“You listen to what is said in Congress and wonder how some of those men got there. Well, obviously, they got there by dropping out of high school.”

by David Rossie

July 31, 2000 / Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

For $32,000, who said that? Someone who had just finished listening to back-to-back orations by Tom DeLay and Dan Burton?

Sorry, that quote is 32 years old. I know, because I reported it. It was uttered by Rod Serling, Binghamton’s greatest gift to the world of entertainment and to candor.

I’d forgotten the quote and the interview itself, but there it was in the pages of The Evening Press for January 29 1968. The paper, yellowed with age and brittle, was left at The Press & Sun-Bulletin office one day last week by Jay Witter of Endicott.

The lead story in that day’s paper was about a decision by the United States military command in Saigon to cancel a planned truce in observance of the Vietnamese holiday called Tet. The cancellation, the story said, was because of a buildup of North Vietnamese army forces in Laos, just across the border from a Marine outpost at Khe San.

That buildup would become a celebrated siege in the months ahead, and Tet would go into the history books coupled with the word “offensive;” a carefully coordinated attack by NVA regulars and Viet Cong, that carried to the heart of Saigon.

The Tet offensive was a military disaster for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, but a psychological triumph in that it persuaded millions of Americans at home of the futility of the war in which we had become embroiled.

People watching their television sets saw military policemen and other soldiers shooting it out with Viet Cong regulars on the grounds of the U.S. embassy, and wondered how such a thing could happen with nearly a half million American troops deployed in Vietnam. Some saw it as a military defeat for our side, when in fact it was just the opposite; the VC and NVA suffered terrible losses.

The military, of course, blamed the news media for misrepresenting the outcome. Some things never change.

Serling, a World War II paratrooper, had long since been persuaded of the futility of the war in Vietnam when I talked to him that day in January. He had flown to New York on business from his home on California and had stopped off on the way back W make a commencement speech at his alma mater. Binghamton Central High School, and to see his friend and mentor Helen Foley.

Binghamton had two high schools then, and mid-year commencements, and Serling had come at the behest of Helen, whom he worshipped.

Serling, at the time, was a member of Dissenting Democrats of California, a group that supported Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s bid for the party’s presidential nomination. It was the strong support outside the party that prompted a vainglorious Lyndon he would not seek re-election. He would not contend for something that should have been his by acclamation.

Serling was living in Pacific Palisades, California at the time. His next-door neighbors were a Hollywood couple, Ron and Nancy Reagan. The Serlings and Reagans shared a properly line and not much else.

“He waves,” Serling told me five years later during another visit to Binghamton, shortly before he and his wife moved back East to stay. Not the kind of wave, Serling hastened to add, that meant, “Gee it’s great to see you.”

The woman who would, less than a decade later, run the White House with an iron hand and the help of an astrologer. was even less tolerant of Serling’s liberal views.

“Nancy Reagan would have blown up the battleship Maine if she’d been around,” he said.

In any event, the Serlings removed to Interlaken on Cayuga Lake in 1973. Two years later, Rod, a chronic cigarette smoker, died during open heart surgery in Rochester. He was 50.

Serling has been gone 25 years, but his assessment of our political leaders is as fitting today as it was when he made those comments in 1968.

Copyright 2000 by David Rossie and the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. Rossie is an associate editor and his column appears on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.