Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

The Vietnam “War”

The Post Makes the Case for a Free Press


Timing is everything, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post could not have come out at a more ideal time. While there are those who would attack the Washington Post and other news organizations with pejorative terms like “fake news,” the film dramatizes why our country needs a free and unfettered press. While the New York Times proclaims on its front page “All the news that’s fit to print,” the Washington Post doesn’t pull punches with its declaration that “Democracy dies in darkness.” 

Risking everything to publish stories based on the purloined Pentagon Papers – the publisher, editors, and reporters could have been charged and jailed – the Washington Post claimed it’s rightful place as a national newspaper. Katharine Graham, who became publisher after her husband, Philip, committed suicide, allowed the paper to print, even though her board of directors warned that she could jeopardize the paper’s financial future. In making the decision to go ahead, Graham finally asserts her authority and makes the paper truly her own.

Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks

Coming on the heels of The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’ exhaustive series for PBS, the film underscores that four presidents, from Truman through Johnson, continually misled the public about U.S. operations in Vietnam. In fact, while the government insisted that the war was being won, behind the scenes those in charge had declared the war unwinnable. President Nixon, who didn’t want to be humiliated losing a war, kept up the deception. 

The film opens in 1969, in the jungles of Vietnam. The war is still raging, claiming both American and Vietnamese lives. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former Marine working as a military analyst at the Rand Corporation, is sent to Vietnam as an observer and sees firsthand that things are not going well. While flying back to Washington on a government plane, Ellsberg is asked for his opinion by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). If Ellsberg is surprised when McNamara agrees with his assessment, he’s even more surprised when McNamara faces the press after the flight and delivers an upbeat assessment that the war is being won.

Ellsburg, already disillusioned, makes the decision to photocopy 7,000 pages of confidential documents that reveal what the government has been hiding for more than four decades about the war. After failing to generate any interest from the members of Congress, Ellsberg, in 1971, contacts Neil Sheehan, who had been covering the war for the New York Times. Sheehan and his editors recognized the importance of the papers immediately. A team was put together, and for three months they holed up in a hotel, poring over the papers and deciding how best to tell the story.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee

The absence of Sheehan’s byline for several months does not go unnoticed by Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Hanks plays Bradlee as the quintessential newspaper man and a fierce competitor. Even though the Times was recognized as the only truly national newspaper in the country, and one whose journalistic credentials far outweighed the Post’s, Bradlee is not about to play second fiddle. He gives an intern $40 with instructions to hop a train to New York and attempt to find out what Sheehan is working on. While the intern doesn’t learn the whole story, he does see a mock-up of the next day’s Times with practically the entire front page blocked out for Sheehan’s story. Bradlee knows the Times has something big and braces for the scoop.

Meanwhile, Katharine Graham is about to face a group of bankers, a first step in her quest to take the paper public to raise much needed cash. Meryl Streep does what she does best: transforming herself into the character, in this case a middle-aged woman plagued with self doubt who is about to take her place on the national stage. Although Graham has rehearsed with Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), the Post’s chairman, she’s tongue-tied when before the bankers. Streep manages to capture Graham’s insecurities in subtle ways, with facial expressions and hand gestures. During the meeting, she actually seems to shrink in size. Despite her lackluster presentation, the offering succeeds and the company will have the cash it needs to go forward.

Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), David Cross (Howard Simons), John Rue (Gene Patterson), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Jessie Mueller (Judith Martin), and Philip Casnoff (Chalmers Roberts) 

On June 13, 1971, Bradlee’s fears are realized when the Times comes out with its first story about the Pentagon Papers, making the Post’s front page feature of Tricia Nixon’s wedding seem trivial. Three days later, however, the Nixon administration, citing national security, asks a federal court for an injunction preventing the Times from publishing any further stories. Although the injunction is granted, other newspapers jump in, trying to gain access to the documents.

One of the Post’s writers, Ben Bagdikian (a terrific Bob Odenkirk), has a hunch the papers came from Ellsberg, whom he once worked with at the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg, hiding out in a Boston motel, agrees to give the papers to Bagdikian. The reporter flies back to D.C., and the team gathers at Bradlee’s Georgetown home for some heavy reading.

The Times had more than three months to digest the papers. The Post’s team has far less time. The Herculean effort results in a story, but elation is short-lived when one of the newspaper’s attorneys says that the injunction could be a big problem if the Post’s source was also the Times’ source. If the paper defies the injunction and publishes, the risk would be great. Besides possible jail time for Graham, Bradlee, and others, board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), warns that the newspaper’s recent public offering could be in danger. This is the turning point for Kay Graham, and Streep handles this scene beautifully, allowing us first to see her hesitation, but then her determination to do the right thing. 

Howard Simons (David Cross), Frederick “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts), Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), Chalmers Roberts (Philip Casnoff), Paul Ignatius (Brent Langdon), Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon, seated). 

The Post’s first story runs on June 18. Unlike in the Times’ case, the Justice Department’s request for an injunction is turned down by a federal judge in D.C. Before the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, several other newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times, also publish stories. In a 6-3 decision on June 30, the court reverses the injunction. In the decision, Justice Hugo Black writes: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham

Graham is transformed by the experience. Not only has she firmly grasped the reins as the newspaper’s publisher, but she understands that she cannot allow her responsibility to be affected by the personal friendships she once enjoyed with those in power. (After reading the Pentagon Papers, she confronts McNamara about his deception regarding the war, reminding him that her son is still in Vietnam fighting.) 

Graham and Bradlee are now a team. While Graham expresses the hope that the battle is now behind them, we know that an even greater challenge is ahead, one that will bring down a president. 

Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Jeff McCarthy in Kunstler – Vibrant


“My function is not to represent the darlings of society, but to represent the damned.” Willliam Kunstler

William Kunstler (1919-1995) was a radically liberal lawyer with politically unpopular clients. Once a Westchester “parlor liberal,” he began by helping a local black family in a housing discrimination case, got involved with the ACLU, and found himself in Jackson, Mississippi representing 400 Freedom Riders. It was here, blatant bigotry and injustice lit a fire under the practitioner.

“In the 1960s, there were two major causes, the Vietnam War and the 1968 election.” When the Berrigan brothers protested against the former, Kunstler acted as defense. When demonstration leaders were arrested at Chicago’s Democratic Convention, Kunstler was called to the front. It was his representation (with Leonard Weinglass) of the infamous Chicago Seven that brought the advocate to national prominence. There were initially eight, but having vociferously demanded to represent himself, Bobby Seale was literally gagged and shackled in court. Kunstler, finding it “impossible to continue with a black man in chains,” saw to it The Black Panther’s trial was separate.

The Catonsville Nine, Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground Organization, Attica Prison rioters, and the American Indian Movement kept him in public view. Less favorable publicity dogged clients including, in part, the daughter of Malcom X-accused of plotting an assassination, the head of the Egyptian-based terrorist group responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and members of The Gambino crime family. The play doesn’t address these.


It’s 1995. William Kunstler (Jeff McCarthy) has been invited to speak to law students at an unnamed college. We hear protesters outside. A dummy has been hung in effigy. The guest’s ambivalent student handler, Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley), anxiously tries to get rid of it. She needn’t worry. Kunstler has a sense of stoic humor about the world’s reactions to his unswerving principles. Acknowledging awareness of objections while advising attendees to read the incendiary flyers and make up their own minds, he starts with several lawyer jokes: “What do you call a lawyer gone bad? A senator.”

Playwright Jeffrey Sweet’s portrait of Kunstler is as entertaining as it is riveting. The civil rights crusader was whip smart, passionate, caustic, and very much a showman, avowedly in the service of clients. His reputation for handling the press, shouting matches and humor in court is ably depicted by monologue that reflects these characteristics. Various cases/trials are related in the first person with illuminating details and personal observations. All are comprehensible. If you lived through these times, recognition is swift. If unfamiliar, situations are chronicled in such a way it’s difficult to imagine being unaffected.


This Kunstler rants, sings, quotes, enacts, and conscripts Kerry into playing the Chicago judge “who looked like Elmer Fudd” in excerpts of court transcript. His legal approach indicates “I don’t believe in putting process above people” might have been the defender’s motto. Kelly’s presence is unnecessary, though she offers another voice and later foil/questioning reaction.

Jeff McCarthy lopes down the aisle, white mane in permanent flight. Inhabiting Kunstler like second skin, the actor delivers tirades as credibly as ba-dump-dump jokes.  He addresses the audience with focus and provocation, visibly thinks, and occasionally (purposefully) loses track swept up in recollection. McCarthy is all over the stage without a false move. We attend, laugh, and cringe.


Nambi E. Kelley does a yeoman like job showing curious passivity when listening to the controversial presentation. She fares better when playing the judge.

Director Meagen Fay gives us a living breathing man, humanity and idiosyncrasies intact. Stage business is subtle, pacing is pitch perfect.

I found the use of Original Music & Sound Design by Will Severin intrusive and distracting except for outside protestors.

A documentary about Kunstler by his children entitled William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, had a screening as part of the Documentary Competition of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Opening: Kunstler’s image of Roy Cohn

Jeff McCarthy in Kunstler
Written by Jeffrey Sweet
Directed by Meagen Fay
59East 59 Theaters
58 East 59th Street
Through March 12, 2017


February 28 – Ronald L. Kuby, Esq., former intern and informal partner in William Kunstler’s Firm. 

March 2 – Elizabeth McAlister Berrigan, wife of the late Philip Berrigan. She and the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip were incarcerated for their actions of peaceful protest against the Vietnam War at Catonsville and Harrisburg. 

March 7 – Sarah and Emily Kunstler, daughters of William Kunstler and co-founders of Off Center Media, a production company that produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system. 

March 9 – Vincent Warren, Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights.