The cover image on Seymour Hersh’s memoir, Reporter, could hardly be improved. Taken in 1974 in the newsroom of The New York Times, it shows Hersh with his left elbow propped on a typewriter with blank paper in the roller, sleeves rolled up and patterned tie loose around an unironed collar. He is leaning confidentially in to the receiver of what must be a rotary dial phone, listening intently, gazing into the middle distance. It could be a still from All the President’s Men or The Parallax View, although Hersh is in black and white, as befits a giant of print, bane of governments and scourge of spies from Watergate to Abu Ghraib.
As he describes it, Hersh was born into a school of American journalism already saturated with romance. His first job was on Chicago’s City News Bureau, made famous by alumni Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht in The Front Page (1928). Its ‘shabby desks, dirty floors, old typewriters, and marginal lighting’ occupied by ‘wise guys full of badinage’ were dazzling to this ‘punk Jew’. Here he absorbed cardinal nostrums of tenacity and precision, such as ‘being first is not nearly as important as being right’ and ‘if your mother says she loves you, check it out’. He also, it occurred to him later, acquired a chameleonic knack of ‘getting to know and exchanging views with a wide variety of people’, stemming originally from ‘being raised and working in a racially diverse part of Chicago’. This is a rare bout of introspection in Reporter, which lives up to its title in reading a little like a news feature on Hersh himself.
Not that this precludes excitement Like anything involving Hersh, Reporter contains its share of scoops. The most fascinating concern the only interruption to his sixty years as a newsman, as press secretary to the quixotic 1968 presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, about which he has never before written, and which is a minor classic of the campaigning life. McCarthy emerges as a noble dilettante, skiving off a fundraiser in Milwaukee to see Ulysses at the cinema because ‘I understand they use the word “fuck” in the movie’. Asked by Hersh what he should tell the audience, McCarthy says airily: ‘Tell them I’ll part the waters.’
The story behind the story of Hersh’s epoch-making My Lai reports also starts here, because he divulges that his original tip-off about the atrocity came from a fellow worker on the McCarthy campaign, and the key detail of the name from an angry colonel he had befriended at the Pentagon. Asked casually about the rumour of a 1968 massacre of men, women, and children in a village in Vietnam, the colonel stormed: ‘This Calley is a madman, Sy.’ With a name, Hersh could go places – and did.
The two chapters concerned with My Lai, where it’s now estimated around five hundred civilians were killed in cold, khaki blood, are some of the finest I have ever read about the high ideals, low cunning, and DIY ethics of the pavement-pounding reporter. Yeah, the war and all that, but what matters above all is the scoop. ‘I liked being the best, the leader of the pack,’ Hersh confesses.
Hersh pursues Lt William Calley less like an avenging angel than a bounty hunter, charming, cheating, winking, and wheedling. He pretends to take notes of a conversation with Calley’s lawyer while actually reading and transcribing the charge sheet upside down on the man’s desk. He prowls Georgia’s Fort Benning, where Calley is being held, more or less pretending to be an officer. He feigns sympathy with Calley, who is, perhaps inevitably, a disappointing villain: ‘I had wanted to hate him, 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.’ Proprietorial about the story, he rejects entreaties to tell it in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, which would have slightly lightened his watermark. The public have a right to know, but what Hersh seems keenest they know is his byline.
It is unclear how well he recognises this about himself, but Hersh comes across as arrogant, insouciant, a braggart, and a prima donna, throwing typewriters through windows, raining insults left and right. And unlike his great contemporary Bob Woodward, who becomes a kind of White House court historian, Hersh stubbornly refuses domestication. His abiding frenemy is the Times’s Abe Rosenthal, similarly volatile and profane, who heads off one Hersh kvetching with: ‘Shut the fuck up and get the story ready.’
Which is fun – a nice antidote to journalism’s tendency to pious attitudinising. But after a while, it conduces to rather a one-note book, on which the paranoia lies heavy and in which the characters are mainly ciphers, even the admirable ones like the New Yorker editors William Shawn (who cooed to Hersh: ‘Stories are never too long or too short. They’re too interesting or too boring’) and David Remnick (who rang Hersh before the second tower was hit with the instruction: ‘You are now permanently assigned to the biggest story of your career’).
Story follows story, but the larger one Hersh is meant to be telling, of himself, goes by the board. The lack of an interior life is one thing, the absence of a sense of what his work might stand for is another. Hersh is apt to cite sales figures and quote reviews of his work, but seldom thinks more deeply about it. A case can be made that he has had a greater impact on journalism than on his targets. John F. Kennedy remains a sainted name; Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney enjoy rude health; the mogul Charles Bluhdorn stayed rich; the mob lawyer Sidney Korshak was never indicted; even Calley served but a token sentence.
Hersh’s great bête noire was Kissinger (‘The man lied the way most people breathed’) and arguably his most momentous work, the seven-hundred-page blockbuster The Price of Power: Kissinger in the White House (1983). But with the best will in the world, it is hard yakka. Hersh tells a story of walking into a Maryland swimming pool with his family shortly after the book came out and observing a sunbaking woman reading it. Half an hour later he looked back at her and she was asleep with the book over her face.
Hersh is assuredly a reporter’s reporter; with his wealth of unnameable sources and flair for conspiratorial conjecture, he has not always been so beckoning of readers. He lost some of his faith in Remnick over the latter’s relationship with Barack Obama: ‘I had learned over the years never to trust the declared aspirations of any politician and was also enough of a prude to believe that editors should not make friends with a sitting president.’ Which in its way is admirable, but also leaves him with nothing very much to believe in. One returns to the cover: a figure in shades of grey, now struggling to distinguish them.