Adler Agonistes

Out for the count: Not even Siegfried and Roy could make her tale of the ring ring true

From NewsWatch.org, Aug 31, 2000

Former premier Charles J. Haughey was such the big man of Irish politics - or as his press secretary once famously put it, "una Duce, una voce" - that the Irish media, by and large, neglected to inquire into how he had managed to acquire an island, a mansion replete with a stable of race horses and a 50-foot yacht all on a measly ministerial salary.1

But the aegis slipped and fell, and a new Ireland, unimpressed by government corruption, and outraged by the massive, illegal donations Haughey had pocketed during a time of national austerity, dragged him to the dock. He's been there for nearly two years, a haggard face, forced to watch the descent of his legacy into an acronym he inadvertently bequeathed to Irish politics back when he was in his prime: GUBU - "grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented." 2

The tale of former premier Charles J. Haughey is, indisputably, more interesting than that of former New Yorker writer Renata Adler. And of course, there is no real parallel. But, having lived for the past month with Adler, or to be precise, the bludgeoning effect of the latest installment in Adler's oeuvre, "GUBU" simply popped out (the final 'u,' perhaps, more for the sake of sonority than accuracy.) Adler's charge that the now-deceased Watergate Judge John Sirica had "close ties to organized crime" because he "illegally" boxed in Washington D.C. during the 1920s was GUBU. And the evidence and defense and polemic wrapped around the charge in the August issue of Harpers were so GUBU that simple adjectives of outrage, already exhausted by more timely critics of the piece, called for estranging the American language (GUBU).

How we got here

The story of the line that spawned an ocean of media criticism has been well-told, but requires repeating. In a blistering memoir, Gone, the last days of the New Yorker, 3 Renata Adler, an estimable critic and writer whom the magazine had launched in the early 1960s, reminisced about pursuing a profile of G. Gordon Liddy, a man, it would seem, destined through Watergate to forever occupy the role of puppet villain in American political history. As a good journalist should, Adler harbored questions about the conventional view of Liddy as an unequivocally dastardly fellow; his penitential silence, she surmised, "was a sign, not just of loyalty, or stoicism, but that he knew a lot." Gone, however, tells us little of Liddy, 4 save that Adler grew fond of him, and that her profile was killed - with the suggestion that its tone and conclusions were unacceptable to her bien pensant New Yorker colleagues. But inside this little ramble down memory lane, there was the following digression.

"Mr. Shawn had given me, for review, a book by the Watergate Judge John Sirica. In the course of research, I had found that contrary to his reputation as a hero, Sirica was in fact a corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest figure, with a close connection to Senator McCarthy and clear ties to organized crime. I did not review the book."

The relevance to the preceding and succeeding text is unclear. Were we to assume that Liddy's presumed knowingness was connected with Sirica's dark secrets? Or where we to assume that a light editing touch at Simon & Schuster allowed for the interpolation of ad-hoc memories? Either way, Adler did not mention what she had found during the course of her research to warrant these conclusions, and the reader simply had to take this upending of historical biography on trust.

The relevance to the preceding and succeeding text is unclear. Were we to assume that Liddy's presumed knowingness was connected with Sirica's dark secrets? Or where we to assume that a light editing touch at Simon & Schuster allowed for the interpolation of ad-hoc memories? Either way, Adler did not mention what she had found during the course of her research to warrant these conclusions, and the reader simply had to take this upending of historical biography on trust.

This is not a convention normally permitted in either journalism or history. One can assume intersubjective assent on such trivial truths as "cloudless sky is blue in daylight," and one can, in the course of normal, rational discourse, assume a canon of largely uncontroversial historical facts and judgements. But when it comes to historical revisionism, even on uncontroversial matters, one has to meet a certain threshold of evidence before any new claim can enter the ring of rational debate. And if that debate is to be, in some sense, foreclosed, then the evidence must be truly compelling. That is why historical inquiry is properly tentative - one never knows what might be hidden in the archives.

Such were the epistemic stakes - the Queensberry rules of evidence, so to speak - lying behind a small but invidious digression on page 125 of a book on the New Yorker. As Judge Sirica was dead, these stakes, perhaps, did not seem very high to Renata Adler, her editors at Simon & Schuster, or her publisher's lawyers. Indeed, the matter seemed to slip by most reviewers as they warmed to the invective lit by the book's primary subject, the demise of The New Yorker. But the matter did not go unnoticed by John Sirica's son, Jack, a reporter for Newsday, who was understandably surprised and a little perplexed at the peremptory undoing of his pop's reputation.

On February 17, Jack Sirica asked Simon & Schuster to issue a retraction, and to delete the offending paragraph from any further printings of the book. In an Associated Press article the following day on the emerging scandal, Adler responded, "I'm certainly going to respond to the son's letters, either do a piece or do a short simple response, " she said. "Is it true what I wrote? Yes... I think I can document it in a fairly satisfying way."

Silence fell on the matter until April 3, when The New York Times Monday "Business" section (which covers the information industries, and is thus a powerful must-read for media-mad New York) made the "little noticed... drive by assault on the judge..." the subject of a story. Media business reporter Felicity Barringer pointed out the absence of any evidence of "clear ties" to mobsters in the book, but that Adler had told her that the evidence would be produced, "soon, in a place I think appropriate."

Silence fell on the matter until April 3, when The New York Times Monday "Business" section (which covers the information industries, and is thus a powerful must-read for media-mad New York) made the "little noticed... drive by assault on the judge..." the subject of a story. Media business reporter Felicity Barringer pointed out the absence of any evidence of "clear ties" to mobsters in the book, but that Adler had told her that the evidence would be produced, "soon, in a place I think appropriate."

"Why wait if the evidence is on hand"? Barringer asked
"I really don't understand your point," Adler replied.
"I wrote it and will document it and that's it."

As any normal newspaper journalist would, Barringer kept prodding. She noted that though Sirica's management style had "won him poor reviews in the legal community... those who have read just about all the books on Watergate say that they have never heard a whisper about any ties between the judge and organized crime. And considering that Judge Sirica made himself an enemy of a group of men adept at smearing reputations, it is noteworthy that no hint of possible underworld connections reached those most steeped in Watergate lore."

The situation seemed clear: this was either a "cheap smear" executed with legal impunity (the dead cannot sue for libel) or Adler and her editors had evidence.

"Why wait months to publish the documentation"? Barringer asked
"How can you be a working journalist and phrase a question so deeply silly as that"? Adler replied. The documentation didn't "belong" in the book.
"And what about Judge Sirica's reputation?" asked Barringer
"Do you worry that much about people's reputations"? replied Adler.

What was the reader to make of Barringer's article? At a time when the public aren't terribly fond of the press (and are encouraged to think of journalists as rather ghastly people in most popular entertainment 5). Adler's evasiveness and hauteur were hardly endearing. But she was surely courting a date with nemesis to show such scorn for the rules of evidence after having written a media critical memoir excoriating those who conspired or tarried in the fall of the New Yorker. This was, after all, the Times she was talking to; and like it or not, the Times is the nation's pretender to paper of record. (Adler would later write in Harpers that she did not think that she had been "discourteous" to Barringer, but that she did find her questioning "mindless.")

If what Adler said on the record was infelicitous, her subject, too, was unwise. Watergate has come to symbolize, rightly or wrongly, all that is good about the role journalism can play in defending democracy; and the enemy of my enemy - so to speak - is my friend. Trashing Sirica, who was one of Watergate's good guys, constituted messing with the very symbols that animated, and continue to animate, those who now occupy the commanding heights in the media. Symbolically, Watergate inspired investigative journalism in America and inspired many to take up journalism as surely as God inspired man.

In short, Adler goofed - and her maladroit handling of Barringer had only made things worse. If she had only shown a scintilla of humility, a willingness to concede that it didn't look good; that she thought the evidence too long and complicated for a memoir; that a decision had been made from the outset not to annotate the text; and that it had taken her longer than expected to turn her evidence into a publishable article (given other commitments), then she might have ducked the coming assault.

On April 5, the Times published a scorching editorial titled "A Question of Literary Ethics." 6 It concluded thus:

"Ms. Adler was cavalier when she dismissed as "deeply silly" a Times reporter's inquiry as to why she had not documented her inflammatory charge. She was even more irresponsible when she asked the reporter, "Do you worry that much about people's reputations?" Of course we do, and so should she. Ms. Adler said she would produce her evidence about Judge Sirica "soon, in a place I think is appropriate." Only then will we know whether she has unearthed some remarkable evidence of historical importance, or smeared a renowned jurist who is no longer able to fight back."

The next day, John Dean, former counsel to Richard Nixon, followed up with a column speculating that G. Gordon Liddy may have been the source for Adler's revisionist aside - given Liddy's long standing animus towards Sirica. And then, a short piece in Sunday's "Week in Review" summarized the developments. There were more articles, but they primarily dealt with the firestorm generated by the rest of the book (and the living characters impugned). And then silence fell again on the city of literary caterwauling.

Counterpunch - the evidence

It has to be said, Renata Adler is a writer with a peculiar immunity to the critical insights in her own writing. That Gone, a lament for excellence in journalism, should have been gored for a journalistic slip would be funny if it weren't for the reputation of a man, the feelings of his family and the importance of historical inquiry and historical record. But the meta-journalism of Gone leaps beyond irony towards GUBU absurdity with the publication of Adler's counterpunch in the August issue of Harper's magazine.

"A Court of No Appeal: How one obscure sentence upset The New York Times" attempts to argue roughly the following: The New York Times launched a campaign against one lonely writer over one obscure sentence "at the end of a passage on page 125" - as if, complains Adler, most people "relied" on "their information about Judge Sirica on a sentence in a book about The New Yorker."

This would seem to suggest that Adler's sentence is, as a consequence, irrelevant if not unreliable - given that only she has brought charges of propinquity to the mob against Sirica. But, of course, Adler doesn't quite mean to imply this, because behind this one "obscure sentence," there is a full-blown deconstruction of Judge Sirica that turns out to have enormous significance for our understanding of Watergate and the way institutional journalism propagates "received ideas."

In, perhaps, a throwback to her academic grounding in French philosophy (the Sorbonne) and comparative literature (Harvard), the critical move seems of a part with literary theoretical practices that decenter ostensive meaning in favor of aporia in the text that then become central to our understanding. Or not understanding. Or something like that. She reads Sirica's autobiography, she finds things in places that don't quite make sense, she uses these gaps and contradictions to undermine the literal meaning intended by the author, resulting in an indictment that overturns everything we thought we knew. (Adler is also a graduate of Yale Law School).

Well we can't have that, can we? So, according to Adler, the Times faked a genuine interest in Sirica's reputation - look at how much publicity they gave to the charges! - and went after the skunk at the media garden party in order to preserve their institutional hegemony as arbiters of truth. The result, charges Adler, was "a show trial" that revealed the Times' "instinctive totalitarianism."


Let's leave repression and revolution for later and look first at the heart of Adler's piece, the evidence that proved her initial assertions about John Sirica - and in particular, the most damaging - that he had "clear ties to organized crime." She derives most of her evidence from an apparently close reading of the prologue to Sirica's autobiography, To Set the Record Straight, and from the apparent facts that Sirica was a "professional" boxer, that "professional boxing" was illegal in Washington D.C. when he boxed, and that it was controlled by organized crime.

"One source of income, for Sirica, has always been professional boxing," she writes. "In Washington, as early as 1921, we know, he has been boxing almost every day with professionals... He would also organize and promote professional boxing matches. What he does not mention, does not perhaps remember or think important, is that professional boxing in this country was at the time, and had been since, at least, 1903 controlled by organized crime. That professional boxers, and particularly organizers and promoters {her emphasis] of professional boxing, had such ties was established, for example, in the Kefauver hearings (U.S. Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crimes in Interstate Commerce, May 1950 through 1951)...

"...As for the boxers themselves, in Washington D.C., as it happens, all professional boxing was illegal - not just in 1921, when Sirica began, but throughout the years he was boxing there - until 1934, when Congress finally legalized it in the District. Professional boxing in Washington, in other words, was a violation of the criminal statute. That Sirica knew this is beyond doubt. All the years he boxed professionally in the District, he used, although he does not mention this either, fictitious names." It is, of course, possible to be a criminal without ties to organized crime - a pickpocket, say, or a burglar. Illegal boxing requires payoffs: for the arena, the police, the referee, the promoters, and so on. You simply cannot do it freelance or on your own. It requires a syndicate - notoriously hostile to encroachments on its turf . So that's two sets of "clear ties" to organized crime," through professional boxing - as an organizer, boxer and promoter in various cities at a time when mob control of the sport was essentially complete - and for more than thirteen years in the district, boxing professionally when it was illegal there."

Adler sourced some of this "evidence" in a phone interview with Mary K. Feeney of the Hartford Courant on July 26 to Jacob Stein, a famous D.C. lawyer, defense counsel in Watergate and for Monica Lewinsky. Stein had said in a Washingtonian magazine interview in December 1998 that Sirica "couldn't decide whether he was going to be a prizefighter or a lawyer. Business leaders all knew that John fought professionally under fictitious names."7

The problem with all this evidence is that it doesn't just misread parts of Sirica's autobiography, it insists that he's telling us a series of whopping lies; it also badly fumbles the issue of just what was meant by "illegal" boxing in D.C. in the 1920s and early 1930s, and it proposes a distinctly fanciful role for organized crime in boxing in D.C. during these times, let alone organized crime in D.C. period.

According to section 876 in the code of laws of the District of Columbia, which was in effect during the time Sirica says he boxed, the only prohibition was on Prize fighting, to whit:

"Any person who shall voluntarily engage in a pugilistic encounter between man and man or a fight between man and bull or any other animal, for money or for other thing of value, or for any championship, or upon the result of which any money or anything of value is bet or wagered, or to see which any admission fee is charged, either directly or indirectly, shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and upon conviction shall be punished by imprisonment not less than one nor more than five years.

"By the term "pugilistic encounter," as used in this section, is meant any voluntary fight by blows by means of fists or otherwise, whether with or without gloves, between two or more men, for money or for any championship, or upon the result of which any money or anything of value is bet or wagered, or to see which any admission fee is charged, either directly or indirectly." 8

In other words, only boxing for a purse, a prize or a title - or boxing for the purposes of gambling, or where gambling took place - was illegal. Boxing as a sport, a contest of skill - what is called in boxing argot, an "exhibition" (a fight without a decision) - was not illegal. In fact, such boxing was enormously popular. On July 5, 1923, The Evening Star (later, The Washington Star), noted that "Boxing in the city limits received such a cordial reception at the Washington Barracks that steps may be taken to give a series of bouts at the post every month. Fully 3000 local fistic followers, a goodly number of which were women and children, saw five lively bouts at the barracks staged under the auspices of the Vincent B. Costello Post, American Legion."

Participants included local boxers including the "Walter Reed [The Military Hospital in D.C.] mitt artist Paul Thoman," who apparently, had a bad day on the canvas. No doubt the size of the crowd on the fifth had been spurred by the heavy weight title fight between Jack Dempsey and Tom Gibbons in Montana a day earlier, which the Star megaphoned to a crowd outside its 11th street entrance round by round. 9

In fact, much like the rest of the country (only a few states had bans on prize fighting), boxing was booming in popularity. These were the years that saw Catholic University start a boxing club, which, according to local university athletics legend Franny Murray, demanded patrons wear black tie to contests and meetings. (At local levels throughout the country, advocates of boxing as a sport went out of their way to ensure the tone of the matches did not upset delicate moral or reform-minded Darwinian sensibilities).

In his autobiography, Sirica says that he took up boxing to overcome shyness and lose weight after high school, learning the ropes at the local YMCA. It quickly blossomed into a passion. He boxed almost every day, often with local professionals, fought some exhibitions, and demonstrated enough talent to get a paid to teach boxing.

"I was lucky enough to get a job at the Knights of Columbus gymnasium as a physical-education and boxing instructor. The job paid about a hundred dollars a month. I would go there three nights a week to teach calisthenics to a group of men and help some of them learn something about boxing. One night a week, I taught a class for women. On Saturday mornings I had the children's class.

"As has happened to me so often, the people whom I met and who befriended me made an enormous difference in my life. While I was working at the Knights of Columbus, I met several men who would help change my future. I used to spar and train with an assistant United States attorney named Leo. A. Rover. He was an excellent trial lawyer and later became U.S. attorney and then chief judge of the Municipal Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia."

None of this has even the whiff of illegality. The mere fact of training, sparring or fighting exhibitions with professionals did not make Sirica a professional boxer. To be a professional, you had to box on the competitive circuit, to prize fight; and that circuit just didn't come to D.C. As Sirica doesn't ever say he boxed anywhere else prior to July 1926, then it's difficult to figure out just how Sirica could have "legitimately" or even "illegitimately" been a professional boxer.

Prize fighting, upon which one launched and charted a professional boxing career, was legal in most of the country by the 1920s, and the tournaments rolled from city to city. The great heavyweight championship title pitting Gene Tunny against defender Jack Dempsey in Philly was billed as part of the nation's sesquicentennial celebrations. Averill Harriman, Babe Ruth and Charlie Chaplin, along with numerous regional and federal politicians were among the 120,000 fans that showed up to gasp at Tunny's surprise win.

The fact that such prize fights could not be staged in D.C. did not preclude the existence of local professionals who boxed on the professional circuit. According to boxing historian Jeffrey T. Sammons, there was certainly general confusion at the time about terminology, and just what the distinctions were between sparring and prize fighting. That Adler chooses to ignore any distinction at all between types of boxing (or local geography and jurisdiction) is bizarre, especially as Sirica makes the distinction in his autobiography: after he graduated from Georgetown Law in 1926, "I was still unsure about becoming a lawyer. I was tempted by the idea of becoming a professional boxer since I felt more comfortable of my ability as a fighter than as a lawyer."

At that point he went to Florida after taking the bar exam (which he would pass) and while trying to get a job in Miami, went to the local YMCA gym to stay in shape. There he ran into Jack Britton, a former world welterweight champ, who, upon seeing Sirica's aptitude, paid him to be his training and sparring partner.

Britton told Sirica "he would like to see me try the game for a couple of years. He thought I could do well and earn some money. I never really said yes or no, but one day Britton told me that a local promoter needed someone to box in a semi-windup at Douglas Stadium, a local boxing arena. Jack said I'd get $100 to box ten rounds with a fellow named Tommy Thompson... a six-foot tall welterweight who was known for having fought one of the roughest bouts ever staged in Miami. Jack said he didn't think Thompson was a very good boxer, however, and urged me on. "He won't hit you a solid punch in ten rounds....

"It was scheduled for July 1926, and I started to train like hell. I ran four or five miles a day on a golf course in Miami Beach and boxed every day with Jack and other professionals. Back in Washington, I had fought in about thirty exhibitions, lasting four or five rounds, with local professionals and had boxed ten rounds in the gym, but nothing I ever did worried me as much as that oncoming fight.... [at the weigh in] Thompson towered over me, it seemed, he was the toughest, meanest-looking human being I had ever seen...

"The fight went the full ten rounds and I won a unanimous decision and $100. I was elated. Here it was, my first ten-round professional bout, and I had won. The write-ups in the papers the nest day were all good... I was on my way as a professional boxer - that is, until my mother heard about the fight."

Sirica's mother, we are told, "hit the ceiling," telling her son that she and his father had "struggled and slaved" to help him finish law school. "And now all you want to do is be a prize fighter. Are you crazy?" she asks Sirica. For his part, he tells us "I felt I had really let my parents down. I was ashamed of myself... I agreed to return to Washington and the law."

Back in D.C., Sirica did take up an offer to coach boxing to "several wealthy men," at the Rooney Plaza Pools, and continued to work out at the Knights of Columbus gym, where he boxed with an old school friend, Ray Neudecker, an Assistant U.S. attorney, who helped him get a legal job in private practice.

Adler, however, writes as if Sirica sprung fully formed as a professional boxer onto the D.C. ring, much as a pugnacious Athena sprung from the head of Zeus. She would have us believe - without any documentary evidence - that behind a legitimate world of boxing in D.C., a popular, open world of exhibition bouts and club-based training and sparring, there lay a clandestine world of illegal prize fighting that managed to attract enough players, punters and money to merit mob control, but not enough attention to rile Congress, offend D.C.'s commissioners or attract the press.

The level of conspiracy would have had to have been vast to thwart those neo-Victorian elements in society who saw prizefighting as degenerate and brutalizing. And though the Evening Star - the main paper in town - knew its audience and was full of boxing news, its editorial line in 1923 was firmly against prize fighting. In "the business of pugilism," an editorial on July 4 to coincide with the big Dempsey-Gibbons title fight in Shelby, Montana, the paper inveighed against the "gross" commercialism of contemporary prizefighting (the Dempsey-Gibbons fight actually managed to bankrupt the town of Shelby) and lamented the demise of boxing as a sport. And yet, in the paper's story indexes for 1924 and 1925, there is not one story or expose of illegal prize fighting in its own backyard.

There wasn't any evidence of organized crime in D.C. in the paper's indexes for those years either, let alone stories of organized crime and boxing. Frankly, why would anyone risk imprisonment in D.C. when they could stage lucrative prize fights a few miles up the road in Maryland? The difference in profit between staging something one could legally charge avid gambling fans to see and something that, ostensibly, no-one could know about, and couldn't be advertised, beggar Adler's logic in the absence of supporting facts to her claims.

But what of Jacob Stein's potentially damaging comment - "Business leaders all knew that John fought professionally under fictitious names" - the strongest charge in Adler's armory? Stein is a lawyer with similar claims on history as Sirica, and a just reputation for being a treasure trove of local lore. Did Sirica engage in secret prize fights under noms de pug in blacked-out District rings for wealthy afficionado's of the fistic arts? (gasp)

"No," according to Stein - or at least, not to his knowledge (he was barely two years old the year Sirica had his one and only declared prize fight). Sirica, says Stein, was well known as a great athlete around town, and he used fictitious names simply to avoid upsetting his parents, who, as we know form Sirica's autobiography, were obsessed with their son becoming a successful lawyer. Wealthy businessmen in Washington wanted to fight him, and some of them, perhaps, paid for the privilege. But, Stein said, there was no foundation to the idea that what he did was illegal at the time.

In fact Stein, far from abetting Adler in her attack on Sirica, launched a resounding defense of the Judge in an article for Newsday on April 11:

"It would be interesting to know whether President Richard Nixon and his advisers agreed with Adler. They were highly motivated to make such allegations and they had the means to get at anything that was bad in Judge Sirica's background. They had corrupted the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency….

"Renata Adler's allegation that Judge Sirica was corrupt, incompetent and dishonest is discredited by the Nixon tapes. As Colson said, those who knew Sirica knew him to be a tough law-and- order judge. No funny business."

"I, myself, appeared before Sirica a number of times in controversial criminal cases. He was at all times a no-nonsense man of the law."

Whither the mob?

Even if some documentary evidence appeared, showing that Sirica violated some part of the code of D.C. law on prize fighting, the idea that the mob were working the District over at this time, "clandestine" prize fights and all, stretches plausibility beyond the elasticity of fact. First of all, the immigrant and ethnic mix of Washington's population at the time wasn't conducive to mob infiltration, according to Gail Redman, Library Director of The Historical Society of Washington D.C. The District was, after all, a predominantly black city with a Southern aspect and a transient, decidedly WASPish, political class.

Nevertheless, in their racy, tabloidesque 1951 book, Washington Confidential, mob-watching journalists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer noted that the Mafia actually did take an interest in Washington during the Prohibition era, but only in the form of campaign contributions to "dry" Congressmen and other bribes. Otherwise, the District of Columbia was a neutral city for the mob, a place for meetings and conventions. 10 "They knew Tommy guns wouldn't be tolerated in the Capitol's shadow," wrote Lait and Mortimer. Even by the fifties, the dirt-dropping duo noted that "the national syndicate, for reasons of prudence, avoids first-hand operations in the District."

Mob involvement in prize fighting certainly began in the 1920s, but only in such big prize fight and gang infested cities as Chicago, New York and Detroit. This infiltration, nevertheless, didn't begin to bloom until the mid-1930s, and reach fruition in the late 1940s, hence the Senate hearings Adler cites in 1950 and 1951. This didn't mean that boxing was an entirely clean sport before the mob got involved. As Jeffrey T. Sammons, a professor of history at New York University notes in one of the few authoritative books on the social and legal history of the sport, Beyond The Ring, there had always been disreputable elements on the fringes of boxing, and the nature of the sport seemed to encourage heavy gambling from a certain set of fistic-fanatical patrons. But corruption, as it existed in the twenties actually centered on the State athletic commissions that were supposedly empowered to legislate prizefighting and ensure that the sport stayed clean. Sammon notes:

"Prizefighting became so lucrative that those with a vested interest in it sometimes did anything they could to promote the sport. States and their athletic commissions became rivals for bouts and often refused to cooperate with one another in preventing illegal, unethical, or unsafe activities. Moreover, the media took a bigger and more active role in promoting fights once the sport was legally sanctioned. In doing so, of course, they became a party to gambling and in many instances helped perpetrate frauds on the public. Even the boxer sometimes put himself above the law. Corrupt promoters and commission officials found ready accomplices in many heavyweight champions whose services meant far more to states and localities in terms of revenue than did scrupulous enforcement of the legal codes."

Such was the dark side of the sport in the 1920s: not that much mob involvement, and almost certainly none in D.C. where the ban on prize fighting kept "sportsmanship" alive until 1934, and the Congressional authorization for a boxing commission to regulate all boxing.

That Sirica knew prizefighting was illegal in D.C. before then is beyond doubt, because he actually says so in his book: "Congress had just legalized professional boxing in the Distict. I was still quite interested in the sport and so Goldie Ahearn (a local prize fighter) and I decided we'd set up a boxing club." It was a quick failure.

This is a nuance that Adler skips over at first, suggesting instead that he became a promoter before the ban on prize fighting was rescinded, and then only later in her narrative acknowledging that: "[1934] was the year... when he tried to start and promote a boxing arena with a 'local prizefighter,' Goldie Ahearn. It goes without saying that Goldie Ahearn could not, any more than Sirica himself, legally have been a 'local prize fighter' before 1934."

It bears repeating that the only documented prize fight involving Sirica was in Miami, and that Ahearn didn't need to prize fight within the tiny enclave of the District of Columbia to be a local who was a prize fighter elsewhere, and hence, a "local prize fighter." And "local," as far as D.C geography goes, also includes parts of Maryland and Virginia. But what are such facts and logic to a writer so bewilderingly consumed by a hermeneutic of suspicion that confounding evidence and logic is never part of her inquiry?

There are other insinuations and claims, such as that Sirica's father sold bootleg liquor, or at least according to the son of his barbershop partner. Well, if true, so what? The sins of one's parents aren't usually part of the inheritance. Did Sirica Jr., then working in the U.S. Attorney's office, know about this? Adler believes he couldn't have been "entirely unaware of his father's business." Well, then if he did, he ought to have had Pop arrested and charged. Chalk one up for Euthyphro.

The other major accusation is something that now only plays as a slur in the superannuated salons of left-wing Manhattan, a "close connection to Senator McCarthy." For Sirica to know McCarthy as one conservative, Italian, Catholic and Republican lawyer to one conservative, Irish, Catholic and Republican law-maker in the fetid precincts of Washington society is hardly earth-shattering. Sirica did not take up McCarthy's job offer: propinquity - where is thy sting?

So is the Times totalitarian?

No. 11

Nor can Adler claim to be doing history as she did to the Hartford Courant. 12 History is rigorous in method, demanding in documentation and often tentative in conclusion. Adler, on the other hand is sloppy, tendentious, and yet, certain. She is a polemicist. And on the subject of polemics, Renata Adler made a very important observation many years ago in the pages of the July 4, 1964 issue of the New Yorker.

"In literary criticism, polemic is short-lived, and no other essay form becomes as quickly obsolete as an unfavorable review. If the work under attack is valuable, it survives adverse comment. If it is not, the polemic dies with its target. A critic is therefore measured not by the books he prosecutes but by the ones he praises... and it is surprising that among a younger generation of critics, polemic should be so widely regarded as the most viable and rewarding kind of criticism." 13

As has been said, Renata Adler is a writer with a peculiar immunity to her own critical insights.


Editor's note - This is a very long article, written in response to a number of NewsWatch readers who felt Renata Adler had vindicated her original assertion about Judge Sirica in the August issue of Harpers, and that an earlier article in NewsWatch was now in need of correction.

1. Most of the building materials for his house on Inishvickillane had to be helicoptered across a nine-mile stretch of the Atlantic. Highly punitive libel law favoring the plaintive squashed a lot of investigative journalism during the 70s and 80s, though there were notable, dogged exceptions among the ranks of Ireland's fourth estate - Joe Joyce, Peter Murtagh, Vincent Browne et al. The situation was one where everyone "knew" what was going on, but nobody knew enough to chance going on the record. Eventually, Haughey was forced to resign after being implicated in wire-tapping journalists. It's worth noting that it took a good old fashioned paper war in the 90s between Rupert Murdoch's Irish edition of the London Sunday Times, and Tony O'Reilly's homegrown Independent group to loosen the bonds of reporting on sleaze, or at least push its existence onto a public that had once been either forgiving, or unwilling, to stare it in the face.

2. Legendary Irishman of letters Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien actually coined the acronym in 1983 after Haughey described the discovery of a murderer hiding in the flat of his government's Attorney General as - what else? - "grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented." It quickly became a popular, all-purpose adjective for the machinations of Irish politics. The early 1980s are frequently referred to in Irish journalism as the "GUBU era." The Attorney General, Mr Patrick Connolly SC, resigned.

3. The magazine, according to Adler, had made a fatal pact with exigent culture.

4. Her memoir is often frustratingly elliptical, allusive and short, leaving the reader wondering about the exact import of many observations, and often asking for more.

5. For recent examples, consider the dreadful image of journalism in the filmed version of Wendy Wasserstein's "An American Daughter"; and the unscrupulous journalist - is there ever any other kind? - on a recent episode of ER. It is to be hoped that Oliver Platt's new NBC show "Deadline" is rehabilitative.

6. "In an irritable little book published late last year about The New Yorker magazine, Renata Adler suddenly veers from her literary prey to take a swipe at one of the heroes of the Watergate era, Judge John Sirica. The passage, in "Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker," is written as an aside, a dismissal of the respected jurist as a "corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest figure, with a close connection to Senator McCarthy and clear ties to organized crime." Since Judge Sirica is dead, he is unable to sue for libel. But that does not lift the ethical burden from Ms. Adler to support her charges with evidence she says exists - evidence that she and her editors at Simon & Schuster, for some unfathomable reason, omitted from the book.

"Judge Sirica, a tough jurist known as "Maximum John in the courthouse, relentlessly pursued the facts about the 1972 Watergate break-in, a case that eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon. Ms. Adler's charges startled some of the nation's best investigative journalists who had covered Watergate and found Judge Sirica to be a principled jurist with no known connections to organized crime. If Ms. Adler is raising a long-simmering allegation that Judge Sirica's father was a bootlegger during Prohibition, she will need to document that unproven contention and show how it relates to the judge himself.

Ms. Adler was cavalier when she dismissed as "deeply silly" a Times reporter's inquiry as to why she had not documented her inflammatory charge. She was even more irresponsible when she asked the reporter, "Do you worry that much about people's reputations?" Of course we do, and so should she. Ms. adler sais she would produce her evidence about Judge Sirica "soon, in a place I think is appropriate." Only then will we know whether she has unearthed some remarkable evidence of historical importance, or smeared a renowned jurist who is no longer able to fight back."

7. Thus she bizarrely deprives Harper's readers of the most significant apparent source for her story. But then, like Plato's prosecutor Euthyphro, she is anything but straight thinking and systematic. We'll get back to Stein's anecdote later.

8. Curiously, no mention of this clause can be found in the code of laws for 1929, save the reference to the ban on bullfighting

9. The paper ran at least a dozen stories on the title fight over the course of the week.

10. So, they say, was Miami at the time, where Sirica had his one and only professional fight.

11. To say that that the Times is totalitarian is to say that it is not the neutral, objective paper of record it purports to be, but rather a totalizing instrument of the dominant political and economic powers in society. And as the people that run the Times are entirely representative of that elite, they are quite unable to see their role in the conspiracy. Their politics are simply the right politics, the voices, stories, issues and opinions they exclude are, a fortiori, not worthy of consideration. What the paper sees and says, is. And so, on various counts, the Times is the voice of a liberal agenda that is out of touch with mainstream America; the Times is he voice of a conservative fiscal agenda that is out of touch with working America, the Times is pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian; the Times is anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian, when it presents criticism, however slight, of either group.

The trouble with this conspiratorial reflex is that confounding examples never count when one inductively reasons from offense. This is not to say that media organizations such as the Times don't leave information out, or appear to take a certain positions on certain issues, it is to say that the epistemic nature of journalistic practice in America - the existence of clear professional rules of sourcing and evidence and the constant interrogation by media critics from the standpoint of those rules - ensure that we are at the opposite end of the spectrum to Pravda in the good old bad old days of the Soviet Union. Alas, hardened idealogues of the right and left will never be satisfied with this view of mainstream journalism, because they are never satisfied unless singularity, complexity, chance and all manner of screw-ups are interpreted as part of the totalizing design of some monolithic elite. But - aha! But - there! You see? You are enslaved to the Times way of thinking! The utter disingenuity of these kinds of critiques (which, of course, are themselves totalizing) typically reveals just who are the ideologues in the argument.

But while Adler may appropriate the terminology of left and right (though mostly left) wing criticism, she is not actually part of either tradition. The endless wrangling over evidence (no matter how dodgy her evidence turned out to be) and her lament for lost journalistic standards in the New Yorker, places her right slap-bang within the same tradition of journalism as the Times; she is, in her own words, practicing history; she is not promoting revolutionary history. Hence the inappropriateness of bandying the word "totalitarian." The downtrodden, the marginal, the fashionably and the unfashionably gauche don't get to launch endless rambling critiques of the establishment from Harpers magazine.

12. Renata Adler told Mary Feeney that "luckily, I could document this stuff to this extent. What if I hadn't been able to? What would this do to the writing of history, to the re-examination of fact, if every time a reporter suddenly felt hurt on behalf of his father, [and] this formerly gray lady, who is now just a gang of schoolyard boys, rushes up and says, first you have to give evidence. Then evidence is not enough; then they want proof; then presumably proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Who knows what they want? ...What does it do to the writing of history? Nobody could re-examine anything."

13. "Polemic and the New Reviewers," reprinted in Towards a Radical Middle.