How Sey­mour Hersh Be­came Su­per­snoop

Forward Magazine - - BOOKS - By Steven G. Kell­man

The ex­ploits of Low­ell Bergman, Carl Bernstein, David Corn, Michael Isikoff, Lucy Komisar, Syd­ney Schan­berg, and I.F. Stone might lead one to con­clude that in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism is as Jewish a pro­fes­sion as stand-up com­edy and mat­zoh bak­ing. Dubbed “a na­tional trea­sure” by David Hal­ber­stam, him­self a leg­endary jour­nal­ist, Sey­mour M. Hersh has earned a prom­i­nent place in that band of snoops. The politi­cians, cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives, and edi­tors he has an­tag­o­nized in the six decades since start­ing out as a copy boy for the City News Bureau in his na­tive Chicago would more likely de­scribe him as a na­tional dis­grace.

Fa­mously re­luc­tant to talk about him­self rather than his work, Hersh re­calls how he with­drew his as­ton­ish­ing man­u­script on the My Lai mas­sacre from the New York Re­view of Books when its edi­tor, Robert Sil­vers, in­sisted on a para­graph de­scrib­ing the author’s own feel­ings. How­ever, fi­nally, at 81, Hersh has pro­duced an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. He does so re­luc­tantly, he ex­plains, as a sub­sti­tute for the book he was con­tracted to write but de­cided to with­hold — an ex­posé of Dick Cheney’s mis­deeds in lead­ing a neo­con­ser­va­tive coup against the United States. The Cheney book will have to wait, be­cause pub­lish­ing it now would com­pro­mise sources.

Mod­estly ti­tled “Re­porter,” the sub­sti­tute vol­ume fo­cuses – to the ex­tent that an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy can be im­per­sonal—on the re­port­ing and not the re­porter. Hersh says al­most noth­ing about his wife, a psy­chi­a­trist, and their three chil­dren. The book’s plain style is con­sis­tent with his con­vic­tion that: “the best way to tell a story, no mat­ter how sig­nif­i­cant or com­pli­cated, was to get the hell out of the way and just tell it.” He tells the spell­bind­ing story of how he went about dis­cov­er­ing and ex­pos­ing cru­cial hid­den truths.

Hersh de­scribes his fa­ther, an im­mi­grant from Lithua­nia, as “un­com­mu­nica­tive.” His mother, who came from Poland, made tasty pas­tries, but he ad­mits: “I can­not re­mem­ber shar­ing any pri­vate thoughts with her.” In a rare mo­ment of self-anal­y­sis, he sug­gests that the key to his ca­reer might have been a child­hood in which in­for­ma­tion was not shared. “I had grown up need­ing to fig­ure out on my own whom to trust and de­pend on in the com­mu­nity,” he writes, “very likely in an ef­fort to fill in some of the gaps in the par­ent­ing I ex­pe­ri­enced at home.”

The son of a Yid­dish-speak­ing fa­ther who “never fig­ured out Amer­ica” would make fig­ur­ing out Amer­ica his own life’s work.

Hersh wan­dered into jour­nal­ism af­ter drop­ping out of law school, serv­ing in the army, and work­ing at Wal­greens. A tip about 6,400 sheep killed by nerve gas in Utah led to his first big story, about a clan­des­tine chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons pro­gram. But he soon took up an­other call­ing, tem­po­rar­ily, as press sec­re­tary to Eu­gene McCarthy’s 1968 pres­i­den­tial campaign. Fric­tion de­vel­oped be­tween him and the can­di­date as it be­came clear that Hersh was driven by a de­sire to end the Viet­nam War, whereas McCarthy seemed out for a lark, too cav­a­lier about round­ing up donors and votes.

Un­cov­er­ing the truth about My

Lai and its cover-up earned him a Pulitzer and, even­tu­ally, the so­bri­quet Su­per­snoop from Time Mag­a­zine. Lieu­tenant Wil­liam Cal­ley was the only Amer­i­can sol­dier who did any

time for the cold-blooded mur­der of hun­dreds of Viet­namese vil­lagers, and Hersh goes into riv­et­ing de­tail about how he combed through vast Fort Ben­ning be­fore find­ing Cal­ley. Other notable Hersh in­ves­ti­ga­tions re­vealed the se­cret bomb­ing of North Viet­nam; the unau­tho­rized U.S. in­cur­sion into Cam­bo­dia; Henry Kissinger’s wire­tap­ping of his own staff; U.S. sup­port for the vi­o­lent coup that top­pled Sal­vador Al­lende in Chile; and the abuse of de­tainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. He also con­trib­uted to the un­rav­el­ing of Water­gate.

In ad­di­tion, Hersh re­counts oc­ca­sions when he re­fused to pub­lish some­thing, to pro­tect sources or na­tional se­cu­rity. He now ques­tions his de­ci­sion not to re­port that Richard Nixon beat his wife. “I did not fully com­pre­hend then,” he ex­plains, “the im­por­tance of per­sonal moral­ity in high of­fice.”

De­spite stints with The New York Times and The New Yorker, Hersh works best alone. He is in­vari­ably de­scribed as rum­pled and gruff. The scourge of male­fac­tors and frauds in govern­ment, busi­ness, and the Fourth Es­tate, he does not play well with oth­ers, ex­cept for his un­canny tal­ent for get­ting strangers to trust him with dan­ger­ous in­for­ma­tion. Af­ter his fa­ther’s death, Hersh briefly ran the fam­ily’s dry clean­ing store in Chicago. He is still spot­ting and ex­pung­ing stains from Amer­i­can pub­lic life.

In a rare mo­ment of self-anal­y­sis, Hersh sug­gests that the key to his ca­reer might have been a child­hood in which in­for­ma­tion was not shared.

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