‘Dear Santa…’

December 8, 2011

Smithsonian:

On a rainy night in Los Angeles in December 1911, Clarence Darrow arrived at the apartment of his mistress, Mary Field. They sat at the kitchen table, beneath a bare overhead light, and she watched with dismay as he pulled a bottle of whiskey from one pocket of his overcoat and a handgun from the other.

“I’m going to kill myself,” he told her. “They’re going to indict me for bribing the McNamara jury. I can’t stand the disgrace.”

The great attorney had come to Los Angeles from Chicago to defend James and John McNamara, brothers and unionists accused of conspiring to bomb the Los Angeles Times, the city’s anti-union newspaper, killing 20 printers and newsmen. But jury selection had not gone well, and Darrow feared the brothers would hang.

One morning a few weeks earlier, Darrow had taken an early streetcar to his office in the Higgins Building, the new ten-story Beaux-Arts structure at the corner of Second and Main Streets. At around 9 a.m. the telephone rang. Darrow spoke briefly to the caller. Then he picked up his hat and left the building, heading south on the sidewalk along Main.

Meanwhile, his chief investigator, a former sheriff’s deputy named Bert Franklin, was two blocks away, passing $4,000 to a prospective member of the McNamara jury who had agreed to vote not guilty.

Franklin, in turn, was under police surveillance: The juror had reported the offer to the authorities, who had set up a sting. Franklin now sensed that he was being watched and headed up Third Street to Main. There he was arrested—just as Darrow joined him.

Franklin became a witness for the state, and in January 1912, Darrow was arrested and charged with two counts of bribery.

With the help of another legendary trial lawyer, California’s Earl Rogers, Darrow was acquitted in one trial, and the other ended with a hung jury. He returned to Chicago broke and disgraced, but he picked up the pieces of his career and became an American folk hero—champion of personal liberty, defender of the underdog, foe of capital punishment and crusader for intellectual freedom.

Darrow’s ordeal in Los Angeles 100 years ago was eclipsed by his later fame. But for a biographer the question is insistent: Did America’s greatest defense attorney commit a felony and join in a conspiracy to bribe the McNamara jurors? In writing a new account of Darrow’s life, with the help of fresh evidence, I concluded that he almost certainly did.

The Los Angeles Law Library is on Broadway, across the street from the lot, now empty, where the bombing destroyed the Los Angeles Times building. The library holds the 10,000-page stenographic record of Darrow’s first bribery trial. It is a moving experience to page through the testimony so close to where the carnage took place.

The McNamaras’ trial was cut short after six weeks when Darrow secured a plea agreement that would spare their lives. James McNamara pleaded guilty to murder in the Times bombing and was sentenced to life in prison; his brother pleaded guilty to a different bombing and was sentenced to 15 years. The agreement was still being finalized when Darrow’s investigator, Franklin, was arrested on the street for bribery.

Darrow’s own trial was a legal hellzapoppin’. Rogers was skilled at baiting prosecutors and distracting juries with caustic asides and courtroom antics. (At one point he wrestled with the furious district attorney, who was preparing to throw a glass inkwell at the defense team.) Truth be told, the prosecution had a weak case. Aside from Franklin’s testimony, and Darrow’s presence at the scene on Main Street that morning, there was little corroborating evidence tying the attorney to the crime of bribery.

And, in an astounding exchange, Rogers got Franklin to concede that prosecutors had promised him immunity; he had had his fines paid; and he had met covertly with California’s notoriously venal robber barons, who promised to reward him if he testified against Darrow. With eloquent closing arguments, Rogers and Darrow persuaded the jury that Darrow was in fact the victim—a target of rapacious capital, out to subdue labor.

Darrow’s early biographers—the novelist Irving Stone (Clarence Darrow for the Defense, 1941) and Chicago’s Arthur and Lila Weinberg (Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel, 1980)—concluded their hero was most likely innocent. Geoffrey Cowan, an attorney and scholar who examined the first bribery trial in minute detail in his 1993 book, The People v. Clarence Darrow, reached a different verdict. Cowan weighed the number of Darrow’s contemporaries—friends, acquaintances and journalists who covered the trial—who believed he was guilty of arranging the bribe. They forgave Darrow, for the most part, because they shared his conviction that the vast power and wealth arrayed against labor unions, and the often violent and illegal tactics of corporations, justified such an extreme measure to spare the defendants.

“What do I care if he is guilty as hell; what if his friends and attorneys turn away ashamed of him?” the great muckraker Lincoln Steffens wrote of his friend in a letter…

Read it all.

Dirty Hari

December 8, 2011

Commentary:

This year saw two major scandals in the British media. The one that received the most attention concerned cell-phone “hacking” by a private detective hired by the now-shuttered News of the World. Such illegal private espionage has been a practice of other tabloid newspapers—including the left-wing Daily Mirror and the paleoconservativeDaily Mail—but the outcry focused on papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Atlanticist, free-market, and populist ethos has long infuriated the British media and political establishment.

The second scandal involved the exposure of Johann Hari, the celebrated young columnist and media personality, as a plagiarist, fabricator, and user of Internet aliases to carry out smear campaigns against his enemies and to promote his own career. The Hari affair provoked less consternation—though it arguably offers as troubling a picture of the state of British journalism as the hacking scandal does. Indeed, the response to the scandal from Hari’s employers at the Independent and from much of the media establishment was arguably even more revealing of a deficit in the ethics of British media culture than were Hari’s original derelictions.

Like several rising stars in American journalism over the past three decades—theWashington Post’s Janet Cooke in the early 1980s, the New Republic’s Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass in the 1990s, and the New York Times’s Jayson Blair in the early 2000s—Hari, now just 31, achieved his rapid success at a startlingly young age in large part thanks to his deceptions and fabrications. These went undetected for a long time because editors chose not to examine his work too closely. In Hari’s case (as in the case of Glass), his editors did not check his work because he skillfully played to their prejudices, in particular their anti-Americanism and loathing of Israel.

The reaction to his journalistic crimes stood in stark contrast to the American response to Glass and others. Hari’s sins were not greeted with the outrage, disappointment, and deep soul-searching of the sort that went on at all three American journalistic establishments—which led to editors being fired and new standards of exactitude being imposed—but rather with a blasé wave of the hand. In America, if a journalist is caught in repeated invention and deliberate dishonesty, his or her career ends. Not so in Britain. Hari was merely suspended from the Independent and is due to return to it after completing a journalism class in New York.

_____________

Born in Glasgow, Hari was hired right out of Cambridge University as a 21-year-old by the New Statesman. He moved from there to the Independent and very quickly became its most talked-about writer after Robert Fisk, the infamous veteran Middle East correspondent (whose propagandistic reporting has problems of its own). Astonishingly prolific, Hari specialized in pithy, personal, no-holds-barred political and cultural diatribes, combining undeniable verbal brilliance and erudition with vituperation that could be savage even by the unrestrained standards of British journalism.

It was typical of Hari that in one of many articles vilifying Israel (a stance popular with readers and editors of the Independent) he wrote, “Israel, as she gazes at her grey hairs and discreetly ignores the smell of her own stale shit pumped across Palestine, needs to ask what kind of country she wants to be in the next 60 years.”

He also wrote about himself with what looked like unsparing if solipsistic openness. He told readers about his issues with his homosexuality, his struggles with his weight, and his battles with depression in articles that were often moving and thoughtful. Hari’s combination of vulnerability and viciousness apparently made it all the more difficult for editors and colleagues to confront him about his suspiciously unconvincing reporting.

His fans were not limited to Independent readers with an apparently insatiable hunger for anti-Israel and anti-American invective. Liberals, centrists, and conservatives also found themselves praising Hari’s columns for devastating attacks on the likes of Harold PinterEric HobsbawmGeorge Galloway, and other progressive darlings with soft spots for Stalinists and progressive dictators. Like Christopher Hitchens, whose friendship Hari cultivated, he seemed to bring impressive moral force and democratic convictions to his political writing.

Whether out of conviction or for careerist reasons (or both), Hari occupied a libertarian niche on the left that allowed him to identify with the left establishment while attacking multiculturalism, totalitarianism, “anti-imperialist” support for third-world tyrants, and politically correct blindness to the dangers of Islamofascism. Like Hitchens, he was a strong supporter of Western intervention in the Balkans and then Iraq,1 although he changed sides with snarling vehemence in 2006. This reversal only added to his celebrity. In 2008, he was awarded the prestigious Orwell Prize for political writing. George Orwell was surely spinning in his grave on the evening Hari rose to the dais to accept it.

Long before he ascended these heights, he had been dogged by whispers that the quotes in his articles and columns were too perfect to be real. While he was at the New Statesman, the magazine’s deputy editor, Cristina Odone, was so troubled by the quotations he used in a supposedly reported story that she asked to see his notebooks. He put off bringing them in, then claimed to have misplaced them. After discovering that Hari had been forced off the Cambridge student newspaper for allegedly unethical behavior while still an undergraduate, Odone finally went to the magazine’s editor, Peter Wilby, but without result. Odone subsequently found that her Wikipedia entry had been altered to include references to her alleged homophobia and anti-Semitism as well as other flaws. The changes were made by one D. Rose, of whom more later.

Wilby, like subsequent editors, seems to have felt that Hari’s possibly problematic methods were of lesser significance than his cleverness, his unusually humble background (Hari claims his mother worked as a cleaning lady), his ability to bring in a gay readership and, above all, his ideological soundness on subjects like Israel and America.

Hari left the New Statesman after a year or so and tried to get work at the highly respected, left-leaning  Guardian newspaper with the assistance of Polly Toynbee, an elder stateswoman on the left whom he had assiduously cultivated. But the Guardian, which generally holds to serious, almost American standards of journalistic ethics, had suspicions about his methods. The Independent, with a much smaller staff and an increasingly tabloid sensibility, was not so scrupulous.

In Spring 2003, the satirical magazine Private Eye charged Hari with falsehoods in threeNew Statesman stories, including one in which he claimed to have spent a month reporting from Iraq when in fact he had gone on a two-week package tour of the country’s ancient sites. In another story, Hari claimed to have seen a demonstrator bleeding to death at the Genoa G8 summit. The Eye’s Hackwatch column stated: “As several witnesses can attest, Hari wasn’t there, having hailed a taxi to escape the scene some time before” the killing.

There were other questions asked on the Internet over the following years, but it was not until 2011 that Hari’s reputation was seriously challenged. It was a handful of left-wing bloggers who started the ball rolling this spring—bloggers who disliked his initially pro-war position on Iraq, or the vituperativeness of Hari’s attacks on figures like the ancient apologist for Stalin, Eric Hobsbawm.

Those bloggers pointed out that interviews Hari had conducted with writers such as Antonio Negri included quotations that looked like word-for-word lifts from earlier published writings by those interviewees.

The historian Guy Walters, writing for the New Statesman’s website, pointed out that Hari’s fawning May 2006 profile of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez included quotations identical to those in a 2001 Jon Lee Anderson New Yorker piece…

Read it all.

The New Republic:

Over the weekend I had the privilege of sitting in on the 8th annual Saban Forum, a high-level, Brookings-sponsored dialogue between Israeli and American officials (current and former) along with journalists, intellectuals, and representatives from other countries in the Middle East. The participants discussed many significant topics, including the Arab Spring and its aftermath, the prospects for renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the state of the relationship between the United States and Israel.

By far the gravest issue, though, was how to proceed in the face of a looming Iranian nuclear threat. I came away from the two days with a dark and disturbing conclusion: There is a gulf between Israel and the United States that could have momentous consequences in 2012. When American officials declare that all options are on the table, most Israelis do not believe them. They have concluded, rather, that when the crunch comes (and everyone thinks it will), the United States will shy away from military force and reconfigure its policy to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. This is an outcome that no Israeli government can tolerate. For Israel, the Palestinian issue is an identity question: What kind of country will Israel be and what kind of life will Israelis lead? But the Iranian issue is an existential question: Will Israel and Israelis survive?

Most of the Forum was conducted under “Chatham House rules,” which prohibit naming or identifying participants. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s opening address was on the record, however. Much of the press coverage has focused on peace talks and on Panetta’s characteristically salty advice: “Just get to the damn table.” But from the Israeli perspective, the real news lay elsewhere.

In his opening remarks, the Secretary of Defense restated President Obama’s declared position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions that “we have not taken any option off the table.” During the question period, however, he offered a long list of reservations against the military option: Some of the targets are very difficult to get at, and even a successful attack would set back the Iranian program by no more than two years. The Iranian regime, now approaching pariah status, would be able to mobilize renewed support at home and abroad. U.S. interests in the Middle East would be subject to retaliation. The fragile economies of the United States and Europe would be gravely disrupted. And worst of all, the ensuing conflagration could “consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.” Whatever Panetta’s intention, Israelis heard those remarks as a declaration of his opposition to the use of force against Iran, even if that country was on the verge of producing nuclear weapons. (The administration’s reluctance to go along with sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran—a matter Israelis raised repeatedly during the meeting—only adds to its credibility problem.)

During a break, I button-holed a knowledgeable, highly respected former Israeli official and asked whether he thought that the military option was still on the table for the United States. No, he replied, the United States had shifted to a containment strategy two years ago. Another former official, equally knowledgeable and respected, shook his head in dissent. No, he said, it was one year ago. While I didn’t meet all the Israelis in attendance, I talked with quite a few and didn’t encounter a differing view. And it was not a hard-line group: Supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu were in a distinct minority in the Israeli delegation, a fact that occasioned humor on both the Israeli and American sides.

Secretary Panetta’s speech was far from the only source of Israeli concern. Just last week, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a remarkably frank interview. He said that the United States was convinced that sanctions and diplomatic pressure was the right path to take on Iran, along with “the stated intent not to take any options off the table.” But, he continued, “I’m not sure the Israelis share our assessment of that. And because they don’t and because to them this is an existential threat … it’s fair to say that our expectations are different right now.”…

Read it all.

I Of Newt

December 8, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Big Schtick

December 8, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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