Digging Deep

Reporter: A Memoir BY Seymour M. Hersh. Knopf. Hardcover, 368 pages. $27.

The cover of Reporter: A Memoir

A “Sy Hersh piece,” as readers of the New York Times and the New Yorker have come to know over the past half century, is often met with dread. A dense intrigue unfolds, the unpacking aided by unnamed spooks who unspool salacious quotes, in seeming competition with one another, while the stakes for the body politic build to fever pitch. The tales are arcane, obtuse, and, above all, dark.

“A bitch to read,” Hersh says of his 2001 New Yorker piece on American oil and Kazakh greed.

If Hersh gained fame and a lifetime of street cred for his 1969 series on My Lai, the first documented massacre in Vietnam, the War on Terror brought his investigative delights to a new generation. In the wake of 9/11, as the Washington press corps genuflected in unison, Hersh, ever the Lone Ranger, set out to sway popular opinion on the sacred verities behind George W. Bush’s forays into Afghanistan and Iraq, and the defense of the Homeland. The beat was the same—the “secret lies” of officialdom—as were the findings: the dangers posed not only to America’s civil liberties but to its military and political integrity.

By 2010, though, something seemed to shift. At the New School, I heard Hersh begin a talk jauntily: “Oh boy, we’ve got an angry black man in the White House—watch out.” The packed theater gasped. In a speech in Doha the next year, he upped the ante, saying of the Bush-Cheney cabal: “What I’m really talking about is how eight or nine neoconservative, radicals”—or “whackos,” the reporter wasn’t sure—“if you will, overthrew the American government. Took it over.” By 2015, with his reappraisal of the killing of Osama bin Laden, a piece the New Yorker rejected, Hersh crossed the Rubicon. Ever an equal-opportunity investigator, he condemned “the Obama administration’s lies, misstatements, and betrayals,” and focused his energies on proving the official story of the raid on Abbottabad a lie. Hersh insisted that the Pakistanis had been in on the operation, there had been no firefight, and the story of giving the body a burial at sea was a fiction. To back up this version of events, he offered the claims of a “retired official” relaying the claims of “some members of the Seal team,” who had “bragged to colleagues and others that they had torn bin Laden’s body to pieces with rifle fire. The remains, including his head, which had only a few bullet holes in it, were thrown into a body bag and, during the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad, some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains—or so the Seals claimed.”

So forgive the loyal fans of early Hersh, who now encounter Reporter fearful of a late-Hersh tale, one in which the sky blackens with arrows slung from every direction as the web engulfs us. Page two only stokes the fear, offering a machine-gun volley of wild-eyed queries: “Do I dare ask about the war in Yemen? Or why Donald Trump took Sudan off his travel ban list?” When we get the answer—“The leadership in Khartoum sent troops to fight in Yemen on behalf of Saudi Arabia”—we seem bound for another dark journey, a touch conspiratorial, tepidly paranoiac, that favors Oracular truth over discernible fact.

Few books, though, have suffered worse false starts.

Reporter is a miracle. From the first lines of chapter one, Hersh adopts a different voice, one of modulation, nuance, warmth, and—dare I say it—soul. The result will likely surprise—alarm, even—readers of his previous books, an unbroken string of ten groundbreaking indictments of the misdeeds of the US government and military: chemical and biological weapons, Vietnam, Nixon and Kennedy, the Bush and Obama wars. In his earlier nonfiction the essentials of narrative craft—character, scenes, pacing, voice—have seemed an annoyance, inconvenient impediments to his real goal: the uncovering of dimly lit, complex shenanigans. Here he reveals himself a natural storyteller. In looking backward, Hersh seems to write with a different hand: The stories brim with humor, wit, poignancy, pointillist portraits of brilliant color—above all, his own voice.

Seymour Hersh, Washington, DC, 1970. Bob Daugherty/AP Photo.
Seymour Hersh, Washington, DC, 1970. Bob Daugherty/AP Photo.

He only sketches out the autobiography.

We get glimpses of a childhood, and family: a wife, Elizabeth, a New York native and psychoanalyst; a twin brother (the Hersh siblings comprise two sets of twins); and a father, a Jewish émigré from Lithuania who owned a dry cleaner’s in “a black ghetto” on the South Side of Chicago and died young, at forty-nine, before Hersh finished high school. The widow—“My mother, Dorothy, from Poland”—and her travails are all but invisible. Instead, Hersh presents an abbreviated bildungsroman of a newshound, as if ordered up by Hollywood.

Brother Al went off to college, and later a doctorate in fluid dynamics, while Sy turned to a junior college in Chicago before a professor aided a move to the University of Chicago. At the time, Hersh’s head was deep in novels—Augie March (“a Chicago boy, like me, who was not making it”) was a favorite. At university, books are opened but there is no transformative moment: “I was not a Maoist, or a Platonist, or a Socratic, but I obviously was a fellow oddball, because I mixed education with continuing to run the family cleaning store.” But a gift is discovered: “I could always write—say exactly what I wanted to say in one take.”

After a law-school misfire—he was “kicked out” after a “few quarters”—Hersh was selling booze in a Walgreens when he learned of a small agency, the City News Bureau, “a tip sheet for the big dailies” that covered crime. From City News to the local AP, Hersh climbed up from the bottom rung—“copyboy. . . evening shift.” His first assignment: a manhole fire. He learned the basics (an editor schools him in suspicion—“If your mother says she loves you, check it out”). He also came to know, after a brush with cop corruption and the murder of a black man shot in the back, “my weakness and the weakness of a profession that dealt so easily with compromise and self-censorship.” The twin hatreds have served as a compass ever since.

There is the peripatetic rise, to suburbia and South Dakota, a decade in which he tries out at every position on the news team (night editor, layout, teletypist, ad sales, rewrite man), before the arrival, in the summer of 1965, at age twenty-eight, in Washington, DC—“at last.” His first Washington byline: a report on a Shriners parade.

A year at the Pentagon taught him little of the war, but a great deal about reporting, perhaps all he would ever need to know. Finding the pressroom inhabitants “spineless,” he went his own way: “After fifteen or so minutes, it seemed clear to me that the only story that would emerge would be about yet another general claiming victory in the war. . . . I stood up and . . . thanked him for his time and walked out.” In the antiseptic halls he found a revelation: “The official denials I had been faithfully recording” held little truth, but the officers (in one early instance, a three-star admiral) could teach “a lot about military integrity and honor.” Here he finds the sure footing that will launch his investigative career. Hersh is a skeptic’s skeptic, but also a Midwestern boy who shares ample common ground with the brass: a love of baseball, golf, and shared “American values.”

“I am in no way a fanatic, or a prude about lying,” he writes. “I happen to believe, innocently perhaps, that official lying or authorized lying or understood lying about military planning, weapons systems, or intelligence cannot be tolerated. I cannot look the other way.” The Pentagon stall-out, though, taught him to look for the men and women. “Tracking down people who did not want to be found was vital to what I did for a living,” he learned—“and I was good at it.”

Since Chicago, Hersh has rarely been an eyewitness. He comes to the crime after the fact, but shuns the role of advocate, let alone judge.

Hersh has never had an Assange, Snowden, Ellsberg, or Deep Throat. He has done it—from My Lai to Abu Ghraib—with the small steps, finding the sources none knew, and many who remain unknown. He is a master, perhaps the master, at assaying the right actors, getting to them, and getting them to talk. The officers (senior and junior), clerks, priests, mechanics, and, of course, mothers. He is equal parts interrogator and confessor, and here, unfurling with expected precision and surprising delicacy, is the long record of testimony.

My Lai, of course, is the fulcrum of the lifelong pursuit. Hersh was thirty-two when, in the fall of 1969, he got a tip that would change his life, bringing fame, a Pulitzer, and a mortgage—and change in American opinion on the war. A phone call on October 22, 1969, begins a chase that starts at the Pentagon, where Hersh bumps into a friendly, well-placed officer who lets slip the last (but not first) name of the officer accused of murdering unarmed civilians, some of them children, in South Vietnam. From there, Hersh finds a three-paragraph wire item deep inside the Times that completes the name (“First Lieut. William J. Calley Jr., twenty-six years old, of Miami”), has coffee with a congressional aide who adds details, makes a “stopover” in Salt Lake City to visit Calley’s lawyer, asks for funding—$1,000 for airfare—from an anti-war patron, before finally arriving at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he hopes to find Calley himself.

At the base, Hersh relies on instincts, and his time in basic training. He moves from officer to officer, knocking on doors, scouring military phone books and every corner of the base: gas stations, army hotels, officers’ quarters. It is dark when he approaches two guys working under a car. One crawls out, wipes his hands, and tells Hersh, “He’s not here, but you can wait for him at my place.” Drinks, as at every stop on the base, are offered. “The US Army,” Hersh quips, “clearly was running on bourbon.”

The officer, a helicopter pilot, “acknowledged, sadly, that Vietnam was a murderous, unwinnable war that was taxing his love for the army, which had educated him and taught him how to be an excellent pilot.” Here, as often in the stories that follow, Hersh has no trouble practicing what journalism schools now struggle to teach: empathy. “I liked the pilot, and admired his honesty (he mailed me Christmas cards for years).” Calley appears, and as the accused and the newsman speak, more drinks flow. “I had wanted to hate him,” Hersh writes, “to see him as a child-killing monster, but instead I found a rattled, frightened young man, short, slight, and so pale that the bluish veins on his neck and shoulders were visible.” At one point Calley got up, went to the bathroom. The door was ajar, and Hersh “watched as he vomited bright red arterial blood”—evidence of an ulcer. There would be a PX run (more booze), and a stop at an all-night market (to pick up a steak). It was daybreak when Calley spoke of going bowling. But Hersh was done, his “notebook full of quotes, much of them full of danger for him.”

His host wouldn’t let Hersh go without talking to his captain. As they shared a phone, Calley told his officer that he wanted him to explain that “anything that took place was done under direct order.” The captain replied, “‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and hung up.” Calley was “stricken,” as the realization hit: “He was going to be the fall guy for the murders at My Lai.”

In time, the toll would rise as high as 567 men, women, and children. Later came word of the rapes. “It was a Nazi-type thing,” one veteran would say. But the portrait of Calley and the deeds of the Americal Division presented here is richer, deeper, than any previous. Hersh lays bare his hard-earned understanding. “Both the killer and the killed are victims in Vietnam,” he writes to his book editor, the legendary Bob Loomis, “the peasant who is shot down for no reason and the G.I. who is taught, or comes to believe, that a Vietnamese life somehow has less meaning than his wife’s, or his sister’s, or his mother’s.”

My Lai was the story of a lifetime. But the moments of revelation repeat. Hersh finds General Jack Lavelle, who took the blame for the Pentagon’s wanton bombing of North Vietnam, at a golf course. As Lavelle’s two sons wait in the car, the general and reporter go for a beer in the clubhouse. As Lavelle swigs a “bottle of Miller High Life,” Hersh asks why “he was fired but not court-martialed.” He would never forget the general’s answer, “given with a smile: ‘When was the last time a four-star general was court-martialed?’ At that moment, I began to like him.” Lavelle told Hersh that “everything he did was known to all in the chain of command.” When pressed on the question of “higher authority,” the general delivered what Hersh had come for: “Jack Lavelle knew I was referring to Henry Kissinger.”

Hersh’s encounters with sources are full of dramatic turns, but these are encounters of communion, not confrontation. In the alchemy of reporter and source, information is exchanged, truth emerges: A Senator confirms closed-door testimony; the wife of a senior army officer at the Pentagon hands off documents; an FBI official gets up from a restaurant chair, leaving a file behind. These are the moments in which Hersh’s grand scoops spring to life, but they are also the turns that opened a succession of soul-searching chapters in the recent history of America’s political and military institutions.

We meet the good men, the “fellow moralists,” as Hersh calls them: an official tied to the Special Forces Command “offended by the Bush administration’s constant public lying”; a CIA official who tells of “his distress” at hearing a colleague brag of torture. After four decades, no one is more deeply sourced in the Pentagon and CIA. “We use the word ‘sources’ in the newspaper world to describe those who provide needed information,” Hersh writes, “but . . . they were friends and stayed friends after they left government.” Melvin Laird (Nixon’s first secretary of defense); a senior CIA operative and Irish Catholic crony of Gene McCarthy; Charles E. Radford, Kissinger’s stenographer at the secret Islamabad peace talks; the four-star general, a division commander in Desert Storm, who over coffee before his morning run, tells of General Barry McCaffrey’s “murderous surprise attack on a retreating Iraqi tank battalion after that war had ended”—all “friends.”

As Hersh unburdens himself, it is hard to fathom who will be more infuriated: his critics or loyalists?

“I am a survivor,” Hersh writes in the book’s first line, “from the golden age of journalism.” A curious phrase—“who died in”—reappears with regularity as characters come across the stage, a reminder that Hersh is the last man standing.

Reporter is, naturally, a reported memoir. Hersh opens boxes, gathers transcripts, court files, internal CIA histories, letters, memoranda, thank-you notes, and e-mails. He has made new phone calls, too, and return trips. The supporting cast get well-deserved cameos. We meet the heroic: I. F. “Izzy” Stone, the muckraker who “outworked every journalist in Washington,” shares long walks and serves as mentor. William Shawn, New Yorker legend, was “slight and fussy, but he radiated what the military call command presence.” “After about five minutes Shawn raised a hand to quiet me and said . . . ‘That sounds fine, Mr. Hersh. Is five hundred a week enough?’”

The antiheroes, of course, steal more time: John Mitchell, Al Haig, and the Grand Nemesis known simply as “Henry”—Dr. Kissinger. James Baker stars in one of the many stinging footnotes: “Baker . . . ran into me on a flight from Washington to Houston a few months later. As he walked past me, he stopped, pointed a finger at me, and said, with much anger, ‘You didn’t lay a glove on me. Not one finger.’ ”

Seeded throughout, as well, are the “Hersh rules”: “Never begin an interview by asking core questions.” “Never publish information from someone on the inside without verifying it elsewhere.” Learn to pretend to take notes while reading upside-down documents (on official desks). Keep your phone number listed—both home and work. Appreciate the virtues of straight shooting. “Being direct with someone in the military,” he learns early on, “invariably produced a direct answer.”

There are, too, surprises. He does not spare those who tried “to shut me up,” chiefly Kissinger, Cheney, Gulf and Western. But there is no interest in score-settling. Hersh is generous to colleagues and editors, above all, Abe Rosenthal and David Remnick. A Life editor who turned down not only My Lai but a source’s later attempt to tell the story himself, is condemned—“If there is a journalism hell, that editor belongs there”—but not named.

There are, of course, flashes of ego. When a source “broke off relations” it is on the order of a diplomatic spat. There is, too, an undercurrent of “I was right.” “Decades later,” we learn, the truth will out, as when William Colby, but one of the CIA chiefs to come under Hersh’s scrutiny, “would eventually publicly admit that his Agency had done what I had written.” Yet there is no hubris. How many reporters, living or otherwise, can describe—with accuracy—the Church Committee (the 1975 Senate investigation into US intelligence activities) as “the one that had been set up after my 1974 article on domestic spying”? If anything, Hersh soft-pedals the triumphs. Who else can claim to have proven, as much as any reporter, a standby of American jurisprudence and journalism, that the crime is only the first offense, and that it’s the cover-up that will bury you?

Hersh is candid, too, on shortfalls. The unkempt appearance: “You looked your normal disheveled look, hair mussed up, shirt half out,” a former Times colleague recalls. (“There’s nothing silky about Sy,” a friend, the war reporter Gloria Emerson, quips.) In the 1970s, a Times editor dumps “half a dozen boxes full of Brooks Brothers shirts and sweaters” on his desk, with an admonishment: “Dress better.” Neither does he hide, nor promote, his half-crazed drive. He recalls being “pretty mouthy,” throwing a “temper tantrum,” and, almost seasonally, resigning.

He confesses more serious shortcomings, too. Behind enemy lines in Hanoi in 1972, he was blind to a military buildup: He “spent more than two weeks in the North”—the first mainstream US reporter to do so in six years—“without figuring out that the constant rolling of trucks going south had a particular meaning.” He also admits a failure to report, to his editors or the police, knowledge of a crime concerning Pat Nixon. He had heard that Nixon’s wife had “told doctors that her husband had hit her.” He had “very precise information” on her injuries but did not write the story. Only later, in 1998, at a Harvard talk, is he “taken aback,” when a visiting journalism fellow questions the failure to report, noting “battery is a crime in many jurisdictions.” “All I could say,” Hersh admits, “was that at the time I did not—in my ignorance—view the incident as a crime.”

Hersh, who for most of his adult life has shared a roof with a psychoanalyst, does not do self-explication. The closest he trespasses into root causes is when he draws the lines back to childhood. “My comfort in getting to know and exchanging views with a wide variety of people generated,” he writes, “from being raised and working in a racially diverse part of Chicago. I had grown up needing to figure out on my own whom to trust and depend on in the community. . . . Whatever the reason, I found it easy to be open and connect with scientists, army generals, Republican legislators, and intelligence officials as I moved through my career.” A passage on his critics goes a degree deeper: “I knew I would survive the criticism. . . . Even today, I have flashbacks on stormy days about the wet and snowy mornings on which I, still in my teens, opened my long-gone father’s store on Indiana Avenue in the dark of a Chicago winter at 7:00, turning on lights and getting ready to deal with laundry and cleaning while sneaking in a few hours of homework for a later class at the University of Chicago.”

And yet a sad undertow runs throughout the book, surfacing only at its close. What Hersh has written is not a memoir, but an elegy. He might feign at end what he offered at the outset: a media critique. “Twenty-four-hour cable news was devouring the news-reporting business, TV panelist by TV panelist.” And the lament is, in part, for the end of an era. After all, despite the dark tales, Hersh loves his country. The Chicago boy, who went through basic training in Missouri, and in the early 1960s covered the legislature in Pierre, South Dakota, has lived in the lands between the coasts. Orem, Utah; Emporia, Kansas; Ottumwa, Iowa—these are the corners where many of his most candid sources have lived. Hersh has a reporter’s patriotic faith, too, a belief that “there are many officers, including generals and admirals, who understood that the oath of office they took was a commitment to uphold and defend the Constitution and not the President, or an immediate superior.” These Americans, he writes, “deserved my respect and got it.”

As much as Hersh may not intend it, his spectacular walk back through a lifetime of digging and discovery leads not to answers but to questions. “Find those officers,” he commands. But in the Age of Trump, no one seems to come clean. The danger is not the incessant hunger of the nonstop-news monsters, but a darker fear: Are we bereft of sources? Today we ask: Are America’s military and political institutions so degraded as to be bereft of good women and men willing to speak the truth? Our greatest investigative reporter leaves the disease undiagnosed, but the story of his career begs a question as dreadful as any “Hersh piece”: Have we become a country without a conscience? It’s not that we may never have another Sy Hersh. We may never have another generation of sources—those “fellow moralists” sufficiently “offended” and “troubled,” who still walk the corridors of power and who can recognize a reporter with the guts, and heart, to tell the truth.

Andrew Meier is the author of Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall? (2003), Chechnya: To the Heart of a Conflict (2004), and The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service_ (2008; all Norton).