Framed by My Lai and Abu Ghraib, Hersh's reporting over 35 years shows how war can shred the human spirit, driving soldiers and public officials to massacre and torture civilians. He detects vestiges of racism beneath the savage follies he's exposed, from Vietnam to Iraq. Most of all, Hersh's work stands for the proposition that America's history is written in part by patriots who ask tough questions.
Over iced tea at the Medici on 57th Street, and during his later speech at the university, Hersh lays bare the burden of being the go-to guy for disgruntled national security officials, privy to globe-rattling secrets he sometimes cannot corroborate and sometimes believes but cannot publish without burning his sources.
"We're living in dark times," he says, gently rubbing his gray-thatched temples.
He inhabits a reality we can barely glimpse, crosscut by the chatter of encrypted satellite signals. For national security officials, leaking to Hersh is "generally better than writing a memo to the president," remarks his friend and competitor --Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus.
In recent months, The New Yorker editor David Remnick says, Hersh "seems to begin every phone call with the line, `It's worse than you think.'|"
The secrets don't show on his face, but when Hersh lets down his guard even a little, the inner life of the inside man seems to leak into the air around him. He is haunted by the as-yet-unpublished photographs of Iraq prison abuses. "You haven't begun to see evil until you've seen some of these pictures that haven't come out," he says.
There are still prisons the public doesn't know about, he says. Secret prisons. "I would guess -- I don't have it pure -- but we're basically in the disappearing business," he tells his U. of C. audience.
Hersh is worried that America doesn't have good intelligence within the Iraqi insurgency. "We don't know what's going to happen next," he says. "We have no endgame." And the nation's reputation is shattered among middle-class Muslims "who want to do business and send their kids to school here."
Whether you agree with him or not, this kind of frankness makes Hersh an anomaly among his tightly buttoned investigative peers.
"The fragility of our government is terrifying," he tells his U. of C. audience. A handful of neoconservatives took control of the levers of government "without a peep from the bureaucracy, the Congress, the press," he says. "It was so easy. They did it so smoothly. What is it about us that made us so vulnerable to these people?"
Seymour Myron Hersh was born in Mt. Sinai Hospital at 8:05 a.m. on April 8, 1937, about five minutes before his twin brother, Alan. The Hersh boys had two older sisters who also were twins.
Hersh's parents immigrated to Chicago by steerage in the 1920s, his father, Isidore, from Lithuania and mother, Dorothy, from Ostrov, Poland.
Hersh's parents spoke Yiddish at home -- especially when they didn't want the children to understand. His uneducated father was a devoted reader of The Jewish Daily Forward, the Yiddish language daily newspaper, and liberal columnist Walter Lippmann. But "we had no great political discussions at my parents' dinner table," said twin Alan Hersh, an acoustical engineer and inventor in California.
Across the street from the Hershes first floor apartment at 835 E. 47th St. was "The V" -- the Victory movie theater. There, Hersh sat saucer-eyed through black-and-white reels as broad-shouldered American actors whipped Japanese fighter pilots.
Hersh noses the rented Impala down Cottage Grove Avenue. "This was the racial dividing line after the war," he says. His father had no qualms about serving the black neighborhood, and Hersh watched Negro League baseball games with the guys who worked at Regal Cleaners. When he and his brother closed the shop at 7 p.m. and foolishly carried out the cash, they were sometimes tailed by a husky neighborhood kid nicknamed Piggy. "It later dawned on us -- he was protecting us," Hersh says.
"Was it hard? It didn't feel that way," he says, his soft hands shifting on the wheel.
A three-pack-a-day smoker, Isidore Hersh got lung cancer in 1952, when the Hersh boys were 15, and died two years later. Old enough to drive a delivery van and handle the cash register, the boys helped their mother run the dry cleaner at 4507 S. Indiana Ave. Hersh had been a straight-A student, but his grades plummeted.
Life behind the Regal's front counter "did well to shape him as an investigative reporter," Alan said. "It made him tough-minded and fair and gave him a love for the truth."
Graduating from Hyde Park High School in 1954, Hersh attended the University of Illinois campus at Navy Pier, where professor Bernard Kogan encouraged him to transfer to the University of Chicago. Hersh's mother scraped together the $130 per quarter tuition, and Hersh worked at the laundry while compiling a mediocre academic record.
He flunked of U. of C. law school in his first year and clerked at a liquor store until a friend helped him get a job as a $35-a-week copyboy at the City News Bureau of Chicago, in 1959 or 1960. This entry-level training ground was journalism's Devil's Island, where fellow reporters such as Mike Royko were inducted through an editing program of public humiliation, long-winded curses and violent threats. Hersh flourished.
"He believes people in high places should have high standards and isn't afraid to make them sweat," said Hersh's City News rewrite man Casey Bukro, now the Tribune Metro Overnight Editor.
"He worked as though everything he covered was front-page news," said City News overnight weekdays city editor Edward G. Novotny, who now runs a New York public-relations firm.