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Altercation: Celebrating Ellsberg at 90 and DeGrom at Just One

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Beginning on April 30, there will be a star-studded—by peacenik national-security metrics—conference on the life and influence of Daniel Ellsberg, and especially his role in the 1971 Pentagon Papers drama. Also marking the occasion, The New Yorker published “The Deceit and Conflict Behind the Leak of the Pentagon Papers.” Its author, one notes with a hint of irony, was Ben Bradlee Jr., son of the editor who got consistently scooped on the story by his rivals at the Times.

Bradlee tells a story of constant (and almost farcical) betrayal. Ellsberg stole (well, borrowed pages every night without authorization) the classified report from RAND, returning those pages early every morning until he’d copied every page. He shared the copy with Marcus Raskin—the late co-founder of the leftist think tank the Institute for Policy Studies (who befriended me when I was an intern there right out of college), and father to Congressman Jamie Raskin—and his staffer, Ralph Stavins. They shared about a thousand pages of the papers with Neil Sheehan, then a star Times (and UPI) reporter, without telling Ellsberg. Raskin and Stavins then convinced Ellsberg to contact Sheehan himself, and the reporter played along with the ruse. But Ellsberg did not trust Sheehan and so would only allow him to take notes on the papers. Ellsberg then rather naïvely gave Sheehan the keys to his apartment and took off for a vacation, whereupon Sheehan called his wife to come up to Cambridge and help him copy the whole thing. Sheehan also, quite counterproductively, misled Ellsberg, telling him that the Times was reluctant to publish the papers when, in fact, the Times had already decided to publish them. He pretended that they were no big deal and might not be a story, even as the Times had a team working with Sheehan on what would be among the most consequential stories in the paper’s history.

More from Eric Alterman

We learned in January that ex-Times reporter Janny Scott had interviewed Sheehan in 2015 about all this on the condition that his information would not be printed while he was still alive. Sheehan justified his double-dealing with his source with the explanation that he felt Ellsberg was “out of control.” He added, “It was just luck that he didn’t get the whistle blown on the whole damn thing.” In that story, the Times did not give Ellsberg a chance to comment on his alleged out-of-control-ness and made no mention of the Raskin/Stavins role. Speaking to Bradlee, Scott offered the “explanation and not an excuse” of not knowing her story was to run right away and, at 1,400 words, lacking sufficient space to do full justice to it.

Then again, Bradlee’s 4,174-word story left out some key information regarding Ellsberg’s eventual arrest. He writes, “After hiding underground until the papers were published—next in the Boston Globe, and subsequently in more than a dozen other newspapers around the country—Ellsberg turned himself in to authorities in Boston on June 28th and was charged under the Espionage Act.” Rather crucially, however, this took place while the Times (and everyone else involved) was still doing their utmost to protect Ellsberg, who was on the lam. He was outed by a man named Sidney Zion, who got wind of the leaker’s identity and called a local radio show with the information because he could find no outlet that wanted to help him play the role of the snitch.

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“Who was Sid Zion?” you ask. Sid was, by any measure, an amazing guy. Robert McFadden’s New York Times obituary comes pretty close to doing justice to his “only in New York” life story. Zion was a lawyer, a reporter, a novelist, a pundit, a barkeep, a right-wing Zionist, and a friend and ally to countless mobsters, gossip columnists, and Republican politicians, especially Roy Cohn, whom he lionized in a terrible biography. He was, perhaps most consequentially, also a crusader for hospital safety and against the unconscionable exploitation of medical interns—a cause he took up in the aftermath of the unnecessary hospital death of his young daughter, Libby.

Zion was always bitter about having been ostracized within the profession for outing Ellsberg, and it may have sent him further into the arms of the right wing, both in Israel and at Roy Cohn’s house. But it was in this frame of mind that he came to The Nation magazine seminar I was hosting with Ellsberg sometime, I think, around 2003. Dan had arrived, as I recall, directly from jail, owing to his arrest protesting George W. Bush’s march to war in Iraq, and proved rather testy about my questions.

The real fun began, however, when I noticed Zion there—he had been invited as a friend of Victor Navasky’s, as Victor is a friend to (almost) everyone—and I asked Zion for his recollection of the events in question. Zion told his story and ended by saying he was glad when it got back to him that Ellsberg actually appreciated his snitching, since it gave him the excuse to stop running from the feds and turn himself in. Ellsberg, however, just about exploded upon hearing this. He had, after all, been facing criminal charges that carried a potential 115 years in prison. He had a family. He made emphatically clear that it was no “relief” at all. I ended the meeting rather abruptly, as it was already running well over time, and these guys were too old to fight each other, and one (or both) looked ready for a heart attack.

I ran into Zion twice more before he died. Once was at a really fun party held by some guys who have dinner every month, invite a guest to eat with them, and then every ten years invite all those guests to a great party. Sidney walked over to me furious because The Nation had just run an egregious editorial on the occasion of Yasser Arafat’s 2004 death, saying the problem was that he had been too conciliatory toward the U.S. and Israel. I told Zion that I had nothing to do with Nation editorials, hated it also, and had told editor Katrina vanden Heuvel of this. He seemed mollified and the party went on.

But the second time, I was less lucky. Sid showed up at Victor Navasky’s party at the Century Club to celebrate his terrific 2005 memoir A Matter of Opinion. Trying preemptive mollification, I told Sid I had been teaching the Pentagon Papers in my history of media class that afternoon and had recounted the fun events at that Nation seminar. He told me how pleased he was to learn from Ellsberg that the latter was happy that Zion had snitched on him. I said something to the effect of “Um, Sid, that’s not what happened,” and recounted what actually had happened. At this point, Zion, who was about 70, started pushing me up against the wall and loudly calling me a liar and an Arafat lover. I didn’t know how to handle this exactly. I don’t like to get in public fights at any event, and Sid was more than 25 years older than me, which would make me look bad if I pushed him back. I also didn’t want to ruin Victor’s fancy party. Someone eventually pulled Sid away from me, and Victor told me he was cool with it because it would get the party on “Page Six.”

Anyway, here’s to Dan Ellsberg, still going strong at 90.

Odds and Ends

I’ve been a Mets fan since my first game, in 1967, the year before they even had Tom Seaver to root for. Therefore, I cannot say I am completely shocked that while Jacob DeGrom’s ERA since 2018 is an amazingly low 2.06, the Mets’ record for him during that period is 36-42. They have lost 31 games they were winning when he left the mound. So it is with some hard equanimity that, as I write this words, DeGrom has begun the season by giving up a grand total of one run over a period of 14 innings, during which time the Mets have scored a grand total of zero runs. He is also, Babe Ruth style, batting 600. Happily, I now have two companions to get me though this. The first is my fanatical Mets fan, partner Laura. The second is this really fun, funny, well-written, and wonderfully dyspeptic history of the team and the heartbreak it has always inspired. It’s called So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets—The Best Worst Team in Sports. The author is Devin Gordon, whose work I have never before encountered. The book is best consumed with a bottle of red wine and (I’m not kidding) a bubble bath following another DeGrom shutout/no decision.


What is the greatest song with a one-word title? (another Altercation tutorial): I came across this question on Twitter, and Sly was my first nomination (and here he is live, on TV).

Someone on my Facebook page made this totally excellent nomination: Here’s Leonard Cohen in London in 2009, and here’s 1,500 people with Rufus Wainwright in Toronto in 2016.

Here’s a third one, with which I cannot argue: Aretha’s version and Otis’s (“a song that a girl took away from me,” he notes).

Other potential contenders nominated by others included: “HELP!,” “Satisfaction,” “Revolution,” “Creep,” “One,” “Badlands,” “Fire,” “Hurricane,” “Think,” “Jambalaya,” “War,” “Changes,” “Revival,” and “Shout.” Ineligible were songs named after names, like “Layla,” or places, like “Ohio,” or songs that are horrible, like “Imagine.”

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