A Reporter’s Lawyer

With the world in such disarray, there is a lot of reason now, during the holiday season, to think of family and good friends, here and gone. This is a remembrance I wrote for the New Yorker in 2011 when someone important to me and my family passed, way too young.

My lawyer died last week. His name was Michael Nussbaum, of Washington, D.C. He was seventy-six years old and Stage 4 lung cancer got him after a brave two-year struggle. He was survived by his wife, Gloria Weissberg, and her two daughters. His obituary in the Washington Post told of his high-profile client list, about whom he rarely spoke, and his equally high-profile corporate clients, such as Lloyds of London.

What’s harder to put into words is the relationship of a trusted lawyer and an investigative reporter. Michael was born in Berlin and came to America as a three-year-old Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, just before the Second World War. His sense of time and place remained impeccable. He spent his career resolving disputes and, if that were impossible, making them go away. I spent my career creating disputes and doing all I could to keep them alive. Michael’s favorite word was vanilla, by which he meant: Let’s not rush to judgment about who did what to whom, and whether it was an outrage; slow down. That wasn’t the same as doing nothing: an injustice, if real, had to be rectified, but carefully.

Lots of words, but what do they mean in practice? In 1969, I was a freelance writer, one of many in Washington, and our status then was as tenuous as it is now. I had done my reporting apprenticeship with United Press International, covering the state legislature in Pierre, South Dakota, and then moved to the Associated Press. An assignment at the Pentagon in 1965 turned me into a dead-serious opponent of the Vietnam War. I had come to know many veterans of that war, who were serving at all levels of the military chain of command, and had gotten the message: this war cannot be won, and is destroying two societies—theirs and ours. I began to run into criticism from the senior managers at the AP over my belief that the officials speaking for the government were lying about Vietnam. I left the AP in 1967 and joined the Presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy. I wrote speeches and served as press secretary; I admired the Senator’s integrity, and his willingness to call the war immoral, but also learned to hate politics, with its constant compromise and catfights. I moved back to the newspaper world that spring, only to find that I was essentially unemployable at places like the Washington Post and the Times: my work for McCarthy, I was told, showed that I was not objective. It was back to freelancing.

Michael, whom I had initially befriended in 1958, when we were classmates at the University of Chicago law school (I bailed out; he was the class whiz), had been defending conscientious objectors and others opposed to the war in Vietnam. He became an expert on how to legally avoid the draft, and even wrote a popular handbook on the subject. At the same time, he had become a sought-after expert in complex commercial litigation and was enjoying the profit, and the fun, of success in Washington.

In early October of 1969, I picked up the first hint of what would become known as the My Lai massacre. I managed to work my way deep into the story, and, driving around a military base, found and interviewed Army Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., whose name would become synonymous with the murders. The day before, I had interviewed Calley’s attorney, a retired Army judge named George Latimer, who practiced law in Salt Lake City. I had also seen an Army charge sheet accusing Calley of the premeditated murder of “109 Oriental human beings” in South Vietnam. (The actual number of victims turned out to be more than five hundred.) None of that mattered to the various editors to whom I brought the story—including an editor of Life magazine who, I later learned, had been told about My Lai months earlier by an American G.I. No one wanted to be the first to publish.

It was more than a little distressing; it was frightening. I had empirical evidence of a major American crime in Vietnam, plus an interview with the guy accused of leading it, and the mainstream media apparently wanted nothing to do with it. I had been persuaded by David Obst, a young neighbor and pick-up basketball friend who ran a small anti-war news agency, known as the Dispatch News Service, that the only way to get the story out, intact, was through his syndicate, offering it to editors as a wire story for a hundred dollars. It was a huge risk. Few people needed a lawyer more than I did at that moment, and so off to Michael I went.

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