Mark Singer's 'K': running in reverse

November 03, 1996|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Citizen K: The Deeply Weird American Journey of Brett Kimberlin," by Mark Singer. Knopf, 320 pages. $25. Brett and his mother will like this book. Publicity has always been Brett Kimberlin's second-favorite narcotic (pot being first, just on the economics) and he clearly believes his own baloney. Likewise Brett's mother, whose faith never wavered through his whole 15 years in federal prison, will also be impressed by this pseudo-biography, since it is essentially more of Brett's baloney.

Kimberlin was the federal con who finagled something more than 15 minutes of fame in 1992, by claiming to be a political prisoner (denied his inalienable right to hold press conferences in the slammer, and subject to various other indignities), the victim of conspiracy to silence his claim that he sold small amounts of marijuana to then-law student Dan Quayle 20 years earlier. Quayle denied the charge (which, in any event, seems almost quaint today).

Mark Singer first reported Kimberlin's claim in the New Yorker shortly before the 1992 election, scoring a 22,000-word political hit which new editor Tina Brown headlined in her premiere edition. At the time, Singer, who by his own account "urgently, inordinately ... wanted the Democrats to win the election," even fantasized that he might get invited to the inauguration.

Brown apparently did not notice, but others thought that showed. Post-publication, National Public Radio canceled its already taped "Fresh Air" interview with Singer, telling him he was "... too close to the subject," Garrison Keillor said "I thought the purpose of the piece was to get Quayle," and Garry Wills wrote that it would be irresponsible for a journalist to print Kimberlin's charges without more verification than he has been able to supply.

Fast-forward. Brett Kimberlin is now out on parole, last sighted in a former Soviet republic, trading commodities, "exactly like dealing dope," he reports. So the double-bad news for author Singer is that his political prisoner got let out, and that as political prisoner emeritus, Brett Kimberlin, is no Nelson Mandela. Still, Singer soldiers on, reintroducing his subject in a new-persona, as Citizen K.

This is odd in itself, citizenship not being a trait generally prominent in convicted terrorist-bomber-drug-dealers, but the idea is to give this federal felon some Citizen Kane-like stature.

It doesn t work. "Citizen K" is unmistakably Singer's New Yorker piece puffed up to book length but with a central, head-snapping, difference.

Singer's focus and indeed the only reason Brett Kimberlin's tawdry criminal career might be worthy of a book is still the Quayle pot claim. But 30 pages from the end of the book, Singer rocks the reader: Citizen K lied. Brett lied. Lied about selling pot to Quayle. Lied about everything.

Having established this inconvenient truth, Singer should have returned the publishers advance (which he shared with Kimberlin) and junked the project. Instead, he claimed that the elaborate fabrications of a gifted perjurer are somehow a Deeply Weird American Journey, whatever that might mean, and cobbled together this book from the rubble.

The result is an embarrassment. In the final chapters, Singer systematically deconstructs what he has written before, exposing lie after lie. The Quayle pot claim, it turns out, was Kimberlin's most successful creation, the invention that propelled him further than any other.

Singer's anticlimactic conclusion: "I spent four years asking questions about Kimberlin, and along the way I never met a soul who could offer genuine corroboration of the fable [i.e., the FTC Quayle-pot claim] that brought him to my attention in the first place."

This should not have been a big surprise. Anyone who has ever been told tales by an inmate should have asked what Mike Wallace instantly asked when they shopped the Quayle pot story to him: "Was there an eyewitness?"

Answer: No. End of story.

But the political hitters and Quayle-hating-activists pushing the Kimberlin fable had no interest in seeing it end, and Singer was woefully late in asking the Wallace question. Instead, he wound up trading dirt with hyper-connected Clintonist Cody Shearer (brother-in-law of Strobe Talbott, just for starters), a shadowy political gossip columnist determined to nail Quayle. Let's just // say, he tells Singer, that if this "wasn't an election year you'd be paying for this stuff."

When Singer much belatedly expresses concerns about Kimberlin's credibility, Shearer stops taking his calls. In the end, stripped of any moral force, it hardly matters that "Citizen K" is an odd, jerky account, filled with numbing legal technicalities, unpredictable jumps from first to third person and a liberal sprinkling of apparently unedited Kimberlin ramblings. "Citizen K" is fatally flawed.

Alfred A. Knopf claims a first printing of 50,000 copies. That's 25,000 for Brett, and 25,000 for his mom.

David Marston, a partner in the Philadelphia law office Reed Smith Shaw & McClay, co-wrote "Inside Hoover's FBI." He was a U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1979 and before that was a legislative counsel.

` Pub Date: 11/03/96

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