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Fidel's Favorite Propagandist

How a New York Times reporter's passion for Castro led him astray

(Page 2 of 2)

In a guerrilla war, "difficult" quickly morphs into "nearly impossible." Troops cannot be located, much less inspected. Combat erupts and ends quickly, unwitnessed, in darkened jungle clearings, and even the participants may not know exactly what happened. Guerrilla movements by their very nature are deceptive, and their leaders tend to be constitutionally incapable of telling the truth. Put Fidel Castro at the top of the list: "Apparently a natural deceiver, he has improved with practice," John Silber once wrote of him. As DePalma notes, if Castro managed to convince 5 million or so Cubans that he was not a communist, it hardly seems reasonable to fault Herbert Matthews for believing him. "Matthews' most egregious error was not in misidentifying Castro," DePalma writes. "Rather, it was in persisting in his perception of Castro as an idealist long after he had transformed himself into a demagogue."

Seven months after the revolution, as Castro's leftward march was becoming increasingly clear, Matthews wrote that "this is not a Communist revolution in any sense of the word and there are no communists in positions of control." Privately, he was even more adamant, arguing to the U.S. ambassador to Cuba that Castro was actually "intellectually and emotionally anti-communist." When other Times reporters wrote differently, Matthews smeared them in secret memos to the paper's publisher and sometimes harangued them directly. When James Reston, the Washington bureau chief, wrote in 1960 that Cuba was turning into a Soviet satellite, Matthews sent him a blistering rebuke. "Cuba under its present leaders will neither go communist nor come under communist control or even great influence," he informed Reston, then added condescendingly, "This is a situation I have studied as deeply as anyone in the United States."

Barely a year later, Castro would publicly declare himself a communist, and a few months after that the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. Neither event changed Matthews' mind. As late as 1969, he declared in his biography Fidel Castro that it was all a big misunderstanding. "Fidel, as I have said, uses communism," Matthews explained. "He finds it valuable but that is different from believing in the communist ideology." Matthews had little sympathy for those who disagreed. When Castro jailed one of his most popular commanders, Huber Matos, in 1959 for having the temerity to suggest there were too many communists in the government, Matthews simply shrugged: "A revolution is not a tea party." Matos would serve every day of his 20-year sentence.

Matthews never tried to pretend he wasn't taking sides in his coverage of Cuba. In his 1961 book The Cuban Story, he bragged that he had Castro's "confidence, respect, friendship, even his ear....Many people thought that Fidel would listen to me, and only to me." Noting that some Fidelophiles in Washington had even pushed to make him U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Matthews wrote that it was a bad idea because "it is important for an envoy to be uncommitted. Considering how involved I had become, I am sure I would not have been a desirable candidate." That is, he was too committed to be a diplomat but not to be a journalist.

Many reporters who shared Matthews' initial rapture over Castro would soon recant. The Chicago Tribune's Jules Dubois, who once wrote that "it was not until Fidel Castro came along that the people of Cuba found the leader to fight for their lost liberty," saw enough disturbing trends during the early months of the revolutionary government that he published a book in 1959 titled Fidel Castro: Rebel, Liberator or Dictator? It included ample evidence for the last label. But Matthews never wavered. For nearly 20 years, he continued to act as Castro's personal publicist, praising him as "a man of destiny," comparing him to Oliver Cromwell and John Brown. Nothing-not Castro's thousands of kangaroo court executions, not his concentration camps for gays, not his reckless importation of Soviet missiles or his military adventures in Africa, not even the steady impoverishment of the island that sent millions of Cubans fleeing toward Miami-changed his mind.

Eventually, his praise for Castro grew so exuberant that the Times forbade him to write first news stories and then editorials on Cuba. (Matthews was a hybrid reporter/editorial writer, a once-common species at the paper that perished in the Ice Age of criticism touched off by his work.) Matthews dashed off one final paean (titled "Forward, With Fidel, Anywhere") and then resigned to write a series of books which made up for their paucity of readers with their abundance of fatuity. Sample: "If Fidel Castro brought some tragedy to some families, I believe that it is demonstrable that he brought a better life to a majority of Cubans-if not always today for the older generations, then for tomorrow and for the youth." How, exactly, anybody could "demonstrate" the future was not clear, but Matthews was certain of his mission. "I almost feel like a Boy Scout who, instead of doing one good deed in a day, has done one good deed in his life," he wrote his wife after yet another expedition to Havana.

Matthews died in 1977, three years before the Mariel boatlift, in which 125,000 people fled Cuba in a single month after Fidel Castro opened his borders in a fit of pique. No doubt he could have explained that too.

As the fantasy world that he created closed in around him, Matthews wrote plaintively that his work was not his undoing but a monument that would be recognized later, when a student doing research would "find my byline and know that he could trust it." DePalma concludes that Matthews' tomb is unmarked: "Much that he wrote turned out to be untrue." That was not because Matthews was a communist, as conservatives suspected and J. Edgar Hoover tried fruitlessly to prove. DePalma argues persuasively that Matthews was simply a romantic who got caught up in his own mythmaking. He had done so before, glorifying both the left's efforts in the Spanish Civil War (where he had a good deal of journalistic company) and Mussolini's ruthless crushing of Ethiopia (where he had hardly any). "A newspaperman should work with his heart as well as his mind," Matthews once wrote. Unfortunately, his heart took over.

Matthews may have been the first member of the American chattering class to give his heart to Castro, but unfortunately he wasn't the last. Contrast, for instance, the way Dan Rather ended a 60 Minutes piece on Castro-by walking him out to a limo and mewling, "Goodbye, Mr. President, take care!"-with his rude interruptions of then-Vice President George Bush during that infamous live 1988 interview. And Rather was practically Torquemada compared to Frank Mankiewicz, a former president of NPR, who interviewed Castro for a documentary a few years earlier. Typical question: "I suppose that what you are saying is that in a certain form, the socialist government of Cuba involves itself in the ordinary life of the Cuban in a more or less easygoing way-a less demanding way than other communist governments, right?"

When Katie Couric says, as she did on a 1992 NBC newscast, that "Castro traveled the country cultivating his image and his revolution delivered-campaigns stamped out illiteracy and even today, Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world," you can dismiss it as the kind of sloppy reporting you'd expect from somebody more accustomed to probing the sauce secrets of the chefs on the cooking segments of the Today show. For the record, Cuba was one of the most literate countries in Latin America long before Castro -it ranked fourth on the eve of the revolution-and countries like Costa Rica, Panama, and Brazil have posted equal gains in literacy during the same time period without resorting to totalitarian governments. And Cuba already had the 13th lowest infant mortality rate in the world before Castro came to power.

But what does it say about American journalism when Newsweek's Eleanor Clift argues that Elian Gonzalez should be returned to Cuba not to be with his father but because Cuba is a better place than the United States, a place where "he doesn't have to worry about going to school and being shot at, where drugs are not a big problem, where he has access to free medical care and where the literacy rate I believe is higher than this country's"? What does it say when Diane Sawyer greets Castro by kissing him? Or when Barbara Walters, in a scene right out of a right-wing conspiracy nut's wet dream, helps him host a dinner party for a group of executives from Time, Newsweek, ABC, NPR, The Washington Post, and other elite news outlets? To be fair, the executives did bravely raise the question of human rights-their own. The Post's Sally Quinn wrote plaintively that dinner wasn't served until after 11 p.m. and the air conditioning was set really low. (Don't worry, investigative journalism triumphed: "Finally, Barbara Walters outshouts Castro and the rest of the guests loudly enough to ask him what kind of a host he is that he has a dinner party and doesn't even feed his guests,'' Quinn admiringly recounted.)

The problem is that passion, as the mother of any teenaged girl will tell you, can lead to big trouble. As DePalma gently observes, the foreign correspondents of the last century who wrote with the greatest passion-Richard Harding Davis on the Spanish-American War, John Reed on the Russian Revolution, Ernest Hemingway on the Spanish Civil War, Edgar Snow on Mao's Long March, Norman Mailer on Vietnam-were "not necessarily those most anchored to the truth." To turn Fidel Castro's favorite phrase on its head, history has not absolved them. Neither should their readers.

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin (glenngarvin@hotmail.com), is co-author, with Ana Rodriguez, of Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison (St. Martin's). He writes about television for The Miami Herald.

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras and (with Ana Rodriguez) Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison. He writes about television for the Miami Herald.

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