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Life Arts    H2'ed 5/3/09

Requiem for Bill, why May Day will never be the same

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The New York Times carried an obituary yesterday, William A. Price, Journalist Who Defied Senate Panel, Dies at 94.

Uncle Bill died on May Day.  Anyone who knew Bill would agree, you couldn't pick a better day for him to die.  Even though Bill and God had a strained relationship going back at least 70 years, I think he would agree this was God's way of celebrating his solidarity with the working men and women of the world.

The obituary, written by William Grimes, was very nice.  You can do a whole lot of living in 94 years. Unfortunately, the Times has got only so many column inches to spare, even if you are extraordinary.  The best they could do was hint at the life some of us were lucky to be part of.  In my own small way, I'm going to try and do a little better... 

The obituary began with a bang:

William A. Price, a reporter for The Daily News who took the unusual step of invoking the First Amendment, rather than the Fifth, when refusing to answer questions before a Senate panel in 1956 about his possible ties to the Communist Party, and who later won a court judgment against the F.B.I. for wiretapping his phone in the 1970s, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 94.

Unusual... that certainly fit Bill like the Brooks Brothers suits he used to wear. No surprise Bill pled the 1st Amendment. He was quite the Constitutional aficionado. After all, two of his ancestors signed the documents that founded this nation. Bill's mother was a member of the DAR in good standing. The Price family of Montclair, New Jersey were members in good standing of all the associations, clubs, and societies they deigned to join. They were in the Social Register. Bill used to get his copy of it every year. 

For those who don't know, the Social Register was how the oligarchy kept in touch before the days of cell phones and the Internet. I remember being astonished while browsing his copy one year to see it included Jimmy Carter's home phone number and address in Plains Georgia. Bill chuckled and sarcastically noted, "They only put him in there because he's the President. They'll drop him when he's out of the White House." 

His disdain for the pretenses of the society mavens was palpable and he made no effort to hide it. I asked him why he still subscribed to the thing if that's how he felt. He explained you can't subscribe to the Social Register. You are in the club or you're not. They mailed him his copy for the same reason they sent copies to Jackie O and Gloria Vanderbilt. He was in it. "Why don't you tell them to take your name off the list?" I asked. "It's actually very useful," he said with a big grin. "It helps when we want to set up a picket outside their house. If you call ahead, their help will tell you which summer home they're at. That way you don't waste a trip to the wrong one." 

The idea of people having multiple summer estates was news to me. I thought he was pulling my leg. He assured me he wasn't. "Why waste time going to the Hamptons if they're up at Tanglewood for the weekend or sailing off Martha's Vineyard?" He underscored the point by pronouncing it "Mahhtha's Vineyaad" like he was a Kennedy. 

Bill was a rabble-rouser. That phone tap thing? The FBI didn't just tap his phone. They tapped all the public pay phones in New York City for a five-block radius around his apartment on West 85th street. That's a lot of pay phones. If you don't know New York City, let me put it to you this way: that circle includes the Museum of Natural History. We're talking A LOT of pay phones. Bill knew his phone was tapped for years. He didn't need any special equipment to prove it. He simply stopped paying his phone bill. For years. And they never shut off his service even when he made long distance calls. His attitude was that since the FBI was listening in on all his calls he'd already paid for the service with his taxes, why pay twice? 

They didn't stop with his phone. They opened his mail, they broke into his apartment so many times he stopped locking the doors. It was the usual COINTELPRO stuff. The difference was he pursued his case and won. That was a precedent setting case. He sued everyone at the FBI. He even sued J. Edgar Hoover, along with John Doe and Richard Roe. Not being familiar with legal maneuverings, I didn't understand how you could sue people whose names you didn't even know. He explained they were suing everyone who was involved with this nonsense. That included people "known and unknown" who were in the chain of command up to and including Hoover. Turns out that was a lot of people. 

Some of you may remember the first thing Ronald Reagan did when he took office. He pardoned two high-ranking FBI agents guilty of illegal surveillance. One of them was Mark Felt -- the guy we all learned later was "Deep Throat" for Woodward and Bernstein. The case was historic in another way. Seven hundred FBI agents lined up outside the Court in Washington to show their support for these guys. Never before or since has there been such a display of solidarity. Of course, many of these guys were the same guys who had been tapping Bill's phones and opening his mail. 

Years later, when Bill got his FBI file - which was almost as thick as the New York City phone book- he learned one of the kids he had rented a room to was an FBI informant. He wasn't surprised. Apparently the guy had a habit of getting drunk late at night and dialing up his buddies from "the good old days" back in Viet Nam. Bill never paid for those international calls either. 

The irony of the situation was even though Bill and his co-defendents won their case, Reagan simply turned around and issued an Executive Order (Executive Order 12333) which let the FBI off the leash almost immediately. We all know how that played out. 

Now you may be wondering how the hell a scion of American privilege might wind up in such a strange situation. The answer to that question is alluded to in the obituary.

During World War II he flew air-rescue operations in the Aleutian Islands, attaining the rank of lieutenant. He emerged from the war a committed socialist.

That's true, but it skips over a few details. In Uncle Bill's apartment, a wooden propeller graced the wall of his dining room. It was a memento. He told me what type of plane it came from, but it didn't mean anything to me. All I remember was it could land on water. His job was to rescue downed airmen in the North Pacific during WWII. He also explained how he became a socialist doing that. 

Turns out, back then officers NEVER ate with enlisted men. It just simply wasn't done. Having grown up in a world where everyone was privileged, I guess it just didn't occur to Bill that the men who did the same work he did were somehow "beneath" him. So he would eat with them. That drew stern rebukes from the other officers. He ignored them. His attitude was something along the lines of "if I am willing to trust these guys with my life, it would be rude to say I'm not willing to eat lunch with them." I wouldn't be surprised if Emily Post figured prominently in Bill's upbringing. 

That wasn't what cost him his command, though. I don't know how it happened, but returning home from one of their missions, the plane started to leak fuel. At the rate they were losing fuel there was no way they were going to make it back to base. He was ordered to ditch the plane and wait for rescue. Bill didn't think that was a good idea. Somehow he knew that even though fuel was incredibly corrosive it didn't eat through rubber. So he took an eraser from the navigator, climbed out on the wing of the plane and stuffed it in the hole. He saved the plane and the crew. 

I don't know what his commanding officer thought about Bill's climbing out on the wing, but he was furious that Bill had disobeyed a direct order. Bill argued that he didn't think that ditching a perfectly good plane was a good use of taxpayer money. They took away his plane. After that, they assigned him to a new command. They put him in charge of laundry duty onboard a battleship. I guess they figured that would break him. After all, this was a guy used to having other people do his laundry. Now he was going to be doing other people's dirty laundry alongside misfits and Negroes. 

Bill took it the wrong way. He knew how important clean linens were to morale. That's why he made it his duty to be sure the men on that ship had the cleanest linens and uniforms in the United States Navy. I think that was probably the first time he had ever worked directly with black men, too. He was appalled at how they were treated. And yes, even though he was an officer, he still ate with them. That really stirred up some trouble. But they never threw him in the brig. I guess the brass liked clean linen more than they hated Bill. 

Seeing all that injustice changed Bill as surely as Siddhartha was changed by the sight of suffering and death. Bill still clung to the values of his ancestors, the men the rest of us call The Founding Fathers. But he knew their work was not finished until the words Jefferson penned into the preamble of the Declaration of Independence had real meaning. 

He returned after the war to a job as a reporter - eventually covering the fledgling United Nations. Hope springs eternal. But even there Bill ran into trouble.

He displeased his superiors by working with a team of newspaper reporters investigating the death of his cousin, George Polk, who was murdered in Greece in 1948 while pursuing stories unfavorable to the right-wing government, which was supported by the United States.

If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it's because you've heard it before. The Polk Award, one of the most prestigious awards in journalism, is named after Bill's cousin. And the newspaper reporters with whom he worked investigating the death? Those included men like Homer Bigert and Ernest Hemingway. They took a lot of grief for that. People tried to smear Polk during the investigation. But it was hard to cover up the fact that Polk was a bona fide war hero. After all, he had been personally decorated for heroic service by none other than Vice-Admiral John McCain. Small world, isn't it? 

The subsequent whitewashing of the murder investigation had a real impact on Bill. I guess it finally sunk in, that even if you came from the right family, even if you were a bona fide war hero, even if you embraced the Constitution, even if you were fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way... none of that mattered if you got in the way of the real owners. 

But Bill was tenacious and he didn't stop fighting for the ideals and values that made America great. He paid dearly for that. As the obituary noted, Bill's career as a journalist:

“came to an abrupt end the day he appeared before Senator Eastland's subcommittee. Richard Clarke, the executive editor of The Daily News, informed him in a telegram that his conduct had ‘destroyed’ his ‘usefulness to The News’ and that he was fired.

Let me explain how "abrupt" that was. It took the telegram less time to get to his office than it took Bill to travel across town. That telegram was waiting for him when he returned to the office after testifying. When you look at the infotainers who call themselves journalists today, you have to cringe a little when you consider what passes for "usefulness" in today's newsrooms. 

I guarantee you, Judith Miller's recent reluctance to name names was not motivated by the same code of conduct Bill Price followed. Needless to say, Bill was blacklisted and never again worked for a major media outlet. He turned his attention to tenant rights and fought against the developers touting Urban Renewal. Bill called it "Urban Removal" because it really meant displacing poor people so the city could sell the renovated tenements to a more "upscale" crowd. In that arena he lost more battles than he won. He wasn't alone. Damn few people ever won against Robert Moses. 

I remember visiting Bill and standing at the corner of Columbus Avenue looking South. As the years progressed, Urban Renewal relentlessly marched up Columbus Avenue ... sweeping away everything in its path. Except for Bill's building. That stayed in City hands and even moved towards Co-op status. But the largely immigrant population was simply not able to operate effectively and even that modest victory fell apart after a suspicious fire provided the city with the opportunity they needed to condemn the building and force everyone to move out. 

There are two points to which the obituary makes oblique reference, but they are important if you want to understand Bill. First, he was a photographer. Second, he was a writer. Bill used to shoot with a Leica M1. He had converted a back bedroom in his apartment into a darkroom. Those of you who have grown up knowing only digital cameras will never fully understand the magic of the darkroom. Those of you who can will love this story. 

It turns out, as part of Bill's social justice leanings, he belonged to a group of photojournalists that shared his penchant for social justice. For many years these men chronicled the trials and tribulations of the American working class and the poor. Their heroes were Margaret Bourke-White and Lewis Hine. Somehow, the group came into possession of Lewis Hine's glass negatives upon his death. When the group disbanded, Bill wound up with a box containing several of these priceless artifacts. The box sat on a shelf in his apartment for decades. 

Sometime in the 1980s, the Brooklyn Museum decided to have a retrospective of early 20th century photography and Lewis Hine was the centerpiece of that exhibit. Of course, many pieces were reproductions from copies as the original glass negatives were lost. Bill contacted the curator to let her know he had a cache of negatives he wanted to give them for safekeeping and archival storage. She was overjoyed. 

Here's the magic part. Before we took off to the museum, he let me pick one of the negatives to make a contact print. These were large 5 x7 glass negatives with hand poured emulsion. I knew how to handle them, having learned photography from my grandfather. I looked through the collection and picked one of the images from Ellis Island now known as Immigrants Climbing into America. I made a full-frame contact print and returned the negative to the box. Bringing that image to life after almost fifty years of obscurity was the most magical moment I have ever experienced in a darkroom. 

As a writer, Bill loved language and he loved books. He used to fume at the kids who didn't read, write or care about expressing themselves clearly. It was a pet peeve of his. Listening to one of his tirades, I could not restrain my urge to taunt the old man. When he paused, I replied "Yeah, man... I know exactly what you're saying ... like ... wow ... you know... like ... it's ... like ... really ... like ... lame ... you know what I mean?" 

I thought he was going to have a stroke. "YOU HAVEN'T HEARD A SINGLE WORD I SAID HAVE YOU? THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT, GODDAMNIT!" I knew I'd gone too far, because Bill wasn't given to swearing. That still didn't stop me from rolling around on the floor laughing like a maniac. 

The truth is I learned a lot about the hidden history of America from Bill. In my library I have four books rescued from Bill's apartment. Bertram Gross' Friendly Fascism, Richard Sasuly's IG Farben, Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, and Anne Haight's Banned Books: Informal notes on some books banned for various reasons at various times and in various places. Given Bill's confounding strategy of invoking his First Amendment rights instead of his Fifth Amendment rights in front of Eastland's committee, it seems only fitting to close with a quote from Haight's book:

Have man's fears ever been valid? Why should we trust a government or a church to control our literary diet after we have seen the validity of the former fears of those in power? Are we not better off trusting the people of our nation to accept or reject books in the market place of thought? Have we not staked our all on a gamble, not yet empirically provable, and hence calling on an act of faith, that truth has a better chance of winning out in an open market place of thought rather than by controls placed in the hands of rulers whether ecclesiastical or secular?

Those are important questions. I don't think we are any closer to answering them today than when they were asked back in 1955. But they are questions we must all struggle with here -- today and tomorrow. I just hope we have the courage, grace and tenacity to address them as honestly as Bill Price did.
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For starters, I am not the Henry Porter who writes for the Observer in Britain. I'm a native New Yorker living in Maryland. I used to believe knowledge was power. Now I know knowledge translated into action is power.
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