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Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work

Looking back, it’s almost as if President Dwight D. Eisenhower were trying to warn the American public, in his Farewell speech of 1961, of mad doctors at work in the labs of our exceptional democracy — what we’ve come to call the Deep State.  Said Ike: “We should take nothing for granted: Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Then, in the fall of 1963,  came the Big Bang of Dallas, re-constellating the bright and shiny firmament of the American Dream. All we Americans who came of age in the Sixties know that the afterglow of the Baby Boomer years came to a shocking end the day John F. Kennedy was blasted onto Abraham Zapruder’s 8MM movie camera.  Good night, Camelot.  It was as if from that moment on, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the broken mirror of innocence” could be seen in each and every face.

American journalists spent the next generation trying to dig up a presumed government cover-up of the who, what, why, where and how of that dark Dallas day, leading to no definitive resolution decades later. The manifest destiny of American Exceptionalism has been weighed down with pathogenic cynicism and paranoia ever since. One measure of this is suggested by the exponential rise of guns owned in America, from approximately 80 million in 1960 to a whopping 400 million today, as well as a complementary rise in right-wing militias  — estimated to be 500 groups.  Underneath it all, Americans know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.

One senses this growing cultural angst, while plodding through the first 100 slushy pages or so of Seymour (Sy) Hersh’s recently published memoir, Reporter.  Given that he is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as well as a five-time winner of journalism’s most coveted award, the George Polk, I expected Hersh to jump right in medias res, with, say, a previously unknown anecdote about his My Lai massacre coverage, or, perhaps, an analysis of the state of journalism in these reactionary “fake news” days of the Trump era.  But Reporter is a memoir, a story about a life, not just reporting. Re-performing those pages according to the rhythm Hersh intended reveals to this reader a deeper understanding of his ideological roots.

It’s important to know that Sy is a first generation son of immigrant Eastern European parents come to America to escape the persecution of the Nazi death-machine.  It’s telling information to learn that he had relatives who perished in a concentration camp. You can see how he sees: the excesses of unrestrained power have devastating effects on the lives of ordinary people.  One can imagine his exposure to people from all walks of life as he worked long hours in his father’s dry cleaning business. It’s instructive to trace his kindled desire to write for the public, from his copy boy days, to a stint in the Army as a journalist, to his luck-laden climb up the ranks of wire service work — re-writes mostly, but also the first signs of his investigative instinct coming to fruition.  His first major publication, a piece on the US government mistreatment of the Oglala Sioux on their reservations, made it to the Chicago Tribune in 1963.

And so these many pages go, an account of a young man’s growing consciousness of the workings of the world that parallels the social and political awakening of the general population after the first Kennedy assassination. It’s a truism, but Hersh writes, “It’s the core lesson of being a journalist — read before you write.”  Hersh did plenty of that: he has a law background; he’s history buff; and he knows the value of fiction for relating facts, as attested to by some his favorite reads – – Saul Bellow, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren, James Farrell.

He continued down the Road to Erudition, moving from Chicago to Washington in the process, where he met legendary journalist and mentor I. F. Stone. The “kindred spirits” took long walks together.  Hersh writes, “We talked incessantly about how to do better reporting, and I was in the hands of a master; it was to the shame of the mainstream media—and my pipe smoker colleagues in the Pentagon pressroom—that his bi-weekly reports and analyses, as publisher of I. F. Stone’s Weekly, were viewed as little more than a nuisance.” Hersh has met with similar disdain from the MSM, despite once having been part of it.

Taking after Stone’s exposure of the CIA false flag operation in the Gulf of Tonkin that precipitated a full scale military ‘retaliatory’ bombing of Hanoi (an operation Stone points out that was previously tried out in Yemen by the British), Hersh continued his muckraking work at the Pentagon, until it lead him to his own first major investigative journalism piece on the not-so-stars-and-stripey machinations of the military — specifically their handling and cover-up of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) stockpiles scattered throughout America.  The piece, “Just a Drop Can Kill,” appeared in the May 1967 issue of The New Republic, and announced to the Journalism world that a new sheriff was in town and, like Stone, he had no intention of looking the other way.

As his reputation for integrity grew in Washington, especially amongst the more-honorable officers in the Pentagon, more and more information was leaked to him. One of his favorite targets was Robert McNamara, who was the embodiment of the MIC, being both the Secretary of Defense and the former president of Ford Motors.  Who would know better than Bob about assembly line wars? Today, it’s America’s biggest export.

Just before his career as a top-notch investigative reporter took off, he met up with the somewhat taciturn Mr. Deeds-like character, Ralph Nader.  The two got together regularly. Writes Hersh,

“My [office] neighbor a few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in the American automobile industry had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. He would grab a spoonful of my tuna fish salad, flatten it out on a plate, and point out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.”

Together, they were like two Davids forming a tag-team tandem up against the Goliath forces of the public government mask of the Deep State, which is to say, the military-industrial complex that Ike had admonished the nation could only be restrained by “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.”  (Nader is still pointing out turds to this day.)

Reporter gathers pace as Hersh recounts the background details leading to the richest years of his investigative career. After leaving Pentagon officials aghast with the CBW revelations, he gets wind of a hushed-up massacre that took place in a Vietnam village in which a captain is accused of being responsible for the murder of 109 unarmed civilians, including women and children. The My Lai Massacre happened 50 years ago.  Thanks to Hersh’s reporting of the event, the so-called Noble Cause in ‘Nam was seen differently by the appalled public, who reading Hersh’s freelance account and gazing at lurid Life magazine photos, realized they were supporting war criminality on a scale even Exceptionalist Americans found unacceptable.  Hersh’s report flamed the already growing fiery anti-war protests. “I knew it would end the war and win prizes,” he writes. Hersh was right about the prize (1970 Pulitzer), but not about the war.

One of the best things about his memory of his My Lai investigation is his description of the nuts and bolts of how he went about uncovering facts. After Hersh tracks down a lawyer for Lt. William Calley, the officer scapegoated for the massacre, he humanizes with his source to ease the way to the information he seeks: “It was an extreme example of the Hersh rule: Never begin an interview by asking core questions. I wanted him to know I was smart and capable of some abstract thought. And I wanted him to like me and, perhaps, trust me.” After years of reporting, Seymour Hersh has many trusting sources.

Following his freelance work alerting citizens about My Lai, Hersh accepted an offer from the New York Times, where he went on to tackle Watergate issues, his work as important and groundbreaking as the more celebrated duo Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post.  Hersh also revealed the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, which led him to look into the power relationship between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.  Hersh details how the two plotted to take down the democratically elected government of Chile.

Pertinent to our times, Hersh also reported on the Kissinger-ordered wiretapping of political foes and, more importantly, the secret surveillance and infiltration by the CIA of domestic groups, including anti-war protesters, a gross violation of their charter (not to mention illegal). Such activity seems quaint today, given the global surveillance of people everywhere by the NSA and 5 Eyes, as revealed by the courageous whistleblowing of Edward Snowden.

Hersh has even reported on the danger, in the closing days of the Nixon Watergate crisis, as he was getting set to be impeached, that Nixon might call in the military to surround the White House in order to stay in power — in short, a coup d’etat.  What might Trump do, if his presidency were similarly pushed?

Such investigative work would be enough for one career, but Hersh went on from there to provide hidden details in a number of other cases.  In Reporter he discusses his 9-11 reporting and its aftermath, including the failures of communication in the Bush administration leading up to terrorist attack, as well as the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and the failures of the Osama bin Laden story following his execution in Pakistan. He’s even reported on the shortcomings of the John F. Kennedy legacy in The Dark Side of Camelot.  (Interestingly enough, Kennedy didn’t come up once in the first 100 pages.) Hersh’s career represents a mountain of momentous public service work.

But Reporter  is not a retirement account;  Hersh is still at work, digging, revealing and not only continuing to provide important information to keep the public ‘alert and knowledgeable’ about Deep State machinations, but, perhaps more importantly, acting as a crucial gadfly to the shortcomings of the mainstream media, which has largely abrogated its responsibility to be adversarial advocates for the greater democratic good. It turns out that not only the bastards in Congress and the White House need to be kept honest by good reporting, but also the Fourth Estate. Trump’s view of the MSM’s reportage as “fake news” is not as false as it should be. While Reporter makes one nostalgic for the good ol’ days of real ‘resistance’ to the bastards in power, one wonders whether there is enough wind left in the sails of the ship of state to move forward, or are we headed for the militias?  Will be ‘allowed’ to keep an eye on the deep Surveillance State?

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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