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Don’t Know Much About History

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook was understandably intrigued when Cass Sunstein, a former Obama White House official and former Harvard law professor, published a column headlined “How the Alger Hiss Case Explains the Tea Party.” If you know anything about the famous perjury trial of the high-ranking State Department official and Soviet spy, the headline might seem to suggest that Sunstein is admitting the Tea Party has correctly identified insidious political threats.

Needless to say, that is not Sunstein’s point. He spends most of the column recapping the saga of how Time magazine writer Whittaker Chambers accused Hiss, who was one of Washington’s most dashing and well-regarded figures in the late 1940s, of having been part of the Communist underground. Chambers had experienced a powerful religious conversion that convinced him, quite correctly, that communism was a force for evil. Sunstein recounts how the initial skepticism of Chambers gave way to a preponderance of damning evidence proving Hiss was a traitor. He concedes Chambers’s beloved autobiography Witness is “moving, poetic, an unforgettable mixture of pessimism, spirituality and hope.” In fact, the column is basically a testament to Chambers’s courage and conviction, right up until the last two bizarre paragraphs: 

Chambers’ broader charge—that liberalism was a species of socialism, “inching its ice cap over the nation”—polarized the nation. His attack on the patriotism of the Ivy League elite reflected an important strand in American culture, and it helped to initiate suspicions that persist to this day.

Liberals are no longer much interested in Hiss’s conviction, yet they are puzzled, and rightly object, when they are accused of holding positions that they abhor. We can’t easily understand those accusations, contemporary conservative thought or the influence of the Tea Party without appreciating the enduring impact of the Hiss case.

To sum up, even though Chambers was correct to point out that influential American liberals were hiding their true intentions to seize the levers of power and undermine constitutional government, Chambers is responsible for poisoning the well. And this is somehow the genesis of the bitter partisan divide we’re saddled with today. 

We suppose we should be grateful that Sunstein at least acknowledges Hiss’s guilt—as recently as 2007, holdouts such as the Nation’s Victor Navasky were insisting the accusations against him “had never really been proved.” 

Still, Hiss’s betrayal is decades old. He was sentenced to a five-year prison term for perjury in 1950. Just do the arithmetic: A putative 20-year-old who was riveted by the trial would be 83 years old today.

Perhaps it would be more helpful for Sunstein to think about how Alger Hiss explains Obama. When Obama ran for president in 2008, there were questions about his relationship with left-wing terrorist Bill Ayers. The Obama campaign responded to these accusations with the appalling tactic of asking the Justice Department to intervene against a conservative group running ads questioning the relationship between the two men. Once Obama was elected, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote a book acknowledging Obama lied about the extent of his relationship to Ayers.

When Obama ran for president, he insisted that his primary opponent Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, which required an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, was too extreme, and this helped endear him to voters. 

Once elected, he needed the individual mandate to make his own Rube Goldberg health plan work, so the mandate was included in Obamacare. When it was pointed out that the mandate was a huge and unpopular tax, he insisted it wasn’t—right up until it was decided this was the best legal argument in favor of the mandate’s constitutional validity.

And when Obama’s health care plan was explicitly designed to cancel the insurance policies of 1 out of every 20 Americans and dump them into a kludgy government insurance system, Obama tried (and failed) to drum up support for the law by repeatedly claiming, “If you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance. Period.” 

If Sunstein thinks it’s damaging for the Tea Party to accuse liberals of having secret agendas, then he should tell his fellow liberals to stop harboring secret agendas.

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