Like the retirement of Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield in 1997, Sid Lezak's funeral Thursday reminds us of how radically public life has changed in the past few decades. This transformation has not led us to a better place.
Lezak was U.S. Attorney for Oregon for 21 years, spanning Democratic Would you rather not know about secret prisons or secret domestic eavesdropping?and Republican administrations. He kept his job through successive presidencies because of his sheer competence. He also lived during an era when that was possible - prior to the overarching partisanship that dominates our politics.
In a similar vein, putting Mark Hatfield into today's U.S. Senate would be akin to putting a Civil War soldier into the Iraq War or a silent movie actor into a 2006 movie. Compromise had a place in the Senate that Hatfield knew. Today's ideologues scorn the middle ground as a sign of weakness.
In most seasons, we in the press will rip our guts out in a fit of self-examination. In 2006, we're in overdrive. The year is especially fraught with internecine squabbling. With a jailed reporter and major exposes about presidential eavesdropping and secret prisons, the intersection of government and the free press has become a crossfire.
The charges against a CIA employee for allegedly leaking classified information to the press have spawned a heated discussion within the editorial pages of national newspapers.
Last Tuesday's edition of The Wall Street Journal included a letter to the editor from Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times. Keller was responding to a WSJ editorial that scorned CIA leakers as well as journalists who accepted leaks from official government sources. Titled "Our Rotten IntelligenCIA," the editorial focused on stories in the Times and The Washington Post that revealed President Bush's secret eavesdropping and the CIA's secret prisons in Europe.
"The deepest damage from these leak frenzies may yet be to the press itself, both in credibility and its ability to do its job," wrote the Journal.
Responded Keller: "...(T)he editorial is animated by a couple of assumptions. One is that when journalists write things politicians don't like, the motivation is sure to be political. The other is that when presidents declare that secrecy is in the national interest, reporters should take that at face value. I don't believe either of those things is true, and I find it hard to believe that you do, either."
I'm glad Keller upbraided the WSJ for its argument that exposing aspects of the presidency ipso facto is a breach of security, as if the press has a duty not to question or expose a chief executive's dark side.
The earliest history of American newspapers established a tradition of confronting government authority. In Printers and Press Freedom: The Ideology of Early American Journalism, Jeffery A. Smith presents evidence that the First Amendment flowed naturally from decades of a vibrant colonial press.
Smith notes that when Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706 the American colonies had one newspaper, "the tame, plodding Boston News-Letter which was 'Published by Authority.'" When Franklin died in 1790 "one hundred newspapers were engaged in a spirited pursuit of readership, and the states were voting to ratify a Bill of Rights specifically guaranteeing 'freedom ... of the press.'"
If we have not learned in 2006 to check out everything our president says, we are utter fools.
If Americans and their newspapers have lost their stomach for knowing government secrets, we dishonor those who bled for our freedoms.
Would you rather not know the CIA was operating secret prisons in Europe? Would you rather not know that President Bush secretly signed an executive order for eavesdropping on the domestic population?
It's our government, secrets and all.