Last Thursday, in a piece about about another...

I SAID HERE

June 26, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

I SAID HERE last Thursday, in a piece about about another bird, that Richard Nixon entrapped Alger Hiss with a prothonotary warbler. A nit-picker says it wasn't Nixon, it was Rep. John McDowell of Pennsylvania. We're both right.

In 1948 a Time editor named Whittaker Chambers said he was an ex-communist spy and had worked with Alger Hiss in the 1930s when that Baltimore luminary was in the State Department. He said Hiss might still be a commie.

Shocking!! Hiss by then had became an ornament of the Establishment: presiding officer at the U.N. organizational meeting in 1945, president of the Carnegie Endowment since 1947. Hiss convincingly denied all in public testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He said he'd never even met Chambers.

HUAC's Republicans, including McDowell and Nixon, who wanted to discredit Democratic liberals and the whole New Deal crowd, were stunned and demoralized. In an executive session, most were ready to call it off, but Nixon convinced them to send a subcommittee, headed by him, to New York to interview Chambers in private. There they asked Chambers to give some detail about Hiss that only an intimate could know. For instance, did he have any hobbies?

Chambers said Hiss was a bird watcher and had once enthused to him about seeing a prothonotary warbler. At this point McDowell, a birder, himself, said, "A very rare specimen." Back in Washington HUAC called Hiss for another open session. Nixon began to lay the trap.

Q. What hobby, if any, do you have, Mr. Hiss?

A. Tennis and amateur ornithology.

McDowell interrupted:

Q. Did you ever see a prothonotary warbler?

A. I have right here on the Potomac! Do you know the place? . . .

They couldn't shut him up. He kept talking over their questions.

A. . . . Did you see one in the same place? They come back and nest in those swamps. Beautiful yellow head! A gorgeous bird!

That did it. The committee now believed Chambers. Hiss was convicted of perjury and sent to prison.

* * * * *

The most famous member of the animal family to come out of the Hiss-Chambers controversy was, probably, not a bird but a fish. The day after the first Chambers appearance before HUAC, President Harry Truman was asked, "Do you think that the Capitol Hill spy scare is a 'red herring' to divert public attention from inflation?"

He said, "Yes, I do. They are simply a red herring to keep from doing what they ought to do." Three months later he upset Tom Dewey.

* * * * *

My own hobbies are tennis and amateur ornithology.

Q. Have I ever seen a prothonotary warbler?

A. I decline to answer that on the grounds that my answer would tend to incriminate me.

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