George Crile was, among his many other virtues, one of the best storytellers I’ve ever known.
He knew the facts and the angles and the characters and their connections. And given his profession and the way he pursued it, it’s not surprising that many of his dinner-table tales were the sorts of things you’d see told blandly and anonymously (if at all) on the front pages of morning newspapers and as the lead stories on the evening news: about half-truth-telling military men, rogue CIA agents, decaying Soviet nuclear plants, an Afghanistan full of déjà vu, and, most presciently, about growing anti-Western sentiment in the madrassas of the Muslim world.
George was a television-news producer and a writer, the son and grandson of surgeons. His curiosity was as doctorly and thorough as his manner was charming and expansive. Once, on a trip to South Africa, he arrived at JFK without a passport. He talked himself onto the plane, off of it and out of the airport in Frankfurt, into the American consulate on a Saturday, back onto the plane, and out of the airport in Johannesburg, where a new passport was waiting.
George was an ardent student of world affairs, and knew more about who was really moving the puzzle pieces around than, well, again: more than anyone I’ve ever known. And given his convictions and the way he upheld them, his pursuit of the story often put his own life at risk.
One of his filmed reports shows him eagerly driving off in a taxi to meet with the man who arranged the killing of Daniel Pearl. (George left Pakistan only after his main and longtime contact there confessed that he could no longer feel optimitstic about George’s safety.) The last time we had dinner, George told a story from Egypt. He’d been taken to a picnic on a riverbank, where one of his three escorts told him he’d been brought there to be killed. The man admitted that his wife had threatened to leave him if he participated in the murder. So he helped to make sure George got out of the country alive.
Though it may seem selfish to say, the saddest part about all of this is not the perpetuity of tendentious generals and unaccountable intelligence agencies and a tenacious Taliban. It’s the word was.