Seymour Hersh: ‘The government can keep secrets’

Famed investigative reporter speaks in Chilmark

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Seymour Hersh speaks to promote his new book "Reporter." -- Brian Dowd

Updated July 23

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh told a sold-out Chilmark Community Center it was high time “to get a new generation” to lead the country.

“I would say you’re an equal-opportunity offender. You’ve pissed off everybody. You’ve been the scourge of Nixon and Kissinger and both Bushes, but also J.F.K. and Obama. And that’s how a journalist should be, really,” moderator and author Geraldine Brooks said.

“Some people measure success by going to the White House for dinner. I measure success by never having been invited,” Hersh said.

Hersh spoke to promote his new memoir, “Reporter,” as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Author Series.

“Reporter” recounts Hersh’s lifetime of investigative reporting for almost every major national news outlet. Among his many accolades, Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1970 for exposing the My Lai massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War.

Hersh ran through his career in journalism, which he began as a copy boy in Chicago. Working his way up to police reporter for City News in Chicago, Hersh eventually got a job as an Associated Press correspondent in Chicago before transferring to Washington, D.C. From there he went on to be a staff writer for the New York Times and the New Yorker.

The hot topic of the night was President Donald Trump. Brooks had Hersh dive into the talk by asking him when he would publish Trump’s tax returns. While the question initially met with laughs, Hersh told the eager crowd Trump’s tax returns have been in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s hands since the investigation’s early stages, and that there was not enough to “nail” Trump.

Hersh didn’t coddle the crowd, often being met with groans. “I don’t want to ruin the night, but I’m going to, I’m sure. Unless something drastic happens, [Trump]’s probably going to win the next election,” Hersh said. “He’s a barnyard bully, but he’s not stupid; stop thinking he’s stupid.”

Trump wasn’t the only topic of the night, as Hersh bounced from subject to subject, sharing his critiques on foreign policy, the Vietnam War, the 1968 presidential election, terrorism, and former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Hersh didn’t hold back his criticism of both political parties either, citing a “feckless” Democratic Party and a government that is “nuts.”

Despite unearthing hard truths throughout his career, Hersh said there is much we might never know. “The government can keep secrets,” he said.

Hersh’s memoir came to be as he was writing his book on former Vice President Dick Cheney. After doing several years of extensive research, Hersh began to fear getting some of his sources burned. Hersh went to his publisher to explain the book could not be finished. He was told to instead write a memoir. “I have to tell you, turns out it’s a lot of fun to write about yourself,” he said. “I remember things that happened, but I don’t remember what I wrote.”

One journalistic rule Hersh repeated throughout his talk — and his book — was to “read before you write.”

Hersh also read a brief passage from his memoir about trying to track down and interview Lt. William Calley Jr., who would reveal many horrible details of the My Lai Massacre. In his search for Calley, Hersh was chased off an Army base by a sergeant, in a scene “out of a very bad Marx Brothers movie.”

Speaking on his career as a whole, Hersh said his focus has always been on the truth. While many of his books and articles touch on powerful people like Henry Kissinger, Cheney, and the Kennedys, Hersh said he was and is interested in the people who stand by the Constitution.

“I’m interested in those guys who have a good career, are very bright, go into the military or the intelligence community and the state department, and when they take the oath of office it’s to the Constitution and not to their boss, and not to the general, and not to the president.”

Before being led offstage to sign copies of his memoir, Hersh — a man who has made a living finding answers to questions — left the audience with a few questions of his own. “How can you explain [the Vietnam War]? How can you explain it? How can you explain deciding we’re going to do a war against an idea — terror? How do you explain 17 years in Afghanistan?” Hersh said. “What do you do?”

Updated to include more details from Hersh’s talk. – Ed.