Over the course of 11 books, including biographies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Washington Post editor David Maraniss has mastered the craft of tracking political and intellectual history through private lives. In his latest, A Good American Family, the author turns to the story of his own father: Elliott Maraniss, longtime editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and onetime card-carrying Communist, who died in 2004. When David was a small child, Elliott was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee about his involvement in the Communist Party and subsequently blacklisted from newspapers. Maraniss pieces together his father’s radical past in the context of the Depression, the labor movement, and the McCarthy era.
Intelligencer spoke recently with Maraniss about Elliott’s legacy, his political influences, the abiding patriotism of both father and son, and the era when the Midwest was rife with communists and government spies.
The book centers on your father’s hearing before the House committee in Detroit in 1952. You tell readers to think of the hearing as the hub of a wheel, and the other events like spokes. What do you mean?
I meant that it’s not a traditional memoir or biography of my father. I was trying to put his experience into the context of those times, through the stories of many of the people who were in the hearing room that day, including members of the House Un-American Activities Committee, his lawyer, and the FBI informants who named him. I wanted to explore what it means to be American through all of those stories — not just my dad’s.
What happened earlier in his life that led him to that room?
My father was born in Boston, but he grew up mostly in Brooklyn, a couple blocks from the Coney Island beach. He was a student at Abraham Lincoln High School in the early 1930s. He was taught by fairly progressive teachers, including a principal who carried a pocket edition of Emerson in his back pocket. At that time, between the wars, there was a peace movement going on in high schools and on college campuses around the country.
High school seems to have played an important role in shaping his politics.
Some of the questions that I carried with me throughout the book were, “What did he believe in? Why did he believe it?” You could see the formations of that in his high-school years. This was during the depths of the Depression. The teachers were largely Jewish academics, who, because of the prejudice against Jews, didn’t get hired in universities. The principal was a Spinoza scholar. And they all would talk about the excesses of the 1920s. They encouraged the students to be more serious and to work for social justice and social action. After high school, my father went to the University of Michigan. He quickly joined the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper. The paper’s other writers included Arthur Miller. In fact, my father had followed Miller from Abraham Lincoln High School to the University of Michigan.
You pored through the Daily’s archives. What did your father’s writings reveal?
You can see, year by year, him becoming more radical — more prone to arguments that I found, at times, indefensible. Especially in 1939, after the Soviet-Nazi pact. His defense of that was pretty strained. But what I found in a larger sense was, time and again in his essays, whether they were about the Tennessee Valley Authority or Thomas Wolfe or Richard Wright or the meaning of America, everything that he believed was based on a foundational love of this country. So his radicalism was about trying to improve the country, not to overthrow its democracy, which was the basic accusation in the Red Scare.
Shortly after 1940, when he graduated, he went into the Army. His radical past caught up with him when he was investigated by military intelligence, but his commanders really thought he was a good soldier, and he eventually became the commander of an all-black unit, a salvage-and-repair unit. Then after the war, my father came back and worked on the Detroit Times until the day he was called before HUAC in 1952.
One of the spokes that connects to the hearing is the story of Bereniece Baldwin, who was responsible for your father getting hauled in.
She was called the Grandmother Spy — a working-class Detroiter whose second husband persuaded her to become an informant for the FBI. She joined the Communist Party in 1943 and didn’t come in from the cold until that hearing in 1952. My father’s name was one of hundreds that she unveiled to the committee. She befriended many of the people that she later named to the FBI. She would go to their weddings, their baby showers, and it was part of her secret life for all of those years.
Near the end of my research, I found a few of her grandchildren. It took a long time because she had been married several times, and all of her children were dead, and everybody had different names. But I did find them. I told one of the granddaughters, “You know, my dad was called before the committee and fired from the Detroit Times and it was your grandmother who named his name.” It was a very interesting conversation. There were no hard feelings on either side. She said she hadn’t even known about her grandmother’s secret life until her mother died. She said, “That was a weird time, wasn’t it?”
What had your father actually done?
I know my mother was a member of the Young Communist League. My father wrote and edited for what was a communist newspaper or a communist-front newspaper. First it was called the Michigan Herald, which was communist-oriented but also supported the Progressive Party in 1948 and the candidacy of Henry Wallace for president. So my father was on the left wing of the United Front, you might say.
Do you feel like the rules of acceptable politics had changed on him?
I think that’s absolutely true — especially after the war, when the Iron Curtain went up. The Soviet Union and the U.S. were allies during World War II, but then everything changed. My father was slow to pick up on that change — and slow to appreciate the horror of the Soviet Union, in terms of its paranoia and murderous intent. Also, the U.S. had a peculiar bent in that way. There were communist parties in Europe that were still an accepted part of the political fabric — in Italy, and Great Britain, and France. But in the U.S., it became completely demonized.
At first, the book’s title seems ironic, as with the show The Americans. But actually, you take pains to show how your parents and their contemporaries were patriots.
I think the irony might be that the phrase came from one of the committee members, who was stunned to realize that someone from a good American family could become a communist. But also, it’s not irony! It’s an intentional response to the 50-plus years of conservative drum-beating about family, and the notion that their definition of a good family is the only one. There’s so much hypocrisy from the right on those issues.
You make it easy to see how someone could love Jefferson and Emerson and conclude that in the 20th century, their ideas translate to a far-left politics.
Absolutely. That’s not a contradiction, but it’s presented often as one. You could see my father’s admiration for Lincoln and Jefferson and the foundational writers of the American experience.
Did he ever speak about the hearing when you were a kid?
He really didn’t. He talked about it a little to my older brother, who was more conscious of what was going on during that time. I was not yet 3 when the hearing happened. And by the time we moved to Madison, Wisconsin, he had moved on and didn’t want to talk about it again.
So you never had a conversation with him about it?
I tried a couple of times. It didn’t go anywhere.
How do you think his story speaks to our current political moment?
Well, I started this book before Trump, but sadly, we’re living in another period where fear is used to manipulate the public, and where certain groups are demonized for political advantage. On a more specific level, you have a president who’s asking for another Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn was Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand man.
Also, you had, in that era, Republicans who took a long time to see what was happening to their party. One of the figures in my book, Charles Potter, the congressman from Michigan, wrote a book a decade after these hearings called Days of Shame. I can only wonder whether, ten years from now, there’ll be a similar book, Days of Shame, about what the Republican Party has let Trump pull off.
Meanwhile, this is the first time since your father’s youth that people are calling themselves socialists in large numbers.
That’s true. It’s been interesting to wonder about what people in my children’s generation and younger will think about their grandparents and that whole thing. I quickly discovered that communist affiliation and my father’s experiences didn’t mean the same to them at all as it did to my generation, which grew up in the era of the atomic bomb and the fear of the Soviet Union.
What do you hope people will take away from reading this story?
I’ve had early readers write about how it evoked their own childhoods in different ways, the anxieties and insecurities. So that’s one level of what people will get out of it. I also want them to see what happens, how lives can be destroyed by the power of government, which is a constant concern.