The Magazine

Cruising for a Bruising

The life and times of Conor Cruise O'Brien

Jul 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 42 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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Almost four decades ago, in the aftermath of the Belgian Congo crisis, the pseudonymous Peter Simple of the London Daily Telegraph published a parody of the United Nations. Simple transformed New York's U.N. headquarters into the "Bar of Public Opinion," an East Side "rum joint" run by "a gloomy Swede -- Dag the Drag" (Hammarskjold). Simple made the delegates a bunch of unruly, brawling drunkards.

And then Simple had a "mad fighting Irishman" burst in with a great roar: "Bejabers! And is there any of youse gossoons would be afther a rale foight?"

It was "Conor the Cruiser," Simple wrote in 1966, "a bit of a Bolshie if you ask me, always in some scrape or other, always ready for a glass or a girl, always ready with a tall story -- he had Paddy's gift of the gab, you know, full of blarney, and the prince of good fellows to boot."

In that one paragraph you have the young Conor Cruise O'Brien, now in his sedentary eighties, but once a storm petrel ready to lead a U.N. army against the Katanga secessionists (remember them?) or fling darts via the New York Review of Books against Norman Podhoretz for being a neoconservative. Conor the Cruiser was always spoiling for a "rale foight," whether in his native Ireland, or the Congo, Britain, New York City, Ghana, Paris, India. And, by and large, always foighting in a self-defined good cause or for some cloudy moral principle.

I don't think there has ever in modern times been anybody quite like O'Brien: Irish writer, statesman, diplomat, polemicist, editor, professor, playwright, scholar, U.N. functionary, historian, legislator, civil servant, cabinet minister and, above all, unflagging liberal. In recent years, he has made a heroic try, call it a "tall story," to turn even Edmund Burke into a liberal icon. And while it isn't really fair to call him "a bit of a Bolshie," O'Brien has spent a good part of his life -- as his latest book, Memoir: My Life and Themes, inadvertently makes clear -- attempting to turn genuine radicals into liberals, too.

For instance: O'Brien ignores the dodgy political behavior in 1977 of the Irish statesman Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne. O'Brien tells us that MacBride accepted the Lenin Peace Prize -- period. That's it -- not another word about a "prize" awarded by a police state that had swept the peoples of Russia and Central Europe into its malevolent jurisdiction. (Among others who received the Lenin Peace Prize was Fidel Castro in 1961.)

Would O'Brien have been so calm had, say, an Irish notable accepted something called the "Hitler Peace Prize"?

As vice chancellor of the University of Ghana, faced with a vacancy in the physics department, O'Brien hired Alan Nunn May, a confessed Soviet spy who had served seven years in a British jail. We are told that Nunn May's qualifications as a teacher were excellent. And so again the question: Would O'Brien have hired a Nazi physicist, or a South African scientist who believed in apartheid, or an Irish academic who, during the Troubles, had been an informer against the IRA? Rather innocently and en passant, he points out that at the time of Nunn May's espionage, Russia was "then allied to Britain." Oh, an extenuating circumstance, eh? Just like those defenders of Alger Hiss who thought it relevant that he didn't do it for the money. Political stumping like this calls to mind George Orwell's line: "The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-Fascist without being antitotalitarian."

Sometimes what the memoirist omits is more interesting than what he includes. That is the great weakness of Memoir: My Life and Themes; O'Brien's earlier writings are far more interesting than his present longueurs. Take his sprightly 1994 lecture on politics as one of "the performing arts," for example. There, O'Brien derided the "professional movie actor [who] recently played the part of President of the United States in the White House itself for a run of two full terms." So much for Ronald Reagan and bad "showbiz." "Good showbiz," O'Brien argued, "can have a strong influence on democratic politics as witness Roosevelt's fireside chats and Kennedy's 'Camelot.'"

This was crude, to be sure. Yet it is cruder still that in O'Brien's present memoir, there isn't a single word about Reagan nor about the epochal fall of the Soviet Union and its meaning. O'Brien prefers to vent at great length about another president, Thomas Jefferson, whom he regards as one of the great, malevolent phonies in American history: "If there is a racist revival in America in the next century, Jefferson will be the central hero of that revival."