An Update on the Hiss Case

Well, not really.  There isn’t any new news on the Hiss case.  But updating the case was my assignment last night anyway, at the 35th annual Halloween dinner of the Pumpkin Papers Irregulars, the group founded to keep alive and honor the memory of Whittaker Chambers, denounce the treason of Alger Hiss, and also to give out the coveted Victor Navasky Award.  (Lots of nominations as always.  This year’s winner was Barack Hussein Obama, for his failure to supervise Attorney General Eric Holder, a past Navasky prize winner ineligible to win again.)  Several Power Line readers made their way to me to say hello.

R. Bruce Craig, the author of Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case, describes the scene of this unofficial conservative institution:

Before taking our seats all eyes are on the head table, specifically, on the largest jack-o-lantern of all but one that is unlit. In reverent silence, all watch as a senior member of the group ceremoniously extracts three rolls of 35-mm film from the cavity of the jack-o-lantern, and, with deliberate flair, waves them unceremoniously over his head. . . With the strike of a match the face of the traitorous Hiss is outlined in the intricately carved jack-o-lantern, and so begins the annual meeting of the little known and at one time secret institution of the “Pumpkin Papers Irregulars.”

A pretty good likeness for Hiss, isn't it?

This year the traditional lighting of the pumpkin was done by Ilario Pantano, a veteran of Gulf Wars I & II, and a congressional candidate in North Carolina next year.  Impressive guy; you can look him up or donate to his campaign here.

Anyway, since there isn’t any real new news about the Hiss case (which wasn’t true in the 1990s, between the Volkogonov mischief and the Venona decrypts), I just improvised as follows:

The best I can do in the way of updating the case is to paraphrase Chevy Chase’s famous reminders about Francisco Franco: Alger Hiss is still dead.  Though I do hear the Holder Justice Department, under prodding from the World Court, is thinking of re-opening the case, and that Apple is developing its first new product of the post-Jobs era—the iWoodstock. . .

But I take as my theme Chambers’s remark that The Case was never about the case.  It was always about larger matters.  The poet Edna St. Vincent-Millay is credited with saying that history isn’t one damn thing after another, it’s the same damn thing over and over again.  It is hard to know right now whether to credit or debit this aphorism, when considering that Communism seems to have been reduced to the farcical rump of Occupy Wall Street.  Most of these street urchins are too young to have a first-hand memory of the Berlin Wall or the Cold War, and those no-so-long-ago events for them may as well be the Crusades of the Middle Ages.

Lenin’s famous remark about rope comes ironically to mind when watching the Occupiers tweet their “down with capitalism” messages on their capitalist-supplied smart phones, carried over capitalist-built communications networks, culminating in the demand that their capitalist-generated student loans be forgiven—though they may have a decent point here given what you learn in college these days.  On the other hand, the patient, slow-motion, fancy-dress Marxism of the occupant of the White House is exactly the kind of thing that would have made Chambers say, “See—I told you so.”

I’ve been making my way through the entire Chambers corpus the last few months, partly because it is good for your soul, but mainly with an eye toward producing a feature article in the classic genre known as the “thumb-sucker,” to ponder what Chambers would make of our current predicament.  He’d have seen through our “community organizer in chief” in a nanosecond, no doubt in memorable ways.  The same damn thing.  And if Chambers was doubtful about Nixon’s prospects, what would he have made of Mitt Romney?  Not much, I suspect.

In the years since the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union went the way of Lehman Brothers, a lot of people have said that Chambers was obviously wrong when he said that he left the winning side for the losing side when he quit Communism, and that he was wrong that there was no one with “a sweeping grasp of the crisis, bursting with energy, ideas, and even intolerant convictions” equal to the crisis of the time.  He didn’t live long enough to see the rise of the intransigent Ronald Reagan, whose virtues he would have celebrated, even as Reagan saw the fitness of bestowing the presidential medal of freedom award on Chambers posthumously.  Chambers’s friends and careful readers knew that these happy events wouldn’t have changed his mind a bit, not because he was a pure pessimist, but because Chambers knew that the Soviet Union was never the heart of the matter.

I’m not telling anyone here something they don’t already know, but it is always important to recall that for Chambers, the crisis of the West was not primarily the challenge from the East then, or the Middle East today; it is inside our own minds and culture, unable to resist the tide of nihilism and decadence of which Communism was only its most visible and well-armed political expression.

One sees from the Left, for example, the exact same reflex to the death of Osama bin Laden as to the death of Stalin: Let’s call the whole thing off.

“You know what age we are in?”, Chambers wrote to Bill Buckley in 1956; “The age in which Lazarus has to raise himself from the dead.”

If there’s one thing that Chambers’s European sensibilities underestimated about America, it is our resilience, our reserves of common sense, and indeed our courage.  America has lots of Lazarus in its soul.  Our virtue is not inexhaustible, though, which is why we should re-read and recall Chambers long after the name Hiss is only muttered in the canteens of the Nation magazine.

The featured speaker for the evening was Don Rumsfeld, who made many interesting points, but one that struck me was his recounting of the rapid turnover of the directors of the CIA and national intelligence over the last decade. We’ve had new DCIs and DNIs about once every two years—“You can’t even find the men’s room at the CIA in that amount of time,” adding that “if you ran a private business this way, you’d go broke—and deserve to.”


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