ON SATURDAY, I had the pleasure of introducing Daniel Ellsberg to a large and enthusiastic crowd assembled before the Hugo Stage at Northwest Bookfest. Ellsberg was in town promoting his new book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, his personal account of the decade leading up to the leak that made him famous and changed the course of the Vietnam War and a presidency. It is no mere history of the Vietnam-to-Watergate era, but a telling of his struggle to recognize the truth, and his even greater struggle to finally and bravely make that truth known.
It was exciting to spend a few hours inside the bubble with Ellsberg, who is intelligent, articulate, and kind. He delighted folks by performing magic tricks in the authors' lounge before going on stage. He had a timeless quality, at once looking older than we remember him from the 1970s, yet exhibiting the youthful glow of a liberated man on his life's mission. Great men do not always write great books, but Ellsberg has. It is an insider's look at how government works and how so many well-meaning people—and a lot of people who were the opposite—made things go so wrong. Ellsberg was part of the establishment, as a defense analyst and as an official in both the Pentagon and State Department. It is not easy to go from being a cog in a corrupt system to exposing its corruption to the world with nothing to gain except, perhaps, a reclamation of conscience. Who wouldn't have a spring in their step after surviving that process, even if it was 30 years ago?
That spring is probably livelier because Ellsberg knows, as his audience knows, that he is a man with special knowledge and experience that can help us in these times as well. He's no longer in a position to reveal official secrets, but he can remind us of a democratic peoples' need to know and of the necessity for someone to tell us what those in power would conceal, not for our benefit but for theirs. It is hard to read his book without seeing the dramatic parallels between the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon Vietnam era and the Bush/Clinton/Bush Iraq and terrorism era. Compellingly, the Harvard graduate, former think-tank economist, and nuclear strategist is a thinking person's hero whose observations are penetrating and detailed, and whose analysis of our times is very, very smart. He's an intellectual equivalent to those selfless firefighters who ran into the World Trade Center towers. Ellsberg ran into the burning building of American democracy and brought out the truth about the lies we were telling ourselves. And still are. We seem to be chronically unable to call something what it is. Tuesday's Washington Post had an extensive story on outright lies George W. has told on the campaign trail this fall, but they couldn't bring themselves to call them lies. The Post's euphemism? Bush is "enhancing the facts." The system Ellsberg describes is very like what we see today. One cannot help but wonder: If, in Ellsberg's time, the Best and the Brightest led us into a moral disaster in Vietnam, what are the Dumb and Dumber of the Bush years dragging us into?
LATE ON SATURDAY night after his talk, Ellsberg called to tell me that Microsoft had cancelled a Monday speaking engagement at the Redmond campus. Ellsberg said he suspected that someone was pressuring people to shut him out. As evidence, he cited a suddenly cancelled Today Show appearance last week and the scrubbed Microsoft visit. He noted that the Nixon White House had done such things.
It would seem like paranoia coming from anyone else, but Ellsberg has lived the nightmare: phone taps, threats, trial, arrest, dirty tricks, you name it—everything a tin-hatted paranoid might conceive has actually happened to him. But after talking with his publicist at Viking, the special-events coordinator at University Bookstore who approached Microsoft with the idea of hosting Ellsberg, and the woman at Micro-soft who considered booking him, it seems more like a classic snafu. Microsoft frequently hosts touring authors, usually science and tech writers, though occasionally others such as Rudolph Giuliani. Some political types get in too, and a special committee attempts to balance these, a P.J. O'Rourke for every Al Franken. According to all involved, Ellsberg was never put on the schedule. In case he's wondering who took "his" slot, it was Amir Aczel, author of a book on a mystery of quantum physics.
Which isn't to say that Microsoft shouldn't have bumped Einstein for Ellsberg. They missed a great opportunity. Ellsberg is on the hustings trying to flush out a new generation of whistle-blowers, people who will help crack open today's Pentagon and tomorrow's Enrons. The image of him taking his message to corporate campuses is appealing. "I do not want to deprive the employees of Microsoft of what I have to say in this crisis. . . .My message is about working for presidents who lie, and they know a lot about that," he said. I'm sure that's a message the higher-ups in Redmond are just dying to share with their employees. If they didn't actually conspire against him, I'm sure they're relieved now to have dodged a bullet, yet it's a loss for the rest of us that he didn't get a chance to work some magic there.
But lest we get too smug, it's a message we all need to hear, especially as citizens in a country where an untruthful president, remember, works for us, not the other way around.