In a chill room of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers building, where portraits of labor giants dominate the walls, David Lasser waits patiently. Waiting is something he's used to; he's been doing it for a very long time.
He pulls out a weathered folder overflowing with paper, and it looks familiar. There are a lot of people in this town with folders like that. They carry their past around with them as if it were made of stone, each incident of their histories a rock that never erodes no matter how many times it is washed by explanations, facts, infallibilities.
They come to the halls of bureaucracy to reap vindication for vast injustice. And they all come armed with the same weapons -- sheaves of documents, the husks of whatever was the truth.
They are the conspired-against, the victims of the McCarthy era. The list of the legendary and the famous is long enough. But for each Dalton Trumbo and Owen Lattimore, Zero Mostel and Dashiell Hammett, there are hundreds of unknown others who were robbed of honor and spent their futures trying to prove their innocence, and David Lasser is one of these.
Some of them have the truth on their side and others are so crazed by the loneliness of their crusade that it is impossible to judge. Only rarely do you find the ones who can produce a letter from the president that says yes, it was wrong what happened to him, it should never have happened.
"The White House. Washington," reads the letter head signed by Jimmy Carter and addressed to Lasser."The Agency for International Development and the Department of State recently reviewed your disqualification from federal employment in 1950 and concluded that you, like many other Americans during that unfortunate period, were treated unjustly . . . . Your loyal and valuable service to this country in both the private and public sectors has won you many friends and admirers. I join them in wishing you the best of luck in all your future endeavors."
David Lasser is 78 now, and his future endeavors are limited by the somewhat-limited number of days left to him. But when he was young, well, then the future stretched as wide as the world and not even the grimy streets are battered buildings of Baltimore could block the ambition he carved for himself out of the hard wood of an immigrant's vision.
He was one of seven children and his father was a tailor, and in the beginning his fantasies for the future centered on professional baseball, and then music. World War I left him shell-shocked and with only a year or two of a high school education. But he talked himself into MIT and got his degree in 1924.
After that there were a few "deadend jobs," as he calls them, before he landed one as editor in a firm publishng three science-ficton magazines. "It was a relatively new field," he says. "So it was exciting. But I wasn't satisfied with wrtiers' method of traveling in space. I heard about a man named Goddard who was experimenting with rockets and I asked him if they might not be usable for space travel. He said, 'Are you crazy?'"
When the Depression hit, Lasser would walk through his neighborhood in Greenwich Village and look into the desperate faces of all the unemployed Italian immigrants who lived around him. "I thought maybe these people ought to be gotten together," he remembers. "We used to march down to City Hall and ask for more relief."
One day, his boss saw a picture in the paper of Lasser leading in march. "Are you really interested in the unemployed?" he asked him. "Yes," said Lasser. "Well then," said his boss, "I'm going to invite you to join them."
David Lasser did. He became a Socialist. "I believed in Norman Thomas," he says. "I was looking for a philosophy that fitted me and I found it. It was a time when the whole orld seemed to be falling apart and something had to be done."
He helped to organize a group called the Worker's Alliance of America, got to know Roosevelt -- "a giant of a man," he says -- but the story of what happened to the organization is mirrored many times in the cracked glass of the history of that time.
By 1940, the Socialists had winged their way so far leftward that they had quit the Alliance. The Communists moved in and began to use the party for their own purposes, Lasser says now, and he decided to resign. Roosevelt asked him not to, he says. "He told me, 'I think you should stay and fight them; that's the advice I'm giving to other liberals.'" Lasser stayed for a time, but when it became clear that the Communists would oust him at the next Alliance convention anyway, he resigned.
HE WAS HIRED AS A CONSULTANT TO THE WPA. But the vociferous defense of the unemployed and those on relief was not a popular cause among many congressmen, and when the WPA appropriations bill came before the Senate, a rider was attached forbidding any funds from being used to pay his salary. "I'll never forget that day," he says. "I was sitting in the gallery and a congressman stood up and said, 'This fellow Lasser is not only a radical, he's a crackpot -- he thinks we could go to the moon someday,' and I can still hear them laughing."
He spent a year going to see each of the individual congressman to explain his case, and finally he was reinstated.
One job led to another and he took confident steps along a promising path. He was the director of the Labor Advisory Committees for the War Production Board, and after the war he worked as a consultant to then-Secretary of Commerce Averell Harriman. When Harriman was appointed ambassador, he asked Lasser to serve as a labor consultant on the Marshall Plan."It was a whole new vista," he says, still remembering the excitment. "Working with trade unions all over Europe, helping the world economy."
It was when that the proud tower he had made of his life finally turned to rubble.
It all sounds so familiar now, 30 years after the madness of McCarthy. There was a clause in the legislation that created the Economic Cooperation Administration, for which he was to work. It said no one could work there who held "contrary views" -- defined, Lasser says, as advocating the violent overthrow of the government.
For the next 20 months, Lasser's life was composed of equal parts of lunacy and illogic. He was accused of being a security risk under the "contrary views" clause. While he did spend three months working for Harriman while the charges against him were being investigated, that turned out to be the last of his government employment. There were letters, there was a hearing. There was no question, said the ECA security office, of Lasser's personal loyalty; it was his asociation with the Alliance, which had became dominated by the Communists, particularly after Lasser's resignation.
It was 26 years later, after the Freedom of Information Act had been passed and Lasser finally received the files on him, that he found out about all the allegations against him -- the memberships in organizations he said he never belonged to, the suspicions placed on his trips abroad, the white spaced left where the names of his accuser once had been. "I was incredulous," he says. "i kept asking myself, 'what kind of government would do these things what kind of people were we, that that sort of thing happened so often to so many?"
In March, 1950, the hearing board recommended against Lasser's employment and the recommendation was accepted by the ECA deputy administrator. Later in the year he joined the staff of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (IUE).
He had retired in 1968 from the IUE, where he worked as assistant to the president for economics and collective bargaining. Since then he had spent his time trying to clear his name and enlisting support for his cause from Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif) U.S. Rep. Philip Burton (D-Calif) and AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland.
Lasser contacted Cranston's office early in 1978 said Jonathan Fleming, an aide to the senator, and after a raft of calls from Cranston's and other senatoral offices to the White House, the State Department reopened Lasser's case and reviewed the 983-pagetranscripts.
Two weeks ago Lasser got a call from the office of Joseph Onek, deputy counsel to the president. Lasser was told there was a letter for him from the president, and that he would like what it had to say. Lasser got to Onek's office as fast as he could.
There are tears in the old man's eyes as he tries to describe his emotions. "It just didn't register at first. I went to Capitol Hill, to the office of the people who helped me, and their eyes lit up like something wonderful had happened to them."
The bitterness, David Lasser said, has seeped away gradually over the years, but still is important to him that people know about his case. "I want people in Washington to know that such things have happened and that they can happen again. There's a whole generation now growing up, knowing nothing about McCarthy."
David Lasser would also like a certain man in Washington to know what happened. He says little about him, only that he stills holds a responsible position in the government and he is the man primarily responsible for what happened to him.
And now David Lasser will go back to his home in a retirement community in California and take up the work he left more than 10 years ago to devote his time to clearing his name name.
"It's a book about the cosmic adventure, the relationship of man to the universe," he says casually, as if he were writing a book on the cultivation of crabgrass. "I want to see what it's all about, the meaning of it. I've lived my life for a long time now and now I want to know, 'what did it all mean?'"