As a doctoral candidate in Harvard’s government department, Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.D. ’72, was a nuanced writer. His dissertation, “Prior Restraint, Prior Punishment, and Political Dissent: A Moral and Legal Evaluation,” carefully explored the issues associated with “the question of the extent to which we can legitimately demand that the liberal state tolerate internal political activism.” His argument—with special thanks to his advisers, professors Michael Walzer and Arthur Sutherland, and further thanks to legal scholars Paul Freund and Laurence Tribe—came at a fraught time in the nation’s history, just after the confrontations of the civil-rights era, the street demonstrations and violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, and the turmoil associated with protest against the Vietnam War. Having examined court opinions in a variety of situations, Corsi found little support for limits on association (mandating disclosure of group membership, for example), for investigations of political activists, or for any but the most careful uses of injunctions and temporary restraining orders—and no usage consistent with political freedom for preventive detention as “either the exception or the rule.”
Corsi could imagine extreme circumstances where state intervention would be possible, but he stressed the responsibilities of public officials to keep avenues of dissent open, and of dissidents to avoid abusing rights, lest on either side those rights be fatally compromised at moments of crisis. “Rights of dissent have always been incredibly fragile,” Corsi concluded. “We can write words numbering in the hundreds of thousands defining these rights and establishing rules for their maintenance. However, their continuance will always ultimately rest upon the restraint and respect of political activists and government authorities alike.”
Somehow, in the years since, Corsi has segued from political science to a different kind of political art, and has found different purposes for his prolific writings—and a much different tone for them. As author of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, he led the 2004 attempt to destroy the character and reputation of the Democratic presidential candidate. His current bestseller, the slyly titled The Obama Nation, aiming at Barack Obama, J.D. ’91, the 2008 Democratic nominee, furthers Corsi’s reputation of aiming for the jugular with an axe.
Though much of the effect of such publications is as grist for the most partisan radio talk shows, they prompt debate more broadly as well, given their political significance. And so it was that Hendrik Hertzberg ’65 took on Corsi in “Attack-Dog Days,” his lead “Comment” in the September 1 issue of The New Yorker.
Hertzberg, profiled in the January-February 2003 issue of this magazine, commands a sharp pen himself. “The Obama Nation,” he writes, “erects a superstructure of innuendo, guilt by (often nonexistent) association, baseless speculation, and sinister-sounding but irrelevant digression. The result is an example of what used to be known, in the glory days of ideologically driven totalitarianism, as the Big Lie—in this case, a fabricated, alternate-universe Barack Obama, who, we are told or invited to infer, is a corrupt, enraged, anti-American, drug-dealing, anti-Israel, pseudo-Christian radical leftist, black militant, plagiarist, and liar, trained as a Muslim and mentored by a menagerie of Marxists, Communists, crypto-Communists, and terrorists.”
Putting Corsi’s recent work in context, Hertzberg writes:
Corsi himself is a crackpot, a boor, and a bigot. He wrote a book last year accusing the Bush Administration, the Council on Foreign Relations, and assorted liberals of plotting to subsume the United States into a North American superstate with its own currency, the “amero”; he helped fuel a theory, popular with slivers of the far right and the far left, that the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11 was caused by explosives planted in the buildings; on a malarial right-wing Web site called FreeRepublic.com, he called Hillary Clinton “a lesbo,” Muslims “ragheads,” and John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Katie Couric, and John Lennon “communists” (“a dead communist,” in the Beatle’s case), and wrote that “boy buggering in both Islam and Catholicism is okay with the Pope”—meaning John Paul II, whom he derided as “senile”—“as long as it isn’t reported by the liberal press.”
At all levels of debate, high and low, the campaign ahead appears headed for rough talk and tactics, with Harvard participants across the spectrum.