George Clooney's elegant docudrama Good Night, and Good Luck concerns 1950s newsman Edward R. Murrow's cold war with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The film has lots of viewers pondering the parallels between that era's paranoid Red Scare policies and today's political anti-terrorism posturing. For Tim Kahn, who lives in Shelburne and teaches French at South Burlington High, it has also aroused powerful, personal memories.
Kahn's father waged his own high-profile battle with McCarthy. Albert E. Kahn, who died in 1979, was a freelance investigative journalist whose anti-fascist books included 1942's best-selling Sabotage! The Secret War Against America, about Nazi conspiracies in the U.S. during World War II. In 1948, Kahn -- who was committed to peaceful coexistence between the U.S. and the USSR -- attended a Soviet-sponsored disarmament conference in Stockholm. When he returned home, his passport was confiscated.
By the 1950s, Kahn was under FBI surveillance. "Our phone was tapped, our mail was opened," says his son. When publishers started closing their doors to him, the elder Kahn fought back by forming his own company with Angus Cameron. The editor-in-chief at Little, Brown had lost his job for working with blacklisted authors such as playwright Lillian Hellman.
Cameron & Kahn's most controversial title, False Witness, was the confession of Harvey Martusow, a paid government witness whose fabricated testimony about Communist activities destroyed numerous innocent people. Tim Kahn, who was then 9, vividly recalls the high-stakes atmosphere at home while the book was being rushed to press. "Dad was already a suspect," he says. "To step into this new intrigue only magnified the fervor with which the government pursued Dad."
Although Kahn's mother kept the house running as normally as possible, Tim and his brothers, then 6 and 12, were not shielded from what was happening. Table talk was highly political, and Martusow was a regular guest. A schoolmate called Tim's brother a "Commie Jew." And government agents were ever present. "When we walked to the school bus stop, the FBI cars would slowly follow us," Tim Kahn remembers. The aim was to harass and intimidate, but it had the opposite effect, he says. "It cemented our convictions."
When Albert Kahn was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the whole family attended. Tim Kahn remembers the crush of the crowd, his father's stirring testimony, and the chilling moment when he went in search of a bathroom and was grabbed by a man who said, referring to his father, "We're going to get that Commie bastard."
In February 1955, with Martusow's book nearly complete, Kahn was ordered to turn over to the government the manuscript and all his notes. Failure to comply would mean jail, but handing over the work would effectively stifle publication. Tim Kahn remembers how his father wrestled with this decision. At 3 a.m., he reached a resolution. He would turn up at court with all his papers, as ordered, but he would also give everything to CBS, NBC and ABC.
After Martusow, other false witnesses recanted, and McCarthy's star began to fade. But the atmosphere of distrust didn't. As late as 1958, a year after McCarthy died, Kahn was called to testify before yet another committee.
Years later, Albert Kahn wrote, "People ask how I feel about being a casualty of the Cold War. I wasn't a casualty. It gave meaning to my life."
Seeing the movie, says Tim Kahn, "I thought of Dad and what it had taken to do what he did" to "become a voice in the dark. Murrow was one and so was Dad. What they did took strength, courage and integrity." Qualities we could use more of today.
Polka in Peacham. Rumba in Royalton. Earlier this fall, the Green Mountain Club started combining hikes with dance lessons. Huh? Turns out the events are choreographed by Nancy Schulz of Montpelier. The part-time dance instructor turned 50 the same week the GMC's Montpelier Section did, and she decided to celebrate by raising $5000 for the Club through 50 outings -- snowshoeing, biking and hiking -- over the course of the year. Donors make flat payments or pledges based on how many folks participate. Schulz added dancing to keep things interesting. "It's just a goofy thing," she says. Are trekkers actually doing the tango? "On the 'Foxtrot in Fayston' [hike] I had a participant say, 'I want my foxtrot lesson," Schulz reports, sounding surprised. "I gave it to her in a cemetery." For music, she asked another hiker to hum Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me," she says. "I'm not going to carry a boombox."