Some 2,000 years ago, the great Ancient Library in Alexandria, Egypt burnt to the ground, taking with it a vast reservoir of irreplaceable information, subsequently reduced to ashes, lost to history, and leaving the rest of us groping in ignorance at many questions we've ever since scrambled in vain to piece back together.
I know this over-dramatizes the point, but there truly are certain individuals so incredibly knowledgeable in their areas of expertise -- possessing a vast reservoir of information within the invisible shelves of their minds -- that when they leave this world, that information turns to ashes with them. They are, really, national treasures -- irreplaceable.
When it comes to the history of arguably the most fascinating of centuries -- the 20th century -- and specifically the long battle against militant Soviet communism, which stretched from 1917-91 as the predominant, defining ideological conflict of the last 100 years, few figures knew as much as Arnold Beichman. (The other who comes to mind, among the living, is Herb Romerstein.) Arnold passed away on February 17 at the age of 96, gleefully outliving the miserable Soviet Union and its seedy cast of butchers and tormentors, and taking with him not only body and soul but mind -- a mind overflowing with valuable information. That which Arnold was unable to record on paper, or transfer to others who recorded it on paper, has gone with him, now irretrievable.
I didn't know Arnold well, certainly not as well as friends of Arnold's like John Podhoretz, who wrote a beautiful tribute to the man in Commentary, but I did know him well enough to place a call or an email when I found myself in a corner on some research task, unable to find answers even with all the power of the Internet. Inevitably, I'd get to the point where I'd say to myself: "I need to call Arnold." Arnold was a walking, talking, human search engine -- and a very lively (and very short) one at that.
The first time I met him in person was when we hosted him at Grove City College a few years ago for a lecture at our Pew Fine Arts Center. Before Arnold held forth, sharing with students a quarter of his age, we sat with him at dinner and picked his fertile brain. He supplied answers easily, happily, scattered with his colorful expressions: "That son-of-a-bitch!" he exclaimed to polite company, taken aback as Arnold described a source who -- by his estimation -- had sold out his country during the Cold War.
I saw him again more recently at a Hoover Institution function in Washington, D.C. "What do you need to know?" he asked me with a grin, primed to pump out details. My response: "Tell me about Henry Wallace and Eleanor Roosevelt…." "Oh, my," Arnold began with a laugh.
I wish I had brought a tape recorder.
(For the record, Henry Wallace was one of the more in-depth research efforts to which Arnold devoted a lot of time. I don't know if ever pulled all of that information together.)
The last time I tapped Arnold's brain was last spring. I had a question about a certain New York Times writer from the 1940s, a well-known liberal. An extremely popular web source -- Wikipedia no less, which is hardly conservative -- described the writer as a "Stalinist." Of course, this was no small charge. I knew Arnold would address it carefully. Despite the left's caricature of Arnold as a recalcitrant Cold Warrior, he was always exceedingly cautious in drawing necessary lines of distinction, treating every individual fairly, relentlessly pursuing the truth, and never mislabeling or smearing anyone.
"No," Arnold started. "I don't know of any evidence that he was a Stalinist, or even a communist. He was very much on the left, but not that far on the left."
"By the way," he continued, as I perked up in anticipation for whatever gem might come next. "Did you know there was a communist cell at the New York Times in the 1930s? Congress looked into it. Did an investigation and a report…."
No, I did not know that. That's another of those inconvenient things that liberal historians and journalists have studiously forgotten about. When I responded to Arnold's tip by scouring the web, I found nothing. I soon discovered, however, via old-fashioned research -- meaning a stroll to some old library shelves -- that Arnold was (of course) right. Such a cell did exist at the Times.
The details on that are better delayed for another article at another time. For now, however, this gets back to my main point: I would've never known this if not for Arnold. Once again, the Beichman Library had been open for business.
Alas, the tragedy of the Beichman Library was that its stock was immaterial. With its namesake's passing, it is now closed. I -- we -- can't go there anymore. If only we could have downloaded its owner's brain.
It's a great loss, of course. But such is an even greater testimony of a life well spent, of vigorously using -- in service of good, and against evil -- the talent God had bestowed. May Arnold Beichman (1913-2010) rest in peace.