Sheehan was one of the top Vietnam journalists. He was the reporter to whom Daniel Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers. The subject of A Bright Shining Lie was a man named John Paul Vann. Sheehan had met Vann in the early ’60s when he was a UPI reporter in Vietnam and Vann was a kind of maverick army officer who was very critical of the way that the
world war was being conducted even then.
Not only a maverick but also a loose cannon—he talked readily to the press, and he was a source for a number of the early journalists. But Vann increasingly became a strident dissident voice within the military, which did not make the military happy. Eventually he alienated himself from the army command and left the army in disgrace. But due to a peculiar genius that this character had, he returned to Vietnam as a civilian and became the number three person in command of the Vietnam War after the ambassador and the commander-in-chief, which I think is completely unprecedented in American military history.
He was eventually killed. It was typical of him that even in this elevated position, he was involved in a battle and had to escape by helicopter. The helicopter got shot down, and he was killed. After his death he became an obsession for Sheehan, who had worked on the book about him, A Bright Shining Lie, for sixteen years.
Another checker and I spent two months working on The New Yorker excerpts of A Bright Shining Lie. It was made particularly difficult because Sheehan lived near Washington and he had his sources for this book in twenty-five army-surplus file cabinets lined up in a special room in his house. And these were not little Door Store file cabinets, these were heavy industrial file cabinets that stretched a good three or four feet back to the wall, and they weren’t filled up with fat reports but with single sheets of paper. This was sixteen years of work, and it was really out of the question for him to send this stuff to New York, so we went to Washington. Then life got more complicated because Sheehan is an insomniac and he didn’t get up till three in the afternoon every day. So we had to adjust our schedules to that.
One more thing I want to say about Neil Sheehan is that it was a particularly frustrating experience for us fact-checkers because Neil Sheehan never got anything wrong, and at the end of two months we would go, “Neil, give us a break, you know? Give us one little thing we can change.” If every writer were like this, the checking department would be a complete waste of time, but it is really to Neil Sheehan’s credit that he was like this.
I can’t leave the subject of the Shawn-era New Yorker without at least one more story that illustrates a completely different aspect of the old magazine, and this was its tendency to warehouse complicated fact pieces. There was an inventory sheet that went around every week, of fact pieces, and I think it was 100 pieces long. And considering that each of these pieces was worth $10,000 or $20,000 to the magazine, that was a lot of inventory.
One of these bottom dwellers had been in house for many years. It showed no signs of running, but I took a liking to it. It was called “A Scottish Childhood.” I can’t remember the name of the author, but it was a woman who had grown up in a drafty little castle in the Highlands of Scotland, and when her father died, her oldest brother inherited everything through primogeniture.
She was essentially, sort of in a gentle way, disinherited. She went to London. She wrote a memoir about growing up in this delightful and strange environment and she sold it. She sold it in The New Yorker as a work of fiction, but it was thinly fictionalized. By the time I latched onto this piece, it had become a fact piece and showed no signs of ever getting published.