By Jefferson Flanders
In the words of legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, Nobody asked me, but…
I WROTE “ALGER HISS, WILDER FOOTE, AND THE VERDICT OF HISTORY,” after author Kai Bird’s NYU presentation on April 5 which argued that U.S. diplomat Wilder Foote, not Alger Hiss, was the Soviet spy codenamed ALES. At the time, I did not have access to the complete text of the crucial NKGB cable of March 5, 1945 on which Bird largely based his conclusions, but even with the partial information that was available, it was clear that the evidence still pointed to Hiss as the spy.

Historian John Earl Haynes of the Library of Congress has since included the text of the cable in his article “Ales: Hiss, Foote, Stettinius?“, along with an insightful analysis, thoroughly demolishing Bird’s argument, and demonstrating that with the available clues only Hiss, one of the more controversial figures in Cold War history, could have been ALES.

It was the news coverage of Bird’s talk, given at NYU’s “Alger Hiss in History” Conference, that initially prompted me to address the topic. The stories filed by Richard Pyle of the Associated Press had repeated Bird’s claims without context or comment by historians who could have quickly pointed out the holes in Bird’s thesis; Pyle failed to get direct comment from the Wilder Foote family (who have vehemently denied Bird’s charge) before filing the initial story; and Pyle suggested that claims at the NYU Conference could lead to the “posthumous vindication of Hiss,” a very dubious conclusion, to say the least.

“Scholars Skeptical of Alger Hiss Exoneration Claims” is not as sexy a headline as “New data may vindicate Alger Hiss” or “Author Suggests Alger Hiss Wasn’t a Spy” or “New claims support Alger Hiss” (headlines which all appeared in newspapers around the country) but it has the benefit of being accurate. It’s a shame that Pyle’s story didn’t mirror that reality.

Mark Twain once wrote that “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” and the AP coverage of Kai Bird’s Wilder Foote spy accusation proves his point—the debunking of Bird’s claim made by historians of the period (such as the article “The New McCarthyism” by Haynes and Harvey Klehr at Washington DeCoded) will never receive the widespread coverage that the NYU Conference story did. I can only imagine how the Foote family feels about that.

WE LIVE IN A GOLDEN AGE COMPARED TO THE NOT-SO-DISTANT PAST argues Anatole Kaletsky in “You think our age is turbulent? What nonsense,” an op-ed published in The Times of London. Kaltesky thinks that “the challenges we face today — whether as families and individuals or as societies and nations — are almost laughably trivial” compared to those of the 20th century.

Kaletsky questions those who “honestly speak of terrorism today in the same breath as the threat from Communists and Nazis to previous generations” believing that such comparisons insult “our intelligence, as well as our courageous forebears.”

There is some merit to Kaletsky’s argument—he is right that contemporary observers exaggerate how much change we are experiencing—but his thesis depends on a continuance of the relative global peace and prosperity we enjoy today. That’s a tough wager to take.

A GOOD “CAMPAIGN 101” COURSE TEACHES THAT PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES must know the price of household staples—a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and a dozen eggs—before they venture out on the campaign trail. Otherwise, they are unprepared for those reporters who delight in “pop quizzes” designed to make candidates appear elitist and out-of-touch with the average American family struggling to make ends meet.

Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani flunked this test—for both Manhattan, where he lives, and Montgomery, Alabama, where he was being questioned. Giuliani thought bread cost $1.30 a loaf (actual: NYC, $2.99-$3.99; Montgomery, $2) and milk $1.50 a gallon (actual: NYC, $4.19; Montgomery, $3.39).

The Guiliani campaign, in response, noted that “that the national average for bread is $1.17 per pound, as listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The government agency also lists milk as costing, on average, $1.60 per half-gallon.”

Note to Giuliani staff: the next ambush quiz will be on the names of foreign leaders, one that candidate George W. Bush failed miserably back in 1999, when he was unable to name the leaders of Chechnya, Pakistan or India.

COLUMNIST ROBERT NOVAK HAS LAUNCHED A BLISTERING ATTACK ON CIA HEAD MICHAEL HAYDEN, questioning his basic integrity. Novak claims that Hayden denied authorizing Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman to say Valerie Plame Wilson had been a “covert” CIA employee (only that Waxman could say she was “undercover”) and that Hayden later recanted.

According to Novak, Hayden maintained that he had described Plame as “undercover” but not “covert” to Waxman; Hayden repeated this claim to Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Republican, Republican lawyer Victoria Toensing and White House Counsel Fred Fielding in conversations at the annual Washington Gridiron dinner. But then, according to Novak, Hayden reversed himself:

Yet, 10 days later, the CIA and its director asserted to me that the wife of Bush critic Joseph Wilson indeed had been “covert.” The designation could strengthen erroneous claims that she came under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

Nobody ever will be prosecuted under the act for revealing Mrs. Wilson worked for the CIA. But Hayden has raised Republican suspicions that he is angling to become intelligence czar — director of national intelligence — under a Democratic president. While Hayden proclaims himself free of politics, his handling of the Valerie Plame case is puzzling.

Critics of ousted CIA Director Porter Goss had claimed that he had tried to “politicize” the Agency on behalf of the Bush Administration, (an impression Hayden endorsed by suggesting that he was “restoring” professionalism at Langley). Now Hayden appears to be the political operative, embracing the CIA career bureaucrats whose competence, after 9/11 and the WMD debacle, is questionable, and gladly providing House Democrats dubious ammunition in the Plame case.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from the Christian mystic Thomas Merton: “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue 

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders

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