The Magazine

The Happy Cold Warrior

From the May 19, 2003 issue: The first 90 years of Arnold Beichman.

May 19, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 35 • By DAVID BROOKS
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IN 1927, young Arnold Beichman went to Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth play. After the game, Beichman hung around the players' exit to get another glimpse of the Babe, who eventually emerged from the clubhouse, resplendent in a belted camel-hair coat, and climbed into the driver's seat of his big Packard touring car. Young Arnold surged from the crowd, held up a program, and asked for an autograph. Babe Ruth turned and barked: "Get the hell off the running board, kid." Immediately, Beichman became the celebrity of his neighborhood. He was the kid the Babe had spoken to. How had the Babe said it? people wanted to know, when they saw him on the street. What were his words exactly?

Arnold Beichman turns 90 this month. Babe Ruth was the first of hundreds of notable historical figures Beichman has met in the course of his life--from Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy to Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem, from Joe DiMaggio to Frantz Fanon and Michel Aflaq, founder of the Baath party and ideological guru to Saddam Hussein. This is why people go into journalism, to meet the key people and be there for the key events of the age. But Beichman's life also has a theme and a cause: anti-communism. As long as the Soviet Union existed, Arnold Beichman was there working for its destruction. This is why people go into opinion journalism, to be part of some large intellectual fight that brings one's life gloriously to a point.

Beichman was born May 17, 1913, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His father was a cotton goods peddler and storekeeper, and his parents spoke Yiddish at home. His father barely spoke English, but he did speak Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Italian (that last so he could do business with the Italians who lived around Mulberry Street in Little Italy).

Beichman read his way through the local public library and edited his high school paper. He noticed the basketball players were nice to him because they wanted to get their names in the paper. "Suddenly I realized what power I had. That's what got me into journalism." He was admitted to Columbia College, which then had a 10 percent Jewish quota, and became the first non-fraternity, Jewish student to be made editor of the college paper. One day, in the early thirties, the ambassador from Nazi Germany was scheduled to speak at the college. A group of Communist students marched into the office of the school paper and demanded that Beichman write an editorial saying that the ambassador shouldn't be permitted to speak. Beichman said innocently that he wouldn't do it, on free speech grounds, and also because the ambassador from the Soviet Union had recently been given a Columbia podium. The Communists exploded and called Beichman a red-baiter, the first but not the last time that charge would be thrown at him. "I was naive," Beichman recalls. "And if you are naive you can't be a Communist."

While at Columbia, Beichman attended a conference of student journalists in Washington, at the then-segregated Mayflower Hotel. Some students from black colleges were there, and they took part in the dancing at one of the evening parties. Southern students surrounded them and chased them from the floor. Beichman led a delegation of northern students who threatened to pull out of the conference unless apologies were made and the black students were permitted to attend the final banquet. They got their way, but the black students, along with Beichman, were seated at a small table near the kitchen and the waiters refused to serve them, finally pulling out a black cook to bring them their food.

The incident impressed a New York Times editor, who hired Beichman, after graduation, to do some freelance pieces. Beichman wrote for the Times, then Newsday, and finally was hired by PM, the legendary left-wing daily, which accepted no advertising because it didn't want the capitalist taint. Beichman was brought on by Jimmy Wechsler to fight off the staff Communists, who had been hired by Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, and Ralph Ingersoll, PM's founder. "Brooklyngrad needs you!" Wechsler summoned. Beichman rose to become city editor and assistant managing editor, and thus took part in a series of ferocious battles for control of the news coverage, amid vicious attacks from the Communist press. One secretary disappeared and showed up later on the payroll of the New York office of the Soviet news agency, Tass. At one point Ingersoll got permission from Earl Browder, the head of the Communist party of the United States, to fire a few of the more incompetent Communists, just to preserve the paper's credibility.