The Real News of the Month

Power and Betrayal: The Clinton Legacy *

A Lecture by Joe Sobran
Third Anniversary Celebration
November 15, 1997

My earliest memories date back to what is now called the McCarthy Era, though I didn’t pay any attention to politics while it was going on. I don’t even remember noticing McCarthy’s death forty years ago, when I was eleven. I do remember my mother despising Richard Nixon for having said that Helen Gahagan Douglas was “soft on Communism.” My secret reaction was to wonder whether Mrs. Douglas was soft on Communism, but I didn’t dare ask.

In those days I had a single, simple idea of treason. It meant consciously betraying someone you owed loyalty to, especially your country. The spy, the turncoat, the foreign agent — Benedict Arnold was the model traitor, as I learned in school. He’d just plain lied about which side he was on. That was what I understood as the essence of treason.

Later I’d add the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss to the list, as well as anyone who belonged to the Communist Party. Nobody I knew doubted that Communism was just plain evil. If they thought otherwise, I never had an inkling of it. Communism and treason were synonyms.

I couldn’t imagine why anyone would commit treason or become a Communist. It didn’t even occur to me to ask. The world was full of odd things and people: the giraffe, the platypus, the skunk, and the traitor. They were all part of the variety of creation, and they didn’t seem to me to call for an explanation.

As I got older, I met more liberals, and by the Sixties, which began during my teens, liberalism was even fashionable. For a while I considered myself a liberal, though it went without saying that that didn’t imply any sympathy with Communism. Being liberal meant being anti-Communist. So I thought.

But by then more and more liberals, for some reason, spoke of anti-Communism with derision. I couldn’t understand this. It drove me nuts. They ridiculed anti-Communism without explaining why, and without being willing to commit themselves about Communism. They regarded McCarthyism as a terrible thing, but not Communism. It was worse than that. They implied that it was a mortal sin to call someone a Communist, but not such a serious sin to be a Communist. In fact their tone began to suggest that Communism was a sign of “idealism,” and that the real victims of McCarthyism weren’t the innocent liberals who were falsely accused of being Communists, but the actual Communists who had been identified as such.

To me that meant that McCarthy was essentially right. And probably Nixon too.

I never did meet many real Communists. As far as I know, none — I’m sure I’d have remembered! But I did meet countless liberals.

I don’t think I’d have really minded an out-and-out Communist who admitted being one. But the liberals who equivocated about it, jeering at anti-Communism while never declaring themselves, affecting a superior irony to the most basic moral challenge of modern politics — them I despised.

Actually, I did see a flesh-and-blood Communist once. One evening in the early Eighties, when I lived in New Jersey, I was dining with my three kids in a popular diner on Nassau Street across from Princeton University. A few tables away I noticed a familiar face, that of a man sitting with a couple of other men. Where had I seen him before?

Suddenly I remembered! It was Gus Hall, head of the American Communist Party! He was speaking at Princeton that night! There were posters all over town, and I’d nearly forgotten.

I had to tell my kids. I’d raised them, of course, to understand that Communism was evil. But there was one problem. I was always pulling their little legs. By then they were used to my tall tales. If I even cracked a smile while I told them we were sitting near the top Communist in the United States, they’d think it was another of my jokes! After all, if he was a real Communist, it wouldn’t be a laughing matter.

So it was absolutely imperative to tell them with a straight face. In a low voice I said: “Kids, don’t look now, but that man over there is the head of the Communist Party in this country.”

All three of them gave me a searching look. Was this a gag? The top Communist in the whole United States? The skepticism on their faces was too much for me. It destroyed my composure. I started giggling. “Oh, sure, Dad!” The harder I laughed, the surer they were that I was kidding again. I was the Dad Who Cried Wolf.

I finally stopped laughing and explained that the only reason I’d laughed was that I knew they wouldn’t believe me. I kept my voice down so as not to offend Mr. Hall, even if he was still defending Stalin’s good name after all those years. Finally they were willing to give me a chance to prove my case. So when we left the diner I showed them the posters. It was tough going, but I eventually succeeded in proving to their satisfaction that Gus Hall was a Communist. I began to understand what Joe McCarthy had gone through.

That night I even went to hear Hall speak. He drew an audience of about a hundred who fitted comfortably into a large classroom. The Princeton kids asked him tough questions and jeered at some of his answers, such as “A lot of the things Stalin did were necessary.” I had to admire the nerve it took to say that. But for the most part, he was rather disappointing. Most of his talk sounded less like Lenin than like an op-ed piece in the New York Times. At the end of the evening the students gave him a thundrous ovation.

Anyway, that was my closest encounter with an actual Communist.

(Continued on page 2)

*This lecture was originally titled “Two Types of Treason.”
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