Reporter: A Memoir

Seymour M Hersh

Allen Lane, £20

Review by Alan Taylor

Like Saul Bellow’s Augie March, Seymour “Sy” Hersh is “an American, Chicago born”. Like Augie, too, Hersh – described in a puff by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, as “the greatest investigative journalist of his era” – goes at things as he has taught himself, and makes the record in his own way: “first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent”. And, without wishing further to labour the comparison, Hersh, like his fictional counterpart, is a loner, who follows his own snout, battling in an often unreceptive world to make his voice heard and have his stories read.

Reporter: A Memoir is the kind of book American journalists feel they must eventually write if they are to leave their mark. The present occupant of the White House notwithstanding, our trade is taken seriously in what Gore Vidal termed the United States of Amnesia. For all the muck Donald Trump throws at journalists they remain one of the bulwarks of the constitution, mythologised in print and in countless movies in a manner that simply doesn’t happen hereabouts. Thus newspapers such as the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post still have a status and resources that we can only envy.

Hersh is a maverick, to journalism what Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade are to sleuthing. Though he has been an employee of the New York Times and the New Yorker, he has spent much of his career as a freelance. An inveterate muck-raker, he prefers long-form journalism to the sprint of a regular column. He doesn’t mind biting hands that feed him and is prepared to nettle politicians, corporations and fellow colleagues, such as Abe Rosenthal, his long-suffering champion at the NYT. I imagine he can be a pain in the butt. Certainly, he is not shy when it comes to naming names or exposing hypocrisy, either from inside or outside whichever tent he happens to be occupying at a particular time.

“I had learned,” he writes in Reporter, “that some of my colleagues in the mainstream journalism world were equally adept in looking the other way, if need be, rather than writing about an unpleasant and unwanted truth.” Here Hersh is talking about his exposés of chemical and biological warfare but he could just as easily be referring to the Catholic abuse scandal, the wanton killing of non-combatants in Vietnam or the shenanigans of sundry incumbents of the Oval Office which certain hacks decided were best kept under wraps.

As befits someone more interested in the pursuit of stories than his inner self, Hersh is rarely introspective. He is in too much of a hurry to stand still and look into a mirror. His opening sentence is a clue to what follows: “I grew up on the South Side of Chicago knowing not a soul in the newspaper business and having little interest in the world beyond that of the nearest ballpark and playground.” It may not sing so sweetly as Bellow’s but it lets us know what Hersh thinks is important.

He was born in 1937 into a lower-middle-class household. His father had a dry cleaner’s in a black neighbourhood. In their teens Hersh and his twin brother Alan were expected to work there several hours a day. It was only

60 years after his father’s death that his son learned that his birth village, Seduva, was in Lithuania where, in August 1944, its entire Jewish population was massacred by the Germans and local collaborators.

His father, adds Hersh, “never figured out America”. In a sense, Hersh has made it his mission to do just that. He was an ardent reader and still is, reading being the best way to get a handle of whatever story he’s covering. After taking a degree in English (“but with no honors”), he drifted before finding a job as a cub reporter. One of his chores was to scrub the desk of a senior editor who ran his white glove over it to make sure it was cleaned to his satisfaction. It was one of several moronic tasks Hersh was given. “Nonetheless,” he says, “I was smitten.”

Chicago, with its history of gangsterism, a corrupt political class and myriad cops on the take, was the perfect place for a rookie to cut his teeth. Hersh flourished in the mire.

For him journalism was less a job

than a vocation.

His heroes, he recalls, were David Halberstam, Charles Mohr, Malcolm Browne and Neil Sheehan, whose names, one suspects, will not resonate on this side of the pond, as so many other names mentioned in Reporter will not. They were men who – as the cliche goes – spoke truth to power. Hersh wanted desperately to join their club and eventually he did. In 1974, Halberstam wrote to tell him: “You are, my friend, a national treasure. Bless you.” That Hersh is happy to quote this shows that self-deprecation is not one of virtues.

This memoir is thus a vindication of its author. It is also a marvellous insight into how America works. Among the many bizarre episodes Hersh recounts is his appointment in 1967 as Eugene McCarthy’s press secretary. A democrat and anti the Vietnam war, Senator McCarthy hoped to defeat Lyndon Johnson, run for the presidency and bring to an end the calamitous war. Among those who joined his campaign was the poet Robert Lowell, to whom the candidate paid more heed than Hersh. Needless to say, it all ended badly, not least because McCarthy was more interested in poetry than politics. “McCarthy,” reflects Hersh, “would frustrate me by reading poems by intellectuals such as George Seferis, among others, instead of the briefing books on local issues I and my staff were constantly shoving at him.”

It was Hersh, however, who could claim to have helped stop the war. In 1969, he received a tip-off about the court-martialling of a GI for the killing of 75 civilians in South Vietnam. First, he had to find his name – Lieutenant William L Calley, Jr – and then he had to find him. As Hersh tells it, it is thrilling stuff. Eventually, he tracked Calley down to an army base in Georgia, who gave him his suspect account – “full of heroic, one-on-one warfare with bullets, grenades, and artillery shells being exchanged with the evil commies” – of what happened in a village called My Lai.

The story of how what exactly did happen at My Lai, when American troops gang-raped women, slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children and mutilated their bodies, is one of the most egregious episodes of the Vietnam War but, as Hersh is at pains to explain, it was not an isolated or even unusual incident. Even to someone like him, inured as he is to the cynicism of those in power, its barbarity was shocking. It made a mockery of those who were believed to be the best and the brightest and shook the nation to its core. Americans, it transpired, were not always the good guys who could always be relied upon to do the right thing. Indeed, not only had Americans committed an atrocity, other Americans did what they could to cover it up. It took another of Hersh’s heroes – William Shawn, another New Yorker editor – to allow him to reveal all. When Hersh told him the piece was 12,000 words, for which he apologised, Shawn said: “Oh, Mr Hersh, stories are never too long or too short. They’re too interesting or too boring.”

Hersh would go on to write many more stories – about Watergate, Henry Kissinger, JFK and, following 9/11, “America’s war on terror” and the affront to democracy that is Abu Ghraib – but My Lai remains the one that defines him. He won a Pulitzer for it but that’s not the point. A self-confessed “Vietnam junkie”, he may not be the greatest of writers but he is passionate in pursuit of what our lieges would rather we didn’t know. Hersh, now 81, is still writing, still dividing opinion, still causing a ruckus, still testing the resolve of editors and owners. As he should. As should all the best practitioners of this necessary and indispensable and vulnerable business.