Back when I was a wee lad, my parents had a series of three phonograph records that were done by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. They were all called “I Can Hear it Now” and consisted of recordings of historical events narrated by Murrow. I listened to them so often that I had them memorized. You heard the announcer broadcast the crash of the Hindenberg, King Edward ceding his throne and Churchill’s “Now is the hour ” speech.
I just about wore out the grooves on the records and the tracks were soon burned into my brain. I can still hear Clem McCarthy announcing Joe Louis’s first round massacre of Max Schmeling, and can do a perfect gravelly voiced imitation of Babe Ruth’s farewell (“You know how bad my voice sounds, but it feels just as bad.” and Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech, complete with echo.
One of the tracks on Volume 2 was about the McCarthy Era, and told the story of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers confronting each other before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “One of these men is the greatest liar America has ever known, ” Murrow declared.
Who?” I wondered, hooked. I looked up the case in the World Book encyclopedia and read all about it. That’s when I learned that Richard Nixon was involved. In my family, Richard Nixon was kind of the equivalent of the Pharoah in terms of sheer eviltude, so when I learned that Nixon was behind Chambers’ testimony, I got my first real notion about who might have been lying.
I hail from a long line of Nixon haters. In fact, I still remember getting on line with my mother to vote in the 1960 election at Prospect Avenue Elementary School, across the street from our house. It was a long line, and I was a very fidgety five year old. The man in front of us probably took pity on my mother, and I remember he turned to me to try an engage me in conversation. “So, who are you voting for, Sonny,” he asked?
“Kennedy,” I said proudly. “We hate Nixon.”
“Shh,” my mom said. “We have a secret ballot.”
OK, I thought, but I had been under the impression that everyone hated Richard Nixon. Who knew otherwise? As it turned out, my mother was probably less concerned about our constitutional rights than she was about getting attacked. In East Meadow, the town where I grew up, Eleanor Roosevelt was banned from speaking at our high school on the grounds that she was a Communist, so was Pete Seeger ( he was one, of course, not that that should have made any difference). In East Meadow, pedophile priests had free rein, but lefty sympathizers were sent packing. Years later when I thought I’d write a book about the town, I interviewed an African-American man who had his house firebombed because he was living with a white woman. I could go on, but suffice to say the clearest picture I can paint of our town was this: we had a serial killer living on our street (Joel Rifkin), and he was probably a better human being than three quarters of the jocks I went to school with.
As usual, I’m veering off-track here, so let me steer back to the road. As I grew up and began to read newspapers, I continued to take note of the Hiss case whenever the occasional tidbit about it appeared. When I was in college, there was a story that Hiss had been one of the first people to take advantage of the recently passed Freedom of Information Act to obtain his FBI file. That intrigued me. Now, I hated my classes in college, and here I was reading this story when the proverbial lightbulb went off inside me head. I approached one of my history professors with a proposition. Instead of spending my time cutting class or daydreaming in back of the room, I suggested that I spend a semester reading all the books and newspaper/magazine coverage on the Hiss case, and then I would write a paper offering my verdict. Much to my surprise, he accepted.
About two hours into my research, it was clear to me that Hiss had been railroaded. Four hours into my research, I decided to do something about: I was going to write Hiss a letter – volunteering to work for him that summer reading or organizing his FBI files. Talk about chutzpah. It took a while to get his address. When I saw that he had filed papers to be reinstated to the Massachusetts bar, I figured that his address would be in the legal papers, so I drove to Boston in a snowstorm to see if I could find it among the documents he had filed. I was right. It was listed, so I sat down and penned him a note.
A week later, this arrived in my mailbox:
(The pages below are clickable)
Hell yes, I was interested! A few weeks later I met him in New York, but as it turned out, instead of a summer job, I wangled a deal with the history job to work for him the next January in New York City for a full semester’s credit. I stayed on after graduation. Based on the some 40,000 pages we received, we were able to prove that FBI had and hid exculpatory information about Alger, so we prepared a brief to overturn the guilty verdict, and I actually wrote portions of it. Because all of the judges who handled the suit were appointed by Richard Nixon, the case went nowhere, although the brief was published as a book called “In Re Alger Hiss.” And it even had my name in it.
Eventually, I went to work as a newspaper reporter, but I never stopped following the case and did occasional research jobs for Alger over the years. He died in 1996. Three years later, his son and I established a Web site on the case. One of the articles I wrote for the site has some personal reminiscences of Alger. It can be found here (there is some repetition of this post in there). For the last five years, I’ve been writing a book one the case. I suspect it will be finished in three years (I’m a slow writer).
For years, my passion for the case was the subject of great teasing by my friends. If I went out on a date (which I did only occasionally), the questions the next day weren’t the usual, “Was she nice?” or “Was she cute?” it was rather, “How does she feel about the Hiss Case?” They knew the wrong response would doom any potential for a relationship.
Luckily for my wife, she had the right answer. Or, luckily for me.