A Hard Case

Clearing the Air

by Daniel Schorr
Houghton Mifflin, 333 pp., $11.95

Daniel Schorr, certain of his peers have always suspected, was the wrong guy in the right place; doing some necessary things, even when he made an ass of himself in the process. Who, after all, can dislike a man called “Killer Schorr” by a professional killer? Schorr became indispensable because so many unpalatable people put him high on their enemies lists.

I remember covering the Church committee for this publication. Schorr came in late one afternoon, bustled past the rest of us to his front (network) seat in the camera’s eye, and ostentatiously opened his large bundle of office mail. Nervy, but natural. It is even nervier of him to open his book protesting that his journalistic ideal was always to remain “the untouched observer, seeing the whole picture because I was not in the picture…. The notion of being the invisible stranger always appealed to me.”

Schorr put himself usefully in the Watergate picture because he was the TV reporter who functioned most like a good newspaper reporter (instead of a photogenic reader of lines, a martinihour idol). Dan Rather asked questions Nixon did not want to hear in the White House; but Schorr used shoe leather as well as abrasiveness. Rather was allowed to mutter pieties on the screen after Nixon’s resignation (he found it a “majestic” speech) while Schorr was kept off the air (a matter that rankled, and helped push him toward later indiscretions).

CBS tried to cool off its aggressively hot items, Rather and Schorr, after Watergate—part of that customer-oriented network’s caution. But Schorr grabbed the Church committee and rode it to the revelations of CIA criminality that made Richard Helms, that gentlemanly planner of assassinations, call Schorr a verbal gunman. Schorr deserved his spot in the bright lights, one he so obviously relished. Among other things, he was thumbing his nose at his employers, a spectacle almost always edifying.

What happened, then, so fast? Martyrdom, as this book tries tactfully to suggest? (It is always hard to waft the incense oneself.) Sneak thievery, as his employers obviously concluded? Treason, as certain congressional superpatriots tried to claim? Empty showboating, as even his defenders admitted sotto voce?

The facts are not in dispute. The puzzle is how such different interpretations can arise from them. Schorr asserts or confirms or admits (as the case may be) these basic points:

1) After covering CIA attempts to suppress or censor the Senate (Church) intelligence report, Schorr got a copy of the censored and then suppressed House (Pike) intelligence report. An indirect tip from William Safire made him realize The New York Times did not have the whole report—John Crewdson had just been allowed to read and take notes on a copy of it. Competitive juices started flowing. Schorr writes that he told his wife: “I may just have the only copy of this goddam document in the whole free world.” Note that he defines the free world as the press; but what excites him …

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Letters

Schorr’s Case April 20, 1978