It’s hard to know what accounts for the package of biographical analysis-meets-political play-booking the New York Sun published this week about Hillary Clinton, under the collective title of “In the Company of Radicals.” Creativity? Audacity? Regardless (a word that, tellingly, gets a lot of play in the package’s text), it’s safe to say that it requires a bit of both to turn something as generally dull as legal clerking into the stuff of Epic Political Drama.
Kudos to the Sun, then, for doing just that in “Hillary Clinton’s Radical Summer,” the package’s anchor piece, which explores the summer Clinton spent clerking at the “radical” Oakland law firm of Treuhaft, Walker & Burnstein. (Some of its staff members were—get this—communists!) Here’s the article’s nut/self-justification graf (emphasis mine):
To this day, Mrs. Clinton’s decision to work at the unabashedly left-wing firm is surprising, even shocking, to some of her former colleagues there and to those supporting her bid for the presidency. To the former first lady’s enemies and political opponents, her summer at the Treuhaft firm is yet another indication that radical ideology lurks beneath the patina of moderation she has adopted in public life.
Shocking. Enemies. Radical. Lurks. Wow—legal research and brief-writing have never been so riveting! All you lawyers who paid your dues, those summers between your law school years, drafting motions and transcribing notes and toiling at other such dull and thankless tasks? Suckers. You clearly worked at the wrong firm. And you are clearly not Hillary Clinton.
Had you been more Clintonian—had you had, you know, communist and otherwise “radical” ideology “lurking” beneath your calculated “patina” of political moderation—you, too, might have spent a summer working, as Clinton did in 1971, for Treuhaft. You, too, might have enjoyed camaraderie (literally) with communists and other such “dangerously subversive” folk at “one of America’s most radical law firms.” You, too, might have been inexplicably but indelibly influenced by work the firm was doing to defend Black Panther leader Huey Newton. You, too, might have spent your time both absorbing and endorsing the radicalism that inevitably spread, infectious-disease-like, in the air around you.
And you, too, might now find a job you worked thirty-six years ago being presented to the world as yet another indication of your politically calculating nature.
“Radical Summer” serves up nearly 5,000 words of historical anecdotes—race riots at Yale, Black Panther trials, the overall atmosphere of late-’60s/early-’70s simmering social agitation—which compound to suggest Clinton’s latent, “lurking,” “radical ideology”: She studied law at Yale, a hotbed of lefty activism. She clerked for communists. She might—might—even have taken an interest in those lawyers’ defense of Black Panthers. The piece provides a lot of suggestive speculation—“it’s likely that”s, “some say”s, etc.—but precious little definitive information. Clinton chose to work at Treuhaft for its “left-wing” reputation, some say; she landed at Treuhaft simply because it was one of the few firms that would employ a woman, say others. Clinton attended a plea negotiation on behalf of Panthers who’d stormed the California legislature as part of a May 1967 armed protest, one Treuhaft partner says; no, she didn’t, says another. (This one seems pretty clear: according to the AP, the criminal cases resulting from that protest were resolved in August 1967—“almost four years before Mrs. Clinton turned up at the Treuhaft office.”)
But, hey, no matter:
“Regardless of whether Mrs. Clinton was on hand for the Panthers’ legislature case, there can be no dispute that she was at the Treuhaft firm as it played a role in a highly publicized trial in which a top leader of the black militant group, Huey Newton, was charged with killing an Oakland police officer, John Frey.”
We’re supposed to infer, apparently, that proximity indicatess political consent—that the fact that Clinton’s coworkers “played a role” in “radical” cases means that the future candidate shared those politics. And that Clinton, because she came of age in a time of radicalism—and because she worked one summer “in the company of radicals”—reflects the politics of both the age and the office. It’s the Great Man theory in reverse: in author Josh Gerstein’s world, it’s not the man who makes the times, but the times that make the man. Or, in this case, the woman.
The many discrepancies presented in “Radical Summer” make sense. The events in question happened thirty-six years ago, after all; it’s hardly surprising that people’s memories of them differ. It’s not the disparity of information that’s problematic here, nor is it Gerstein’s overall argument: while the whole “Hillary’s more liberal than she pretends to be” line of logic is neither new nor terribly interesting, it is, after all, a fair enough claim to make. Provided it’s backed up with, oh, I don’t know, evidence.
But this particular argument is not. It’s backed up with conjecture—and conflicting conjecture, at that. So, then, why Gerstein’s tone of condemnation? How does such conflicting, inconclusive information lead to any conclusion, let alone one so skewed against its subject?
Take, as one last example, the piece’s inference that Clinton has somehow been dishonest about her time at Treuhaft—never substantiated or even explored in the piece, but implied nonetheless. While clerking at Treuhaft, Clinton spent the majority of her time working not on the firm’s notoriously “radical” cases, but on a case over child custody. (Child welfare was a trend in her legal career: Clinton spent another summer working for Marian Wright Edelman, who went on to found the Children’s Defense Fund.) Here’s the line about the Treuhaft internship from Clinton’s autobiography, Living History: “I spent most of my time working for Mal Burnstein researching, writing legal motions and briefs for a child custody case.” Straightforward, no?
But here’s what Gerstein has to say about it:
“None of those interviewed for this article disputed Mrs. Clinton’s claim that she worked on a child custody case during her time at the law office. ‘It’s certainly plausible. We did those cases,’ Mr. Burnstein said.”
Presto! Enter the ‘dispute’; cue the ‘doubt.’ With a mere two sentences (the exact amount of space, incidentally, that Clinton devoted to the internship in her 562-page memoir), Gerstein creates dispute about something that, at least in the context of the article, has never been disputed. Except, of course, by—now—Gerstein himself.
Which is brilliant as rhetoric. But as journalism? Not so much.