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Death of an American Original: Mark Perry, 1950-2021

A legendary TAC contributor died over the weekend.
Source: C-SPAN

This is not the piece I wanted to write this weekend.

Those with a jaundiced view of life say it boils down to weddings and funerals. Returning to Washington from the nuptials of two friends in Virginia Sunday morning, I learned of the death of another. The bride and her family were from Egypt, and it’s safe to say that all the small talk I had made to anyone in Manassas on Saturday night who had flown from Cairo I learned straight from my friend Mark. 

I met Mark Perry through The American Conservative. Hardly a member of the conservative movement, Mark was an analyst and author of eclectic tastes and politics—the sort of man this magazine has historically attracted. A ludicrously good story teller, he spoke with command and panache at TAC’s realism and restraint conference in November 2017.  Mark wore many hats, but I say he goes down in history first and foremost as a reporter of the first rate. His knowledge, then, of a generation of military men—his generation—was indispensable, as the sitting president was then dominated by a ruling troika of generals: Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

I followed up personally when he published in these pages later that month that then-White House senior advisor Jared Kushner had outmaneuvered and blindsided then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the latest morass in the Middle East. There was no shortage of those in the early Trump years. And as it turned out, Tillerson wasn’t long for power. 

I sought to confirm Mark’s reporting, reaching out to both TAC (I was then at the National Interest), and the White House. Perry and the Trump people’s question was identical: “Who the hell are you?” 

It was the start of a good thing. 

Mark invited me to whiskeys at 3 p.m. that Friday, apparently to vet me for his “Morton’s Group.” On the steakhouse patio on Connecticut and L in downtown Washington, I passed his vet and we began what was, for me anyway, a close and important friendship.  

Perry carried himself like Johnny Cash: almost always dressed in black, sucking down black coffee, or his beloved Marlboro Reds, or Johnny Walker Black, or blood red wine, he cut a hyper-masculine, all-American figure. With dark features, he was part indigenous, and with cowboy boots, he rounded out a Wild West appearance. Insanely well-traveled, his was a frontier spirit. He could tell you about former State Department sources of his living under new identities. He could tell you about playing hooky from assignments in San Francisco, disappearing for days inside Artichoke Joe’s near SFO. A club of his I was not invited to was whoever it was he gambled with in West Virginia one Sunday a month or so.

The ensemble of his Morton’s Group—usually people in Middle East policy—could give that little corner of the universe at a three star restaurant a feeling of transportation to another time and place: when men were men, or when newsmen drank at 3 p.m. Given the conversation topics and the cloud of cigar smoke, it could feel more Beirut than Beirut. When the veranda was undercover during the winter months, attendance at the Morton’s Group meant a three hour shower, a $50 dry cleaning bill, and a smoker’s cough by proxy when I got back to my apartment. I didn’t care. I loved Mark.

Perry was born in Wisconsin, and both his parents died before he was a teenager. He was sent to Northwestern Military and Naval Academy, where he picked up a lifelong understanding of the military, and matriculated to Boston University, which he spoke highly of, because it had better weather.

I gathered this background fostered a contemptuous attitude toward the cold, and a particular appreciation of family. He married young, in his early 20s, and stayed married, through his manifold travels abroad, until his death at 70 this weekend. His wife was an academic, who was the provost of Mary Washington University; he had a son, Cal Perry of MSNBC, and a daughter and sisters, I think three, and I think, in Florida. 

He did grad school at Georgetown, but sort of shirked the association, considering it overrated and pretentious. He also didn’t finish. He told me when he started writing for Washington City Paper, they told him they couldn’t pay him and he responded, “I don’t give a f–k.” Mark was like that. Later, after his books, when he had cash, he paid it forward. I don’t think I ever paid for a drink or a coffee. “Do you have more than me?… I didn’t think so.”

The author of ten books, I believe he was most proud of Partners In Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace, and The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur, my favorite. He started writing books in his late 30s and went on a tear for the next 30 years. His first stab at it was his break, Four Stars: The Inside Story of the Forty-Year Battle Between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s Civilian Leaders.

Mark said writing books was like baseball—the best you could hope for was a four in ten average. He despised his second book Eclipse, a CIA history, and I think might have personally bought it out of circulation. And apologies to his agent and anyone still making money off it, but he loathed The Pentagon’s Wars, his last volume. 

But he was wrong. It’s good. 

We stayed close and collaborated intensely over the next two years, speaking on the phone several times a week as the latest Trump drama poured in. I mentioned meeting his friends, but he also met mine. Of truly different generations, he was legitimately the closest thing to a surrogate father that I’ve ever experienced.

So, of course, we fell out. 

Even the one line, stand-alone paragraph for emphasis is a trick I think I learned from Mark. … Political disagreement is disturbing relationships the world over in the digital age, but the thing about working in politics and journalism proper is those disagreements can be that much more personal. We disagreed on whether millennials had it harder, and whether a brutal conflict with China is on horizon. He told me in 2018 what he called “the monuments movement,” to take down old statues, was one of the most important movements in the country, and I was befuddled about what he was talking about until June 2020. 

It was hard not being on the same page. Covid-19 hit, and with Mark’s lung problems he had the very real, very rational fear of death. But he didn’t get it, was vaccinated, and reported to me that all was well. The last I saw him, I ran into him at the Bombay Club in downtown Washington. He asked me who I was dating, and when I was going to write books. We said we’d get lunch or whiskeys soon, but I didn’t hear back. It’s crushing that I’m not going to hear back.

* * *

Another work of Mark’s that I say holds up is Talking To Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with its Enemies. In it, he emphasized the differences between Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran—what is called “political Islam”—and the millenarian, suicidal terrorism of Al Qaeda and its kindreds that has killed Americans on the mainland. Max Boot assailed it, calling Perry “a terrorist groupie,” which he wore as a badge of honor.

He was certainly ahead of the curve on Max Boot.

But Mark’s antipathy to Israel was real, and consuming. When I asked him about Wikipedia’s quoted description of him as “a veteran anti-Israel warrior,” he responded, scowling through a screen of smoke: “That’s right.” … “That’s right.” “Unclear.” “All done.” Short declarative statements of fact were Mark’s thing. Questions were matter-of-fact, even accusatory. “What are you doing?” He would ask his dogs, as if they’d relapsed in a drug habit. And he fell in love with the Middle East, serving as advisor to Yasser Arafat—which became not exactly an easy post back in the States after the inferno of 9/11.  

Mark came to take a frustrated line on the Trump movement, seeing it as not just conservative, but severely so, lambasting what became the Kushner plan for the Middle East that greased the wheels for the Abraham Accords, which pleasantly surprised me, but not Mark. Israel colored everything. That the plight of the Palestinian population was inarguably more desperate—fresh off their latest micro-war in May—than when he first started reporting on the region during the First Intifada in the late 1980s … I know this was the source of the most sincere depression for him.

But by this spring, I thought he was back in the saddle.

Working part-time, but throwing himself fully into it, he was an advisor to the Quincy Institute, as detailed by Kelley Vlahos in an obituary at Responsible Statecraft. His last, great piece to my mind was in Foreign Policy, on President Biden’s relationship with the Pentagon and Lloyd Austin, a former four-star and the nation’s first black Defense secretary. In particular, the report by Mark, an historian, detailed Biden’s record on Afghanistan. It presaged by two days the announcement by the new president that America was going to leave.

So, I thought it would be more of that. No one knew his way around the brass more, the post-Trump era would be an opportunity for everyone on all sides to cool off, and we were going to get Mark Perry’s next, great book.

Ideas he told me was mulling: the Union god Ambrose Burnside, John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy, a cross-country drive and report. Who knows. “At 50, everyone has the face he deserves,” said Orwell, and I’ve always subscribed to that outlook, especially for writers. Mark knew what he was doing with the cigarettes, and it often seemed he subscribed to the maxim he was living on extra time—“17 more than I needed or wanted,” as Hunter S. Thompson wrote at his death. Still, this is horrible, not least for those who never met Mark, and depended on his filed columns and manuscripts to make their memories with him. 

What else is there to say? Ever looking East, Mark emphasized that the “central message of the Prophet ‘was to love each other.’” And Mark was fond of telling interviewers he had wanted to be Ernest Hemingway when he grew up, as if he’d fallen short of the mark. To me, he was.