Late last week Alexander Cockburn, one of the elder statesmen of unreconstructed radical journalism, posted an article on his site in which he discussed President Obama’s prospects of prevailing in his feud with Fox News. Unlike many more mainstream journalists, he seems to think that the President might actually prevail over the channel that shamelessly gives a forum to He Who Shall Not Be Named, as Glenn Beck was yesterday identified, in Harry Potterspeak, in a Senate committee hearing by Democratic lawmakers too scared, or something, to mouth his moniker aloud – I kid you not.
In his column, Cockburn, like many another left-leaning pundit this week, takes note of the Nixon White House’s conflicts with liberal newsmen in the early Seventies. (And, unlike most of them, he points out that not all of the press corps in those days endorsed lapses in objectivity and decorum. As an example Cockburn mentions the famed moment at a news conference when Dan Rather, upon being greeted with applause when RN called on him, replied to the President’s question, “are you running for anything?” with “no, Mr. President – are you?” and points out that many of Rather’s peers thought that the crack was inappropriate.)

Then Cockburn follows with this paragraph, by way of arguing that the Nixon White House was not especially skilled in fending off attacks from the press:

Actually it’s a measure of how sloppy the Nixon people were that across the entire Watergate Scandal they failed to excavate Carl Bernstein’s family ties to the Communist Party, nor the fact that every few weeks Bernstein would take time off from his investigative labors with Bob Woodward and drive up to Vermont to visit his cousin Shoshana who at that time was living under an alias in Brattleboro, one jump ahead of the FBI which had her on its Ten Most Wanted list as a radical bomber. People often overestimate the surveillance capacities of the state. One leak of that info to one of Nixon’s pet columnists and the Watergate scandal would have been over.

Huh? Good ol’ lovable Carl Bernstein, winner of his hometown’s Howdy Doody contest in the 1950s? Carl, with his all-American love of classic rock’n’roll? (Even while looking into Watergate he reviewed concerts for the Washington Post.) Carl, who’s visited a thousand college campuses (last week making a rare appearance with Bob Woodward at the University of Texas-Permian Basin) genially lecturing the students about the noble profession of journalism?

Of course, the Pulitzer winner’s hard-working middle-class parents and the difficulties they faced over their political views a half-century ago have never been a secret – he wrote a whole book about them, Loyalties, back in the 1980s – but never has there been any word before that he once used to drop in, from time to time, on a New England cousin who was wanted by the FBI.

Well, after some Googling, I figured out who Cockburn must have been talking about.

Between July and November 1969, New York City was hit by eight bombings of the offices of such institutions as Chase Manhattan Bank, Standard Oil, and General Motors, as well as Federal facilities. Most of the bombings occurred in the late-night hours and produced no fatalities, although one of them, hitting the Marine Midland Building, produced nineteen injuries. On November 12, just after the last of these attacks, a radical in his thirties, Sam Melville (a would-be nom de guerre, no relation to the novelist) was arrested (along with George Demmerle, the FBI informant who’d put the authorities on his trail) as he was loading dynamite onto National Guard trucks outside the 69th Regimental Armory in midtown Manhattan. Melville was found guilty of the bombings, sent to Attica Prison, and was killed there during its 1971 riots. His girlfriend and co-conspirator Jane Alpert was arrested at the same time as himself, but jumped bail a month before her sentencing and went underground, ultimately emerging to serve a prison sentence.

Another suspect in the cast who dropped out of sight while the authorities were searching for her was Patricia (or Pat) Swinton. Ms. Swinton, at the time of the bombings, was advertising manager of Rat, a radical-feminist underground paper for which Ms. Alpert wrote. Ms. Swinton ultimately made her way to Brattleboro, Vermont, where she settled down on a commune called Total Loss Farm (celebrated in a “classic” counterculture-era book by Raymond Mungo, whose subsequent works include a biography of Liberace). There, she took the name Shoshana – which indicates that she was the cousin of Carl Bernstein to whom Cockburn refers. (In 1975, she was located and apprehended, then acquitted by a Federal jury. Contrary to Cockburn’s heated description, Ms. Swinton was never on the Ten Most Wanted list.)

Of course, close students of Carl Bernstein’s career will realize that, back in ’72, the ready availability of a particular organic substance, the medicinal value of which is now regarded as a legally recognized fact in fourteen states (and this week, tacitly, by the White House), was probably what brought him to Total Loss Farm almost as much as looking in on his wayward kinfolk.

But Cockburn’s claim that exposure of the journalist’s visits to Ms. Swinton would have resulted in Watergate being “over” is a tenuous one. It’s not especially a sure thing that Carl Bernstein would have been let go by the Post had they learned he was hanging out with a fugitive cousin in a Vermont commune – after all, this was the heyday of radical chic, and even a figure as elegant as the Georgetown doyenne Kay Halle would routinely offer her hospitality to a variety of unkempt rock stars and hippies in town to work for George McGovern.

It’s true that it doesn’t seem too likely that he and Bob Woodward could have stayed with the Watergate story had this been known. However, other reporters were chasing the Watergate saga too, such as the diligent, secretive, and staggeringly well-sourced Sandy Smith at Time, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Seymour Hersh at the New York Times. So Cockburn’s notion that Watergate would have fizzled away with Woodstein out of the picture, while it may conform to the version of American history taught by the Post every fifth June 17 and August 9, doesn’t really hold up under examination.

But this is a good occasion to mention an article by veteran journalist Max Holland in the new (November) issue of Washingtonian. (A longer version, according to the magazine, is to appear at Holland’s site, but is not up yet.) In it, Holland looks at a long-standing Watergate conundrum: who was H.R. Haldeman talking about when, in a taped White House conversation on October 19, 1972, he told President Nixon that John Dean had learned that a lawyer associated with the Washington Post (and identified by Haldeman as formerly being with the Justice Department) had identified Mark Felt as the main source of Bernstein and Woodward’s Watergate stories?

Holland looks at a number of attorneys with Post (or Washington Post Company) affiliations at the time, and concludes that two men – the late Harold Ungar, who worked for Justice in the early 1950s and who was on retainer to the Post in 1972, and Edward L. Smith, Newsweek’s counsel at the time (and a onetime Justice attorney) – could fit Haldeman’s description, though Smith, still living, told Holland that he wasn’t the person who ID’d Felt. (Thanks to Maarja Krusten for letting me know about this article.)