Scenes From a Front-Row Witness to History





If his name is unfamiliar, it may be because George M. Elsey is the last Washington aide infected with what Franklin D. Roosevelt archly called "a passion for anonymity." Mr. Elsey is certainly among the last men living who worked in the Roosevelt White House, as a young Naval reservist in the top-secret Map Room, transmitting communications and tracking troop positions in World War II.

Now 87 and preparing to leave Washington after more than 60 years to be closer to relatives in California, Mr. Elsey has at last put down in his own words some of the stories he has been quietly telling historians and documentary filmmakers for years. His newly published memoir, "An Unplanned Life" (University of Missouri Press), is full of revealing glimpses of a vanished Washington - and implicit lessons for some of today's less self-effacing officials.

"I've had lots of interesting experiences and so on," Mr. Elsey said the other day, his face crinkling into a squint as the last rays of November sunlight filtered into his half-packed living room a few blocks from the Potomac River. "But it never occurred to me that this was a book."

Mr. Elsey finally began writing at the urging of a friend, the Truman scholar Robert H. Ferrell, who told him it was past time to let others keep telling his tales in books and films.



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Alonzo Hamby - 11/23/2005

Those of us who have long known and learned from George Elsey are delighted to see this book out. It is very nicely written, as one might expect from a person who once was a doctoral student of Samuel Eliot Morison at Harvard. (The war got in the way, and he never finished.) Read it. But if you can't, or won't, take that much time, at least read the entire article while you can still access it on the NYT web site.
One gratituous factoid check: The phrase "passion for anonymity" appears to have originated with an important British civil servant, Thomas Jones, longtime secretary to the British cabinet and confidant of both Labour and Conservative prime ministers. Jones passed it along to Louis Brownlow, the chair of FDR's committee on executive reorganization. The point, of course, was that assistants should stay in the background and avoid representing themselves to the press as the people who told a PM or a President what to do. Elsey did that over a long and distinguished career.

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