Political Hay

The Alger Hiss Democrats

Obama and Bill Maher: the jagged fissure that is elitist superiority.

By 4.22.08

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Alger Hiss. Barack Obama. Bill Maher.

By way of explanation for those who came in late, for Americans newly emerged from the triumph over evil that was World War II, the name Alger Hiss became the very first symbol of the next chapter in American history: the Cold War. Hiss, the son of America's middle class, grew up in Baltimore, advancing American-style with an education at Johns Hopkins University and then, like Obama, it was on to Harvard Law School. There he became an Establishment whiz kid, a golden boy in the making. By the time he was a mere 44 Hiss's career in government was blue ribbon. A clerkship to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, senior staff positions in New Deal Washington including the U.S. Senate, the Solicitor General's office and, finally, the State Department as an aide to Woodrow Wilson's Assistant Secretary of State son-in-law. It was in his State Department job that Hiss accompanied President Franklin Roosevelt to the Yalta summit with Stalin. Ditto with giving him the opportunity to play a central role in the organizing conference of the United Nations in San Francisco.

While all of this made Hiss a familiar favorite player with the press and Establishment insiders, what brought him fame -- and ultimately brought him down -- was the charge in 1948 that throughout a considerable portion of his career he was in fact a Soviet spy.

The purpose here is not to recount the particulars of the Hiss case. After a series of stunning events, finally including the revelation of stolen State Department documents that conclusively proved Hiss's guilt, Hiss went to prison. It was what surfaced in the course of the Hiss episode that in retrospect has had such an increasingly decisive impact on American politics since the Hiss case, particularly on the image of Democrats nationally. That "it" is, of course, the charge of "elitism," a charge freshly made against Senator Obama in the wake of his famous "bitter" remark about the residents of small towns in Pennsylvania. A charge that gets subsumed in the controversy over anti-Catholic bigotry as vividly brought to life by HBO's Bill Maher's recent tirade against an entire religion.

But when did this "elitism" business in the party of Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Al Smith, FDR and Harry Truman first surface?

Listen to the descriptions of the Hiss case as presented by two of Hiss's most famous antagonists, then California Congressman Richard Nixon, and Whittaker Chambers, the man who, at great personal sacrifice, came forward to finger Hiss. First is Nixon, writing in his 1962 book Six Crises. He writes here of Hiss in his first public appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, of which freshman Congressman Nixon was a member:

His manner was coldly courteous, and, at times, almost condescending....Hiss's friends from the State Department, other government agencies, and the Washington social community sitting in the front rows of the spectator section broke into a titter of delighted laughter. Hiss acknowledged his reaction to his sally [to the Committee Chairman Karl Mundt, a South Dakota Republican] by turning his back to the Committee, tilting his head in a courtly bow, and smiling graciously at his supporters.

Now here is Chambers on the larger episode, as he wrote in his own classic book Witness:
I had attacked an intellectual and a 'liberal.' A whole generation felt itself to be on trial-with pretty good reason too...From their roosts in the great cities, and certain collegiate eyries, the leftwing intellectuals of almost every feather (and that was most of the vocal intellectuals in the country) swooped and hovered in flocks like fluttered sea fowl -- puffins, skimmers, skuas and boobies -- and gave vent to hoarse cries and defilements.

I had also accused a "certified gentlemen" and the "conspiracy of gentlemen" closed its retaliatory ranks against me. Hence that musk of snobbism that lay rank and discrepant over the pro-Hiss faction.


And finally, this. Also from Chambers.
For the contrast between them [Hiss's pursuers] and the glittering Hiss forces is about the same as between the glittering French chivalry and the somewhat tattered English bowmen who won at Agincourt. The inclusive fact about them is that in contrast to the pro-Hiss rally, most of them, regardless of what they had made of themselves, came from the wrong side of the railroad tracks....No feature of the Hiss Case is more obvious, or more troubling as history, than the jagged fissure, which it did not so much open as reveal, between the plain men and women of the nation, and those who affected to act, think and speak for them. It was, not invariably, but in general, the "best people" who were for Alger Hiss and who were prepared to go to almost any length to protect and defend them. It was the enlightened and the powerful, the clamorous proponents of the open mind and the common man, who snapped their minds shut...

What is so striking in all of the above is the realization that the "jagged fissure" of elitist superiority first glimpsed by Chambers and Nixon in 1948 has now become a canyon-sized superhighway running straight from the Hiss episode to the modern American left, of which Obama is but the latest advocate. If one were to remove the references to names, places and time itself, displayed above is the essential sentiment behind the Obama "bitter" remark.

IS THIS, IN FACT, not the same collection of sniggering sentiments on parade in the precincts of MoveOn.org, the New York Times, HBO's Maher and the gathering of rich San Franciscans who were presumably nodding their heads in agreement as they heard Obama condescend to small town Pennsylvanians who meet precisely Chambers' description of the "plain men and women of the nation"?

Of all the critical issues hanging fire in this election season -- Iraq, terror, the economy, judges, health care and more -- it is now apparent that the undercurrent to all of these issues will be the odors of snobbish elitism that emanate ever more aromatically from the left. As Obama comes into focus there is less and less question which side of the jagged fissure he would have sought out had he been around in 1948.

It takes no imagination to see Obama laughing and applauding Hiss were he sitting in the spectator section behind the witness, who, like Obama, was a Harvard law graduate. It is easy to see Obama not getting the problem of an association with Hiss just as he right now has no understanding of the problem others see with his association with Weatherman William Ayers. Indeed, based on what has been revealed thus far about Obama allowing Ayers to host a fundraiser for his state senate campaign, then later going on to serve on the board of the Woods Foundation with Ayers one sees a 21st-century version of Chambers description of the liberals who rallied to Hiss and saw no big deal. Both Obama and Ayers, as with Bill Maher, perfectly fit the image of the 1948 liberal intellectual "of almost every feather" who "swooped and hovered in flocks like fluttered sea fowl -- puffins, skimmers, skuas and boobies" as they gave vent to "hoarse cries and defilements."

"Defilements" in the current day meaning Obama's musings about all of those bitter Pennsylvanians clinging to God and guns. Ayers' longings to bomb the living hell out of America. And Maher's loathing for the Catholic Church.

In the wake of the Hiss controversy, a liberal book reviewer assigned the task by the Nation of reviewing a book by Hiss said this: "If one has any interest in our national taste it is impossible to refrain from asking how American jurors could be persuaded to give credence to such a man as Chambers in preference to such a man as Hiss." Catch the key phrase here: "...interest in our national taste." There is no mention here about the central issue in the Hiss case -- the facts. No, the liberal reviewer was really upset about...taste.

How different is this really from, say, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's fulminations about the activities of then-Florida Republican Congressman Mark Foley's lustings for young boys -- all the while knowing she had happily marched in San Francisco's Gay Pride parade behind a Grand Marshal who was famous in her city for his advocacy on behalf of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA)? One suspects that if the police in some city swooped in on a group of NAMBLA adherents caught living out their desires Bill Maher would be indignant over the violation of their privacy. What outrages elitists like Maher, as with Pelosi, is not the facts -- it's the matter of taste. Culture. The right people, don't you know, are the right people. And the common folks and Catholics, well, aren't.

THIS ELITISM EXPLAINS in an instant the visceral hatred for George W. Bush. Bush, after all, was supposed to be one of them. The rich Establishment parents. Yale. Harvard. What makes him so despised by elitists like Obama, Ayers, Maher and the rest is precisely that he doesn't simply disagree with liberal elitists, he, having encountered the breed close up in his youth, despises them for the very thing they prize -- their self-imagined sense of superiority. Were Bush a young man in 1948 sitting in that congressional hearing room, he would have been rooting for Whittaker Chambers, not Alger Hiss. He would know that simply because Chambers was, in Nixon's words, "...short and pudgy...(his) clothes un-pressed...his shirt collar curled up over his jacket..." and Hiss was everything opposite -- smooth, handsome, well-dressed, a man with a golden resume -- that a human being's character is never defined by outward appearance. Not for Bush the front rows behind Hiss with the tittering State Department types and "Washington social community."

Bush, in other words, has deliberately sought out what Chambers called the men and women who grew up on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. Obama, Ayers, Bill Maher of Hollywood and a whole lot more in this election season are the modern "glittering" bands of elitist opposition. They will shortly, if they have not already, be figuratively dumping their vitriol not on George W. Bush but on John McCain, who, as the ultimate military man, will attract their venom with the certainty that magnets fly to metal.

It is worth remembering that in the end Alger Hiss and his "glittering" legion of tittering, elitist, snobbish supporters finally lost, although at great cost to those who challenged them. Nixon was, it now seems clear, scarred for the rest of his life. Chambers was suicidal. The important point, however, is that it was "the plain men and women" who carried the day.

In time, they will do so again when they get Obama's underlying philosophy in focus.

They will get the core of Barack Obama just as they get the core of Bill Maher.

Just as they got Alger Hiss.

And by the way, why do you think it is that they listen to Rush?

Jeffrey Lord is the creator, co-founder, and CEO of QubeTV, a conservative online video site. A Reagan White House political director and author, he writes from Pennsylvania, where he lives.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.