By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007
In a cramped front bedroom on the second floor of a narrow rowhouse on 30th Street in Georgetown, 80-year-old Timothy Hobson declares, "This is where I was laid up with a broken leg."
It was so long ago, the winter of 1937, when Hobson was 10 years old and had a routine childhood injury that would confine him and make him a witness to history. Though he couldn't have known it then, this was no ordinary home. It was, instead, a place where routine acts of espionage allegedly were committed when his stepfather, Alger Hiss, brought home stolen State Department documents for handoff to a fellow Communist and spy named Whittaker Chambers.
That's the commonly accepted story line of the still-contested Hiss case. But Hobson and his half brother, Tony Hiss, don't believe it, never have. Hiss, 65, has written a couple of books about his father, lives in his father's old Greenwich Village apartment and has made his father's vindication a focus of his life. Hobson, in his twilight, now has joined in, both brothers driven by the heartache of their family history.
The last living link to the events on 30th Street -- and a witness who was never allowed to testify at Alger Hiss's 1949 and 1950 perjury trials -- Hobson returned on Tuesday to the Georgetown house, to refresh his memory in advance of a conference today at New York University, where he will speak in public about the case for the first time.
Hobson looked around his old Georgetown bedroom as if squinting into history. (The home's current occupant, who did not wish to be identified, seemed fascinated by the spectacle.) There'd been a radio on the ledge, where he could listen to "The National Farm and Home Hour." And he'd peer forlornly out of the two front windows, his only portals to the world during his confinement.
When he was well enough, he'd scoot down the stairs on his rear, careful with his cast. He knew who came and went, he says, and he never, ever saw Chambers at the house. And Hobson says he never heard the incessant clacking of the typewriter that his mother, Priscilla Hiss, was alleged to have used to reproduce those stolen State Department documents in what would become the Cold War's most sensational espionage case.
Just as Hobson's memories of his bedroom were frozen in amber, so, too, is the gnawing sentiment he's carried for the 57 years since his stepfather's conviction and 44-month imprisonment for perjury: that the things he did not hear and did not see could have helped clear Alger Hiss's name. Hobson calls Chambers, Hiss's accuser, "an unmitigated, pathological liar," and he believes he could have proven it.
If you were to dismiss the Alger Hiss case as a thing of history, an iconic Cold War drama with little resonance today, you would be deeply, terribly wrong.
It's not over, never has been -- not for the aging liberals and progressives whose ideological underpinnings in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal were torn asunder by the case; not for the scholars still skirmishing in culture wars over the impact of domestic Communism; and certainly not for the sons, Hobson and Hiss.
Alger Hiss was a spy, many scholars say.
He was not, say many others.
But it has to be noted that he was never indicted for espionage.
The latest round in a decades-long debate unfolds today in New York, where experts on the case will hash out its details and its historic significance.
For Hobson and his brother, however, it is a far more personal issue. A retired surgeon who lives in California, Hobson has recorded interviews for various oral history projects, including on the Web site established by his brother. But Hobson views his public appearance today as a kind of graduation from the shadows of the Hiss case.
"It's part of my eulogy for Alger," says Hobson, who was 3 years old when Hiss became his stepfather. Hiss died in 1996 at the age of 92. Hobson's biological father, Thayer Hobson, who became president of the William Morrow publishing company, died in 1967. Priscilla Fansler Hobson Hiss, Timothy Hobson and Tony Hiss's mother, died in 1984.
Yes, Hobson wants to vindicate Alger Hiss. But he also wants to vindicate himself -- the young man, by then in his 20s, who was deemed by Hiss defense attorneys as a liability on the witness stand. They feared prosecutors would skewer him because he'd received an undesirable discharge from the U.S. Navy for being gay.
Hobson, who went on to marry, raise four children and live a life both gay and straight, is still bitter.
"I was available, but they didn't have the guts to put me on" the witness stand, he says. "And it would have made a difference. I'm convinced it would have made a difference."
And yet, his are the recollections of a 10-year-old, which is why historian G. Edward White says, "I discount the story" of Hobson's observations from 30th Street.
White, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, is the author of "Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy." White also will be speaking at the Hiss conference today.
"I've never met Tony Hiss, and I've never met Timothy Hobson, and I'm just fascinated to be able to meet them," he says.
White believes that Hiss's sons have become "dupes."
"That is to say, they have such strong reasons to want to believe in their father's innocence, that their father essentially duped them at an early age into participating in this campaign."
But Tony Hiss, a visiting scholar at NYU, responds that his father was against him writing his first book about the case, "Laughing Last."
The fall of Alger Hiss was among the most spectacular of its day: a New Deal liberal who some believe could have become secretary of state, who sat with President Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference during World War II and then led the United Nations' founding conference in 1945, suddenly accused of being a Communist who passed secrets to the Soviets for several years.
"I have never been, nor am I now a member of the Communist Party," Hiss told the FBI in 1947.
The House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Hiss, launching the career of Richard M. Nixon, a committee member who pressed hard for Hiss's indictment, records would later show. The case was fodder for conservatives bent on portraying liberals as soft on Communism and therefore unpatriotic -- not an unfamiliar template for political combat in the modern era.
It also opened a deep fissure within American liberalism that reverberates to this day.
"Was it going to be the liberalism of the Franklin Roosevelt stripe, the New Deal vision of a communitarian society that takes care of its own and the poor, or was it going to be sort of a neo-liberalism that stood up to the Communists and turned its back on the New Deal vision?" says Kai Bird, who, with Martin J. Sherwin, authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer."
At today's conference, Bird is to present a paper he wrote with Svetlana A. Chervonnaya, a Russian scholar, titled "Who Was Ales?" The paper will raise doubts about National Security Agency cables that emerged in the 1990s and seemed to confirm Hiss's guilt. Known as the Venona cables, they are among the many documents -- Soviet records, U.S. grand jury testimony, records of the House committee -- that have emerged in the decades since Hiss's conviction and that scholars have dissected for clues on the case.
One of the Venona cables mentions a Soviet agent named "Ales," and a note on the cable reads, "Probably Alger Hiss." That is what Bird is questioning. Tony Hiss and Hobson are excited about Bird's finding, though Bird made it clear in an interview that he wasn't trying to make a case one way or the other.
"It's quite possible that Hiss could be guilty of what Chambers accused him of and be part of a Communist cell, and it could also be true that Hiss was not Ales," Bird says.
Michael Nash, co-director of NYU's Center for the United States and the Cold War, which is sponsoring today's conference, had hoped it would look at the big picture, at how the Hiss case shaped public discourse on Communism and anti-Communism as the nation moved from Roosevelt to Sen. Joe McCarthy's redbaiting campaign.
But alas, Nash fears otherwise, saying, "Even though we were trying to avoid this debate about guilt or innocence, we can't." The conference has been "dragged back to it."
Indeed, Hiss and Hobson are hopeful about what may come out of this latest round of debate.
Hiss says that Hobson is proof that Chambers was lying, because Hobson was laid up in that 30th Street bedroom "during the exact period that supposedly Whittaker Chambers was coming over every week or 10 days, that Dad was bringing home documents, that Mom was staying up late and typing them. And none of it happened. Just didn't happen."
Hobson confirms that he once said of his parents "that he loved them but he didn't love them enough to lie for them," as Hiss recollects.
Hobson says he had been a loner who did not adjust well to adolescence, noting of his parents, "I grew up in spite of them, not with them."
Still, he's driven to keep pushing -- against time, even -- for vindication.
"If I can in any way provide some of the support that I was unable to provide 50, 60 years ago, I am pleased to be able to try and put that oar in the ocean, so to speak," Hobson says.
It may not happen in his lifetime, he admits. But at least in this lifetime he believes he can make amends. Though it wasn't his fault that he wasn't allowed to testify, he says, "this is a way to atone a bit for the fact that I failed him as a son when he could have used me."
In the end, that may be the most vexing legacy of the Alger Hiss case: sons left fearing they may fail to change the Hiss legacy.