World War I was terrible. The Peloponnesian War was terrible. It was the homecoming. It was coming home after watching and seeing friends and comrades killed and maimed and suddenly being spit on, being called a baby killer. There was a chaplain who was with Ollie North's platoon -- I mean, not only were you being called this but the people who were doing it, the people who had, in effect, walked away in many ways from this war, were flourishing. It was as if there was no stigma attached to what, in earlier times -- and not all that much earlier -- was called draft dodging. And this chaplain who served with Ollie North's battalion in Vietnam, he said what that does is it dislocates loyalty. He says, "I can never trust the system again. It just now becomes a filter through which I view everything that happens." And a friend of Jim Webb's who's quoted in the book, says, "There's a wall 10 miles wide, 10 miles high and 50 miles thick between those of us who went and those who didn't and that wall is never going to come down."
LAMB: John Poindexter's Vietnam experience.
TIMBERG: John Poindexter fits into this book for a number of reasons but also because he never went to Vietnam. And he becomes a person through which I try -- I'm able to show, I think, how this Vietnam anger, hostility, sense of betrayal has worked its way into the military culture. You know, Navy men -- Navy pilots went to Vietnam but a lot of the Navy did not go to Vietnam. It was not -- almost every Marine went to Vietnam and a good portion of the people in the Army, but the Navy -- submariners -- they didn't go to Vietnam and the people who sail the ships -- many of them were off the coast but Admiral Poindexter did none of that.

But, nevertheless, the post-Vietnam culture that provided the military in the aftermath of the war a sense of "You can't trust the press. They're going to get it wrong -- consciously or unconsciously, the press told the story wrong in Vietnam" -- that's not necessarily true. I don't think that's true. I think of the people that I think of as my journalistic beacons -- the men and women who I think the most of as journalists -- some of them were the great reporters of the Vietnam War -- David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan -- I mean, men like this. I mean, they got it right. I don't think the military necessarily felt they got it right. But, nevertheless, the press can't get it right. Congress is going to screw it up. The president, in many cases, is not making decisions based on protecting our men. He's making it for political reasons. That culture has worked its way into the military. And I understand it and I think Admiral Poindexter was infected by it in a way that was akin to secondhand smoke. And he didn't have to be there for it to affect him.
LAMB: Ollie North's Vietnam experience.
TIMBERG: Ollie North was a platoon leader, a very heroic platoon leader, almost as highly decorated as Jim Webb. And perhaps at that point Ollie North was in many ways, at the top of his game. One thing I've always felt about Oliver North, I know the things he did and I think that anybody who reads this book will not feel that Ollie North walks away from it in any sort of positive way -- I think it's actually the fullest picture of Ollie North that's yet been written -- but Ollie North's greatest problem seems to me always was that at the White House he lacked -- for lack of a better phrase -- he lacked adult supervision. In the Marine Corps he had a very, very strong company commander -- a Marine captain named Paul Goodwin. As he moved his way up through the ranks, he invariably had somebody very good looking over his shoulder and making sure that Ollie's great enthusiasms didn't get him into trouble -- but were able to use in a very positive way Ollie's many, many strengths. And in Vietnam, it was the best.

As years progressed, there became less close watching of Ollie North and I think that's what got him into trouble. Not that he was evil or sinister, he just had very, very bad judgment at times and I always try to sort of figure how would I feel in this situation. If I were a company president, if I was a company commander, if I was a battalion commander, I would love to have an Ollie North working for me, but what I would need to do is I would say, "OK, this guy is very innovative, he's very enthusiastic and he's vigorous. He's charismatic. He's smart. But he has flaws." I mean, in fairness -- I mean, Ollie's not the only person that has flaws. I have flaws. We all do. But when you're a senior commander and you're somebody's boss, if you're going to use that person, if you're going to utilize his strengths, then you have to protect him from himself. You have to be aware of his weak points, too. And I don't think that happened. People used Ollie's strengths, but they never -- not never, but at a crucial time, they did not save him from himself. They did not exercise adult supervision.
LAMB: John McCain III.
TIMBERG: John McCain III, the madcap midshipman, the congenital screw-up, got shot down and spent five and a half years in a Vietnam prison. And his tale in prison is a tale of enormous heroism and strength and toughness.
LAMB: How much of what you wrote is new?
TIMBERG: A lot of what I wrote is new. I probably did 400 interviews for this book -- I mean, beyond the reading of the documents. Most of this book is new. This is not a recycling of old clips. This is original research that took -- what I had hoped would take two years, it took seven years. And I was glad to give it to it -- to give that time -- because the story demanded it and good reporters follow the story to the end.
LAMB: You said that you took a year off -- or a leave of absence that turned into five and a half.
TIMBERG: Five and a half years, right.
LAMB: You did not write a story for The Baltimore Sun for five and a half years?
TIMBERG: Right. I did not write a story for The Baltimore Sun or anybody else for five and a half years.
LAMB: How did you financially live during that time?
TIMBERG: Well, initially I had an advance from my publisher, Simon & Schuster, and that was going to be terrific if it took me what I -- my original plan was for it to take a year where I would just do my research and then I would try and write the book at night. Well, it became clear fairly quickly that that wasn't going to happen. So then I applied for and received a fellowship called a Woodrow Wilson fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington. And that was going to be for 10 months and that kept going for 22 months, and that helped. That included a stipend. I you're ever going to write a book, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington is the place to do it, because you have an enormous support structure, everything from notepads to research assistants to Xeroxing and they ask virtually nothing in return other than that you do something of value.

And I left here in March of 1991 and I think it was probably still up in the air as to whatever I produced was going to be something of value and then at that point, it was back where I started, which is in the basement of my house in Bethesda, a place that no one dare venture anymore. I mean, it's got files -- I began to think of myself as the troll of Bethesda. I'd just get up in the morning, go down to the basement. If I had to do interviews, I did that, but my life was pretty much -- that was it.
LAMB: Were you being paid at this point?
TIMBERG: No. My wife works.
LAMB: What's she do?
TIMBERG: She works for the Labor Department and I had some retirement pay from the Marine Corps. But I also had a home equity credit line which it turns out that you can use like firewood every month. But then it gets very, very scary when it gets up into high five digits and that's what happened. I just said I was going to finish this damn thing and I did.
LAMB: How many kids?
TIMBERG: I have four. When I started this thing, my oldest son was getting ready to start college. As of now, my oldest son and my next oldest son are both out of college, one out of graduate school and both newspaper reporters. My daughter is going into her senior year in college and my 10-year-old, who was, I guess, three when I started, is now off at baseball camp. He's 10. I mean, that was the other thing I did during that period in the wilderness, if you will, was I coached my son in Little League, which was my link to reality during that period.
LAMB: You probably don't know this but this whole program, which is about six years old, started with the Neil Sheehan book, which took 16 years to write.
LAMB: He wasn't wounded in combat nor was he in combat. He was a reporter but he worked for 16 years. What is it about this story that gets somebody like you to just give it all up for all these years to get it done? What drove you through this time?
TIMBERG: Well, to some extent, I think perhaps for Neil and me -- Neil is a great reporter and I'm a good reporter. And sometimes when you get something that you say, "God, this is a good story," there's just nothing that stops you until somebody shoots you or you finish. I mean, Vietnam, somebody said -- actually Ben Wattenberg quoted it to me but I think it may have been Daniel Yankelovich, the pollster, who used the term. He said, "Vietnam is an undigested lump." For those of us who went, we've never quite come to grips with what we found when we got home. Now that doesn't mean that we were immobilized by it, that we were -- that our lives couldn't go on.

This book is a book about survivors. This is about people who said, "OK. That happened, and there are a lot of parts about it I don't like, but I'm not going to join the unemployment lines. I'm not going to, say, turn against the war and say I shouldn't have gone." These people -- McCain, Poindexter, North, Webb, McFarlane -- they somehow put whatever anger, frustration, hostility that they felt aside and went on with their lives. And they have been very successful lives until Iran-Contra popped up and it was -- and it became evident that McFarlane, North and Poindexter, at least, had failed finally to put this aside -- as far aside as perhaps they should have. Essentially, it came out of the wings and blindsided them. That's my sense.

If I could just -- I feel like I've somehow given Senator McCain short shrift. Not only was Senator McCain in prison for five and a half years, he spent 31 months in solitary. He was also -- it was also said that no one was in worse shape when he was taken to the Hanoi Hilton, the prison in North Vietnam, than John McCain. And yet in these early months of his captivity, where he truly believed he did not have the potential to live out another year, the North Vietnamese tried to get him to go home. The reason they wanted him to go home is because his father was the senior military man in the Far East, outranking men even like General Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams in -- in Hanoi. He was what they call the commander in chief Pacific. And what the North Vietnamese hoped to do by sending Senator McCain home was to show the average American fighting man on the ground that if you're well connected, if you have friends in high places, if you've got a dad in high places, you're going to get special treatment under the American system. And John McCain somehow sensed that, knew that and became an enormously strong man in those days and said, "I'm not going." And that wasn't even good enough for them. They beat him to try and get him to go home. He would not go.
LAMB: There was a scene in the book where John McCain is being visited by a bunch of North Vietnamese and he just starts screaming the strongest language. What was that?
TIMBERG: Another group of dignitaries had gone in there and tried to say, you know, "We want you to go home," and tried to in some way curry favor with him in some way and they were hoping he would go home and say, "Oh, the North Vietnamese are great people" -- at the very least go home and not scream and holler and say, "They made me go. I didn't want to go." And he just cut loose with this string of profanity. And somebody who observed this -- another prisoner told me -- he said, these men came rolling out of there like tumbling tumbleweeds out of his cell, followed by this incredible string of obscenities cut loose by Senator McCain.
LAMB: Orson Swindle of Perot fame was a prisoner of war with him?
TIMBERG: Orson Swindle was very much a prisoner with him. Orson Swindle, who John McCain considers one of the bravest men who is in prison. I once asked John McCain, to what extent did your naval academy training assist you in being able to withstand what happened. And he said, "I'm not so sure it did all that much." He said, "Look at Orson Swindle. He went to Georgia Tech. He was as tough as they come." So ...
LAMB: John McCain came home to his ex-wife -- he's now remarried -- who was four inches shorter than when he left her?
TIMBERG: John McCain's wife, Carol McCain, while he was in prison, was in a car accident. Carol McCain had been a model. She was a statuesque model. In this accident, Carol McCain nearly died, was in a wheelchair, had 23 operations and lost about four inches on her legs. Talk about a person who was in terrible, terrible shape. She was that close to being dead. And this was in 1969. John McCain didn't get out of prison until 1973. About the first thing Carol McCain said to her doctors when she could speak again was, "I don't want John to know about this. He's got enough problems of his own. You know, we'll deal with it when he gets home." And John McCain never knew about Carol's accident until he was released from prison in early 1973.
LAMB: Jim Webb was banned from the US Naval Academy?
TIMBERG: Jim Webb was banned from the US Naval Academy -- informally banned but, nevertheless, clearly banned for writing two things. One was an article for Washingtonian magazine, which was titled -- he didn't title it but it was a fairly appropriate title -- called Women Can't Fight. What Webb's article essentially looked -- the service academies began admitting women under an act of Congress in 1976 -- Webb looked at this situation, found he was at the academy. He said, "The academy is changing. It was a crucible for warriors. Now it is not a crucible for warriors anymore" -- and questioned whether the academies had become much like other fine technical schools and perhaps not nearly as good as a technical school like an MIT. I mean, he just basically questioned whether women should be at the service academies. He also questioned the movement for women in combat. I should add that he did not question whether a woman should be President or a United States Senator or whether a woman should serve in very responsible positions in the armed forces. He did question whether women should be out on patrol in the boondocks with men.

And, as I say, he very seriously questioned the introduction of women into the service academies. Subsequently, he wrote a book, his second book, which was called a "Sense of Honor," which was about the Naval Academy, took place during 1968. And it portrayed the academy very much as it is. It wasn't the academy that tourists see -- these very well-dressed young men and now women beaming vanilla smiles at tourists. This was before the introduction of women and this was the Naval Academy of lusty, rough, tough young men. And it was, to my mind, a great book. I mean, it was the academy as it is. But academy authorities just were aghast -- absolutely aghast and Webb, who in 1984 became an Assistant Secretary of Defense, and then 1987 became the Secretary of the Navy, between 1980 and 1984 he was effectively banned from the Naval Academy.
LAMB: How did you write this? Longhand?
TIMBERG: Oh, no.
LAMB: Computer?
TIMBERG: No. You know, it's funny when I first -- yes, on a computer, on a word processor.
LAMB: Are you a fast writer?
TIMBERG: No, I'm a slow writer. I'm a slow writer.
LAMB: Did you have to leave a lot out? Did you have to give up after a while and put a lot of outtakes on the shelf to come out to a second book?
TIMBERG: The thing that was hardest for me was when I started this, I said, "This book's going to start at Annapolis and I'm going to look at the early years of these men in kind of flashbacks." Well, as I started my research, I began -- I realized just how powerful their early years had been and I wrote for all five men a chapter about their childhood, a chapter about the pre-Annapolis years. And they were some of the most colorful chapters in the book, and they were among my favorites. And then I realized in talking to my editors, that -- in my original plan, this book needed to start at Annapolis. And so I have five chapters sitting there that I think I'll give to the five principal figures just to let them have it.
LAMB: I suspect that not everybody that'll see this will know what these letters stand for.
TIMBERG: I suspect that most people will not but I suspect that every man or woman that ever graduated from Annapolis or went to Annapolis knows precisely what those five letters stand for.
LAMB: Guess they'll have to go buy your book because I'm not going to tell them.
TIMBERG: Nor am I.
LAMB: Have you changed any up here since you've written this book?
TIMBERG: Changed?
LAMB: After you'd come back from Vietnam and the experience you went through and all that. I mean, has working through this eight years changed you in any way? Do you feel any better?
TIMBERG: You know, I do. I felt -- as I said, I had put this stuff all off to the side, and it was only as I got drawn into it with my sense that -- I had this feeling when Iran-Contra broke and suddenly there's McFarlane, North and Poindexter right in the middle -- I felt like I knew more than I knew about this. And this was this aroma of Vietnam, that somehow the Vietnam War, at least in part, was involved here. I began to think of Iran-Contra as the bill for Vietnam finally coming due. But what I really became most interested in was this generational fault line, that distinction between those who went and those who didn't. And I never knew I wanted -- needed to tell that tale. But as I got deeper into this project, it became clear to me that I really wanted to tell this story. And I've told it, and I like to think now that I'm done with it.
LAMB: How do people treat you today about your experience in Vietnam?
TIMBERG: I don't think -- people don't talk to me about it. Now, you mean after I've written the book?
LAMB: No, just in general.
TIMBERG: Over the years?
LAMB: I'm talking about when you came back from Vietnam -- how you weren't very happy and people like this weren't very happy with the way the country treated them.
TIMBERG: What I did was, to a large extent -- I felt that sort of anger and hostility that many of my peers and comrades felt. And my sense was, I don't think it's good for me -- it's not mentally and psychologically good for me to be part of that. And to an extent, I really unplugged from old networks and I went off and I became a reporter. And up until a few months ago, when I became an editor, I was a reporter for a quarter century. And that's how I viewed myself. It's how I view myself today. And going and working on this book was like I plugged back in to these old networks and it became a kind of fascinating journey of rediscovery. But, as far as -- up until the time that I set off to work on this book, I didn't talk about Vietnam. I didn't avoid talking about it, but it wasn't one of those issues that I spent a lot of time on. I think I had this sense of -- it was Senator McCain, I think -- he has this sense that Vietnam can kill even today and let's keep it, as best you can, on the shelf. And I think those people who have been most successful have been able to draw on it for strength but not let it take over their lives.
LAMB: Have any of the five read your book that you know of? And if they have, what have they told you?
TIMBERG: Well, Senator McCain has read it and he -- Senator McCain is one of those who says, "Oh, yeah, great book, great book." I assume everybody has read it. I have heard nothing from Bud McFarlane, nothing from Oliver North. Admiral Poindexter has read it. And you've read it -- you know that nobody walks away from this book in particularly great shape, though certainly everybody at the very least has a few little razor nicks on them and certainly the three people who were caught up in Iran-Contra take some major body blows in this book. And yet, Admiral Poindexter, who wrote to me, tended to be very protective, not of himself, but of President Reagan -- President Reagan, who I feel failed Poindexter, McFarlane and North. And, you know, Admiral Poindexter said next to nothing about taking issue of other things that I had written about him. He just essentially threw his body between me and President Reagan.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book. "The Nightingale's Song," the title. Our guest, Robert Timberg. And we thank you very much.
TIMBERG: Thank you, Brian.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1995. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.