Sliming a Famous Muckraker: The Untold Story

By: Greg Mitchell

This is the story of a recent Los Angeles Times ?scoop? that was error-ridden and misleading and resulted in a hysterical rightwing attack, led by Jonah Goldberg, on a famed author nearly 40 years after his passing.

It all began a little over a month ago, on Dec. 24, with an article in the metro section of the L.A. Times by Orange County reporter Jean O. Pasco, headlined, ?Sinclair Letter Turns Out to be Another Expose.? It revealed that a Newport Beach attorney named Paul Hegness had finally gotten around to exploring the contents of a box of dusty old papers sitting in a closet that he had purchased at an Irvine auction for $100.

A letter postmarked Sept. 12, 1929, caught his eye. It was addressed to lawyer John Beardsley. The return address read: Upton Sinclair, Long Beach.

Sinclair, of course, was one of the original muckrakers, a Pulitzer Prize winner, famed author of dozens of novels including ?The Jungle?–which sparked overdue reform in the food industry?and a tireless activist. As author of a 600-page book about his nearly-successful 1934 campaign for governor of California, I know a thing or two about the man, one of the most fascinating, if often maddening, figures of the 20th century. I?m even familiar with Beardsley.

So what did the 1929 letter contain that was so interesting that it warranted a 1200-word Los Angeles Times report and the attentions of syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg?

In it Sinclair informed his lawyer that he had met with Fred Moore, identified by Pasco as attorney for the legendary anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were executed in 1927 for killing two men during a robbery in Braintree, Mass. Their trial and execution drew worldwide protests, mainly from the left side of the dial. Sinclair would write an epic novel based on the case called ?Boston,? one of his best-known and well-regarded books.

Alone in a hotel room with the lawyer, “I begged him to tell me the full truth,? Sinclair wrote in the 1929 letter. Moore ?then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them.?

The last paragraph of the note read: ?This letter is for yourself alone. Stick it away in your safe, and some time in the distant future the world may know the real truth about the matter. I am here trying to make plain my own part in the story.?

The Pasco article strongly suggests that Sinclair was a hypocrite and liar, for he went on choosing to believe that Sacco and Vanzetti were railroaded, wrote a novel mocking the trial, and supposedly never told anyone about the chat with Fred Moore. The article calls Sinclair?s letter a ?confession? and later ?a confessional.?

Strong stuff. But right after publication, one warning flag appeared: The Times had to run a correction for three fairly small errors in the story. It didn?t take long, however, for conservative writers to jump on the ?revelation.?

A California assemblyman named Chuck DeVore declared in Human Events magazine that the Pasco piece ?lays bares Sinclair?s true role in promoting left-wing myths in America.? He urged readers to think of this the next time they ?see the heirs to this shameful legacy with their banners and bumper stickers trying to break our resolve in the face of evil.?

But leave it to Jonah Goldberg, writing in his syndicated column (and at National Review Online), to tie the Sinclair letter to George Clooney.

Goldberg opened his Jan. 5 column by citing a recent quote from Clooney, in which the actor said he didn?t know any time in history that liberals stood on ?the wrong side of social issues.? Now that Goldberg had read the Sinclair story, he was ready to ridicule this notion.

He declared that the article revealed that Sinclair ?knew? Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty ? their lawyer had told him the ?unvarnished truth? — and then ?quite simply, lied? about it to sell books and protect the leftwing movement.

The Sacco and Vanzetti episode, of course, was just one in a long line of misguided liberal causes, Goldberg added, from defending Alger Hiss to declaring that Matthew Shepard was killed because he was gay (rather than being ?a drug addict caught up with other drug addicts?). Now George Clooney has ?unilaterally beatified? Edward R. Murrow, when the fact is, Murrow ?was just another journalist.?

Fear not, Jonah does get around to mentioning, inevitably, Hillary Clinton, citing her youthful offer to help a lawyer for the Black Panthers.

Even when liberals know they are on shaky ground, their view, according to Goldberg, is: ?It matters not. Print the legend.? That?s why it?s hard to find a liberal ?martyr-saint? who has not been ?burnished by deceit.? It seems that when they reach ?icon status, the facts get inconvenient.?

Well, the facts prove a bit inconvenient for Goldberg and Pasco, as well (even beyond the corrected errors in the original L.A. Times piece).

For one thing, Goldberg claims that it was Sinclair?s ?The Jungle? that provoked Theodore Roosevelt to coin the term ?muckraker.? Sorry, it was a series of 1906 magazine articles by David Graham Philips.

More critically: Pasco describes Moore as ?the men?s lawyer? (meaning Sacco and Vanzetti). In fact, when he met with Sinclair, he was their former lawyer?fired over key disputes on how to handle the case. Goldberg repeats this error. Would this make Moore, perhaps, more likely to turn on the men?

Next, the whole Sinclair-Moore conversation is hardly a scoop. It is recounted, for example, in the main Sinclair biography to date, ?Upton Sinclair: American Rebel,? by Leon Harris, published in 1975. That book finds Sinclair– mirroring the newly-found letter– telling a correspondent precisely what Moore said in that same 1929 meeting. He asks leftwing writer Robert Minor to keep the Moore charges quiet for the time being as he wants to finish his novel and he feared there was a real possibility ?that some anarchist might think it is his duty to keep me from finishing the book.?

Now, getting to the real meat of the matter: Last Thursday, a Reuters article by Arthur Spiegelman appeared. He took the trouble to consider Sinclair?s entire letter?which, it turns out, was three pages long, typed. Pasco either didn?t see the whole thing, or looked at it and chose to ignore key parts of it (or her editor deleted it). Spiegelman, also unlike Pasco and Goldberg, explored how Sinclair actually portrayed the Sacco and Vanzetti case in ?Boston.? Did he indeed ?lie? about what Moore told him, or make proper use of it in a popular novel?

Spiegelman wrote that Goldberg ?might have been better served if he had read the entire letter instead of the excerpts printed in the Times.? In a copy of the full letter made available to Reuters, Sinclair explains that soon after he talked to Moore he began to have doubts about him: “I realized certain facts about Fred Moore. I had heard that he was using drugs. I knew that he had parted from the defense committee after the bitterest of quarrels. … Moore admitted to me that the men themselves had never admitted their guilt to him; and I began to wonder whether his present attitude and conclusions might not be the result of his brooding on his wrongs.”

Sinclair had even questioned Moore’s former wife, who worked with the lawyer on the case, and she “expressed the greatest surprise” saying he had not expressed thoughts that the men were guilty before. All left out of the Pasco, and Goldberg, articles.

In the letter, he also vowed his novel “Boston” would tell all sides, focusing not on the question of innocence but the lack of a fair trial?putting him on very firm ground in that pursuit, most historians agree. The two anarchists may, indeed, have been guilty– but the trial was an outrage.

Further, Anthony Arthur, whose new biography of Sinclair will be published this June, provided excerpts from the book to Spiegelman. They show that in other letters, Sinclair quotes Moore as not even being sure both men were guilty. “Moore said neither man ever admitted it to him,? Arthur writes.

In other words, it was only Moore?s opinion: hardly the ?unvarnished truth,? as Goldberg presents it. Yet Goldberg charged that Sinclair ?knew? that the pair were guilty and ?quite simply, lied.?

And, finally, what about the charge that Sinclair ignored Moore?s insights to save his lefty cred? In fact, ?Boston? is a nuanced novel (rare for Sinclair) that introduces many reasons to question the defendant?s innocence, and focuses on the question of the trial itself and the evils of the death penalty. In the same letter to Robert Minor, Sinclair explained that despite the troubling views expressed by Moore?and other debunkers–he could still write the novel ?on the basis of certainty that they did not have a fair trial.?

In the end, the heroine of his novel was patterned on himself: believing in the pair’s innocence at the beginning and ending not knowing quite what to believe.

Arthur, the biographer, told Spiegelman that Sinclair’s decision to end “Boston” on a note of ambiguity concerning Sacco and Vanzetti’s guilt subjected him to “a torrent of abuse from the left.” It came from Communists, anarchists and others on the left?in other words, the kind of people Jonah Goldberg loves to target. Robert Minor called Sinclair ?a hired liar, a coward and a traitor.?

Once blasted by the left for his handling of the case, Spiegelman concludes, ?Now he is being hit from the right.? In each case, unjustly.

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