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Most Dangerous: Author Steve Sheinkin’s 2016 BGHB NF Award Speech

sheinkin_most dangerousFirst of all, I totally agree with what people have said tonight about how incredibly nice and supportive this community of writers is. At a recent book event, I got to sit next to the great cartoonist Roz Chast, and I wanted to say something, get some kind of conversation going, so I started telling her about the world of children’s books, and how much all the writers genuinely seem to root for one another. And I asked her if the adult publishing world was like that.

She looked at me like I was insane. She said, “Oh, no.”

Congratulations to all the writers and illustrators here, and thank you for this amazing honor. Thanks to Simon Boughton at Roaring Brook for agreeing that a book about Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate could work for young readers, and to Deirdre Langeland for her insightful edits — and for keeping me from adding yet another storyline or two. (I really wanted to.)

Writing Most Dangerous was a new experience for me, in that it was the first time I’d researched a story in which many of the central figures were still alive. And I knew I couldn’t do justice to the story without talking to Daniel Ellsberg. That turned out to be pretty hard.

I got his contact info, and I was able to get him on the phone, but he kept saying stuff like, “I can’t talk now. I’m expecting a call from CNN.” This was right as the Edward Snowden story was breaking, and everyone wanted to hear Ellsberg’s take. (He’s very pro-Snowden, as you might expect.)

I didn’t give up, though, and finally caught him at a time he was willing to talk. The guy’s done a thousand interviews, so I decided to focus on just a few hard-hitting questions, like: “On August 4, 1964, the day you started work at the Pentagon, um, where did you park?”

There was a moment of silence. Then he said, “How the hell should I know?”

He sounded annoyed. I was afraid I was losing him already. I tried to explain my interest in this detail — it’s one of those things you just couldn’t make up, or if you did, for a novel, people would roll their eyes; it would just be too much. But Ellsberg started work at the Pentagon on the exact same day of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Just about the moment he walked into the Pentagon, America’s war in Vietnam began.

It would make an amazing opening shot for a movie. A young guy with a crew cut parks in this massive parking lot and walks toward what was literally the largest office building in the world, the nerve center of the most powerful organization on earth: the United States military. He’s dwarfed by the building, and what it represents. Yet you know — because it’s that kind of movie — you know he’s going to do something. He’s going to somehow disrupt this massive machine in some history-changing way. Somehow he’s going to become, as Henry Kissinger would later say, the “most dangerous man in America.”

I explained all this to Ellsberg, and he saw what I was getting at. And as we talked, he started to remember these cinematic details. “I had a great parking spot, because I was working for [then Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara,” he said. And he described where the spot was, and that he was driving a white Triumph Spitfire convertible. A great bonus detail!

I also wanted to know more about why he and Patricia Marx kept breaking up. Marx was a young journalist who came to Washington to cover the emerging anti-war movement. She and Ellsberg started dating — and right away started fighting about Vietnam. She’s a real key to the story, because she played such a pivotal role in his wrenching transformation. (Spoiler alert: Marx and Ellsberg married in 1970, and are still together today.)

Patricia told me stories of their war-related arguments. As she recalls it, he really resented the way she challenged him, urged him to question his pro-war stance. He now believes that she’d been right all along, but at the time it led to lots of fights, and a few breakups. There was more to their fights than politics, though. She shared some of the details, prefacing the stories by saying, “I don’t think you can use this stuff in a book for young readers.”

She’s right. I couldn’t.

Next I spoke with Robert Ellsberg, Dan’s son from a previous marriage, who played a crucial role in the story when he was just about fourteen. It was 1969, and Ellsberg was back from two years in Vietnam. He was now totally disillusioned with the war, ready to risk everything to try to stop it, and he made this monumental decision to steal and copy top-secret documents that would expose the lies the government had been telling about the war — the Pentagon Papers, as they became known.

But Ellsberg knew he’d probably spend the rest of his life in jail. He knew he might never see Robert again, except in a prison visiting room. He wanted his son to understand why he was taking this drastic action.

So he takes Robert to lunch, tells him all about the secret papers, and how exposing them might help end the war. Robert approves right away. He’s been reading Thoreau, Gandhi, MLK, and sees his dad’s actions as a bold example of nonviolent resistance. Ellsberg is relieved.

And then, in what is perhaps not an example of great parenting, he asks Robert if he’d like to help.

Robert jumps at the chance. So they go together to this office Ellsberg is using at night, and Robert helps his dad work the photocopier. Problem is, Ellsberg’s kind of an absentminded guy, and he can never remember how to turn off the office’s burglar alarm. Robert is working the copier and Ellsberg is sitting on the floor cutting the “top secret” stamps off the tops of the documents — and that’s when the police show up.

One of the most explosive and controversial stories of the twentieth century could have ended right there. Before it even started.

The cops tell Ellsberg the burglar alarm had gone off. They look around. A kid at a copy machine. A dad on the floor with scissors. Some kind of family craft project? They say goodnight, and leave.

It was amazing to hear this story from Robert, from the point of view of a teenager exactly the age I’m trying to reach with my book. He also remembered that when he got home that night, his mother asked if he’d had a good time with his dad. And Robert said, “Yes, we were copying all these top-secret documents!” His mom, furious, got on the phone with her ex-husband and explained: “You don’t take your children along to commit felonies!”

Another person I was very lucky to talk to was Randy Kehler, whom Ellsberg credits as being absolutely pivotal to the story. This was before Ellsberg had made the decision to start copying the Pentagon Papers. He went to an anti-war conference, just to listen — he wasn’t ready to burn his bridges just yet. Randy Kehler got up to speak. Kehler had been a graduate student, an anti-war leader, and he’d been convicted of draft resistance. He was about to go to jail.

As Kehler was telling his story at the conference, Ellsberg was overcome with emotion. He shoved through the crowd, ran to the bathroom, and collapsed on the floor, weeping. This guy Kehler, he realized, was as much a hero as the young men he knew in the military. Our country had created a situation in which the best, the bravest young people were either going to war or going to jail. And his own son, Robert, would soon be facing this choice.

Ellsberg got up and looked at himself in the mirror. He says that this was the moment he decided to risk everything to try to end the war. As soon as he got back to his home in California, he started copying the Pentagon Papers.

It was only decades later that Randy Kehler found out that he’d changed the course of American history. And when we talked, Kehler told me that, to him, this is what the story is all about. “You never know what impact you might be having,” he told me. “Even if your act doesn’t have the hoped-for impact, it might have some other impact. Don’t let anyone tell you a small act of conscience is futile, or that no one will notice. You never know who will pick up on what you have done. You never know how the ripples will spread.”

I think that’s a great closing thought for tonight. Because I think Kehler’s words apply to all the books we’re celebrating here. We have no idea whom the books might reach, or what impact they might have. We’ve told these stories, put them out into the world — and, well, who knows?

From the January/February 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB16.

Steve Sheinkin About Steve Sheinkin

Steve Sheinkin is the winner of a 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Award for Undefeated; the 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award for Most Dangerous, the 2014 BGHB Nonfiction Award for The Port Chicago 50, and the 2011 BGHB Award for Nonfiction for The Notorious Benedict Arnold (all Roaring Brook).

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