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A REPORTER’S LAWYER Seymour Hersh

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Michael Nussbaum in 1986. / Photo by Gloria Weissberg.

With the world in such disarray, there is a lot of reason now, during the holiday season, to think of family and good friends, here and gone. This is a remembrance I wrote for the New Yorker in 2011 when someone important to me and my family passed, way too young.

My lawyer died last week. His name was Michael Nussbaum, of Washington, D.C. He was seventy-six years old and Stage 4 lung cancer got him after a brave two-year struggle. He was survived by his wife, Gloria Weissberg, and her two daughters. His obituary in the Washington Post told of his high-profile client list, about whom he rarely spoke, and his equally high-profile corporate clients, such as Lloyds of London.

What’s harder to put into words is the relationship of a trusted lawyer and an investigative reporter. Michael was born in Berlin and came to America as a three-year-old Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, just before the Second World War. His sense of time and place remained impeccable. He spent his career resolving disputes and, if that were impossible, making them go away. I spent my career creating disputes and doing all I could to keep them alive. Michael’s favorite word was vanilla, by which he meant: Let’s not rush to judgment about who did what to whom, and whether it was an outrage; slow down. That wasn’t the same as doing nothing: an injustice, if real, had to be rectified, but carefully.

Lots of words, but what do they mean in practice? In 1969, I was a freelance writer, one of many in Washington, and our status then was as tenuous as it is now. I had done my reporting apprenticeship with United Press International, covering the state legislature in Pierre, South Dakota, and then moved to the Associated Press. An assignment at the Pentagon in 1965 turned me into a dead-serious opponent of the Vietnam War. I had come to know many veterans of that war, who were serving at all levels of the military chain of command, and had gotten the message: this war cannot be won, and is destroying two societies—theirs and ours. I began to run into criticism from the senior managers at the AP over my belief that the officials speaking for the government were lying about Vietnam. I left the AP in 1967 and joined the Presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy. I wrote speeches and served as press secretary; I admired the Senator’s integrity, and his willingness to call the war immoral, but also learned to hate politics, with its constant compromise and catfights. I moved back to the newspaper world that spring, only to find that I was essentially unemployable at places like the Washington Post and the Times: my work for McCarthy, I was told, showed that I was not objective. It was back to freelancing.

Michael, whom I had initially befriended in 1958, when we were classmates at the University of Chicago law school (I bailed out; he was the class whiz), had been defending conscientious objectors and others opposed to the war in Vietnam. He became an expert on how to legally avoid the draft, and even wrote a popular handbook on the subject. At the same time, he had become a sought-after expert in complex commercial litigation and was enjoying the profit, and the fun, of success in Washington.

In early October of 1969, I picked up the first hint of what would become known as the My Lai massacre. I managed to work my way deep into the story, and, driving around a military base, found and interviewed Army Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., whose name would become synonymous with the murders. The day before, I had interviewed Calley’s attorney, a retired Army judge named George Latimer, who practiced law in Salt Lake City. I had also seen an Army charge sheet accusing Calley of the premeditated murder of “109 Oriental human beings” in South Vietnam. (The actual number of victims turned out to be more than five hundred.) None of that mattered to the various editors to whom I brought the story—including an editor of Life magazine who, I later learned, had been told about My Lai months earlier by an American G.I. No one wanted to be the first to publish.

It was more than a little distressing; it was frightening. I had empirical evidence of a major American crime in Vietnam, plus an interview with the guy accused of leading it, and the mainstream media apparently wanted nothing to do with it. I had been persuaded by David Obst, a young neighbor and pick-up basketball friend who ran a small anti-war news agency, known as the Dispatch News Service, that the only way to get the story out, intact, was through his syndicate, offering it to editors as a wire story for a hundred dollars. It was a huge risk. Few people needed a lawyer more than I did at that moment, and so off to Michael I went.

He was then living in a small house in Georgetown and, luckily for me, answered my stricken telephone call one night in early November. I’m not sure how late it was; I arrived just as Michael was shooing a woman out of the door. He listened carefully, as he always did, to my rushed and undoubtedly inchoate account. Yes, he said, on behalf of his law firm, he would be my lawyer and give the story a careful reading for libel, and yes, I could tell editors that he had done so, and he and his firm would stand behind me.

Michael was not new to the world of the First Amendment—his clients included, even then, Ralph Nader and a number of Washington Post journalists. And he did what good libel lawyers do—quizzed me about sources and urged a series of changes and additions that added to the integrity of the story. Michael’s tiny house suddenly became an oasis for me; there was no talk of fees or worries about the professional consequences for him or his firm. But something else emerged during our long meeting that night. I’m not sure how it came up, but it was obvious to Michael that Calley’s interview with me could be legally disastrous for him, in that it would likely contradict what he had told the Army. Michael’s advice was to go back to George Latimer, Calley’s lawyer, and tell him everything Calley had told me.

So I did. Latimer was distraught, and said—how right Michael was—that Calley’s comments to me conflicted with his prior sworn testimony in the military proceedings. (Calley had denied all, and concocted a story of a huge firefight with the North Vietnamese.) If I published the interview this way, Latimer told me, I possibly would be denying Calley his constitutional right to a fair trial. He offered a deal: if I would in some manner avoid saying outright that Calley’s comments were made directly to me—be ambiguous enough to leave open the possibility that I had heard them second hand—he would go over my story, line for line, and correct any factual mistakes he could. I did not have to check with Michael to accept the offer.

And so George Latimer and I spent a deal of time on the telephone. He corrected dates, phrasing, the spelling of the names of others involved, etc. He was exceedingly precise, to the point, as I learned years later from an academic’s Freedom of Information request, that military analysts had concluded after publication of the first of what would become five freelance articles on My Lai, that I clearly had access to the most secret of Army files.

Latimer had one more inducement. He told me I could tell editors and reporters to telephone him, and he would confirm that he had reviewed the article and that, to the extent of his knowledge, what it said about his client, Calley, was accurate. He lived up to his commitment, although he and Calley never talked to me again. That first fifteen-hundred-word story, which Obst sent by telex collect to fifty or so newspaper editors, triggered a new debate about the Vietnam war that would dominate front pages, and also reaffirmed a young reporter’s faith in his chosen profession.

Michael and I kept on talking for the next four decades. There would be libel cases, actual and threatened, and courtroom dramas in America and England. Michael and his colleagues handled them all, and either won them outright or settled them favorably. Michael’s rule was to say little or nothing in public about such victories—the real interest of the press, he told me repeatedly, would come when and if I lost. My line of work generated a lot of attacks that I would insist, to Michael, had to be answered. (Reporters are much more thin-skinned than those we report about.) Michael’s response was always the same: vanilla. But he would listen, like a good therapist, I guess, and nothing would happen.

We Americans like to make fun of lawyers and everyone has a lawyer joke or two, it seems. I don’t.

 

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WATCH: ‘This Is My First Rodeo’ | Ben Meets America Ben Kawaller

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In the latest stop on his cross-country quest to understand America, Ben Kawaller watches men hurl cows to the ground.

Last month I attended The American Rodeo in Arlington, Texas, a city of around 400,000 souls situated between Dallas and Fort Worth. This was my first rodeo, and it did not take me long after entering its host venue, the gargantuan Globe Life Field, to realize that I did not know what a rodeo was. If you’d asked me six weeks ago to define the term, I would have said something like, “It’s when you watch someone career around an enclosed pen on an animal.” 

Which is actually not too far off. But what I hadn’t realized is that a rodeo is actually a sporting event. 

You see, some people are especially good at bending these animals to their will, and if you are one of those people, you can win competitions for things like making the animals run very fast, or tying the animals up very quickly, or not dying while trying to sit on one of the animals.

Of course, I wasn’t really there for the games; I was there to talk to the crowd about what makes our society so divided. If you’re tuning in for the first time to my new series—“Ben Meets America”—I was born and raised in progressive Brooklyn, I now live in West Hollywood, and I will admit to being soft in some fundamental way. Suffice it to say I get a more transcendent high from watching a torch song than I do from watching a man hurl a small cow to the ground.

But, in fact, theater and rodeo have their similarities. If you’ve been to a play in recent years, you will have suffered the degradation of a “land acknowledgement.” This is when the audience is told before the show—either in an announcement or in the program notes—that they’ve gathered on land stolen from whatever Native American tribe existed there years ago. My sense is that some of this is rooted in the idea that America itself is fundamentally illegitimate. Whatever’s behind it, the inclusion of a land acknowledgement has become de rigueur.

I did not think conservatives did land acknowledgements, so I was surprised when the Native American actor Mo Brings Plenty appeared before the start of one of the competitions and performed a minute or two of indigenous wailing. I believe the intent of this was to, well, acknowledge the fact that Native American bloodshed was central to the expansion of the American West. What I did not expect was the incongruence of what came after. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. I’m still puzzling over its significance.

In the end, however, I decided I prefer the conservative version of a land acknowledgement. Unlike the inane liberal sacrament, it appears to be capable of expressing two truths at once: that oceans of indigenous blood were spilled in the creation of this country, and that we live in one of the greatest nations on earth.

Even if one of our favorite spectator sports is man versus cow.

Only paid subscribers can see Ben’s video on The American Rodeo. Become one today and scroll down to watch.

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April 14, 2024 Garamond

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Senate spotlight: A Trump Republican’s China problem Judd Legum

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November’s election will not only determine which party controls the White House but also the United States Senate. Currently, the Democratic caucus holds a narrow 51-49 advantage. Control of the chamber will come down to a handful of competitive races. This is the first installment in a series that takes a deep dive into the issues shaping these campaigns. 

In Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno (R) is attempting to unseat Senator Sherrod Brown (D). Ohio, once a swing state, has been trending Republican. Moreno’s campaign strategy is to attach himself at the hip to Donald Trump. He refers to himself as the “Trump endorsed Republican nominee for US Senate from Ohio.” This helped him easily win the Republican primary against a field of more politically experienced opponents.  

In a potential second term, Trump is vowing to declare economic war on China, promising to “tax China to build America up.” Trump’s plan is to revoke China’s most favored nation trading status and impose a tariff on Chinese goods of up to 60%. (The policy would cost the typical American household thousands of dollars annually and increase inflation.) Imports of “essential goods” from China, including electronics, steel, and pharmaceuticals, would be completely banned

Moreno has taken a similar approach, saying he is running for Senate to “Beat Communist China.” To bolster his anti-China credentials, Moreno claims to have a history of combating Chinese power. These stories, however, don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Moreno made his fortune through buying and selling car dealerships. As his wealth increased, so did his interest in Republican politics. In 2011, former Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) appointed him to the board of trustees at Cleveland State, one of Ohio’s public universities. Moreno served as chairman of the Cleveland State board from 2016 to 2018.

Confucius Institutes, which offer “Chinese language and culture programs,” were established at numerous U.S. universities beginning in 2005. They were partially funded by the Chinese government. Over time, there were bipartisan concerns that Confucius Institutes were being used to promote Chinese government propaganda or even to facilitate espionage. On the campaign trail, Moreno has repeatedly claimed that, in his role as chair of Cleveland State’s Board of Trustees, he eliminated the university’s Confucius Institute.

Here is how Moreno described his role in a March 2023 campaign event:

I chaired the board of trustees at Cleveland State University, and I’m very proud of the fact that when I was there, we got rid of our Confucius Institute. We made certain that we focused everybody on student achievement, and we respected free speech on campus.

He made a nearly identical claim in October 2023. But it is a lie.

Moreno’s service on the board ended in May 2018. Cleveland State did not shut down its Confucius Institute until 2021. The truth is, while Moreno was on the board, he repeatedly approved funding for Cleveland State’s Confucius Institute. In 2016, when Moreno was still vice chairman, he voted to approve $38,000 in funding for the school’s Confucius Institute. The following year, as chairman, Moreno voted to re-up the funding. Minutes from these meetings show that Moreno did not express any concerns about the Confucius Institute

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Moreno told the Columbus Dispatch that he deserves credit for the elimination of the Confucius Institute at Cleveland State because of “his role in the hiring of Harlan Sands, who was Cleveland State’s president when the institute closed.” There are a couple of issues with this response. First, this is not what Moreno said previously. He clearly said that the board “got rid” of the Confucius Institute while he was chair. Second, Cleveland State did not eliminate the Confucius Institute because of the initiative of President Sands. Cleveland State, along with nearly all other universities, closed its Confucius Institute after Congress passed legislation in 2018 and 2020 limiting federal funding for universities that maintained the Confucius Institutes. From 2019 to 2023, the number of Confucius Institutes operating in the United States went from about 100 to fewer than 5.

The truth about Moreno and Chinese-made SUVs

“When I was a General Motors dealer, I sold Buicks. The Buick Envision was made in China. I told General Motors I wouldn’t sell one of them, don’t even ship it to me,” Moreno said during a February 10, 2024 radio interview. “They threatened me and sent me all kinds of nasty notes… we have to actually take this stand…”

That story, which Moreno also told during his brief run for Senate in 2021, is a lie. 

In reality, Moreno sold the Buick Envision at his dealership for at least five years — from 2014 to 2019 — and promoted the vehicle repeatedly on its social media channels, an investigation by NY1 revealed

A December 13, 2016 video published on the “Bernie Moreno Companies” YouTube page begins with this testimonial: “My name is Kayla McCullough. I purchased a 2017 Buick Envision from Buick GMC of Beachwood… I highly recommend you visit the team at Buick GMC of Beachwood, a Bernie Moreno company.”

Moreno’s campaign “acknowledged to Spectrum News that his dealership did sell the Chinese-made SUVs.” It claimed that “in response to the closure of the Lordstown Plant here in Ohio [in March 2019],  Bernie made a decision to stop any new inventory of Envision’s from being sold at his dealership. After he sold off the inventory he already had on the lot, he refused to take orders for more Envisions.” This explanation, however, makes little sense as the Envision was also produced in China and never at Ohio’s Lordstown Plant. Moreno’s dealerships also continued to advertise for the Envision months after the closure of the plant. 

 

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