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CITIZEN K: The Deeply Weird American Journey of Brett
Kimberlin by Mark Singer; Alfred A. Knopf $25, 381
pages | BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

A Story That Should Not Have Been Told

November 08, 1996|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This book must be the longest correction of a magazine article ever produced.

In the 1988 presidential campaign a major drug dealer sent word from his prison cell that in the 1970s he had sold small amounts of marijuana to George Bush's vice presidential candidate, Sen. Dan Quayle. Quayle immediately denied it.

This newspaper looked carefully into the allegation and could find no corroboration. Other news organizations reached similar conclusions.

The story largely disappeared. Then Gary Trudeau's comic strip "Doonesbury" revived it in 1991. And less than a month before the presidential election of 1992 the New Yorker magazine, in its first issue under its new editor, Tina Brown, ran a 22,000-word article, enthusiastically endorsed by her, that elaborated on the story with baroque detail.

And it added a new element. The author, New Yorker staff writer Mark Singer, concluded that the government had violated the constitutional rights of the con, Brett Kimberlin. Singer ended his article with the judgment of the distinguished lawyer Erwin Griswold that Kimberlin was a "political prisoner."

In this new book Singer quotes the writer Garrison Keillor as having told him there was something "off" in the tone of the 1992 article he had written. "I thought the conclusion," Keillor said, "--the inferred conclusion--was hanging there before one got to it, that it was too anxious to reach a conclusion. . . . I thought the purpose of the piece was to get Quayle."

But now it turns out that Keillor was dead right.

As the time drew near for Kimberlin's release after 14 years behind bars, Singer conceived of the idea to write a book about him. In a most unusual, and, for a reporter, ethically questionable deal, Kimberlin would cooperate and writer and subject would share the proceeds. "Citizen K" is the result. It is not the book either of them thought it would be.

Singer now says that he could find no corroboration whatsoever for the story about Quayle. Singer was conned--or let himself be conned--by a consummate con man.

As Singer tried to get inside his subject's head, the writer says, Kimberlin led him into a "labyrinth of misinformation."

Kimberlin, intelligent and clever, was obsessed with self-improvement. While in prison he went to college by a correspondence course. He became a superb self-taught jailhouse lawyer; he handled his own cases and those of other prisoners with considerable success. A slight, short man, he turned himself into a champion weight-lifter. With great skill he learned what levers to push in the news business for his own purposes.

He complained ceaselessly that his trial had been unfair and that the government was mistreating him. Singer eventually found nearly all his complaints without foundation. Except for one. That was Kimberlin's charge that the government had unconstitutionally prevented him from speaking to reporters about Quayle before the 1992 election.

And indeed the Supreme Court has ruled in Kimberlin's favor on an important point in his lawsuit against two former officials of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons who kept him from talking with reporters. Prisoners have the same First Amendment rights you and I have. The high court has sent the case back for trial.

By the end of this complex tale you are left regretting that Singer and the New Yorker overlooked the sound advice of a New Yorker writer of an earlier time, James Thurber. One of his fables, about a feckless horse, ends with a moral all reporters should keep close to their hearts:

"Get it right or let it alone. The conclusion you jump to may be your own."

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