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.
What is amazing is how familiar this story is. Much the same thing happened with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the convicted Soviet spies. Alger Hiss, a goliath of the East Coast liberal establishment, was a spy. Yet he was backed by liberals who considered anti-communism, at a minimum, gauche. In the 1960s, the saints and martyrs tumbled out faster. "Free Huey!" was the cry, and American liberals and leftists rallied to a whole pride of Black Panthers and other criminals, one more murderous and cruel than the next. While at Yale, a young Hillary Rodham volunteered for Panther lawyers. Revered conductor Leonard Bernstein held a fundraiser for the cop-murdering Panthers in 1970.
In recent years, the lies and mythmaking have become perhaps even more egregious. Tawana Brawley was lying, but Al Sharpton didn't care because he was "building a movement." Mumia Abu-Jamal is guilty, but don't say that in a faculty lounge. Stanley Tookie Williams was guilty. Matthew Shepherd did not die "because he was gay" but because he was a drug addict caught up with other drug addicts. The "Hollywood Ten" were a complicated bunch, but they were Communists, even Stalinists. "It matters not," quoth the liberals. "Print the legend."
It's difficult to find many liberal martyr-saints who haven't been burnished by deceit. Oh, of course, there were many personally and intellectually decent liberal heroes - Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey, Michael Harrington, et al - but when they reach icon status, the facts get inconvenient. To be sure, Martin Luther King Jr. deserves his place among American heroes. But it's worth noting that what makes him an American icon, as opposed to purely a liberal one, is his vision for a colorblind nation. And colorblindness is no longer a core tenet of the American left. President Kennedy was hardly the liberal of Oliver Stone's imagination. And his brother, Bobby, was more hostile to civil liberties than John Ashcroft, eagerly wiretapping Americans, including King.
But then, "what is history," asked Napoleon, "but a fable agreed upon?" Which returns us to Clooney, a decent-seeming fellow and certainly brighter than the dim-bulb stereotype of many Hollywood liberals. Still, he too is in the fable business: He has unilaterally beatified Edward R. Murrow as another hero of liberalism. The truth is that Murrow was just another journalist, better than average but flawed like all of them, who arrived late to the anti-McCarthy bandwagon. Never mind. Clooney's fans, like Sinclair's, always order the usual. And always seem to get it.