The Pleasures of Rereading

Among my greatest hopes for the Amazon Kindle is that it will spur publishers to reissue out of print books. Particularly the books I want - like Joe McGinniss's great Blind Faith for example. There are enough delectables available to keep me happy, and to help me get through this horrendous week.

Rereading G. Edward White's Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars has been a joy. White is a legal historian known for writing biographies of such wild men as Oliver Wendell Holmes so who'd have known he could write such a highly readable yet deeply thoughtful book about one of the most famous cases of the Cold War spy scares?

I've been fascinated by the Hiss-Chambers case since seeing Concealed Enemies on PBS over 20 years ago. I could never quite believe that Alger Hiss was the wronged innocent he claimed. You don't' recognize Chambers, you recognize his teeth, etc. But the ambiguities were there too. The thing about a good spy is that they leave no evidence, but then neither does an innocent man. The claims against Chambers, though, never set quite right with me. After reading Allen Weinstein's majestic Perjury I was more convinced of Hiss's guilt and more nauseated by the mudslinging against Chambers.

The pro-Hiss version is that Chambers lead a knock-about life, was deeply damaged by his father's suicide, never made much of himself and was, gasp, homosexual. All of this made him target Alger Hiss who'd simply tried to help the poor schmuck back in the day. Alger was a paragon of virtue, a Harvard Law grad who participated in the Yalta conference as a senior State Dept functionary and now headed up the Carnegie Foundation. Except that Hiss' father committed suicide too. Hiss's background was hardly stable with a brother (like Chambers) who died young, a sister who also committed suicide and a mother who set the rules. Chambers, also, was an editor at Time magazine and by the time of the HUAC hearings was married with two children. A purely psychological defense - Hiss is stable and Chambers is crazy - didn't play. Weinstein set out the facts to prove that they didn't play either.

Hiss, however, was very fortunate in his enemies, namely J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. By the early 70s both were disgraced and the possibility that they would be part of a conspiracy to disgrace Alger Hiss - a classic New Dealer in his telling - seemed more and more reasonable. Then Weinstein's book came out. Then the Venona documents were yet another nail in the coffin. This is one very well-nailed coffin. White approaches the case, thus, not asking "was he guilty" but how could he claim innocence for so long knowing the price others paid for that claim and knowing that he could so easily be found out?

I remember this book being a bit of a slog. This time I devoured it, I hated to see my train pull into Grand Central because I knew I'd have to put the Kindle on hold. White is a lawyer and he writes like a lawyer. Normally that could be a bad thing, for this book it's perfect because not only does White make his case logically based on facts and reasoned supposition (blissfully free of partisan silliness). He also is willing to tackle bigger issues. Sure, I could have done with a few less details about the founding of SDS and the extended chapter on Hiss's time with Oliver Wendell Holmes dragged a bit. But the chapters on Hiss in prison and his post-prison attempts at vindication are fascinating.

Alger Hiss was not a other-worldly, courtly gentleman framed by the twin evils of Hoover and Nixon. The accusations and evidence against him go too far back for that theory to hold water. Now being pro-Soviet Union during the Depression was hardly unusual, it was even understandable in my mind. What makes Hiss repulsive to me is his scorched earth policy regarding Chambers (He's gay so he must be insane!) and his systematic trashing of his wife. It takes a classy guy to claim that the reason he was apprehensive about the investigation was because his wife's abortion WHICH HAPPENED BEFORE THEIR MARRIAGE AND FIVE YEARS BEFORE HE MET CHAMBERS might come out.

The apple didn't fall far from the tree when it comes to Tony Hiss. He claims that mom made him gay (!) until he moved out on his own (at age 30), that Alger probably wanted to go to jail to get away from his wife and it was all her fault anyway that Alger didn't really pay attention to his defense because she was too high maintenance. I have not the words.

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