Deja Vu

The scene is a congressional courtroom. A prominent public figure is defending his reputation against a voice from his past. The nation is watching. One of the two is lying--but observers divide, largely along political lines, on which. The accused party denies everything, argues that such an upright and thorougly respectable person as himself could never have done such a terrible thing, and indignantly attacks the committee for subjecting him to such charges. The other side responds by pointing out that, if the accusation is true, the defendant has every incentive to deny it; if it is false, the accuser has no reason to make it. The defense replies that the accuser must be mentally unbalanced.

It could be Clarence Thomas v Anita Hill in 1991. It could equally well be Alger Hiss v Whittaker Chambers in 1949.

There are a lot of similarities between the two cases. Clarence Thomas was an ex head of the EOC and a federal judge. Alger Hiss was an ex state department official and the President of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. Both were highly respectable people forced to defend themselves before a congressional committee from charges of wrong doing. Thomas's accuser, Anita Hill, had been his employee and protege; Hiss's accuser, Whittaker Chambers, had been (by his account although not by Hiss's) a close friend of Hiss. In each case, the accuser was willing to submit himself to a lie detector test; the accused was not.

Clarence Thomas was a graduate of Yale Law School; Alger Hiss was a graduate of Harvard Law School. Thomas was accused of having committed sexual harassment some ten years prior to the accusation; since the statute of limitations on the offense had expired, the accusation was a danger only because of its effect on his reputation and future career. Hiss was initially charged with having been a communist, and eventually with having turned over state department papers to Chambers, then a Russian spy, some ten years earlier. In that case too the statute of limitations had run. Hiss denied Chambers' charges in order to protect his reputation and maintain his job as president of the Carnegie Endowment. In each case the charge involved a sort of professional treason--loyalty to a foreign power by a member of the state department, sexual harassment by the official in charge of preventing sexual harassment.

In both cases, which side you supported depended in part on whether you believed the charges were true, and in part on whether you thought they mattered. Few of Thomas's defenders were willing to say publicly that talking dirty to a female subordinate ten years ago is no big thing, but I suspect that many of them felt that way. Many of the Liberals who supported Hiss surely felt that what he was originally charged with--having once been a communist party member--was not a very serious sin. The Hiss case, like the Thomas case, became for many a symbolic combat between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Hiss eventually went to jail for perjury, but to this day there are people who still believe he was innocent.

There were, of course, some major differences. Hiss and Chambers, unlike Thomas and Hill, eventually fought out their battle in the courts. Hiss sued Chambers for libel; the case ended in a victory for Chambers. Hiss was himself indicted for perjury. The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second ended with Hiss convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years in jail.

One reason for the different outcome was that Hiss and Chambers, unlike Thomas and Hill, disagreed on facts about which it was possible to produce some real evidence. What eventually swung the committee to Chambers' side was a certificate of title showing the sale of a car that had once belonged to Hiss--a year too late to be consistent with Hiss's account of the transation, and under circumstances strikingly consistent with Chamber's version. Without that, and a few similar scraps of evidence, Hiss's strategy of blanket denial and indignant attack might have been as successful as Thomas's similar strategy forty-two years later. Chambers finally won his libel case, and ended Hiss's career, by producing documents and photographs of documents giving inside state department information--some typed on Hiss's typewriter and some written in his handwriting.

A second difference was in who was on which team. Hiss was a prominent New Deal Liberal; his opponents were conservatives and anti-communists. Thomas was a conservative; his opponents were Liberals and feminists. In both cases the accused was on the same side as the administration in power. Both were, in part, an attempt by the outs to get at the ins. Harry Truman was not very far left--but then, George Bush is not very far right.

The final difference was the outcome. Hiss lost; his defeat contributed directly to the career of Richard Nixon, a prominent member of the congressional committee before which he testified, and indirectly to the career of Joseph McCarthy. It became much easier to argue that people in high positions might be communists after one of them had been convicted in a court of law. Thomas won; it is too early to say what the effect will be on the intertwined issues of race, sex, law and politics that became, in various ways, what the two sides were fighting over.

I think there is a lesson to be learned from the similarity between the two cases, beyond the familiar observation that history sometimes repeats itself--not a lesson about Hiss and Thomas but about their supporters. One result of the Hiss case and its sequels was a clear division between Liberals and conservatives on the question of means. The view of the Liberals was that the whole procedure of summoning prominent people before a tribunal to force them, under oath, to affirm or deny accusations about their past misdeeds was fundamentally demeaning to the participants and corrupting to the political fabric of the nation. It led inevitably to smear tactics, leaks, guilt by association, friend betraying friend under pressure--a demagogic witch hunt. The conservative reply was that a witch hunt was not such a bad thing when there were real witches about. If Alger Hiss had been a communist spy, there might be others. Public hearings were a way, perhaps the only way, of alerting the public to the danger of traitors in their midst, communists in high places.

Each side said, and believed, that its position was one of principle. And yet, when the roles were reversed, when it was a prominent conservative who stood publicly accused of something that Liberals strongly disapproved of, the two sides promptly switched principles. Suddenly it was the conservatives who found the whole process demeaning and corrupting and the Liberals who found it useful, the conservatives who believed that public muckraking was a bad thing, and the Liberals who believed that if the muck was there it ought to get raked, as publicly as possible.

Readers interested in a fair and comprehensive summary of the Hiss case may wish to read Perjury: The Hiss Chambers Case by Allen Weinstein (Knopf, NY 1978).

Published in Liberty Magazine, reprinted by permission