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Nominee Suffers for His 'Heresy' -- Exposing a Darling of the Left

June 01, 2004|Jacob Heilbrunn

It's no secret that the Bush administration has a fetish for secrecy. Whether it's keeping the records of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force concealed or denying the 9/11 commission key documents, the administration regularly displays disdain for open government. But does that contempt extend even to the office of the national archivist?

The left apparently believes it does, and that's why President Bush's nomination of Allen Weinstein -- author of the definitive biography of Alger Hiss, "Perjury" -- for the post of national archivist has triggered a furor. "The American people need a better custodian of their history," the Nation magazine editorialized. The Society of American Archivists and the Organization of American Historians are questioning Weinstein's credentials. American University historian Anna K. Nelson told the Washington Post, "This is pretty sneaky."

Actually, it isn't. Far from being an unsuitable candidate, Weinstein is vastly more qualified for the job than the current archivist, former Kansas Gov. John Carlin. Weinstein brings a long record of first-rate scholarship and experience running Washington-based organizations, including the Center for Democracy, which helped push for election reform around the world.

But that's not sufficient for his enemies on the left. Instead, Weinstein has become a target for scholars who despise Bush, and for those who continue to insist that Hiss was never a spy for the Soviet Union and want payback.

To undermine Weinstein's credentials, his adversaries have confected a series of charges of sloppy scholarship. Beginning with Victor Navasky, publisher of the Nation, Weinstein's critics have cited his reluctance to open his files on the Hiss case. Although Weinstein has kept his files closed on the advice of his attorneys for fear of continual frivolous lawsuits by Hiss partisans -- including one he settled out of court in 1979 rather than engage in a protracted battle -- he has never been reflexively hostile to showing his files to serious scholars. He opened his files in the 1990s to New York Times book review editor Sam Tanenhaus, then an unknown writer working on a biography of Hiss' accuser, Whittaker Chambers. If Weinstein were a compulsively secretive scholar, he would not have done so.

Weinstein's foes also decry his reliance on secret Soviet documents for his 1999 book, "The Haunted Wood" -- documents that were not made available to other scholars. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, UC Irvine professor Jon Wiener complained that "Weinstein's publisher, Random House, paid approximately $100,000 to an organization of retired KGB agents to gain exclusive access to the documents for its authors -- something widely regarded as a violation of research ethics."

Please. The pious indignation is touching, but Weinstein and his coauthor, former KGB operative Aleksandr Vassiliev, had zero chance of obtaining the documents unless they complied with the Russian foreign service intelligence archive's onerous restrictions on access. As Mark Kramer, director of Harvard's project on the Cold War, told me in an e-mail, "Weinstein had absolutely no say in the matter."

The final complaint about Weinstein is that his Center for Democracy is, as the Nation recently put it, "studded with GOP heavyweights." But a look at its board discloses that it has as many Democrats, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Al Gore's former national security advisor, Leon Fuerth, as it does Republicans. In fact, Weinstein is a lifelong Democrat.

These trumped-up charges hardly account for all the sniping. The truth is that the left can never forgive Weinstein his heresy. When his book originally appeared in 1978, Weinstein, then a young scholar at Smith College who had initially hoped to prove Hiss' innocence but revised his view after studying thousands of documents, was seen as the real traitor. He had questioned one of the unassailable verities of the left -- that Hiss, who spent 44 months in a federal penitentiary, was a victim of an anti-communist witch hunt.

Today, no respectable scholar believes this fairy tale. The revelations from the Soviet archives have overwhelmingly confirmed that Weinstein had it right. Law professor G. Edward White's recent book "Alger Hiss's Looking Glass Wars" even shows how manipulative skills, which Hiss perfected for his Soviet masters, served him during his deceptive self-rehabilitation campaign until his death in 1996.

Weinstein deserves a fair hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that allows him to rebut his critics. It would be a pity if Bush backs away from a controversial nomination close to the election. His nomination of Weinstein does not send an ominous signal for free inquiry. Failing to confirm him would.

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Jacob Heilbrunn is a Times editorial writer.

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