Special Report

Meet James Mattoon Keller

Into The Twilight Zone with the New York Times.

By 7.10.06

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They even look something alike.

Burt Lancaster, the late Hollywood matinee idol with the jutting jaw and slicked back hair. And Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times.

Burt and Bill, committed liberals both, have something else in common.

Burt starred in the film version of a popular political thriller, Seven Days in May. The template for the film is one Bill would recognize easily. Considering the screenwriter, he should. The story? A politically unpopular President of the United States is targeted for a coup d'etat by a charismatic would-be usurper who has a fanatic belief that un-elected though he and his like-minded friends may be, they have a better grasp than said President about what passes for a national security concern. The screenwriter for this classic of early 1960s liberalism? A well-known supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union named Rod Serling. Serling, who died in 1975, is famous eternally as the creator of The Twilight Zone television series. The Twilight Zone, that classic Serling-spawned sector of the universe where weird and unlikely things can and do happen.

In the film, based on the bestselling 1962 novel by journalists Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, Burt plays to crisp perfection Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, the renegade Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "President Jordan Lyman," played by Fredric March, is, alas, down to a mere 27% approval rating in the polls, a stress occasioned by his negotiation of an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. General Scott, along with a coterie of his military buds throughout the Army, Air Force and Marines (but not the Navy...a reluctant but definite holdout) believes disaster looms with such a "criminally weak sister" in the White House. Along with the assistance of a cartoonish conservative commentator (there is no other kind of conservative except cartoonish in Hollywood's writing DNA) Scott and his co-conspirators, haters of the President one and all, have devised a plan for the overthrow of the government, installing Scott in the Oval Office without benefit of that troublesome constitutional device known as an election.

When Scott's top aide (played by Lancaster's friend and fellow liberal Kirk Douglas, father of Michael) discovers the plot he goes straight to the President and the plot is foiled in the required Third Act. But not, of course, without the also-required final confrontation between Good and Bad.

The film is interesting in many ways, not least of all because it stars two of the most famous liberal Hollywood stars of the day in a great piece of screenwriting written by one of the best writers -- also a liberal -- in the business.

But without question the irony here is that the then decidedly liberal bogeyman of the piece is the idea of un-elected and self-selected zealots presuming to usurp the decision-making authority of the constitutionally elected President of the United States. Considering the real President of the day was the then-liberal favorite John F. Kennedy, this was a real concern when liberals pondered over-much the fact that the real Joint Chiefs included the Scott-like Air Force General Curtis "Bombs Away" LeMay. Befitting the blossoming liberal paranoia of the early 1960s that focused on the military, the Usurper-in-Chief was made to be a decorated Air Force General who was also Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Serling, a much-decorated Army paratrooper in World War II, had no fear in taking on the military.

Yet the template the liberal Serling hammered home again and again in the film was not that the military was the problem. After all, one of the key conspirators in the story was a California U.S. Senator, a duly elected civilian legislator. Serling's point, delivered in precise and searing dialogue in the climactic scene between the fictional President Jordan Lyman and General Scott, was that the elected government of the United States -- and only the elected government -- has the right to make national security decisions for the American people.

AFTER PRESIDENT LYMAN ANGRILY accuses Scott of handpicking a subordinate, "Colonel John Broderick," who was "openly contemptuous of civilian authority," the verbal fireworks between President and Usurper explode. The Oval Office confrontation about respect for the decision-making authority of elected officials over the self-chosen but non-elected Usurper Elite begins. Based on the recent statements of the elected President Bush and the New York Times's would-be Usurper Editor Mr. Keller, it is not hard to imagine the two having a version of this precise conversation that was constructed by the liberal Mr. Serling in his screenplay.

President Lyman: I am prepared to brand you for what you are, General. A strutting egoist with a Napoleonic power complex and an out and out traitor. I know you think I'm a weak sister, General -- but when it comes to my oath of office and defending the Constitution of the United States..

General Scott: Nobody has to teach me how to salute a flag.

President: Somebody has to teach you about the democratic processes that that flag represents.

General: Don't you presume to take on that job, Mr. President because frankly you're not qualified. Your course of action in the last year has bordered on criminal negligence. If you want to talk about your oath of office, I'm here to tell you face-to-face President Lyman that you violated that oath....when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people....And when this nation rejected you, lost its faith in you and began to oppose you, you violated that oath by simply not resigning from office and turning this country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.

President: And that would be General James Mattoon Scott, wouldn't it? I don't know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania or simply cry.

General: James Mattoon Scott, as you put it, hasn't the slightest interest in his own glorification. But he does have an abiding concern about the survival of this country.

President: Then by God run for office! You have such a fervid, passionate, evangelical affection for your country, why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government you're so hell bent to protect! You say I've duped the people, I bilked them, I misled them, I stripped them naked and made them defenseless. You accuse me of having lost their faith, deliberately and criminally shut my ears to the national voice...

General: I do!

President: Where the hell have you heard that voice General? In freight elevators? In dark alleys in secret places in the dead of night? How did that voice seep into a locked room full of conspirators? That's not where you hear the voice of the people General. Not in this Republic.


Today the Burt Lancaster character of General James Mattoon Scott in Seven Days in May is played in real life not by a military man but by a journalist. Scott's arguments about why President Lyman should be overthrown, his national security decisions given over to a Usurper, are today Times gospel about George Bush. It is hard to read the recent statements of publisher Arthur Sulzberger, editor Keller, and, to pick a columnist at random, Paul Krugman, without seeing the stark similarities between the authoritarian general of fiction and the less than democratically inclined journalists. If Scott believes President Lyman "bilked the people," Sulzberger sees President Bush as representing a "stench of corruption." If Scott bridled at being called an "out and out traitor" by Lyman, Keller fumes that such an allegation about himself "does not sit well with me at all." For Scott, Lyman "misled" and "duped" the American people, shutting out "the national voice" as he pursued a course that "bordered on criminal negligence." Krugman sees a Bush who is neither "competent or honest," a man "unworthy of our trust," and more.

It is the New York Times and its editor, like General Scott, who believe they, not the elected President, get to make the call on national security. They have now done so by breaching security to reveal the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program and legal government efforts to track the finances of terrorists. To quote Serling writing for Lyman: "I don't know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania or simply cry."

In real life no President has been forced from office by the American military. Were Seven Days in May to be written today the Usurpers would not be soldiers at all. They would be journalists. It is, after all, American journalists who crow that the proudest moment of their profession was forcing a duly-elected President out of office by resignation, the exact Scott proposition to President Lyman. Now, aided and abetted by a similarly unelected bureaucratic elite, journalists play the Scott role of The Usurper, in open rebellion against yet another President freely chosen by their fellow citizens. In an irony that even Serling might have trouble conjuring for The Twilight Zone, it is the New York Times and its editor that have effectively become The Usurper so stingingly rendered by the liberal Serling.

THIS GOVERNMENT IS HEMORRHAGING its national security secrets. This is happening because Mr. Keller and other journalists have combined with un-elected bureaucrats within the government who, just as with the fictional General Scott and his military cronies, hate the president and hate his foreign policy even more. Worse still, again like General Scott, these are people who have contempt for the idea at the very core of democracy: that the American people -- a stunningly diverse population of men and women of all ages, races, educations, sexual persuasions, religions and political faiths -- get to decide who will be, in the crude yet accurate words of Bush, "the decider."

Yet the ultimate "decider" of these issues is in fact the American people. And the hard truth is that the New York Times believes, in the classic style of authoritarians everywhere, that only they themselves -- the un-elected few -- have the right to make these decisions.

As former National Security Agency director Admiral Bobby Inman said in a recent joint appearance with Keller on the PBS NewsHour, why are there no "consequences" for Keller's actions? It is well past time to have this issue settled. Do the American people get to choose for themselves, in a lawful process that is fashioned out of open, public debate and elections, who will make decisions on what is or is not classified information? Or is this decision to be reserved for the voices of an un-elected elite behind the closed doors of an editorial office in Manhattan? Is there seriously a Democratic presidential candidate out there who really believes it's just fine for the classified secrets of their own prospective -- and thus duly elected -- administration to start showing up on the front page of the Times? If so, now is the time for the rest of us to know this.

Do Hillary Clinton or Mark Warner or Russell Feingold plan to run a presidential campaign promising that one of the first acts of their presidency will be to let the unelected and undemocratically minded Mr. Keller of the New York Times decide what information should or should not be classified?

With the passage of time and the inevitable new story of the day -- for the moment this means North Korea -- there may well be a reluctance inside the Bush White House to pursue a Lymanesque hard line with The Times. Yet for the sake not only of this White House but future administrations there shouldn't be that kind of reluctance. Either the duly elected government of the United States, freely chosen by its citizens, has the right to transparently make decisions on what should or should not be classified -- or they don't. If not, then why bother to have secrets at all? Why not just give all secrets to Mr. Keller and his journalistic cronies and be done with it?

While it is understandable the Bush White House might feel it has enough battles on its hands, this fight, which they did not pick, is one that both deserves to be fought and could bring election-year benefits as well. A little serious clarifying of who stands where on the issue of protecting the American people from terrorism is always a good fight to have. The idea that Democrats will defend to the American electorate the notion that the editor of theNew York Times gets to make these decisions and not the people of Altoona, Pennsylvania, or Richmond, Virginia, will be an interesting presentation from Democratic Senate candidates in those states -- and many others where there are key races for the Senate and House.

THERE IS A QUICK AND EASY WAY to carry this debate about consequences to the next and now inevitable level.

Begin with a serious understanding that these real-life un-elected bureaucrats doing the leaking, every bit the actual counterparts of the fictional conspirators of Seven Days in May, are scattered through the select agencies that deal with national security issues. They are partially enabled by the physical presence on the premises of journalists who share their contempt for the duly elected government with all the passion so well acted by Burt Lancaster as General James Mattoon Scott.

"I want your resignation tonight," President Lyman snaps at General Scott. Eventually, overwhelming evidence in hand, he gets it. In that spirit, the spirit of the fictional President Jordan Lyman as channeled by liberal Rod Serling, the Bush White House should lay out a series of "Lyman Reforms" to keep this issue front and center until it is finally resolved. They should take these reforms straight to the voting public. Bring everything out in the open. Insist on public debate.

So, absent the unlikely follow-through on a charge of treason, what would a series of "Lyman Reforms" look like? How to really get at the violators and the oxygen they need in which to conspire? If the Lyman Reforms are breached, what happens when the punishment trigger is pulled? Here are a few suggestions.

* If you publish information that has been classified by a process established by law -- which is to say a process approved by the elected representatives of the American people -- your newspaper will lose the press passes that allows the paper's reporters physical access to the White House, State and Defense Departments and the CIA for a set period of time. Every American has the right to dissent. No one, of course, has a right to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as Jordan Lyman's firing of General Scott vividly illustrated. Having had one, I can say with certainty that no one has a right to a White House pass, either, whether they be staff or press. Mr. Keller certainly has a clear First Amendment right to undermine a president in wartime, just as General Scott had a First Amendment right to undermine President Lyman by publicly disagreeing over national security. But the Times' privileged access to the White House is no more valid than Scott's right to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Nor do Times reporters have a First Amendment right to roam the Pentagon and the State Department with press credentials swinging from their necks.

* If you publish, you're grounded. Every time an American official of any note is seen a distant somewhere outside of Washington, D.C. it means they flew there on a government aircraft. There is no First Amendment right for journalists to fly with the President of the United States on either Air Force One or the accompanying press plane. Ditto flying with the Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense on the endless globe trotting that is now a standard feature of the modern world. If Condoleezza Rice is meeting with her German counterpart in Berlin, the Times reporter should fly commercial. If Donald Rumsfeld is headed for Moscow or Riyadh, the Times reporter should not be sharing the privilege -- get that word privilege -- of being waited on hand and foot by Air Force stewards while having cozy conversations with the Secretary en route.

* News Advisory: You're Off the List. Every government agency has a series of specific tools they use to communicate with the media. These include but are not limited to the privilege -- again that word -- of being on a list that provides for instant notification by the agency's press office of a pending or ongoing news event. Without this simple tool a journalist is required to do the basic spade work himself. Your paper published classified information? You have a right to ask your government anything you want. You have no right to be spoon-fed. Since your paper is banned from having a reporter in the government building anyway, pick up the phone and give the press office a call. Your competition miles ahead of you? Call your editor who authorized publishing classified information and complain.

* Let the public in on editorial decisions about classified leaks. If the un-elected editor of the New York Times has a right to see classified information and make a judgment as to whether Americans have a right to know, then Americans have a right to see what goes on in theNew York Times and decide for themselves what the public has a right to know. Why no C-SPAN cameras in the Times offices of Mr. Keller? Newspapers, of all things, should be transparent. To say the public has a right to know -- but not what we at the Times know -- is the height of hypocrisy. The schedule of every U.S. President's business and social life is public information. Why can't we see the exact same information for the New York Times editors and reporters who have taken it on themselves to privately make decisions on our national security issues? Why are Mr. Keller's life and dealings not open to sunlight? Why is knowledge about his dealings on classified information, and those of his reporters, kept from the public? There is always a public interest with people of power, and General Kel...ahhh...Mr. Keller and his co-conspirators are surely those.

And so on.

IT'S TIME TO TAKE THIS ISSUE head-on. The Times wanted a debate and now it has one. The Bush administration should suspend -- but not revoke -- any special privileges granted to New York Times reporters. "Suspend the privileges" is French for "yank 'em." Take them away. Lift them. Cut off the travel on government planes. Make Times reporters call in for news advisories, speech texts, lists of casualties in Iraq. For how long? The rest of the year? Why not when the Bush term is almost up, say until January 1, 2009? The Times will then have 19 days to get their bearings again in a White House that will soon be occupied by a new President.

It is not for the government to demand that the Times open up its internal discussions on classified information to the rest of the public in the public interest. That demand should be made by the public, whose lives are now at risk because of these closed-door editorial decisions. The recent revelation of the plot to destroy New York train tunnels only emphasizes the point.

First step? Make Times reporters turn their privileged credentials in personally to White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. If they need a reason, tell them that after reading an advisory letter from Editor James Mattoon Keller, it has been decided that removing the Times' physical access to these sensitive agencies is in "the public interest." Then, to borrow a phrase from that sterling defender of national security secrets, Valerie Plame's husband, have the uniformed Secret Service "frog march" said paper's reporters down the White House driveway and out the gates. Then quickly accredit a dozen papers of the un-elite corps to take their place.

When the inevitable protest goes up from the same authoritarian-minded journalists who wanted Scooter Libby's head and now have mysteriously ended up with "scoops" about classified information, someone at the Justice Department should be adding their names as "persons of interest" in a criminal investigation. Yes indeed. Lock these folks up until we get the names from them of those who have self-selected themselves within the government to endanger the lives of my family and yours by playing real life as if this were a Rod Serling script.

George Bush's staff should take a page from Rod Serling's Jordan Lyman. They should challenge their elected boss's hidden antagonists inside his own government -- our government -- to come out into the sunshine and klieg lights. If these self-appointed pillars of virtue feel so utterly passionate about the rights of their fellow Americans to know what is going on in the high councils of government then they should begin by proudly showing themselves to all of us instead of hiding behind the New York Times. How about a congressional hearing with a row of empty chairs behind the witness table, daring the leakers to show up and talk in public? If they want the authority to make these decisions on our behalf they should have the guts to come out of dark alleys and closed editorial offices where they whisper to the strutting journalistic egoists who hide their names from the public. They should look us all in the eye, resign their jobs and speak directly to us all in the limelight they secretly crave.

At a minimum Mr. Keller and his fellow editors should stare into the TV cameras at least as often as any President does and take questions from -- gasp! -- the press! All of it. Selected appearances with members of the like-minded journalistic fraternity that has contempt for George Bush counts as much as a Bush press conference where the only questions come from Karl Rove.

Perhaps these Serlingesque hobgoblins who are feeding these leaks in violation of the law should even risk resigning and putting their name on a ballot in the state of their birth or allegiance or convenience. And no, the District of Columbia is not a state.

Do they -- the leakers and journalist Usurpers -- have the guts for any of this? Does James Mattoon Keller?

Only in The Twilight Zone</.+I>.

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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.