Sunday, 28 September 2014

A Pumpkin Patch, a Typewriter, and Richard Nixon – a rivetting video account of the Hiss-Chambers affair

Alger Hiss, Soviet Spy
1950 saw the second trial for perjury of Alger Hiss, a senior US state department employee accused of spying for the Soviets by his former spymaster, Whitaker Chambers, who had fled the Communist Party and subsequently became a senior editor at Time Magazine for ten years. Before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chambers merely accused Hiss of having been a communist. When Hiss launched a slander suit against his accuser, Chambers upped the ante and produced some old documents which proved that Hiss – and Chambers himself – had spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

The government tried Hiss for perjury, but the first trial resulted in a hung jury. At the second trial, Hiss’s defence produced an expert witness – a psychiatrist friend of the accused man – who testified that, in his opinion, Whittaker Chambers was a psychopathic personality, given to making false accusations. The three-day cross-examination of Dr. Carl A. Binger proved a devastating blow to Hiss’s defence. Here, a self–described “64 year old gay libertarian retired antitrust lawyer, adjunct professor, and biker” provides a superb account of what is generally considered the most comprehensive destruction of an expert witness in legal history. It’s fun:

In the 34th video in the series, John Berresford provides a brilliant summary of the effects of Hiss’s conviction on American politics – in particular, the effect on its ruling liberal elite (I particularly enjoyed this quote from the literary critic Leslie Fielder: “A generation was on trial with Hiss - on trial not for having struggled towards a better world but for having substituted sentimentality for intelligence in that struggle.”)

In my most recent post on this subject (here), I bemoaned the lack of any film or television drama series - let alone documentary - about the comeuppance of that Stalinist swine, Alger Hiss. Well, John Berresford has gone some way to remedy that lack – but I somehow doubt many people will have the inclination or the time to sit through 38 separate YouTube videos lasting over 12 hours in total. The story needs – and deserves - an HBO series, at the very least. Unfortunately, Phillip Seymour Hoffman - my choice to play Whittaker Chambers – is (for obvious reasons) no longer available. Now that he’s done Lear, I’m switching my vote to that superb actor, Simon Russell Beale. Given that Alger Hiss would ideally be played by a repellent, weaselly creep of an actor, I'm going for Sean Penn - although it might need someone more self-assured and patrician.

If you find yourself at a loose end with at least twelve hours to spare, the first episode of A Pumpkin Patch, a Typewriter, and Richard Nixon can be found here. If sitting through endless YouTube videos isn’t your cup of tea, you can download a pdf of the transcript of Mr. Berresford’s rivetting lecture here.

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