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What Whittaker Chambers Tells Us About Age of Obama
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I mourned the untimely passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman for the very personal reason that I hoped he would one day get to play Whittaker Chambers in a film version of Chambers’ 1952 masterwork, Witness.
Short, heavy set, permanently rumpled, Hoffman would have made a near perfect Chambers to George Clooney’s Alger Hiss, the smooth, handsome, establishment golden boy.
Chambers’ 800-page story of his life and their encounter remains the great political book of the twentieth century. Chambers was a deep thinker, a dazzling writer, and a reluctant participant in the most riveting political drama of the era. No one could have told his story better than he.
On second reading, I find the book even more powerful than on the first. I have seen enough in the years in between to know how eloquently Chambers speaks to the truth tellers who have followed him. As the Rudy Giuliani-Obama contretemps suggest, they face a remarkably similar set of obstacles to those Chambers faced sixty-five years ago.
For those who may not know the story, Chambers, as a young man in the 1920s, signed on to man’s second oldest faith, the one that promised, “Ye shall be as gods.” Communism was in its ascendancy at the time, and Chambers ascended with it. As a writer and true believer, he sufficiently impressed his superiors that they asked him to go underground in Washington D.C. and organize a high level ring of federal bureaucrats working on behalf of the Soviet Union.
Prominent among those bureaucrats was Hiss. A Harvard Law graduate, Hiss would rise through the ranks to become a special assistant in the State Department, an adviser to President Roosevelt at Yalta, and one of the principal architects of the United Nations. After World War II, he was named president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Before the war, Hiss was Chambers’ most effective agent. He was also his closest friend in the underground. Chambers and his wife spent much time with the Hisses, lived with them periodically, and were even given a car by Hiss. Hiss was the last person in the underground Chambers talked to before breaking away in 1938.
At serious risk to himself and his family, Chambers had chosen to change sides in the great ideological conflict of his age and of ours, a conflict he described as “Almighty Man vs Almighty God.” Stalin’s lethal, large-scale purges in the late 1930s helped open Chambers’ eyes.
Upon rejecting the “left’s vision of Man without God,” Chambers came to see Christianity as the one force powerful enough to resist communism. He continued, however, to admire Communists for their faith, the intensity of which was all that distinguished them from the “miscellaneous socialists, liberals, fellow travelers, unclassified progressives and men of good will” that cluttered his age as they do ours.
In 1939, after the Soviet Union threw in with Nazi Germany and divided Poland between them, Chambers felt obliged to let the Roosevelt administration know how thoroughly its ranks had been infested with high-level Soviet agents. He met with Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle and shared his information. Berle’s efforts to alert his superiors went nowhere, and Chambers retreated into anonymity for the next nine years.
In 1948, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came calling. Now settled in as senior editor of Time magazine, Chambers had little desire to expose his own past or to testify against his friend, but his conscience obliged him to do so. Hiss made the ordeal much harder by denying he ever knew Chambers. The media believed Hiss, and President Harry Truman promptly dismissed the case as a “red herring”
Indeed, so well esteemed was Hiss by the media and the liberal establishment that HUAC would have dropped the case altogether had not freshman Congressman Richard Nixon convinced his colleagues that Hiss was lying. For this breach of political etiquette, Nixon would not be forgiven.
Gradually, Hiss changed his story and admitted a passing acquaintance with Chambers. In the various congressional hearings, grand jury sessions, and trials that followed, it became absurdly obvious that Chambers was telling the truth and Hiss lying.
In a private session, for instance, Chambers testified that Hiss enjoyed bird-watching and once claimed to have seen a prothonotary warbler, a detail Hiss unwittingly confirmed in his own private session. Hiss would eventually be convicted of perjury—the statute of limitations having expired on espionage—and would serve nearly four years in a federal prison.
At the time, none of this was a foregone conclusion. The media and Hiss’s prominent friends continued to back Hiss despite the evidence. Chambers beautifully describes the liberal mindset, a mindset that has changed little in the sixty-plus years since.
I came across this paragraph days after the media unloaded on Giuliani for daring to say the obvious about the Harvard Law grad in the White House, namely that he does not love America, at least under any useful definition of the word “love.” When Giuliani followed up, saying, “From the time he was nine-years-old, he was influenced by Frank Marshall Davis, who was a communist,” he was introducing evidence to people who had long since snapped their minds shut about Obama. Most, even in the media, had likely never even heard of Davis.
Those of us who have tried to share uncomfortable truths about Obama, no matter how obvious, have experienced some of the frustration Chambers felt and likely endured at least a sliver of the abuse. Then as now, it is what Chambers called “the great body of the nation” that keeps its mind open “ waiting for the returns to come in.”
As to why our progressive betters respond as they do to the truth tellers in their midst, Chambers nailed that as well:
When Chambers changed sides in this epic showdown, he thought he was abandoning the winning side for the losing one. All these years later, I am not sure he wasn’t right.
Editor's note: Jack Cashill, newest book, You Lie: The Evasions, Omissions, Fabrications, Frauds and Outright Falsehoods of Barack Obama will be available October 7.
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