Investigative Reporter Sy Hersh: Working with Gene McCarthy’s Presidential Bid Shaped My Life Path

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Before investigative reporter Sy Hersh exposed many of the government’s deepest secrets, from Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia to the CIA’s role undermining the Chilean government of Salvador Allende, he served as press secretary for Democrat Eugene McCarthy during his 1968 presidential bid. We speak with Hersh in New York City about this little-discussed time in his life.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to go back, before My Lai, and talk about a section of your memoir, which I really didn’t know that much about: your time with the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy. And you have this gripping account of you and McCarthy and the poet Robert Lowell going from town to town, drinking whiskey out of a flask while in between speeches of McCarthy. Talk about what drew you to the McCarthy campaign and why you eventually resigned.

SEYMOUR HERSH: I had left the AP, because my coverage on the war didn’t make the bosses happy, and they reassigned me from the Pentagon to Health and Human Services. I got the message, so I quit. I was freelancing. I had done stuff on chemical and biological warfare by then, doing—so I did what I did. And in late '67, I hoped, like everybody else, Bobby would run against Johnson, because Johnson was simply gone on the war. He wasn't going to quit, and everybody knew it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bobby Kennedy.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah. And Bobby didn’t go. And my next-door neighbor was—across the street, was Mary McGrory, a wonderful columnist. And Mary came to see me and said, “Gene, Gene McCarthy, is going to run.” I didn’t know McCarthy. He was a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, but he was a very diffident guy. I knew he was bright. I went to see him. She said, “You’ve got to go see him. He needs help.” And I go to see this guy, and he couldn’t care less about the press. But I didn’t know what to do. And I was finally convinced to go listen to him give a speech. He gave a speech in New York, and I was knocked out.

You know what he talked about? He talked about the Constitution, about what Lyndon Johnson was doing. He was a Benedictine, very religious. And then he said, “This war is immoral.” And I’d never heard a politician say something that was so profoundly true to me. What’s morality other than the mass murder that was going on? And so I signed on. And I didn’t—the staff hated the campaign, but I got along with him. I’m smart, and I did a lot of work, and he liked me, you know. And he was an amazing man.

And what happened, that shaped my life—he was from Minnesota. He was the Farm-Labor Party. He was from a—Humphrey was a typical prototype of the FDL, they call them. They were very conservative, anti-communist, but very liberal. And McCarthy was that way. He had been in a monastery, very interesting guy. I liked him a lot. But there were a lot of guys hanging around, fellow Irish Catholic buddies. And one of them, I knew, had been chief of station for the CIA in Laos. Don’t ask how I knew those things, but I was getting into it. So I asked him one day, “Why are all these guys from the CIA around?” And he told me—he said, actually, well, he did favors for Jack for the CIA as a senator. We’re just—the best—

AMY GOODMAN: John Kennedy.

SEYMOUR HERSH: John—the best time I had was in the plane with him. And he had a wonderful daughter named Mary. And I used to—the morning, I’d check, because he was a very difficult man, very private, very, very smart. I’d say, “How is he today?” One day, Mary, his oldest daughter, said to me, “Alienated as usual.” She was his daughter. But so, he was just difficult. He didn’t like doing interviews. He didn’t think the kids that were supporting him en masse, shaving their hair for Gene—he didn’t think he owed them anything. “They’re not there for me. They’re against the war.” I had these fights with him all the time. But he explained to me that he was anti-communist. And he would sometimes take bags of money down to certain Catholic officials, public leaders, and particularly in Latin America. What? And I got to know a lot of guys in the CIA through him. So, if you wonder why, when Colby says he—that little bit, that’s from an internal paper they did. They did a history of Colby. And there’s actually a long chapter on me. And he does say that, because I was doing domestic spying and all—

AMY GOODMAN: He says you knew more about the CIA than the CIA director, Colby, did.

SEYMOUR HERSH: I didn’t, but that’s all right. I would get him mad, because I would call up about things he didn’t want to talk about. But I got to know, through McCarthy, about the CIA, and then—a strangest sort of connection. And so Gene was this—anyway, it was a learning curve, and a great learning curve.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why you resigned?

SEYMOUR HERSH: We won in—we did—we knocked out Johnson. Johnson quit in New Hampshire because we got almost 42 percent in a write-in vote. And actually, with the ballots from—that came in later, we beat him. And that was enough for Johnson. He quits. And then, of course, Bobby jumps in. Heroic Bobby. And they tried to hire me, and I wouldn’t go near him, because he didn’t come in when he should have. I’m a purist. And so, I went back to being a reporter, happily. Politics is awful. And what happened is, we’re in Wisconsin, and he’s going to win the election big there. And there’s a lot of polling. And the polls showed that if he stayed away from the black community in Milwaukee—

AMY GOODMAN: McCarthy.

SEYMOUR HERSH: McCarthy—the Polish, the ethnic vote would be higher. He would get 62 percent against Johnson. But if he did the—if he marched with the black—there was a march scheduled in the black community. If he marched, he would go down to 58 percent. And they convinced him not to do it. And I had heard about it. You know, I’m running around with people like Lowell and Paul Newman, who was working, Robert—movie stars. They were really—Bob Ryan, Robert Ryan, all very bright, very committed. And we were working out of my office, giving speeches. And I couldn’t believe it. So I woke him up at 6:00 in the morning. And guys don’t like being woken up at 6:00 in the morning in the campaign. And I said—and he said, “It’s none of your business.” And I quit. I’m not going to—

AMY GOODMAN: He said he wasn’t going to—

SEYMOUR HERSH: He didn’t—he wasn’t going to change his—I thought he didn’t know what the staff was doing. There were a bunch of political guys who were already dreaming of what job they were going to have in the White House, that kind of—

AMY GOODMAN: So he canceled the speeches in the black community.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah, I left. That was it. But it got noisy, because somebody told The New York Times about it. And so, it got noisy for a day or two. But I didn’t talk to anybody about it. I talked in the book about it, decided, “Hell with it. Why not tell the story?” It was a bad move to make. But he was sure Bobby would win. He had given up sort of, I thought, too. Anyway, what a learning experience. I’m barely—I’m 31, 32, and I’ve already learned all this stuff about the world.

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