“I Figured What the Hell”Print
A pugnacious reporter looks back on his legendary career
By Graeme Wood
June 4, 2018
Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour Hersh; Knopf, 368 pp., $27.95
After a certain age, old newsmen start shedding inhibitions and, in a spiral of crotchetiness, picking ill-considered fights with editors, colleagues, sources, and finally, readers. For Seymour Hersh, that age was 26, and his subsequent descent into terminal grouchdom has continued for almost six decades. “Fuck them before they fuck you,” a neighbor advised the young Hersh. The advice stuck. Hersh’s memoir bears the arid title Reporter, but Fuck Them would better convey the author’s diction, and his attitude toward enemy and ally alike.
Hersh grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the son of a dry cleaning store owner. He became a beat reporter there (a “punk Jew,” he writes, among the older journos covering, and sometimes partaking in, local corruption), and like many ambitious print journalists, wormed his way into writing features by filing prose insufficiently dull for the regular newswires. Soon enough, he moved on to the Associated Press in Washington, where his natural impertinence served him well. On arrival, he spied Chief Justice Earl Warren having dinner with his wife at a restaurant. “I figured what the hell,” Hersh writes (variants of the phrase are ubiquitous in this book), and interrupted the man’s meal. I doubt that many lunches of the powerful went uncrashed when Hersh was present.
By 1969, after a stint as Senator Eugene McCarthy’s press secretary, Hersh was working his by-then extensive D.C. connections as a full-time, freelance investigative journalist, raking muck mostly in service of the antiwar movement. A tip from a fellow activist-writer led him to the then-still-concealed court-martial of U.S. Army Lieutenant William Calley for the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968. Two years and a Pulitzer later, Hersh had become one of the best-known reporters in the country, and he has broken many stories since then, mostly about misbehavior by the United States and its allies.
Throughout this period he was, he writes, “bitching aplenty”—another missed opportunity for a title of this memoir—at colleagues and others. His relationship with his boss at The New York Times, A. M. Rosenthal, began with Hersh’s hanging up twice. (“Do you know who I am?” Rosenthal asks. “Yes,” Hersh says, slamming down the handset.) And somehow, for years, Hersh got away with being antagonistic and abusive because he was also productive. Think Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, but with bow ties and Selectrics. Brazenly contemptuous of virtually every Times policy and editor, he unearthed and published explosive stories, usually after browbeating a succession of editors into allowing an extra thousand words, or restoring a phrasing to its original vitriol.
Hersh’s other outlet, The New Yorker, published his revelations of American incompetence—sometimes shading into evil—in the War on Terror. His editor there, David Remnick, proved judicious and canny enough to avoid the abusive dynamic that marked Hersh’s frenemyship with Rosenthal. But in 2011, when Hersh produced a piece alleging that the Obama administration had lied about the SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden, Remnick declined to publish him, and Hersh’s latest claims exonerating Damascus of using chemical weapons, rebutted bitterly by nearly every expert on the conflict, have appeared instead in the London Review of Books and Germany’s Die Welt.
Hersh is a reporter, not a stylist, and his prose reflects a lax attitude toward cliché. This is ultimately a career memoir, and the author “jumps” at chances and gets his “dream job.” Hersh is self-defending to the point of being self-regarding and quotes famous correspondents who have complimented his reportage. But he is also honest about his reliance on fact checkers at The New Yorker and the LRB, and he writes approvingly of editors at the Times who tell him to “shut the fuck up and get the story ready.”
Hersh’s memoir begins plaintively, with concern that journalism has ceased accommodating the long, expensive investigative processes that his stories typically required. “I was free to travel anywhere, anytime, for any reason, with company credit cards,” he notes wistfully about an era when he carried $10,000 in petty cash on his person. Today most reporters wince before asking an editor to fund a trip to Kansas.
More striking than shrinking budgets, though, has been journalism’s shrinking tolerance for rock-star levels of misbehavior. In 1976, enraged by a round of editorial revisions for a series at the Times, Hersh was inspired to throw his typewriter through his window and storm out of the office. “I arrived the next day to find the window replaced, and my office cleaned of glass,” he writes. “Not one word about it was said to me.” Rather than apologize, his next act was to write another bilious memo, “bitching about the process.” Rosenthal eventually sent a mordant countermemo, telling Hersh that if he were a better reporter, the process might not be so protracted. The retort, wittier than a flying typewriter, “made me laugh,” Hersh writes, absorbing the hit without rancor.
I somehow doubt that the Times’s policies would permit such drama in the modern era. And that, of course, leaves open the possibility that modern journalism has, for reasons unrelated to budgets, deprived itself of genius by depriving itself of depravity. Rage is a performance-enhancing drug, and the urgent exposure of war crimes is a cause for which we should be willing to break a window or two.
Still, the most thrilling moments of Hersh’s memoir are not the Hulk-like rampages but the methodical investigative processes that characterize his best work. Does he notice his own duality? He says at one point that he likes to be blustery and noisy. In recent years, he has taken to hyperbole and strutting behavior to advertise his eagerness to talk to sources. The Hersh catalog is uneven in quality, and I suspect the best of it is borne of a subtler process than peacocking around the Beltway.
Once he catches the spoor of a My Lai, Hersh’s tracking is a model of craft and control. He bargains with sources; gains knowledge by pretending to have it, or not have it, already; sneaks around; tricks, cajoles, plays his subjects; and engages in a one-man guerrilla war against an embarrassed U.S. government. He is calculating, cold-blooded, well-behaved, and professional. I think I know which Hersh I’d want in the cubicle next to mine. But to have one, I’d have to accept the other.
Graeme Wood is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.