Clearing Oppenheimer's Name: To One Firm, the Case Is Radioactive

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Thursday, March 2, 2006

After more than two decades of research, Washington historians Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird saw their "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" finally published last year. The 721-page biography is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, which will be announced tomorrow night in New York and has been optioned as a film by director Sam Mendes.

But the authors tackled a really explosive task when they set out to restore Oppenheimer's reputation in history. In the early 1950s, the "father of the atomic bomb" ran afoul of Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss because Oppenheimer was a vocal critic of nuclear weapons, especially the hydrogen bomb. In effort to discredit him, Strauss charged Oppenheimer was a security risk with Communist ties. In 1954, the physicist was tried in a secret review board hearing -- the authors call it a "kangaroo court" -- and permanently lost his clearance. He was publicly humiliated and prohibited from working on future government projects.

Last year Sherwin and Bird brought the case to the attention of the pro bono committee at Washington's WilmerHale law firm. "We thought they could overturn the ruling because there had been so many violations and laws broken -- illegal wiretapping and witness tampering -- during the hearing," said Sherwin. The case was accepted, and the Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, a nonprofit based in Los Alamos, N.M., became the plaintiff.

But in August, Bird said, partner C. Boyden Gray nixed the project: His late father, Gordon Gray, had presided as chairman of the review hearing board. ("Gordon Gray could have ensured that the hearing was conducted properly and fairly," write the authors. "He did not do his job.") Gray, now serving in Brussels as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, declined to comment, as did WilmerHale partner Jamie Gorelick, who was initially involved in taking the case.

The case has moved to Arnold & Porter, which has a history going back to the McCarthy era of defending clients charged with disloyalty. "We've taken on a lot of these difficult pro bono cases over the years, and we've had a good success rate," said partner Jeff Smith.

Ideally, Bird said, he'd like the Oppenheimer verdict nullified and a statement from the feds clearing his name: "This sends a message to current officeholders that they should not break the law to tarnish the reputations of their political enemies."

Serving Up More Oscar Picks

We already hit up local showbiz types for their Oscar predix, so now we turn to tastemakers and opinion-mongers.

WKYS deejay Jeannie Jones predicts a major upset by Terrence Howard in "Hustle and Flow."

"He really rocked that role, honestly!" Jones says. "It's almost the same feeling we had about Halle." She sees "Crash" slipping past "Brokeback Mountain."

"It's my movie of the year for race relations and things we don't usually discuss," Jones adds. " 'Crash' is so 18-to-34."

Writer Andrew Sullivan is rooting for "Brokeback" supporting-actress nom Michelle Williams, "who showed subtly, powerfully and unforgettably what happens when society forces gay men into straight marriages; the terrible toll this takes on the women involved has been shamefully missing in our debates on the whole issue." He pegs "Brokeback" over "Crash," and Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") for Best Actor.

Chef Jose Andres , owner of Cafe Atlantico, Jaleo and Zaytinya, refuses to play. "I am very much against the Oscars!" he says. "It has to do with sales and not the quality of movies themselves. It's unbelievable that Woody Allen has to come to Europe to film. 'Match Point,' brilliant!" -- yet absent from the Best Pic race.

A Modesty Screen for Katie Holmes?

The director of Katie Holmes ' s new Capitol Hill comedy "Thank You for Smoking" -- based on the book by Washington writer Christopher Buckley -- says the deletion of her much-anticipated sex scene at a Sundance screening was a "projection error" that had nothing whatsoever to do with rumored interference from babydaddy Tom Cruise . Who would never do anything as creepy or controlling as that. Jason Reitman also told AP Radio that the scene -- which we'll get to see after all when the movie hits theaters this month -- is about as sexy as what you'd see on the Disney Channel.

HEY, ISN'T THAT . . . ?

Rob Reiner in the lobby of the Brookings Institution yesterday morning, looking dapper in a dark suit and black overcoat with a dishy female handler. The actor-director was briefly in town to talk up his California ballot initiative to fund preschool for all kids with a tax increase on rich folk. Last week, Reiner took leave from a state early-childhood commission he chairs after some complained his campaign work posed a conflict.

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