The hottest voice of Hollywood's conscience, George Clooney, recently declared, "Yes, I'm a liberal, and I'm sick of it being a bad word. I don't know at what time in history liberals have stood on the wrong side of social issues."
I'd forgotten about this intriguingly categorical declaration until I read a fascinating story in the Los Angeles Times about how the father of journalistic muckraking, Upton Sinclair, not only knew that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were guilty but withheld his information for the good of the "movement," for his personal safety and his professional success. Sacco and Vanzetti, if you recall, were Italian anarchists sentenced to death for the 1920 murders of a paymaster and his guard in Braintree, Mass.
Sinclair, the Pulitzer Prize-winning crusader who penned the famous novel "The Jungle," prompting Teddy Roosevelt to coin the term "muckraker," had, quite simply, lied. But before he lied, he was a true believer. He'd gone to Massachusetts to research his book "Boston," which was set against the backdrop of the trial - the trial, that is, of two supposedly innocent men. Unfortunately for Sinclair, Sacco and Vanzetti's lawyer told him the unvarnished truth: The pair were just plain guilty, and their alibis were a pack of lies.
"I faced the most difficult ethical problem of my life," Sinclair wrote to his attorney. "I had come to Boston with the announcement that I was going to write the truth about the case." But the truth would cost him too many readers. "It is much better copy as a naive defense of Sacco and Vanzetti because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90 percent of my public."
That Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty is no surprise to those who've looked into the case (though some die-hards claim Vanzetti was merely a co-conspirator after the fact). But that didn't stop the martyrdom campaign. Their execution was used to galvanize everyone from establishment liberals to the very, very hard left. Josef Stalin publicly lamented it. Protests erupted in the capitals of Europe and across the U.S. A young Felix Frankfurter staked his reputation on their innocence. Sacco and Vanzetti became props in a passion play about the evils of the U.S. in the 1920s, and the myth endured.