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Wonder why it took ex-Republican Jim Jeffords to alert the national media to the fact that the Bush Administration is run out of the extremist end of the GOP? Writing from inside the belly of the beast not long ago, the Washington Post's White House correspondent John Harris helped crystallize an increasingly unavoidable proposition: "The truth is, this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton."
The argument over whether reporters are "liberal" is tired and stale. It's also irrelevant. You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind to believe that liberals get more generous coverage. Harris focuses on the structural part. "There is no well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president.... the liberal equivalent of this conservative coterie does not exist." What he does not say is that in the press itself there is no liberal equivalent to nakedly biased news sources like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the Washington Times, the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and The McLaughlin Group, which dictate punditocracy discourse and cable schmoozathons.
Add to this the rapid decline of what constitutes verifiable "news" among our most high-minded journalistic institutions. Harris gingerly notes that his colleagues "may have fallen a bit out of shape at the hard work of examining, exposing, and critiquing public officials as they go about making the decisions that affect national life." Oh yeah, that. Now throw in the natural tendency of Beltway reporters to write for sources rather than for their readers. At least before the Jeffords switch, those sources were almost exclusively Republican and conservative.
Consider the news coverage of the China "crisis," as has an intelligent examination in the Columbia Journalism Review. The media wanted inside "ticktock" coverage, and the White House complied. Harris's Washington Post presented readers with a twenty-six-paragraph, front-page analysis replete with inside anecdotes designed to make the President appear somehow simultaneously in charge and comfortable with delegating details. He "peppered" his advisers with questions about Bibles and exercise. Bush "grilled" Condoleezza Rice. He set "redlines" for negotiators regarding possible concessions. Never mind that no Post reporters were there during the events they so breathlessly reported as fact. To question the official version handed out by the President's propaganda machine is no longer part of the job description. (And let's not even go into why these aides wanted to portray their boss, as the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland observed, as "a know-nothing, fundamentalist fitness freak.")
An equally egregious example can be found in the media coverage of the alleged vandalism perpetrated by Clinton aides before their departure from the White House. Washington Post gossip Lloyd Grove originally broke the nonstory, as Bush officials pretended to pooh-pooh it while privately stoking it. What began as a few missing W's on keyboards soon mushroomed into--according to a page-one Post report by Mike Allen--"sliced phone and computer lines, obscene messages left in copy machines and champagne flutes missing from an Air Force jet." Lurid reports were aired by Tom DeFrank in the New York Daily News, Andrea Mitchell on NBC News, Matt Drudge, Tony Snow, Fred Barnes, Paula Zahn, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, William Kristol, Tom Schatz, Oliver North and Brit Hume on Fox.
Apparently, no one thought to ask the Bush White House if there was any evidence for these claims. When GSA investigators looked into the matter, they found, "The condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy." The GAO also looked into it and found "no record of damage that may have been deliberately caused by the employees of the Clinton administration." Not surprisingly, this news went buried or unreported. Mitchell's employer, NBC, ignored it; the Post ran a wire service report on page 13.
Mike Allen and Andrea Mitchell did not return my call seeking their reaction to the news. Tom DeFrank told me he is "deeply puzzled" and plans to do more reporting on it. The respective reputations of Matt Drudge and Fox News speak for themselves. But you get the point. At least until Jim Jeffords upset its applecart, the Bush Administration, and the conservative movement supporting it, controlled its press coverage so effectively, it owned just about all the marbles in the game. And as every kid knows, it's the guy with the marbles who gets to decide the rules.
* * *
Did former New York Times executive editor and anti-Communist hysteric Abe Rosenthal squash an article that shed light on the guilt of the Rosenbergs for fear of offending the judge who sent them to their deaths? Ronald Radosh makes this shocking claim in his memoir, Commies, citing as his source Ed Klein, then editor of the Times magazine. Radosh's article, commissioned by the magazine and written with Sol Stern, concurred with the judgment that Irving Kaufman had illegal ex parte communications with the likes of Roy Cohn during the trial. But Kaufman had been promoted to the US Court of Appeals, which heard many First Amendment cases, so Rosenthal killed the piece, insisting that the Times "could not afford to run a piece that might inflame Kaufman to vote against the paper in an important press case."
Rosenthal did not (surprise, surprise) return my call, but Klein informs me that the Radosh version is "flat-out false." There was no "shocking late-night call" from Klein to Radosh and no admittance that "Abe killed it." (Indeed, even if true, what editor would be stupid enough to admit such an order to a writer?) Unfortunately, much of Radosh's memoir appears to exist only in his imagination. Conspiracies abound, wild charges are tossed about and the public record is contradicted sans evidence. A great many of Radosh's failures in life are blamed on a large and powerful pro-communist conspiracy controlling virtually every important cultural institution in America. Who knew?
The leftists organizing in Vermont since the 1970s prepared the ground for James Jeffords's jump, and he never would have done it without them. In the 1970s and 1980s Democrats howled with fury when Vermont's Progressive Party said that no matter what the short-term consequences, the important political task was to build a radical, third-force movement in the state.
In 1988 this progressive coalition backed Bernard Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, in a run for Vermont's single Congressional seat. Democratic liberals raised the "wrecker" charge, saying the Sanders intervention would cost the Democrats votes and put in a Republican. It did. Then, two years later, Sanders ran again against the incumbent Republican and won. Creative destruction worked.
Without decades of work by radicals, nourishing the propriety of independent politics in Vermont, would Jeffords ever have jumped the Republican ship and handed control of the Senate back to the Democrats? I don't think so.
A couple of weeks ago someone sent me an article by Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz, published in an obscure journal called Dissent. Since Gitlin's prime political function for years has been to fortify respectable opinion about the impropriety of independent thinking, I knew what to expect, particularly since he was in harness with Wilentz, a truly hysterical proprietarian.
Sure enough, it was an attack on those who voted for Ralph Nader, tumid with a full-inventory parade of every cliché from the past forty years about the folly of radical hopes. Want a taste?
Numbers aside, there is a deeper force at work, behind the delusion that the masses hanker for radical change that Gore would not give them--a purist approach to politics. This all-or-nothing approach, allergic to democratic contest and compromise, is rooted equally in American self-righteousness and traditional left-wing utopianism. It is as if by venting one's anger, one were free to remake the world by willing it so...
Yup, this pompous cant translates into the single, finger-wagging admonition, "You should have voted for Al Gore," the latest variant on Gitlin's one-note career sermon about voting for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. (What is it about these Humphrey lovers? Vermonter Marty Jezer, another sermonizer about main-chance political propriety, recently lashed out at CBS in his column in the Brattleboro Reformer for what he denounced as excessively hostile and prejudicial interviewing of baby-killer Bob Kerrey! The lust to be respectably "fair," whether to HHH or Kerrey, leads to some astonishingly ridiculous postures.)
In Vermont the Republican Party is pretty much dead. Jeffords should sign up right now as a member of the Progressive Party, with whose political positions he has some things in common. Of course Jeffords, at least in his latest incarnation, is truly an independent, whereas Sanders is effectively a Democrat.
Now let's see how much fortitude the Democrats on the Hill have in contesting Bush and Cheney. They no longer have the alibi of the Republicans' controlling the White House and both chambers. Footnote: The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description of Dissent as "obscure." I suggest a poll of the American people.
More on the Gandoo Man
In a recent column I described how the Chicago police have declined the request of a gay Pakistani poet to hit his supposed assailant, Salman Aftab, with a hate-crimes charge. Ifti Nasim claims Aftab called him a faggot bottom and lunged at him with a knife. For some of Chicago's gays it's become a very big issue. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network prompted the ACLU's Pamela Sumner to write a three-page letter to State's Attorney Dick Devine detailing why she felt he should pursue hate-crimes charges in Nasim's case. Devine has refused to do so.
The cops and Devine are quite right. It turns out that the initial quarrel between Nasim and Aftab wasn't about the former's sexual orientation but about an article he'd written. Aftab never attacked Nasim with a knife (though Nasim insists he'd gone to the kitchen to get one). And Nasim put up Aftab's bail money, though he still wants him hit with a hate-crimes charge for calling him an insulting sexual term. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network supports this position, which only goes to show how dementedly wrongheaded progressives are on the hate-crimes issue.
The Bush Menu
Poor Jenna Bush's travails with the absurd liquor laws of Texas take me back to my gilded youth at Oxford, when even the appearance of sobriety, at least at Keble, was an object of scandal and reproof from the better element. As it admits elsewhere in this issue, The Nation was a tad unfair relaying the claim that the Bush White House has ordered its chef to prepare genetically modified foods on some state occasions. The source of this claim was a piece by Jennifer Berkshire posted on Alternet. The Nation earnestly commented that "the demonstration smells like a paid political announcement for the agribusiness lobby."
I remember reading Berkshire's Alternet piece as an excellent little satire, and Jennifer confirms that this was indeed the case. Satire is always an uncertain weapon. My father once wrote an update of Swift's "A Modest Proposal," this time about inoculating people with the same sort of lethal strain that wiped out rabbits with myxomatosis. When it appeared in Punch furious letters poured in, denouncing him as an advocate of mass murder. Back in my days at the Village Voice I wrote a parody of conspiracy mongering and awoke to hear it being read out as serious news on WBAI by the late Samori Marksman. Since then I've stayed with the unvarnished truth, which is usually far more incredible than anything a satirist could dream up. For evidence see Marty Jezer's onslaught on CBS, noted above.
Over the past two years, it has become commonplace to read that the casualties among Kosovo Albanians were not sufficiently high to warrant the NATO intervention that put an end--at some remove--to the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. Without saying so explicitly, many liberal and "left" types, and many conservatives and isolationists, have implied that the Kosovars did not suffer quite enough to deserve their deliverance. The dispute revolves around two things; the alleged massacre at Racak (which may or may not have been a firefight provoked by the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the relative emptiness of certain identifiable "mass grave" sites.
As to Racak, it might be argued that Western policy-makers seized too fast on the evidence of a Bosnian-style bloodbath, but--in view of what had been overlooked or tolerated for so long in Bosnia--it would be tough to argue that a "wait and see" policy would have been morally or politically superior. Wait for what? Wait to see what? And, since most of those who cast doubt on Racak were opposed on principle in any case to any intervention, as they had been in Bosnia, the force of their objection does not really depend on the body count, or on the issue of who shot first. For those of us who supported the intervention, with whatever misgivings, it was plain enough that Milosevic wanted the territory of Kosovo without the native population, and that a plan of mass expulsion, preceded by some exemplary killings, was in train. The level of casualties would depend on the extent of resistance that the execution of the plan would encounter.
The bulk of the European and American right had announced in advance that the cleansing of Kosovo by Milosevic was not a big enough deal to justify military action; this seems to remain their view. It was also, according to former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark in his new memoir, the institutional view of the Pentagon. It would therefore have been the right's view, whatever happened or did not happen at Racak. It would presumably also have been their view even if the United Nations had passed a resolution authorizing the operation, over the entrenched objections of Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin. (The Genocide Convention, which mandates action by signatory powers whenever the destruction of a people in whole or in part is being committed, takes precedence in the view of some.)
So we'll never know if another Rwanda was prevented or not, since another Rwanda did not in fact take place. However, on the issue of the mass graves there is now, as a result of the implosion of the Milosevic regime, more forensic evidence to go on.
At the time of the war itself I received a letter from a Serbian student of mine, a political foe of Milosevic but by no means a NATO fan. He told me that his family in Serbia had a friend, a long-distance truck driver whom they trusted. This man had told them of entering Kosovo with his refrigerated vehicle, picking up Albanian corpses under military orders and driving them across the "Yugoslav" border as far as the formerly autonomous province of Voivodina, where they were hastily unloaded. He'd made several such runs. At the time, I decided not to publish this letter because although it appeared to be offered in good faith it also seemed somewhat weird and fanciful, and because rumors of exactly this sort do tend to circulate in times of war and censorship.
In early May of this year, the Belgrade daily newspaper Blic, now freed from the constraints of censorship, published a report about a freezer truck, loaded with Albanian cadavers and bearing Kosovo license plates, that had been pulled from the river Danube in April 1999. The location was the town of Kladovo, about 150 miles east of Belgrade. Local gravediggers told of being hastily mobilized to load the bodies onto another truck, and to keep their mouths shut. The man who found the truck, Zivojin Djordjevic, was interviewed on Belgrade Radio B92. "It was a Mercedes lorry--the name of the meat-processing company from Pec was written in Albanian on the cabin. The license plates were from Pec.... When the lorry was pulled out and the doors of the freezer opened, corpses started sliding out. There were many bodies of women, children and old people. Some women had Turkish trousers, some children and old people were naked."
To this macabre tale, identifiable people have put their names. The director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Natasha Kandic, has been collecting information about comparable incidents in the period between late March and mid-June 1999, with piles of corpses removed from cemeteries or graves in Kosovo and either reburied secretly or incinerated. This is not improvised wartime atrocity propaganda; it is the careful finding of patient human rights investigators after the fact.
One cannot yet say the same about another story, which concerns the mass burning of bodies in the blast furnaces of the Trepca steel plant. The eyewitnesses here are, so far, only a driver named "Branko" and a Serbian "special forces" officer named "Dusko." They suggest that, in that terrible spring, as many as 1,500 murdered Albanian civilians were fed into the mills and furnaces of the steel complex. It would be premature to credit such unconfirmed and lurid reports, even though investigators from the Hague tribunal have already spoken about evidence being destroyed at the nearby Trepca mines. And at first, I didn't quite believe the freezer-truck tale either.
In the relatively new atmosphere of post-Milosevic Serbia, the armed forces have charged some 183 soldiers for crimes committed in Kosovo. This might be part of an "isolated incident" strategy, or it might be the beginning of a real investigation. If the reports now in circulation prove to be true, it would mean (given the complicity of border guards, steelworks managers, traffic cops and cemetery authorities) there was a state design both to the original murders and the secret interments. Such a discovery would help constitute the emancipation of Serbia as well as of Kosovo. But it would owe very little to those who described the belated Western intervention as an exercise in imperialism based upon false reporting. We shall see.
May 23, 2001
This magazine has been inundated of late with missives from irate Naderites demanding that the editors immediately exile me to The New Republic, the DLC or worse. My last column on Nader, which merely pointed out that he and his campaign should be held morally responsible for the awful acts of the Bush Administration--since without Nader's candidacy there would be no Bush Administration--inspired 122 such responses, a high percentage of which were personally abusive. Yet when the man himself appeared in these pages to denounce the President whose election he abetted, only twenty-seven readers were so moved. These numbers point to a perennial problem for liberals: Such zeal and enthusiasm that exists for politics at all anymore appears to rest exclusively with the extremes of left and right. Too bad that instead of learning from the far right's march to power through a grassroots takeover of the Republican Party, the Naderite left seems intent on destroying the fragile gains of seven decades of social progress.
True, it's not easy to support a party with standard-bearers like Clinton and Gore, temperamentally conservative career politicians whose lifetimes of compromise have made them untrustworthy except as weathervanes telling the direction of the political winds. Many (though not all) Democrats are no different. Yet virtually every day the Bush Administration reminds the non-Naderites among us that the only alternative is far worse. And so long as leftists are too weak to create a movement to rival the Republican right, the fight against Bush, DeLay & Co. will require whatever imperfect weapons we have at our disposal. The problem is how to excite people about such unexciting prospects.
Fortunately, the landscape is not entirely barren. Beyond the useful-but-wonkish American Prospect and the well-written but frequently neocon New Republic, the niche economics of Net publishing has spawned a number of sites that manage to combine sensible politics with humor and enthusiasm. Most are tiny operations run on love and charity, largely dependent on their communities of readers for information and support. As such, they have remained pretty much invisible to the mainstream media. Here are a few of my favorites.
§ Despite its criticism of this magazine and some of its columnists--an argument I think I'll stay out of--www.mediawhoresonline.com has a wonderful joie de vivre and some great punchlines. They view the mainstream media as being the captive of the right wing, whether for reasons of ideology or, as the site would put it, "whorishness." Most of the site's material and commentary is designed to insure that the media's "credibility in the public mind be brought in line with its genuine lack of credibility." To do this, they're willing to "mimic the tactics of the wingnuts," referring to all with whom they disagree as "whores" or occasionally "fascists" and refusing, on principle, to criticize any writer whose work they deem to be that of a "non-whore." Hypocritical, you say? "We don't believe it is hypocrisy at all to follow their standard, but fairness," responds Jennifer Kelly, the site's guiding spirit. "And what's more, it's really easy and doesn't require anything in the way of conscience or diligence." I don't follow this philosophy myself, but take my word for it: These people are as funny as they are fearless. Unfortunately, they are a bit unfair to actual whores...
§ www.bartcop.com began as a critique of Rush run by a fellow who wishes to remain anonymous but describes himself as "your average Okie liberal with too much time on my hands." It's developed into a very smart, funny critique of the right and is financed to the tune of $600 a month by Marc Perkel of San Francisco, who simply liked it and offered to pay the freight.
§ www.buzzflash.com, run by Mark Karlin, provides a liberal antidote to Matt Drudge, offering a bit less in the obnoxious self-promotion department and a bit more in the way of accuracy. Turn to it for up-to-the-second reports on, and links to, the Bush Administration's outrage du jour, frequently with smile-inducing headlines ("Yes We Have to Post It Twice: Doobie Brothers Guitarist Is Helping Design Bush's Missile Defense Shield").
§ Despite its unpromising name, www.democrats.com has no relationship to the somnolent party it seeks to revive. Its sponsors tell me, "We think the progressive Democratic message is the winning message, but the party needs to live up to its message by fighting for its principles." Bob Fertik, Dave Lytel and some 200 local chapters do this by highlighting news of interest to progressives, connecting a community of progressive Democrats, publicizing demonstrations to "Irk the Smirk," as Mediawhoresonline puts it, to protest the "stolen election of 2000." They try to fill "an enormous void left by the Democratic Party, which keeps Democratic activists at arm's length."
§ www.americanpolitics.com is a terrific place for links, satires and cartoons. It's also a great place to find incriminating quotes by the bad guys. Oh, and check out the shapely "email@example.com" before someone makes them take her down. Similarly comprehensive, www.onlinejournal.com contains original reporting from a sensibly leftish perspective.
§ www.bear-left.com offers first-rate in-depth analysis of whatever topic strikes the fancy of its authors, Paul Corrigan and Tim Francis-Wright, including an insanely detailed recent analysis of Skull and Bones's tax filings. See also its fantastic links page at www.bear-left.com/links.html.
§ www.mediatransparency.org does not really belong on this list, since it's more of an intellectual and political resource for journalists and scholars doing research on the connections between right-wing foundations and public policy. But it does deserve recognition for its public service and the widest possible audience for the tireless research on this neglected topic undertaken by its founder, Rob Levine.
§ And if you need cheering up, try www.bushorchimp.com, but remember it's a joke. The left got rolled for years by Ronald Reagan's dumb act, and I fear "W" is no dummy either--appearances, quite obviously, to the contrary.
Jay T. Harris resigned March 19 as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, saying he was unwilling to make staff cuts necessary to meet the profit goals of Knight Ridder, the paper's parent company, in the current weakening economy. (Newspaper analyst John Morton estimates that the Mercury News earned a profit of better than 30 percent of sales last year.) On April 26, Dow Jones quoted Knight Ridder executives as saying they had been told they would receive bonuses for cutting staff--as much as twice their salaries, according to one official. Knight Ridder said the story is untrue. Shortly after resigning, Harris explained his action in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
It was the conviction that newspapers are a public trust that brought me to Knight Ridder in 1985. I understood then and understand even better today that a good newspaper and a good business go hand in hand. Indeed, without a good business it would be impossible for a newspaper to do good journalism over the long haul. But at some point one comes to ask, What is meant by a good business? What is good enough in terms of profitability and sustained year-to-year profit improvement? And how do you balance maintaining a strong business with your responsibilities as the steward of a public trust?
Most businesses can reduce expenses more or less proportionately with demand and revenue without doing irreparable damage to their core capabilities, their market position or their mission. But news and readers' interests do not contract with declining advertising. Nor does our responsibility to the public get smaller as revenue declines or newsprint becomes more expensive.
In the same way that hospitals are important to the health of individuals and communities, good newspapers are important to the health of our communities, our nation and our democracy. My argument today is that a freedom, a resource, so essential to our national democracy that it is protected in our Constitution, should not be managed primarily according to the demands of the market or the dictates of a handful of large shareholders.
Quality is not a matter of public versus private ownership--the issues are the same in both. There are publicly held newspapers where quality does not vary noticeably in good times or bad. There are others, and I would include Knight Ridder in this number, that publish very good newspapers, but the tension between quality and responsibility on the one hand and financial expectations on the other is constant, and the balance is tenuously maintained.
I thought the tension and its sources were captured clearly and succinctly in a recent segment on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer during which correspondent Terrence Smith asked Lauren Rich Fine, a Merrill Lynch media analyst, "What profit margin does Wall Street expect from a newspaper, a publicly held newspaper company? If they average in the 20s, is that enough? What does it have to be?" To which Fine responded: "Well, it's never enough, of course. This is Wall Street we're talking about."
That is an honest and unabashed statement of what some of us see as the tyranny of the current situation. It matters not whether the source of that tyranny is the demand of analysts and major shareholders, the reaction of corporate executives to those demands or merely the demand of owners of privately held newspapers for an unreasonably high return.
The trend threatening newspapers' historic public service mission is clear--if we're willing to see it. And it can be challenged and reversed--if we're willing to speak out. Of course, many are unable, or unwilling, to see or speak the truth of the situation. One reason is that the high salaries many of our leaders receive, in newsrooms and business offices as well as corporate headquarters, have turned into golden handcuffs. And those handcuffs have morphed into blindfolds and gags as well.
But this muffle of good fortune has not produced absolute silence. Today, we hear a growing chorus of brave souls, inside and outside the industry, protesting vigorously--and an audible grumbling of discontent from within the ranks of journalists and readers alike.
So where do we go from here? I am hopeful and optimistic about the future of American newspapers--both as a business and as key contributors to the vitality of our democracy. I neither believe nor will I accept that the current trend can't be changed, that the proper balance can't be restored, that the unwise is somehow unavoidable or that a course that is inconsistent with our principles and values must be followed. I believe that if we are willing to speak the truth, willing to talk together and work together to determine what the proper balance is and how it can be restored, we can achieve that end. Here are a few thoughts on how this might be done:
§ The discussion needs to include all the stakeholders, not just publishers, editors, large shareholders and institutional investors. Journalists and employees from the business side need to be at the table as well. So do readers, scholars and a diverse group of community representatives.
§ One goal of the effort should be to develop a working definition of what being a good and faithful steward of the public trust requires of newspaper managers and newspaper owners.
§ The moral, social and business dimensions of the issue should be fully explored and given equal priority.
§ The discussion should build the case for a steady and reliable investment, insofar as prudent business allows, in news, circulation, research and promotion.
§ The case needs to be made that editors must seek equal access to the publisher's chair. Journalists cannot leave the helm to those who do not have a deep commitment to a newspaper's responsibilities to its readers and its community.
§ And finally, a way must be found to give the public a sense of "ownership" in its community's newspaper. It should hold the paper--its managers and owners--to reasonably high standards and accept nothing less.
I scanned all the cheap effusions that followed the Bob Kerrey disclosures, looking for just one mention of just one name. Ron Ridenhour. Ron was the GI who got wind of the My Lai massacre, followed up on what he'd heard, complained to the higher-ups and, when that didn't work, blew the whistle to the press (which took about a year to print anything). He was a friend of mine and by any known test an American hero. Except that there is a strong tendency in all cultures and all societies to hate people like Ron. By his simple and principled action, he destroyed all the excuses of those who say that war is hell and "whaddayagonnado." He was from Texas whiteboy stock and an uneducated draftee; call him a grunt--he wouldn't have minded. His example demolishes both those who say that only combat-hardened men can judge other veterans, and those who shiftily maintain that those who weren't actually there have no business making judgments. Ron wasn't at My Lai, but he'd seen quite enough to know that the rumors of what had happened were probably true, and he felt obliged to check them out, and to risk his own skin to do so.
Things evidently happened rather fast in the village of Thanh Phong on February 24, 1969. Calley's platoon in March 1968 had taken much of a day in which to really work on the villagers of My Lai. Nonetheless, even given more leisure, Bob Kerrey would not I think have raped any of the women, cut off any ears, disemboweled any babies or tortured any of the prisoners. He never went around referring to the Vietnamese as "gooks" or "slopes" or "slants." Whenever the subject of war came up in Washington during his tenure as a senator, he was a sane and lucid voice. And I should add that I know him somewhat and that, since I'm a lowly adjunct prof at the New School, he is actually my president.
By the end of his week before the cameras, however, I began to wish that he wasn't. If you have had more than three decades to reflect, and some weeks of advance notice on top of that, you don't have to rise to the Ron Ridenhour standard. But you must not disgrace it. It is, I suppose, arguable that both Gerhard Klann (a man in possession of a somehow unfortunate name) and the Vietnamese witnesses are all under a misapprehension. But neither the New York Times Magazine nor 60 Minutes II gave them any chance to compare notes or concert their story. And then Kerrey, confronted by the contradictions of his own account, said the following: "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." This was a sad improvisation of paltry lies, adding up to a lie on the Spiro Agnew scale. (As this was going to press, Kerrey told me that he's written to the Times to withdraw at least the "collaborating" part.)
Nobody troubled to report an even worse moment at Kerrey's press conference, which occurred when the invaluable Amy Goodman asked him about the command responsibility for war crimes borne by the Nixon-Kissinger architects of the aggression. (He was, after all, under orders in a "free-fire zone" to treat all civilians as potential cadavers and all cadavers as part of the enemy "body count"; he did accept a citation for carrying out this standing policy.) I can appreciate that Kerrey might not have wanted to seem to shift responsibility; the Ridenhour standard makes it plain that you can't be ordered to commit crimes against humanity. However, such a standard must not be twisted for the purposes of moral relativism. Kerrey answered Goodman's inescapable question by focusing entirely on his own need to "get well." He thus excused himself--and his political "superiors."
The date of the "firefight" is almost unbearable to contemplate. February 24, 1969, is about a month after Nixon took the oath of office. It's about two months after he asked Henry Kissinger to be his National Security Adviser. It's about three months after the South Vietnamese military junta withdrew precipitately from the Paris peace negotiations. And it's about four months after the Nixon campaign made a covert approach to that same junta in order to incite it to do so, and to take out an illegal and treasonous mortgage on another four years of war, as well as to subvert an American election. (For still more evidence of this historic crime, see most recently Robert Mann's A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam, published by Basic Books.) One must of course sympathize with Kerrey's pain. Only a few weeks after Thanh Phong, Kerrey lost a healthy limb to Nixon's sick design. But even the most tentative judgment requires that we give moral priority to the more than 20,000 US servicemen who died after the sabotage of the Paris talks, and to the uncountable number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were immolated as a result of the same despicable policy.
We should also abandon easy nonjudgmental relativism and give moral priority to men like Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. These three were flying over My Lai in their helicopter on March 16, 1968, and saw Charlie Company butchering the inhabitants with no "enemy" in sight. Thompson not only grounded his chopper between the remaining civilians and his fellow Americans, he drew his weapon and told the murderers to back off. This was no impulsive gesture; he took some civilians away with him and then returned. Andreotta (who was killed three weeks later) found a small child in one of the corpse-choked ditches and managed to save him. Exactly thirty years after the atrocity, Thompson, Colburn and--posthumously--Andreotta were awarded the Soldier's Medal in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's the highest award you can get for an action that doesn't involve engaging "the enemy." There was no mention of their awkward bravery in the recent coverage, either, though as far as was possible, these three men lived up to one of our current dopey mantras, which is to "leave no child behind."
If Kerrey wishes he could say the same, rather than have left a pile of children behind him, then he has missed several opportunities to do so. His official statement was entirely about himself. It did not in fact come clean about what happened. And it did not contain one word of contrition for the action, or of sympathy for the victims. It was also internally inconsistent in other ways. The war, he said, hadn't become unpopular until 1969. Whatever this was supposed to mean, it didn't explain his accepting a Medal of Honor from Richard Nixon on May 14, 1970, in a ceremony that he now claims he knew was a tawdry and stagy bid for public opinion, and in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Cambodia and the killings of lawful protesters at Kent State and Jackson State.
Talking of universities, I was ashamed and disgusted to read the statement put out by the authorities at the New School. Here it is in full: "The Board of Trustees of New School University gives its unqualified support to Bob Kerrey. It is hard for most of us to imagine the horrors of war. War is hell. Traumatic events take place and their terrible effects may last a lifetime. We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must continue to deal with. We should also recognize that Bob's heroism and integrity have been demonstrated on many occasions. The Board of Trustees stands solidly behind him."
I try to teach English to humorous and intelligent graduates at this place. I could and will use this pathetic text--signed by John Tishman and Philip Scaturro, respectively chairman of the board and chancellor--as a case study in subliterate euphemism. ("What about Bob?" Leave no cliché behind!) But it is worse than it looks. Notice the insistence that only Kerrey's feelings count. And notice the insinuation that wartime actions are above moral distinction or discrimination. The New School, founded by some antimilitarist defectors from the then-conformist Columbia University at the end of the First World War, became the host campus for dozens of anti-Nazi refugee scholars in the succeeding decades. It gave podiums to Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt, in lecture rooms where the nature of political evil was thoroughly discussed. It still runs democracy programs from Kosovo to South Africa. Its student body is multinational and always has been. A word or two about the slaughtered Vietnamese might not have been out of place. But this graceless little handout didn't even refer to them. Unrepudiated, the statement is a direct insult to everybody at the school and a surreptitious invitation to a creepy kind of secondhand complicity in murder.
I've no wish to hurt Kerrey's feelings unduly, but it ill becomes him to act as if he's facing a firing squad while he's being made the object of apparently limitless empathy. The truth of the matter is that I can't guess what these "many occasions" of "heroism and integrity" have been. (I'm assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the New School authorities aren't counting the Thanh Phong massacre.) He was a fairly decent senator, as I've already said. But he showed then, as he shows now, a pronounced tendency to have things both ways. Like the Moynihans and the Gores, he was fond of privately denouncing Clinton as a crook and a liar and a thug, and then casting the ultimate vote in his favor. He told me in the week of the impeachment trial that he was determined to vote to convict Clinton for obstruction of justice, adding rather irrelevantly that it "wouldn't do him any harm" in his home state of Nebraska. And then, maybe when he remembered that he'd steered the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through one of the greatest fundraising bonanzas in history, he thought better of it. "They all do it," of course, but then they needn't expect moist tributes for their bravery.
And yet--they don't all do it. Think again of Ridenhour, Thompson, Colburn, Andreotta--names that are barely known, names of men who would have been ashamed to leave a ditchful of women and children behind them, or to watch such a ditch being filled and say and do nothing. And think of what a great wall we'd have to build if we intended to inscribe all the Indochinese names. There's no possible repair or apology that could measure up to such a vast crime. But this must not mean a culture of stupid lenience and self-pity, in which the only wounds to be healed are those of the perpetrators, or of their obedient servants. How wonderful that at last we are forgiving the people of Vietnam for what we did to them.
There are war crimes and there is the crime of war, and it's ethically null to say that only veterans can pronounce on either. (There could be no human rights tribunals or Truth and Justice Commissions if this were so.) Kerrey was not caught in an ambush or suddenly placed in a hopeless situation. He led a stealthy, deliberate incursion into other people's homes, and the first act of those under his command was to slit the throats of an elderly couple and three children to keep them from making a sound. Kerrey now says that he didn't enter that particular "hooch" before, during or after--something of an oversight for the team leader, whose job it was to ascertain the nature of the opposition. He says it was a moonless night; the US Naval Observatory says there was a 60 percent disk until an hour after the squad had finished up....
This horror occurred in the context of two others: the Phoenix program and Operation Speedy Express. The first has been acknowledged even by its architects as a death-squad campaign, and the second was exposed at the time, by Kevin Buckley of Newsweek, as a mass slaughter of the civilians of the Mekong Delta. In other words, it's a bit late for armchair supporters of the war, or armchair excuse-makers, to discover indecipherable subjective mysteries where none in fact exist. Kerrey's after-action report on Thanh Phong, for which he received a Bronze Star citation, reads, in a vile code compounded of cruelty and falsification: "21 VC KIA (BC)." That stands for twenty-one Vietcong, killed in action according to body count. Did he accept that medal as part of coming to terms with how haunting it all was?
The humanoid who came up with the shady term "Vietnam syndrome" was of course Henry Kissinger, who had every reason to try to change the subject from his own hideous responsibility. But even now, the president of a humanist academy takes up that same pseudo-neutral tone of therapy-babble and quasi-confessional healing, instead of demanding the Truth and Justice Commission that might establish what we owe to the people he killed, as well as what we could and should do about the still unpunished and still untroubled people who directed him to slay them in their sleep.
The New York Times could benefit from having an in-house arbitrator.
A parody of Gone With the Wind has run into legal trouble: too revealing of the real nature of slavery?