Hiss gave us Nixon, followed by anticlimax

November 21, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- When the departure of old Alger Hiss from this vale of tears was dutifully front-paged around the country the other day, the prominent obituary surely startled many nonpolitical readers who had assumed him dead for years.

As for the political community, it took only the most routine notice of his death, because in politics Hiss had long ago ceased being a person and become a code word, and more recently had ceased being a code word and become an embarrassment, a bad joke left over from a bad time.

He was an embarrassment to liberals, because he was a classic political liberal whose elegant education and personal polish, as well as his instinctive empathy with those whose atrocities were committed in the holy name of the downtrodden, had helped him slide only too easily into treason. And for slightly more complicated reasons, over time he became an embarrassment to conservatives, too.

In the early days, this was because he was such a contrast to Whitaker Chambers, whose testimony led to his conviction for perjury. Hiss, handsome and confident, righteously indignant, made a fine martyr for the left. Chambers was rumpled and unappealing, insecure in his politics and his sexuality, not at all the sort of person the political right of that era would have preferred for a hero.

As the years went by, most of the uncertainty about the Hiss case was eventually dispelled. Only a few true believers -- and Hiss himself -- continued to view his conviction as a miscarriage of justice. But those few faithful continued to insist upon his innocence every time they could capture a forum.

This meant that conservatives had either to remain silent or speak up, and speaking up meant belaboring the already-shattered reputation of a frail old man. This seemed cruel, and eventually, to those who wished that Hiss would just shut up, it also seemed embarrassing. He had fallen so far, and endured disgrace for so long, that after a while kicking him became more demeaning to the kicker than to the kickee.

Golden boy in Baltimore

He had been a golden boy in his Baltimore youth. ''No lark more blithe than he,'' it said of Alger Hiss in his graduation yearbook at City College. He went on to preside over the student council at Johns Hopkins, edit the law review at Harvard Law School and clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

History won't care about all that, however. It will care instead that it was Alger Hiss as much as anyone who made a national figure out of Richard Nixon. Within four years of Hiss' indictment in December 1948, young Representative Nixon was elected first to the Senate and then to the vice presidency of the United States.

Nixon's dogged pursuit of Hiss, the major news story of the time, would have made a great novel. It was fueled by patriotism, by careerism and by an instinctive antipathy to the tribal East Coast elite. This latter quality was as important a part of Nixon's character as Hiss' smooth self-confidence was of his.

By the time his great spychase was over, Nixon had become a principal demon not just of the hard left, but also of the soft left. He had aroused the lasting hostility of that vague amalgam of academia, journalism, New York and California literati, the organized labor hierarchy and assorted social activists which considered its thinking ''progressive.'' This demonization, with its roots in the Hiss case, would affect Nixon's thinking for the next 40 years.

To the end of his life he often referred to ''Hiss types,'' meaning generally those of privileged upbringing, in and out of government, who viewed anti-communism as unsophisticated and who condescendingly dismissed the idea that communist regimes regularly engaged in despotism at home and subversion abroad.

Was Hiss guilty? Of perjury, there seems little doubt, although it took two trials to convict him as the first ended with a hung jury. He served his 44 months in prison, then lived for 42 years in obscurity. Under the statute of limitations, he couldn't be prosecuted for espionage, and he spent the rest of his life denying he ever engaged in it.

As for those famous copies and summaries of secret State Department documents from early 1938, written on his typewriter and in his handwriting, he never offered a persuasive explanation. ''Alger Hiss gave me these when we worked together in the Communist conspiracy,'' Whitaker Chambers testified, and he probably did.

But he didn't, like Kim Philby and the other British traitors who were his contemporaries, ever flee to exile in the Soviet Union. He served his time and made a meager living in New York as a stationery salesman. It's both reasonable and charitable to conclude that while he once, in his golden youth, may have committed criminal and traitorous acts, he eventually came to regret them, and to appreciate the country where he lived out his long and anticlimactic life.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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