By David Jackson
Tribune staff reporter
June 25, 2004
Seymour Hersh has come home again, to the rough-cut precincts where he spent a good chunk of the 1950s working as a teenager in his father's dry cleaner.
In those days, Hersh says, he delivered pressed clothes to houses of prostitution, and his father accepted steaks from stockyard workers who couldn't come up with cash.
"This building didn't used to be here," Hersh says, peering through the Impala's sloped window at a sheet of fresh brick.
The 67-year-old executes a three-point turn against traffic and stabs a finger at a spot in an alley.
"That was home plate!"
From these streets sprang a groundbreaking journalist who has revealed some of America's darkest official secrets.
Hersh's 1969 disclosure of the My Lai massacre has been called pivotal in turning the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War. He detailed President Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia, CIA spying on American dissidents and the hidden nuclear arms programs of Israel and Pakistan.
Today, Hersh is widely credited with breaking the news that Iraqi war prisoners were abused at Abu Ghraib, although a few of the iconic photographs were aired on CBS' "60 Minutes II" on April 28, two days before his detailed account was posted by The New Yorker magazine. The scandal has roiled the Bush administration and refigured world opinion about the U.S.
"I can't think of a single reporter who has brought more important stories to light," said Bill Kovach, founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Hersh's editor at The New York Times during the 1970s.
"Sy exposed some of the most despicable behavior on the part of public officials," Kovach said. "He's made Americans aware when our leaders don't measure up to the values expressed in all the songs we sing and pledges we make."
Still charging at an age when many reporters are glad to grab desk jobs, Hersh returned this month to visit family and speak at the University of Chicago, where he graduated as a middling history major in 1958, met his wife of 40 years and flunked out of law school.
He is predictably skeptical of the accolades that have followed his Abu Ghraib revelations -- another crowning moment in a career that has seen jarring ups and downs. Along the way to winning a Pulitzer Prize and writing eight books, Hersh has been bashed by government officials, accused of misjudgment by peers and sued unsuccessfully for libel by wealthy, powerful men.
In 1975 when Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were top aides to President Gerald Ford, Rumsfeld floated a proposal to have the FBI search Hersh's home to halt his reporting on a submarine espionage program, papers from the Gerald R. Ford Library show.
Written in the face of libel threats and official denial, Hersh's New Yorker stories since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks won a National Magazine last month. The New Yorker pieces helped expose the administration's false claim that Iraq got nuclear materials from Niger, broke news about the illicit nuclear weapons dealing of A.Q. Khan, the architect of Pakistan's atomic bomb, and traced sensitive NSA eavesdrops suggesting corruption among Saudi leaders.
His May New Yorker story "Chain of Command" alleged that Defense Secretay Rumsfeld personally authorized a secret program of harsh prisoner interrogation in Afghanistan that laid the foundation for the Abu Ghraib horrors. Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita called that story "outlandish, conspiratorial" and "journalistic malpractice."
But Di Rita did not raise specific factual challenges, telling the Tribune, "It's difficult to establish that anything in [Hersh's story] can be verified at all. He's referring to programs that don't appear to exist and meetings and conversations that don't appear to have taken place." Hersh has signed with HarperCollins Publishers to expand his New Yorker articles into a book scheduled for publication before the November election.
Hersh's New Yorker coverage "completely shifted the tone of journalistic discourse on the war," said Gretchen Soderlund, assistant director of the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Communication and Society. "His pieces have probably served to remind a lot of journalists what journalism can be."
The most celebrated investigative reporters are often driven by a combustible mix of altruism and ambition -- a heartfelt desire to combat injustice and a sometimes unseemly need to wallop the competition and see their names in print. The limber 67-year-old who squints at the storefronts of 47th Street through oversize glasses brings all that and more to his work.
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.'ƒ|"
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.
Hersh raced from firehouse to police station in a hulking Studebaker while his colleagues placed private bets on when it would explode.
"I watched him several times rush from the front doors of 188 W. Randolph to that beaten up Studebaker, jump in, slam the rickety old door and roar off to his next story," Novotny said.
"That, I concluded, was some tough car."
Hersh likes to tell an emblematic City News story about the day he was sent to cover a suicide-murder by a man who killed his wife and children then burned down their house. When Hersh arrived, firefighters had wrapped the bodies in tarps arranged by size, "like daddy bear, mama bear, and little baby bears -- I'd never seen anything like that in my life," Hersh says.
As he phoned in the story to Bukro, a night city editor intervened, Hersh says. "Ah, my good, dear, energetic Mr. Hersh," the editor began. "Were the alas, poor, unfortunate victims of the Negro persuasion?"
"Yes, sir," Hersh confirmed
The editor's orders were curt: "Cheap it out."
Hersh dutifully produced a one-paragraph story that said, as he recalls: "Eight people, all black, were killed in a fire that raged through a house on the South Side today." The encounter was typical of City News in that era, Bukro says. Hersh says the "cheap-out" was one of several chilling experiences that clued him into the racism embedded in important civic institutions.
"It got me ready for the [Vietnam] war."
In 1962, Hersh launched his own south suburban weekly. The Evergreen Dispatch was far from a muckraking journal -- Hersh assigned part-time reporter Lee Quarnstrom to write flattering stories about local businesses so they'd buy advertisements. "Sy seemed to be more interested in the business part of it, the ad sales, than news," Quarnstrom said.
Always in a hurry, Hersh stuffed scribbled ad copy in his pockets then forgot about it, said Paul Zimbrakos, who helped manage the Dispatch. On Saturdays, Hersh says, Dispatch employees phoned in phony responses to the want ads to generate "buzz." Part-time ad salesman Julius Karpen's $50 weekly paycheck bounced, and then the Dispatch folded, forcing Hersh to find other outlets for his journalistic energy. "I like to say I'm responsible for his fame," Karpen said.
Acknowledging the many bounced checks, Hersh says he walked away because the Dispatch had a chance to expand.
"I didn't want to be a suburban newspaper magnate," he says.
Instead, Hersh would zigzag through Midwestern wire service posts, make a mark as the AP's military reporter and pull a seven-year stint at The New York Times before becoming a free agent, a one-man news bureau who kicks out books and articles from his cluttered, unmarked office near Washington's Dupont Circle.
Hersh is a Democrat, District of Columbia voter registration records show. He raised three grown children in Washington's Cleveland Park neighborhood with his wife since 1964, a psychoanalyst. Asked how they met, the fiercely private journalist cuts the questions short: "On campus."
Some of his scoops have been lambasted. Hersh's 1997 book "The Dark Side of Camelot" dwelled on revelations from Secret Service guards about John F. Kennedy's sexual escapades.
In a 1974 New York Times article, Hersh wrongly linked the former U.S. ambassador to Chile to White House efforts to support a military coup there. Nearly seven years later, in a 3,300-word, front-page Times article then called the world's longest retraction, Hersh showed that, in fact, Ambassador Edward M. Korry repeatedly argued against White House efforts to induce the 1973 Chilean coup.
Korry, who died last year, told friends and family that for years after Hersh learned he was wrong, he bargained with Korry, offering to correct the record if Korry provided information for Hersh's subsequent book on Henry Kissinger. Hersh says it took years for the evidence backing Korry to emerge, and notes that a subsequent Senate investigation -- relying on suggestive memos and Korry's initial refusal to answer questions -- came to the same erroneous conclusion. "If Korry thought he was being extorted, I'm sorry, because he was not," Hersh says.
Those who sued Hersh for libel failed. British press baron Robert Maxwell lost a case brought after Hersh's 1991 book "The Samson Option" alleged that Maxwell had ties to Israeli spies while his foreign editor was involved in arms deals. Hersh countersued over attacks against him in Maxwell's Mirror Group Newspapers and won "substantial damages" in a confidential settlement with Mirror Group, which apologized "unreservedly" for the articles, according to press reports and Hersh's lawyer Michael Nussbaum.
The spectacular bookends of Hersh's opus thus far -- his reports about the faraway battle stations whose difficult-to-pronounce names have become part of the American vernacular, My Lai and Abu Ghraib -- read like stories from the same page.
Before he exposed them, both events lay hidden in plain sight, documented in cryptic press releases and arcane military administrative reports. In 1969, military officials issued a short press release announcing murder charges against My Lai Lt. William Calley Jr. Hersh got a tip that the case would be important.
Some 35 years later, on Jan. 16, 2004, the U.S. Central Command alerted the media that authorities were investigating prisoner abuse at an unspecified Iraqi facility. Hersh had been fielding tips for weeks.
In both cases, it took the power of photography to trigger the avalanche of worldwide publicity. No magazine or newspaper would buy the initial My Lai exclusive from Hersh, a 32-year-old freelance writer who had quit The Associated Press in a huff two years earlier. His friend, literary agent David Obst, offered Hersh's first report for $100 through his tiny syndication outfit, Dispatch News Service. Thirty-six papers bought it.
"We thought as soon as the story broke, the war would be over," Obst says. The account got little attention until Hersh provided CBS with a My Lai soldier who acknowledged on television that his unit gunned down women and children. In 1969, authorities quickly assigned blame to a handful of low-ranking soldiers -- and Hersh's reporting climbed the chain of command.
The photographs of unmuzzled dogs terrifying Abu Ghraib prisoners remind Hersh of the police tactics used on Southern civil rights marchers in the 1960s and Jews in Germany during the 1940s.
"We have seen pictures like that before," Hersh says.
At the conclusion of his remarks at the U. of C., several students queue up to ask how they might make a contribution in this war-dimmed world.
"How is your Arabic?" Hersh asks one.
He urges another to consider working for the government or a human rights agency. The country "is just as much ours as it is theirs," Hersh tells a third student. "They have it now, but we can take it back; that's all. We can't just say, `It's yours,' and slink away." And with inimitable bluntness, he makes his case for patriotism:
"Eleven years after getting out of the University of Chicago -- and I wasn't editor of the Maroon, I wasn't president of anything, I flunked out of law school -- I was sticking two fingers in the eye of the very conservative president, Richard Nixon, and being hailed for it.
"What other country can you do that in?"
Hersh's recent dispatches are posted at www.newyorker.com/archive/; click "The War in Iraq."
A 2003 Columbia Journalism Review assessment of Hersh's work is at www.cjr.org/issues/2003/4/hersh-sherman.asp.