Public Nuisances

Posted: Jun 03, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- With the bizarre shuffling of leadership in the Senate, Sen. Orin Hatch, he of the colorful neckties, is about to be replaced as chairman of the Judiciary Committee by Sen. Patrick Leahy, he of the spotless reputation for fairness. That last estimate comes from William Safire. During the recent jihad by the Judiciary Committee's Democrats against the nomination of Ted Olson for solicitor general, Leahy rode the lead horse. He charged Olson with lying to the committee about the extent of Olson's involvement with an American Spectator reporting project. He wanted to see the magazine's documents. Safire wrote a hortatory column from his op-ed redoubt at The New York Times, charging the senator with "trampling on the First Amendment." He urged Leahy not to persist in "waving a vacuum cleaner at an editorial office" -- my editorial office. "Come back to the Constitution, Pat," Safire implored his friend. The vacuum cleaner reference was to a letter that Leahy had written to me demanding that Olson and I "provide copies of the internal audit, board books and minutes ... and all notes and records of Board discussions of the audit." My response was the same brief reply Gen. Anthony McAullife made to an earlier generation of brutes that time at Bastogne, "Nuts." Safire called Leahy's letter an "outrageous intrusion" on First Amendment rights. Yet Leahy persisted, warning, "Should that request be declined, the committee as a whole should take appropriate action to obtain the information." To that threat I noted that the senator was making "friendship a misdemeanor and journalism a felony" -- again, "Nuts." Now, of course, Leahy is no longer in the minority on his committee, and he can harass writers who practice amused resistance (an improvement on passive resistance, no?) with subpoenas. I do not think this bodes well for the First Amendment. I say this based on more than the brute behavior of Leahy. Other journalists, namely the rebarbative Joe Conason and his sidekick Gene Lyons, were egging him on to pursue government investigations of fellow writers and of a lawyer who had offered legal counsel to a magazine they did not like. Nor did the literary and journalistic communities rise up to join Safire in his defense of the First Amendment. The only support came from the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times and from columns by the excellent Seth Lipsky on The Wall Street Journal's on-line magazine and by Dave Shiflett on National Review's Beyond that, only the American Civil Liberties Union was preparing to jump to the First Amendment's defense. Said Laura Murphy of the ACLU's Washington office upon seeing Leahy's letter, "The ACLU does not think that a newspaper or a magazine should be compelled by Congress to turn over anything about their editorial process." Bravo, Murphy. You may have to jump to the defense not only of The American Spectator but also of other writers. Writers are not popular with large numbers of Americans who apparently do not see why writers should be immune from the general litigiousness of the country. The American Civil Liberties Union finds in the polling it reviews a general impatience with First Amendment rights by many Americans. Frankly, I am willing to put my trust in the population at large. I am confident that, given a chance, I can make a case with the average American for freedom. It is the writers and politicians who worry me. After Olson was confirmed and Leahy's committee lost interest in me, Bill Clinton's former director of speechwriting, who now roosts at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Michael Waldman, wrote approvingly in The New York Times of the Democrats' sudden acquisition of the subpoena power "to seek detailed information from more witnesses on whether Mr. Olson's account of his role in The American Spectator magazine's 'Arkansas project' was accurate." It turns out that it is the writers and politicians who wish to pollute the atmosphere of freedom with coercion. Accurate testimony before Congress was never so important to Leahy and Waldman during the Clinton administration. Even lying before grand juries was understandable. Moreover Olson's truthfulness -- and mine for that matter -- was attested to by all but one person at the Spectator during the Senate proceedings; and that turncoat is a clearly conflicted witness. No, the animus against Olson and The American Spectator was clearly motivated by the articles we published about Clinton, articles that have never been disproven and have gained in validity with every passing day of Clinton's presence in public life. Which brings me to a question I have always wanted to ask the journalists who oppose me: "Would I be a better journalist had I stifled my knowledge of Clinton's corruption?" Would neglect of the truth have made me a better journalist? Apparently they think so, which is one of the reasons all Americans have a stake in the First Amendment.