• U.S.

Books: Diligence

3 minute read
Donald Morrison

THE MAKING OF A PUBLIC MAN by Sol M. Linowitz Little, Brown; 258 pages; $19.95

He has not been on the federal payroll since the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson named him U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States. Yet Sol Linowitz has been shaping public policy for decades, as co-negotiator of the Panama Canal treaties in the 1970s, as Jimmy Carter’s special Middle East envoy, and as chairman of countless public and private bodies, from the National Urban Coalition to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Despite his years in high places, Linowitz remains a remarkably modest man. This memoir contains few claims of credit for policy coups and no attempts at self-justification or revenge. The only enemy in sight is a little-known Pentagon official who opposed the canal treaties, and who is nonetheless described as “charming, capable, and full of goodwill.”

Two rare attributes raise The Making of a Public Man beyond the category of benign memoir. One is Linowitz’s talent for spare, telling portraits. Among them: Chester Carlson, the arthritic, scholarly patent attorney who, in a one-room laboratory behind a beauty parlor in Astoria, Queens, invented the process that made Xerox a name to copy. Linowitz tells how, as the firm’s lawyer and later its chairman, he helped Carlson and Joseph Wilson, an impossibly energetic Rochester businessman, launch a product that ended up creating its own demand. The now ubiquitous machine, says Linowitz, “was a case where invention was the mother of necessity.”

Lyndon Johnson makes some memorable appearances in the book. The former President enlivened one meeting by taking off his clothes, stretching out naked on a table and calling for a masseur, meanwhile firing a stream of questions at Linowitz. Richard Nixon fidgets past, inviting Linowitz to the White House in the 1960s to discuss the author’s work as chairman of a commission on campus unrest, then betraying his own insecurity by reminding Linowitz that “I went to Whittier College, not as good as Hamilton [Linowitz’s alma mater], but a good school.” Jimmy Carter is depicted as so preoccupied with minor details that Linowitz learned to play dumb with him. To give the President a number, he recalls, “would have been the first step down an endless path” toward ever more detailed and irrelevant questions. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was calling Linowitz by his first name five minutes after they had met; Israel’s Menachem Begin later informed him that Sadat did that with everybody. “He calls me ‘Menachem,’ ” said Begin stiffly, “and I call him, ‘Mr. President.'”

The other charm of The Making of a Public Man is the public man’s unpretentious charm. The son of a Russian immigrant fruit dealer, Linowitz is among that dwindling priesthood of business executives who still believe they have a civic obligation far beyond the bottom line. “Those of us for whom the most extravagant promises of this land have become a reality are, I think, required to seek appropriate expressions of their gratitude,” he says, with characteristic understatement. This book, like the life of quiet, diligent service it recounts, is an inspiring expression of that gratitude. –By Donald Morrison

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com