Playing the Devil's Advocate
Jude Wanniski
May 1, 2002


Memo To: The National Press Corps
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Defending the ‘Bad Guys’

Sometime in late 1973, Bob Bartley convened a meeting of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board in the little room where we met Monday mornings. At some point, he asked for a show of hands of any in the room who thought Richard Nixon was NOT guilty of the crimes he was being accused of in connection with the Watergate burglary. None of the seven or eight editorial writers raised their hands, but after a few seconds, I raised mine. I remember saying that I did not know enough about the facts of the matter to venture a hard opinion [as I knew Bartley was mulling over the possibility of joining the chorus of conservative editors and commentators who were calling upon the President to resign.] Without a unanimous board, Bartley asked if I would take on the responsibility of being Nixon’s advocate inside the board. I’d been writing about economics and energy issues – the early supply-side editorials – but without much hesitation said I would dig into the extensive material and see if I could present a credible defense. As long as I could present logical arguments on why Nixon might NOT be guilty, Bartley would not write the editorial demanding his resignation or impeachment.

In beginning with the assumption that Nixon was not guilty, as he insisted he was not, I could read that transcripts over and over and over again, trying to get inside his head, to see how he could be so confident he was not guilty. The effort, which consumed many dozen of hours in my evenings at home in the months ahead, enabled me to “walk the cat backward,” as Bill Safire likes to put it when describing intelligence techniques. In doing so, I got “into his head,” and became persuaded beyond reasonable doubt that Nixon never believed he was guilty of a crime. I then saw that the incriminating Oval Office tapes were being misinterpreted by those who began with the assumption of his guilt or who had not done the work I had done in developing his intellectual time line, which could explain the remarks he had made which seemed incriminating on their face. Each and every time Bartley seemed ready to proceed with his editorial, I made the case against it, and Bob held off. I was in Washington having dinner with Charlie Di Bona of the American Petroleum Institute when the Washington Star came out with the news that the “smoking gun” had been found, cinching the case against Nixon. I read the story and saw that it was not a smoking gun at all and could be easily explained in my “time line.” But I saw that it was hopeless for Nixon, for if he chose to continue now with a Senate trial, the distractions would cause convulsions in an economy already suffering from his dreadful economic policies. I decided to not call Bartley and to stay mum for a few days, giving him time to write the editorial that just beat Nixon’s decision to resign.

I thought about these old days recently when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced and I recalled when I saw for the first time that Jeff Gerth of the NYTimes had gotten the prize three years ago for his story about the Chinese stealing nuclear secrets from our nuclear labs in New Mexico, via Wen Ho Lee. Of course, after the Prize was handed out, the world discovered that Wen Ho Lee was innocent, so innocent that he got an apology from the federal appeals court judge who had socked him away in solitary confinement, without bail. I smelled the rat with Gerth’s first story and immediately wrote to the NYT executive editor at the time, Joseph Lelyveld, warning that he was being snookered by right-wing Republicans who were trying to cook up a war with Beijing. I ran dozens of pieces about Wen Ho’s innocence, again playing a devil’s advocate for an American citizen who was in fact a saint.

Then comes Monday’s NYTimes, in which I read The New Yorker will almost certainly win an award this week for Jeffrey Goldberg’s long, long article two months ago on how Saddam Hussein really, truly bumped off 100,000 Iraqi Kurds in 1988, his own people! My, my. This Saddam fellow needs a devil’s advocate if anyone ever needed one, and those of you who have been following my missives over the years know that I believe Goldberg’s piece is baloney. He began with the assumption that Saddam was guilty and looked only at the 14-year-old bits and pieces of evidence that supported that conclusion. He never even mentioned the 1990 Army War College report that exonerated Saddam, because it would have been inconvenient to bring it up. Saddam never gassed his own people, period. It is Middle East propaganda to serve the aims of Israel.

I ask you, reporters and editors of the national press corps, why are you not providing devil’s advocates? When I was a young journalist, there was a debate on whether the news media was more conservative or more liberal. These days, I wonder why there isn’t a debate on whether it makes any difference what you read or watch. My old editor Bob Bartley long ago dispensed with devil’s advocates, perhaps remembering how effective they can be. The new editor, Paul Gigot, seems to have no need for opposing points of view. If you want to have a regime change in Baghdad, it may be best that your readers not know all the facts so they can make up their own minds. I do not want to put too much of the burden of criticism on the WSJ, though, because I do not see much effort anywhere in our national press corps to study the unpopular side of an issue and present the arguments that serve the interests of demons. I must say I always except Bob Novak, at the pinnacle of the profession, a journalist who steadfastly thinks for himself.

Novak has always understood why I have been absolutely alone in my defense of the most demonized Jew in America and the most demonized Muslim. There have been brave souls to defend Michael Milken, the Jew, and Louis Farrakhan, the Muslim, but I’ve been alone – except for Novak – in defending both as good men, not bad men. Both have been the victims of a Political Establishment that found their presence as financial or political forces inconvenient. And perhaps that’s the way it is meant to be. This memo is only meant to convey a sense of me.

Tomorrow I will write about the man responsible for my playing devil’s advocate a great many times in my life, the man who named me at birth for St. Jude Thaddeus, one of the apostles and the cousin of Jesus, to whom Catholics pray for lost causes, for hopeless cases. My father made it clear to me by his example that he thought it important to stand up to authority if you believe an injustice is being done. I don’t defend all “bad guys,” only those who are being unjustly accused of wrongdoing to serve the ends of more powerful authorities. I just wish there were more of an effort among journalists these days to take on unpopular causes instead of joining the crowd to win prizes.