Feb 19

There were two fascinating obits in The New York Times today, both with some relation to the Hiss Case. The first was of Irving Feiner, who lost a major free-speech case before the Supreme Court in the early 1950s. The case resulted from an incident in 1949. Feiner was ranting about politics on a street corner in Syracuse, New York, when the police, fearing a riot, asked Feiner to step down. He refused and was arrested. He was eventually convicted of disorderly conduct. The verdict was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision. The dissent by Hugo Black, a powerful defense of free speech, is worth reading.

So what does this all have to do with the Hiss Case? I’m glad you asked. Feiner’s anger had boiled over after the Mayor of Syracuse had canceled a scheduled performance earlier that evening by Pete Seeger and a speech by the noted progressive attorney O. John Rogge. Rogge had been invited to Syracuse to speak about the then ongoing trial of the Trenton Six, which was also known as the North’s Scottsboro case. It involved six black youths from Newark who, based on confessions obtained by the local police, were convicted of murdering a tailor. The youths were all given the death penalty until a series of articles exposed the fraudulent confessions, which were obtained under extreme duress.

Therein lies the connection. The articles were written for The Guardian by a young reporter named William A. Reuben. Bill’s investigation saved their lives. It also engendered in him a lifelong fascination with false confessions. For more than 50 years he investigated the Hiss case and was its leading expert. He was spurred on in large part by his belief that, like the Trenton Six, Whittaker Chambers had made a false confession of guilt.

The other obituary was for Stephen Zetterberg, who became a footnote to the political career of Richard Nixon. In his successful campaign against incumbent Jerry Voorhis in 1946, Nixon employed for the first time (in politics anyway) the questionable tactics that would soon earn him the sobriquet Tricky Dick. According to the obit, he was back at it in 1948 when Zetterberg became a candidate for Nixon’s House seat. Nixon, a Republican, ran against Zetterberg in the Democratic primary (this was legal in California), sending postcards to voters, addressing them as “Fellow Democrats.” The story also says that Nixon had his name listed on the ballot as “Congressman”, leading voters to assume that he was the Democratic incumbent.

Nixon went on to defeat Zetterberg handily and soon resumed his duties as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Within a month of the election that fall, he was photographed ¬†peering at supposedly secret government documents obtained from Whittaker Chambers via a pumpkin on Chambers’ farm. Befitting the name Tricky Dick, the frames Nixon was pictured looking so intently at, were blank.


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