Article — From the August 2000 issue

A Court of No Appeal

How one obscure sentence upset the New York Times

( 4 of 10 )

To turn, then, at last, to Judge Sirica. More than twenty years ago, when I read Sirica’s book, I noticed what seemed to me astonishing discrepancies and revelations. I did some research, gave the matter thought, and decided not to review the book. I was sure newspaper or magazine journalists would pick up these anomalies and write about them. By the time I published my book about The New Yorker, I assumed other journalists had found and written about them. It turned out they had not–had, it seemed, no interest in these matters, apart from the recent questioning of my right to address them, even now.

Contrary to his reputation as a hero, Sirica was in fact a corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest figure, with a close connection to Senator Joseph McCarthy and clear ties to organized crime.

There can scarcely be any question that this sentence is true. One major source for almost every element of my characterization is Sirica’s own story, as told in interviews and in his book. That Sirica had a “close connection to Senator Joseph McCarthy” is not in dispute–although, as far as I know, I was the first reporter to call attention to it. Certainly no major piece, book, newspaper, or magazine article–about Sirica, or Watergate, or Senator McCarthy for that matter–even mentioned the connection. Certainly not (until its recent reaction to Jack Sirica’s reaction to my book) the New York Times.

Sirica’s own account is as follows. In 1952,

while in Chicago, I ran into Senator Joe McCarthy. We had been friends for several years, double-dating once in a while and going to the racetrack together from time to time. I liked Joe a lot in those days….

Then in 1953, Joe McCarthy offered me the job of chief counsel to his Senate subcommittee which was investigating Communist influence in government.

I must say that I found the offer very attractive …I wasn’t especially excited by McCarthy’s charges about Communist infiltration, but it seemed at the time to be an important matter that needed further examination. By the time McCarthy made his offer, I had moved over to Hogan and Hartson and was finally earning a decent living. But I was still intrigued by his proposal.

Lucy [Sirica's wife, whom he had married the year before, at the age of forty-seven]…was strongly opposed, feeling that since I was now a partner in a good firm, I would be foolish to leave. Joe stopped by our apartment one evening and I told him I felt I had better stay where I was. He agreed that it would be a mistake to leave a good firm like Hogan and Hartson. He told me that since I wasn’t going to take the job, he was probably going to hire a young New York lawyer named Roy Cohn …. I would never have become a federal judge if I had taken that job with Joe McCarthy. I’m sure, looking back, that had I still been single, I would have done so. Thank God for Lucy Camalier Sirica.

There is something almost stunningly preposterous about this story. Sirica devotes less than a page to it. The friendship between Sirica, by his own account an obscure, impoverished, unsuccessful lawyer who had, for the “several years” in question, not even managed to earn a living, and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, one of the most powerful and feared senators in Washington, makes no sense. How did they meet? What views, interests, or other friends did they have in common? How did they come to double-date? McCarthy had made his first famous speech (“I have here in my hand a list of 205 names known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party”) on February 9, 1950, to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. In the intervening years, he had attacked, as virtual or outright traitors, not just the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, and General George C. Marshall but countless others, at every level of public and private life. By 1953, the McCarthy era (what Senator Margaret Chase Smith called the “Four Horsemen of Calumny: Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear”) was already at its height. Judge Sirica’s position (“I wasn’t especially excited by McCarthy’s charges about Communist infiltration, but it seemed at the time to be an important matter that needed further examination”) is not just inherently equivocal and inane. It is also irreconcilable with the intemperate, opinionated man Sirica and his admirers have always admitted him to be. Leaving aside his lack of professional qualifications, Sirica has entirely omitted from this account any ideological basis for McCarthy’s offer of this job to him. Roy Cohn, after all, had credentials of a sort: his agenda, his methods, and his ideology were clear. In Sirica’s account, nothing–neither the politics that produced the offer nor the social circumstance that fostered the friendship–is revealed.

The rest of his story, as he describes it, and as his legend would have it, turns out to make no sense either. Born in 1904, in Waterbury, Connecticut, Sirica is the impecunious, poorly educated, and for many years unsuccessful son of Ferdinand (Fred) Sirica, an Italian–American barber, who also seems to fail at everything. Between 1910 and 1918, for example, Ferdinand takes the family on “a sad sort of odyssey, moving from city to city,” Dayton, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Jacksonville again.

In each place the story was much the same. My father would attempt to earn his living with one kind of business or another. Each time, he would fail. In several cities he purchased small enterprises, only to discover that the income they produced was much less than had been promised by the seller.

In 1918, “uprooted again,” they move to Washington, D.C., where they are so poor they can hardly find a place to live. Somehow, in this “uphill fight against poverty,” Sirica manages to attend two non-parochial private high schools, Emerson Preparatory, “for a year or so,” and then Columbia Preparatory. In 1921, he enters George Washington University Law School, where, within a month, he finds himself out of his depth (“I couldn’t begin to understand what the professors were talking about”) and quits. The following year, he goes to a better law school, Georgetown University, but again, within a month, fails to understand his courses and quits again. It is not clear why Sirica went to private schools, or what “small enterprises” his father “purchased” in all those cities, or how, having failed “each time,” his father managed to purchase any enterprises, let alone “one kind of business or another.” Sirica does not account for any of these discrepancies.

He starts boxing professionally. “I was pretty good, or at least I thought so.” As early as 1921, between his first law school and his second,

I boxed almost every day with local professional welterweights and middleweights. By the next spring I…had begun boxing at local clubs in exhibition bouts with the professionals. I thoroughly enjoyed my new life as an athlete and felt I had finally found something at which I could excel.

In 1922, however, his father has another contretemps:

By this time, my father, in another of his attempts to better himself, had bought a small poolroom with two bowling alleys and a snack bar. He had spent all his savings on the business, and soon realized that he had sunk his money into a very rough place. He wasn’t making any profit to speak of and didn’t like the type of people who frequented the establishment. I used to help out in the evenings, racking up balls for the pool players and setting pins for the bowlers. But my father was again in despair. As he had so often before, he had trusted someone only to be deceived. We lived in rooms above the place. I remember Dad coming upstairs one night after closing. He poured himself a drink as the tears rolled down his face. He was again facing the fact that his hopes were being dashed.

I guess my father wanted to hold on long enough to sell the place and recover his money. But things just got worse. One evening a particularly unpleasant group came in. Many of them had been drinking, even though this was during prohibition….

I don’t think my father owned the place quite a year. He knew that a lot of gamblers and bootleggers came in, but he also knew that if he threw out all the undesirables, he’d be without enough customers to make any money at all. Men from the Government Printing Office, just down North Capitol Street, would come in from work, order a soft drink, and then mix in a little hard liquor from the pints in their pockets. The low point in that whole experience came one night when the city police, aware of the kinds of people who visited the establishment, made a search of the premises. Stashed in the men’s room, they found a small quantity of bootleg liquor, apparently left there by one of my father’s customers. The police took my dad to the police station and charged him with violation of the Volstead Act. He was not locked up, and the next day, when he appeared in police court with his lawyer, he explained that the liquor must have belonged to a customer and that he didn’t even know it was there. No charges were filed, but the incident embarrassed the whole family.

There is perhaps no need to parse this account too thoroughly. How, having in the past, as we know, failed “each time,” did he have “savings” to spend “all” of, or “money” to have “sunk” into such a place? Why does Sirica find it necessary to point out that many of this unpleasant group “had been drinking, even though this was during prohibition,” when his father, just five lines before, had “poured himself a drink” (without any comment from Sirica) in his “despair” over having, “as he had so often before,” “trusted someone only to be deceived”? What was the deceit? “He knew that a lot of gamblers and bootleggers came in”; also “men from the Government Printing Office,” who bought “soft drinks” (from the snack bar, presumably) and then mixed in “a little hard liquor from the pints in their pockets.” It seems almost unfair to go on. Even the elaborate formulation “one night…the city police, aware of the kinds of people who visited the establishment, made a search of the premises.” One can understand not wanting to say aware of the nature of the establishment, but why put in a qualifying phrase at all? Why not just: “One night” “the police raided the premises”? Similarly, why a “small quantity of bootleg liquor, apparently left there by one of my father’s customers“? All these clauses and qualifiers. The next day, when his father, not having been locked up, “appeared in police court with his lawyer” and “explained that the liquor must have belonged to a customer and that he didn’t even know it was there,” any reader of ordinary intelligence and understanding realizes that the object of the story is–as it was in the McCarthy story–not to tell but to conceal something. How, as the Times Editorial put it, this incident “relates to the judge himself” is not hard to fathom. Sirica was living in his father’s apartment above the poolroom, and he was employed “racking up balls for the pool players” and also as a bouncer there.

is a graduate of the Yale Law School and the author of seven books. A new collection, Politics, will be published in the spring.

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  • Dan Agin

    This article needs to be read by every honest journalist (especially every honest journalist working fot the New York Times. Kudos to Renata Adler. When an institutiion devoted to truth begins to corrupt the truth to serve itself, we are all in trouble. In this case, the NYT corrupted the truth for its own ends.

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