Character assassination

I've known Daniel Ellsberg for 25 years, and the new biography of the Pentagon Papers leaker is a hatchet job worthy of the White House Plumbers.

Published June 15, 2001 4:33PM (EDT)

Usually it is fun to review books; that's why I do it. I was looking forward to reading "Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg" by Tom Wells. I'm interested in the subject of this biography. But I find hatchet jobs disquieting. They are not enjoyable to read, nor pleasant to report on. This account of Dan Ellsberg is as unpleasant a read as I can recall in a long while.

Ellsberg, a former Pentagon aide working at California defense think tank the Rand Corp., entered the history books in June 1971 when he leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers, a highly classified study of how the United States became militarily engaged in the ever-escalating war in Vietnam. "Wild Man" is being published on the 30th anniversary of Ellsberg's defiant act, an act that he hoped would end a war. Instead it ended a presidency.

While our nation has no "official secrets act" as England does, President Richard Nixon's national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, got the president so pumped up with determination to nail Ellsberg that the government concocted a criminal case and prosecuted him. With no espionage laws to cover the situation, the heart of the prosecution was charges of theft. However, given the fact that Ellsberg had returned the documents after copying them, even theft was dubious.

Yet Nixon wanted to destroy Ellsberg any way he could, so he employed his infamous "Plumbers Unit," which hoped to forever discredit this leaker by stealing possible negative information about him from his psychiatrist and then smearing him with it publicly. No American has been subjected to greater abuse by a president of the United States than Dan Ellsberg, and when this fact became known, the case against him was thrown out of court. Rather than destroying the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, the historical record shows that Nixon's criminal actions against Ellsberg led to his own downfall.

I met Ellsberg in 1975, after all these events had played out, when he came to my home with a mutual friend. Thus began a conversation with him that has been going on, with gaps of a few years here and there, for the last quarter of a century. He was interested in what I knew about Nixon's pursuit of him, and curious to learn what had happened to my life after I testified about Nixon's nefarious activities. I was interested in why Ellsberg had leaked the papers, and what effects his decision had on him and his life. Each of us, for his own reasons, had made decisions that profoundly affected the Nixon presidency.

Few people appreciate the impact of Ellsberg's action on the Nixon White House, how it was a catalyst for the cluster of illegal activity later known as Watergate, the most serious presidential scandal in our history. It was this fact that prompted me to collaborate with Eric Hamburg, one of the producers of Oliver Stone's film "Nixon," in writing and producing a television movie titled "The Pentagon Papers."

After completing the screenplay, I sent a copy to Dan. He did not want to become involved in the project because he was working on his autobiography. He wanted to tell his story, his way. That was understandable, but his explanation surprised me.

At a lunch only a few years earlier with Dan and his wife Patricia, I had encouraged him to write his autobiography. He resisted, and so did Pat, who said she could not bear the idea of having to relive all those old memories. I could appreciate that. Dan said he would write an autobiography only if he was unhappy with the way a fellow who was working on a biography wrote about him.

That book has been written. Ellsberg is not going to be very happy. After reading Wells' work, I hope that Ellsberg is working seriously on his autobiography. He should not bother to read the Wells book; it will only make him angry.

"Wild Man" is not so much a book about Ellsberg as it is a platform for all the people who have negative things to say about him -- and they appear to be many. It seems that Wells could find no one with anything good to relate about his subject. I count over 230 listed interviews, which are the core of the book. In this 604-page book there are remarkably few kind words.

At the outset Wells, as a biographer, tells you where he is coming from: "This is an unauthorized biography, written by someone sympathetic to Daniel Ellsberg politically but critical of the man." With politically sympathetic people like Wells, Ellsberg needs no political enemies. Strangely, I know of political enemies of Ellsberg who pay him much more respect.

Whether Wells set out to pile as much trash as he could collect on Ellsberg, or this was a decision made along the way, is not clear. There is no question, however, that the portrait he produced is ugly. If I did not know better, I would think the work had been commissioned by a latter-day group of former Nixon Plumbers. In fact, Wells interviewed and quotes would-be Übermensch and former plumber Gordon Liddy, who loathed Ellsberg, as if he were an impartial observer.

The book's sheer volume and endless repetition of damning observations quickly become tedious. As Publishers Weekly noted (when panning it), the book is "bloated." That is a kind appraisal. "Wild Man" is overwritten at least by half, running not fewer than 300 pages too long. As a result, the few fair observations that Wells offers about his subject are overwhelmed, if not lost, by the endless tittle-tattle and speculative observations that dominate the work.

"Wild Man" describes Ellsberg's life from when he was a piano-playing child prodigy and purportedly felt no loss at age 11 when his mother was killed in an auto accident that he survived, to when he was a Harvard undergraduate who, although still a student, wooed a first wife with his worldliness (and proved less than a true partner in the marriage), to graduate studies in which his intellectual genius was not matched by his work. Then we go to war with Ellsberg, a gung-ho Marine who, after completing his duty, so loved the action that he went back to the killing fields of Vietnam where, as a civilian, he regularly accompanied patrols to gather intelligence. (Wells describes Ellsberg's activities there as demonstration of a "death wish.")

Along the way, Wells makes a special effort to catalog Ellsberg's active sex life. Wells tracks his man from Malibu pads to swingers' bars to Elysium, "a 'pleasure-oriented' nudist 'growth center' in Topanga Canyon, California, as well as the Esalen Institute in Northern California, another personal growth center." Sounds interesting. Wells makes it very dull. But more to the point -- who cares? It is irrelevant.

Wells reports the story of Ellsberg's move from hawk to dove not as moral growth and maturity, not as self-discovery or patriotism, but rather as the result of a combination of self-serving motivations ranging from Ellsberg's sexual interest in women active in the peace movement to his own career failures as a hawk. While often noting Ellsberg's brilliant mind, this biographer is fixated on Ellsberg's purported inability to produce work of a meaningful nature, except occasionally and almost by accident. Like the gratuitous sex in the book, most of this information is similarly irrelevant.

I was most interested to learn how a biographer would treat Ellsberg's relationship with Henry Kissinger. It was Kissinger who kept Nixon going after Ellsberg. Why? What was it between these men before the leaking of the papers that so agitated Kissinger? But I could find nothing of substance on this topic in "Wild Man." Apparently Wells found nothing that explained the relationship, which is surprising. Rather he uses Kissinger as another vehicle for speculation. For example (and this a typical Wells passage):

Ellsberg (while at the RAND Corporation) expressed interest in doing additional studies for Kissinger, but Kissinger said that wouldn't be necessary. Ellsberg was probably envious of Kissinger's career rise. Though smarter and equally ambitious, Ellsberg was not as adroit at smoothing and manipulating others as Kissinger (partly because he couldn't control himself, listen, or respond to other people's moods as well as Kissinger). It undoubtedly frustrated and disheartened Ellsberg when it became clear that Kissinger would not be taking his advice on Vietnam ... Ellsberg's frustration and anger likely pushed him further into opposition on Vietnam.

The basis for all the assumptions Wells makes in this passage is not clear. He makes them from the book's first chapter, "Loner," to its last, "Outcast," in which the reader encounters an Ellsberg whom his family, many friends, acquaintances and colleagues find intolerable and unbearable: an exaggerating (if not lying), egocentric, manipulative, un-self-disciplined and selfish genius -- at least, according to Wells. Wells presents an Ellsberg, notwithstanding his conspicuous intellectual prowess, who has never met a deadline and who is a monumental underachiever given his potential. Because of Ellsberg's "high standards, insecurity, restlessness, impatience, lack of self-discipline, and disorganization," he consistently fails to complete everything from his assignments at Harvard to his work at the Rand Corp. to his tasks at the Pentagon. Indeed, if Wells is correct, Ellsberg will never complete his autobiography. The man, he insists, is brilliant but blocked, and unable to live up to his own expectations of himself.

According to Wells, almost everything Ellsberg does involves "self-aggrandizing, over-dramatizing and attention-seeking" behavior. This seems to explain, for him, why Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers. It was not an act of moral courage, not a stunning statement of protest that might end a war, but rather a self-indulgent desire for the spotlight and public attention. Wells argues that Ellsberg should have known that leaking the papers would have little impact on the war; and, he insists, it had none. Thus, the leaking of these official and classified documents showing the American people that they had been lied to about the constantly escalating engagement gets cast as largely a self-serving act of grandstanding by Ellsberg.

Wells voices his opinions of Ellsberg mostly through the statements of others, and he never explains why he has not accounted for the obvious bias of the people he quotes -- an ex-wife, an embittered former co-conspirator, an estranged daughter, an injured and once frightened co-worker, an annoyed neighbor, an old girlfriend or the myriad other such sources he relies upon. In many instances, I was struck by the fact that he had solicited information from, or was turning to, the least reliable sources possible.

Suffice it to say the Ellsberg portrayed in this book is not the same fellow I have been conversing with for 25 years. The man's good qualities are lost, so hidden in the subtext as to be undetectable: his courage; his love of, and concern about, his country; his strong sense of right and wrong in matters of statecraft; his often selfless acts of kindness and concern toward others; and his sense of humor. Also missing are appraisals by the people who admire and respect Dan Ellsberg.

"Wild Man" suffers from more than a hostile bias. While Wells' account of Ellsberg's life generally follows chronological order, the stories his sources tell move back and forth in time so often, and occasionally so abruptly, that anyone not familiar with the events is going to have a difficult time keeping things straight. Wells has chosen not to give the reader a conspicuous structure of the actual events to help place statements by his sources in context. Most remarkable, however, is Wells' ability to take a dramatic story, and a fascinatingly complex and gifted man, and make both boring. This could not have been easy, but he has succeeded nicely.

Rather than be guilty myself of writing the very type of hatchet job that I find so unpleasant -- for I truly dislike writing negative reviews -- let me note what Wells has done very well. The book's prologue is the best description I have ever read of the strange and bungled break-in at Dan Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. He has taken the raw material from the Watergate Special Prosecutor's Office (the documents can now be found in the National Archives), and combined it with information he obtained from memoirs and interviews. It is well done, and the best section of the book.

Anyone interested in a more responsible and balanced account might read David Rudenstine's "The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case," published by the University of California Press, which also published Wells' prior work.

But best of all will be Dan Ellsberg's forthcoming autobiography, for the very publication of it will put the lie to this unfortunate and unkind book.

So get to it, Dan.

By John W. Dean

John W. Dean served as counsel to President Nixon from 1970 to 1973. He now writes a column for Findlaw and is the author of several books, with the next to be published in January 2004, a biography of Warren G. Harding. .

MORE FROM John W. Dean

Related Topics ------------------------------------------