Assume Nothing

Abraham Lincoln paid tribute to Henry Clay as “my beau ideal of a statesman.” Borrowing Lincoln’s expression, I think of Edward Jay Epstein as my beau ideal of a journalist. He has gotten deeply inside an improbably large number of mind-boggling stories in the course of his long career — starting with Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, a best-seller he wrote as a thesis for his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Cornell. For that book Ed reviewed the records of the commission and interviewed every member with the exception of Earl Warren.

At age 87, Ed has finally gotten around to telling the story of his own life. Today is the official publication date of Assume Nothing: Encounters With Assassins, Spies, Presidents, and Would-Be Masters of the Universe. As one might infer from the subtitle, Ed has led a somewhat intriguing life. The book is by turns engrossing and hilarious.

My interest never flagged. When Ed had the publisher send me a copy of the book last month, I read it in the space of 24 hours while shooting off emails to Ed along the way. As they say, I could not put it down. I carried it with me wherever I went that weekend.

Ed takes the Cartesian principle for his motto: “In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” It is a principle that has served him well.

I vividly remember reading Ed’s classic essay “Did the press uncover Watergate?” when it was published in Commentary in 1974, in the heyday of Watergate and the celebrity of Woodward and Bernstein. Commentary has posted the essay online here, Ed on his own site here.

In the essay Ed identified Mark Felt as Woodward and Bernstein’s probable Deep Throat. When Felt self-identified as such in 2006, I wrote about it on Power Line and followed up with Ed. We have since become friends. However, as is apparent from the book, Ed is friends with approximately everyone.

I have found everything Ed has written of interest. He is incapable of writing a dull book. His three books on the Kennedy assassination — Inquest, on the deficiencies of the Warren Commission; Counterplot, on the madness of Jim Garrison; and Legend, on Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union — are not the least of it, but there is much, much more. To take one example, I particularly enjoyed Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer. To take another, I would cite his last book before this one, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, The Man and the Theft.

If you are of a certain age, you may recall that some journalist or other who looked into the facts singlehandedly destroyed the media myth that the police were on a murder rampage against the Black Panthers. Ed was the journalist. He set forth his findings in the 1971 New Yorker article “The Black Panthers and the Police: A Pattern of Genocide?” (collected in Between Fact and Fiction: The Problem of Journalism).

Among other things, with the exception of the Watergate essay, Ed tells the improbable story behind his work in Assume Nothing. At 384 pages, I have only one complaint. The book is too damn short. Published by Encounter Books today — see the publisher page hereAssume Nothing seems to me a classic American autobiography.

UPDATE: Lapham’s Quarterly has excerpted the third chapter of the book and published it as “Waiting for Brando.” Ed titles the chapter “My Iliad.”

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