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The ACLU Streers Left

Article # : 17963 

Section : BOOK WORLD
Issue Date : 5 / 1990  2,533 Words
Author : William A. Donohue

       Samuel Walker
       New York: Oxford University Press, 1989
       512 pp., $24.95
        Samuel Walker serves on the board of directors of the national ACLU. When the ACLU was in need of an author to write its history, he was the hired gun who was chosen. His offering is a work that demonstrates as much independence of thought as would a tract written by a senior member of the Pentagon on the history of the Department of Defense. This is not to say that what Walker has written is wholly without merit, for as I will show, In Defense of American Liberties offers many valuable insights into the thinking of contemporary ACLU activists. It is just that like so many books and articles written on the ACLU, this is another in a long line of incestuous works authored by a senior official of the organization.
        Walker is more candid about his assessment of ACLU officials than ACLU policy. Of Roger Baldwin, the wealthy founder of the ACLU, Walker says he was an "elitist to the end," a person who centralized decision making and terribly underpaid his staff. Similarly, he says that Aryeh Neier, the ACLU executive director throughout most of the 1970s, had "an autocratic streak" in him. Unfortunately, when it comes to issues, Walker's ability to be objective often escapes him, as many of the more embarrassing episodes in the ACLU's history are either totally omitted or treated briefly. Of course, such lacunae are to be expected of someone who is, in fact, the ACLU's house author. Here are some examples.
        Glaring omissions
        In the 1930s, the ACLU threatened a libel suit against the American Mercury simply because someone wrote an article critical of the ACLU. The union told editor Paul Palmer that the article had better be favorable toward the ACLU or the libel suit would be launched. When H. L. Mencken was chosen to do the piece, the ACLU leadership were relieved: They felt sure that the famous Baltimore journalist would paint them in a good light. When he didn't, he was denounced as a "fascist," and the ACLU repeated its threat, this time insisting on editorial rights before any piece went to press. The affair dragged on for two years, all the while providing testimony of the disrespect that the ACLU showed for the civil liberties of its critics. And how much coverage does Walker give this episode? One paragraph.
        But one paragraph is more than what was allotted for the following: There is no mention of the ACLU's sending an attorney into a Catholic church to spy on Rep. Henry Hyde in an attempt to prove that the congressman's religion accounts for his antiabortion stance; there is no mention of the board of directors' vote on what to do if Richard Nixon were to be tried by the Senate for Watergate infractions (the president should not be given the right to claim Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination); there is no mention of what happened a few years ago when off-duty policeman Richard Long showed up at a public meeting of the ACLU (he was ejected from the meeting simply because he was a police man , a move that cost the ACLU dearly when it lost in court after being sued by Long); there is no mention of the ACLU' s attempt to send Walter Polovchak back to the Soviet Union against his will. And so
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