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ACLU v. ACLU | The Nation

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ACLU v. ACLU

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Ira Glasser's emergence as a critic of Romero has inspired some civil libertarians to pay closer attention to the feuding at the ACLU. "I take his perspective very seriously," says historian Stanley Kutler. "He fought the good fight. If Ira Glasser says something publicly, I'm going to listen to it."

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com) is a contributing writer to The Nation.

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When Glasser became executive director in 1978, the ACLU was reeling from the crisis in Skokie, where it defended the right of Nazis to march though a largely Jewish suburb of Chicago. When he took over, the national ACLU had a cumulative deficit of nearly $500,000. When he retired, the organization possessed assets of more than $100 million. Almost everyone interviewed for this article praised Glasser's performance as executive director. But it wasn't all smooth sailing: In 1993 former Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz charged Glasser with soliciting and accepting $500,000 from Philip Morris between 1987 and 1992. He did so, Mintz alleged, without initially informing the board--an allegation Glasser denied.

In recent months, a significant portion of the goodwill Glasser accumulated during his tenure has evaporated. Writing in the Huffington Post, Gara LaMarche, vice president of the Open Society Institute, spoke for many Romero supporters when he declared, "I am sure [Glasser] has persuaded himself he is acting on high principle. I hope he still has a few good friends around to tell him what so many are saying: This is no way to end a distinguished career." Many ACLU board members believe that Glasser misses his old job, and that he is envious of Romero's success. "I think Ira left too soon," says Susan Herman. "He retired quite young. I think had he known that 9/11 was coming, he wouldn't have left." Glasser retorts that "remarks like Susan's...are uninformed, intellectually dishonest and should not be taken seriously except as a reflection of [her] refusal to confront what the critics are saying."

Glasser's emergence has rekindled ancient rivalries within the ACLU. Glasser and Neier, for instance, have both occupied the top jobs at the New York Civil Liberties Union and the national ACLU, and their relationship has been frosty for decades. In a recent interview at the Open Society Institute, Neier was full of scorn for the critics, and full of praise for Romero. Neier wore an elegant blue pinstriped suit, and sat with his leg swung over a chair. From that relaxed pose he hurled poisonous darts at Glasser: "Ira's greatest skill is his skill at manipulation," Neier said calmly. "But he has one flaw as a manipulator, and that is, a really good manipulator doesn't leave any traces of his manipulation. And Ira's ego is such that he falls short of being a master manipulator, because ultimately he wants you to know that he has manipulated." "I haven't the slightest interest in responding to this sort of juvenile name-calling," says Glasser. "It indicates only the intellectual vacuity of his position."

Many of Romero's leading defenders--including Ramona Ripston, longtime executive director of the ACLU's Southern California affiliate--regret that the dissidents did not keep their differences within the ACLU family. Indeed, Ripston believes that Glasser could have successfully run for the board in the early days of Romero's tenure and done much good as an internal dissenter. Glasser bristles at the suggestion that the critics have shown disloyalty in taking their fight to the press and to the public. "The critics," he says, "couldn't even maintain themselves on the [national] board, much less get new people on the board." In Glasser's view, the "board is basically a self-perpetuating body and always has been.... Insurgency is close to a political impossibility if the leadership is opposed." Vivian Berger takes a sledgehammer to that argument: "If Ira can't get to the New York electors, then I can't find my way to the subway. What I think the critics are quarreling with is democratic governance. They have not impressed enough people to get elected."

Now that the most vocal critics are off the board, the dissidents seem to be focusing their efforts on the ACLU's fifty-three state affiliates. Says Glasser, "I would like to see every affiliate have a full and fair discussion of the controversy on the merits, with the assumption that they don't know which side is right, because both sides contain bona fide ACLU loyalists." That road won't be easy for the dissidents. Historically, the large affiliates have exercised tremendous clout within the ACLU, and those affiliates--Northern and Southern California, Washington, Massachusetts, Florida--are solidly behind Romero in the current dispute. Only the small, troubled affiliate in South Carolina has signed the petition on savetheaclu.org calling for the removal of the current leadership.

Indeed, it's at the affiliate level that Romero may have decisively outmaneuvered his opponents. One of his primary goals has been to strengthen those affiliates. In 2001 the national office provided them with $6.5 million; in 2007 it will provide $31 million. Most of the affiliates seem extremely satisfied with the current arrangement. Voicesfortheaclu.org contains a letter of support for Romero signed by eighteen long-term affiliate directors, who affirmed, "Our organization has never been better organized, better professionally managed and better focused on its principles than at this moment in our 86-year history."

At the strategic level, perhaps the dissidents' greatest failure was their inability to bring the heavyweight Northern and Southern California affiliates into the rebel camp. Historically, those affiliates have been among the most radical, innovative and principled in the ACLU universe. But, then again, the leading dissenters are still endeavoring to persuade some of their own friends that their course of action is the proper one. Says one person close to Glasser, "Ira is absolutely right on the merits of his case, but wrong in the way he is going about it."

Beginning in 2004, the critics performed a useful service by confronting Romero and bringing his transgressions to light. Indeed, Romero should hasten to answer any remaining questions from past controversies. Some of his own supporters, for instance, would welcome a fuller account of the "rights and responsibilities" fiasco. But the dissidents had their day in court. The appropriate venue for opposing the executive director of the ACLU is the national board of the ACLU, to which the critics have previously (and exhaustively) directed their energies. However unacceptable it may be to Glasser & Co., the board has spoken--in favor of Romero. In an ideal world, Glasser would now be serving as the ACLU's roving ambassador-at-large--lecturing, debating, igniting the airwaves with his rhetorical virtuosity. It's probably too late for him to play that role; but it's not too late for him to repair his reputation by curtailing his efforts to undermine his handpicked successor.

Romero says he intends to persevere in the face of ongoing criticism. But his supporters believe it won't be easy. "Ira is the best streetfighter I've ever known," says Ramona Ripston. What happens next, according to Aryeh Neier, is largely up to Romero. "I don't believe that his opponents have the momentum to be able to engineer Anthony's overthrow," says Neier. "It's simply a question of how much he can put up with. And if he decides that he can put up with it, and that he intends to prevail, I think he will prevail."

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