Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I don't think I have ever before seen a movie that has moved me as much, or provoked as much thought about the nature of our nation and its politics as, The Most Dangerous Man In America, on PBS--the Academy Award nominated documentary depicting the story of Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers.

At several points during the film, I had tears in my eyes, something that only usually occurs during beautiful love stories, or scenes with puppies or kittens (which weren't a part of this movie at all). There was a beautiful love story briefly depicted amidst the exciting drama of this man's astoundingly courageous life, the one between Daniel and Patricia Ellsberg. And just enough was shown of the young anti-war activist and broadcaster Patricia meeting the pro-war high level military analyst Daniel, and the amazing relationship that unfolded and changed the world as we know it, to give a hint of what a great follow-up movie could be possible.

Here is a short video of Daniel and Patricia introducing the documentary in San Francisco. Not great video quality, but worth watching anyway to get a sense of their presence.

I met the Ellsbergs last year and was very impressed with their dignity, warmth, intelligence, and quiet charisma. Daniel and I chatted and he was fascinated that I had spent twelve years in prison and asked me a bunch of questions about that experience. After all, at one point, Richard Nixon was trying to send him to prison for the rest of his life. Luckily, he told me, he had only spent a few nights in jail during the course of some of his anti-war protests.

A few weeks later, Daniel sent me a copy of his book, Secrets, the source material for the documentary. I admit I avoided reading it for a few months. During my career as a broadcast journalist, even including a six week stint as a radio correspondent in Vietnam, I thought I had read everything I ever wanted to about that ignoble event. But I was wrong and when I finally got to it, knowing the film would be shown on PBS's POV, I was very impressed. I had also thought I knew a lot about the story of the release of The Pentagon Papers, but there were many points revealed in the book I hadn't known, as there were about the war itself.

All of this was fascinating, but did not have the emotional context of the movie, and I think this was largely provided by the forthright appearance of Ellsberg himself at various stages of his life. To steal a phrase from JFK, he's "a profile in courage"--a towering, emotionally contagious profile in courage.

And as seems to be true of almost every event in my life, there were a couple of serendipitous happenings involved. The first was that I discovered that Patricia Ellsberg was the sister of a woman I knew and had long admired, Barbara Marx Hubbard, a leading voice in the New Age Movement, and the first woman to seriously run for Vice President of the United States. I met her back in the 1970s, and she became president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology at the same time as I headed up the Florida chapter of that organization.

The second "six degrees of separation" moment occurred in the panel discussion following the PBS showing of The Most Dangerous Man In America. Former NY Times Managing Editor, Max Frankel, related an anecdote about the leaking of classified material and told how President Johnson bragged to him how he got the best of Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygn during the Glassboro, New Jersey summit conference in 1967. According to Frankel, LBJ told him he had arranged to have all of Kosygn's telephone conversations to Soviet colleagues recorded, so that he knew everything the Russian leader was telling them about what went on and his reaction to it. LBJ evidently considered this the major triumph of the summit, making it a big win for the U.S.

And, coincidentally enough, I was there at Glassboro. I was one of the radio reporters covering the summit for KYW Newsradio in nearby Philadelphia, and even won an Associated Press award for my reporting. This also was an accident, as the connecting lines broke down between the summit itself being held in the Glassboro State College president's home, and the hundreds of reporters in the college gym, myself included. Our chief correspondent, in the summit location itself, was unable to broadcast, so I had to basically adlib for close to two hours on the air. I still remember how pleasurable it was to roll the name of the summit location off my tongue during those two hours, Hollybush Mansion.

Ellsberg and what he did and is still speaking out about is very relevant today in the current political climate--and most especially in light of the WikiLeaks story. In fact, Ellsberg himself made a surprise appearance at a WikiLeaks news conference in London just a few days ago, praising that organization for releasing its huge cache of documents on the war in Afghanistan.

I think one of the most profound statements by Ellsberg happened in the conversation PBS broadcast after the film, with several NY Times editors and reporters. Ellsberg reminded us that the Founding Fathers intended that a free press have as its true purpose, protecting the governed rather than the governing. And Ellsberg said at that time, and repeated during the WikiLeaks news conference, something that everyone planning to vote next week should consider:
"Secrecy is essential to empire... Under Obama, as under Bush, we are moving more toward the British system of control of information, which is after all, The Official Secrets Act, which is a legacy of empire and that torch is passing. A Republican administration -- a Republican House and Senate, if that comes in to being in the next month is almost certain to pass a British-type Official Secrets Act. Essentially ending leaks of the sort we have seen over the last forty years, sixty years."

This would mean that the release of any and all classified material would become illegal, and journalists would become more unlikely to take the risks that they take today to get the truth out. Scary stuff. And Daniel Ellsberg remains a hero. In fact, if he wore a cape and could fly, Ellsberg could not be more of a superhero for truth, justice, and authentic American values.
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