Thursday, November 5, 2015

An Appreciation of Renata Adler

Renata Adler's collection of nonfiction essays and articles, called "After the Tall Timber", was published earlier this year. After reading this wonderful book, I can only say that Adler is a national treasure, and her writings should be read and reread for their brilliant insight into public affairs.

I cannot begin to summarize all of the 21 essays that appear in this book, so I will delve into just a few of them. Adler's thoroughness is in full evidence in her article on the Starr report, which led up to the Clinton impeachment. She observes that the report "is, in many ways, an utterly preposterous document: inaccurate, mindless, biased, disorganized, unprofessional, and corrupt." She then continues by backing up this assertion with an exquisitely detailed account of the many flaws in the Starr report.

From reading the entire report, Adler says that to call Monica Lewinsky a stalker is a gross understatement. Even after Clinton told her the "affair" was over and had her transferred to a job at the Pentagon, she continued stalking him. She phoned and paged Clinton's secretary at all hours of the day and night, and once stood outside the White House screaming for an hour and a half.

Linda Tripp, the woman who befriended Lewinsky and began taping their conversations, comes in for severe criticism. She was horribly evasive in her Grand Jury testimony, and flat-out lied about her contacts with the special prosecutor's office. (She says the first contact was in 1998, when an FBI report, ignored by the Starr report but uncovered by Adler through an FOIA request, shows that she first contacted that office in 1994 to relay concerns about the death of Vincent Foster.)

Tripp set up Lewinsky to be delivered to the prosecutors for interrogation on January 16, 1998. The president's deposition was due to be taken the next day, and the prosecutors, who still had nothing on Clinton despite years of work and many millions of dollars spent, hoped to gain evidence that Clinton had induced Lewinsky to lie on an affidavit she was submitting. (All of this pertained to the Paula Jones lawsuit, which the Supreme Court allowed to go forward during Clinton's presidency, in one of the worst decisions it has ever made.)

A bunch of prosecutors and FBI agents took Lewinsky to a hotel room and interrogated her for eleven hours, illegally denying her a chance to call either her lawyer or her parents. They repeatedly threatened her with perjury charges if she didn't cooperate, even though at the time they didn't even know what was in her affidavit, as it was in transit (they merely assumed she had lied in it). They wanted her to visit the president wearing a wire, to try to get him to incriminate himself, but she refused.

After Adler's article on the Starr report was published in Vanity Fair in December, 1998, a worker at the special prosecutor's office wrote to the magazine to dispute the facts in the article. Adler responded with another six pages in which she documented the truth of her factual assertions.

At the beginning of 2000, Adler published a book which rocked the literary/publishing world, describing how badly the "New Yorker" magazine had gone downhill. In this book she described being asked to review a book by Judge John Sirica, and declining this request. She wrote that her reason for declining was that she had noticed "astonishing discrepancies and revelations" in the book.

In her book about the "New Yorker", Adler wrote one sentence about Sirica, a sentence which was to become famous in all of the attacks upon her which followed. That sentence was this: "Contrary to his reputation as a hero, Sirica was in fact a corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest figure, with a close connection to Senator Joseph McCarthy and clear ties to organized crime". That was it, no more discussion of, or reference to, the judge who had become famous during the Watergate era.

Sirica's son wrote to the publisher and demanded a retraction. The New York Times published no less than eight pieces attacking her for this sentence. Adler then began writing her response, which documented her assertions in great detail, most of the material coming directly from Sirica's autobiography. This five-page "afterword" was published in due course, but not, of course, in the New York Times, which never retracted its unwarranted criticism of her. Adler says if a name had been misspelled, they would have published a correction, but the paper never publishes a correction when there is a substantive error in its reporting.

The title for the book comes from Mary McCarthy's phrase "the last of the tall timber". Adler looks at the sorry state of journalism today and concludes that the "tall timber" is now all gone, hence the book's title. What has replaced it is "the phenomenon of celebrity". There are two factors which Adler feels have led to where journalism finds itself today. One is the use of the byline, which had led to reporters seeing themselves as celebrities. Adler says there is very little hard news anymore; rather, a news story is more like the reporter's review of what happened yesterday, rather than an unbiased account of it. Adler writes that "There is no longer any vestige or pretense, on the part of the print journalist, of any professional commitment to uninflected coverage of the news".

The other factor is the use of the anonymous source. Many times these anonymous sources are government officials, and getting stories in this fashion has become a substitute for the good, old-fashioned legwork that used to be the hallmark of good journalism.

Much as I admire Adler's work, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that many of her conclusions are a result of inferences drawn from the known facts. An example of where her inferences have turned out to be wrong is her assertion that Watergate's "Deep Throat" cannot possibly be an actual human being, but rather must be, at best, some sort of composite. In 2005 former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt was revealed as being Deep Throat. It is to Adler's credit that she did not excise this portion of that particular essay from her new book, which just came out this year.

Of course TV has influenced the situation tremendously in luring print reporters toward celebrityhood. Print reporters see TV reporters becoming famous, and in today's world print reporters appear daily on network shows, happy to have the celebrityhood which these appearances represent bestowed upon them.

Print reporters thus have become reviewers more than reporters. And reviewers have become caricatures of themselves, as she meticulously documents in her savage review of Pauline Kael's movie review books. Like this writer, Adler had always enjoyed Kael's weekly reviews in the "New Yorker", but when faced with the task of reading a whole book of them and then having to review the book in a responsible way for "The New York Review of Books", she realized that Kael had gone off the deep end in many ways.

Adler discusses many of Kael's rhetorical conceits. The one which resonated the most with me is Kael's repeated use of the second person, when she really means the first person, as in "You are caught up emotionally and flung about the room", when she means "I was caught up emotionally and flung about the room".

Adler's piece on Kael is probably her most controversial work. However, it would be a shame if that piece overshadows all the great reporting she has done in so many areas--the Selma civil rights march, the six-day war, Watergate, the state of journalism today, the Starr Report, the Supreme Court's ridiculous decision in Bush vs. Gore, and many others.

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