- - Monday, September 9, 2019


One of the hardest things for even the best writers to do is to depict their own parents both lovingly and objectively. The love tends to get in the way of the objectivity and vice versa.

David Maraniss —  a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and best-selling biographer of subjects as varied as Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, Barack Obama and Roberto Clemente — makes a gallant effort to be both loving and objective in “A Good American Family.” For the most part, he succeeds admirably, but there is a yawning chasm at the center of his father’s story that he never quite manages to bridge, perhaps because it is unbridgeable.

According to his son, Elliott Maraniss was “a newspaperman first and foremost, with a keen appreciation for human foibles. He was generous with money, affection, encouragement, and the benefit of the doubt. He seemed tolerant of almost everything but intolerance … It is hard for me to overstate how much of a force for good he was not only in my life and those of his siblings, but also in the lives of scores of newspaper people, professional acquaintances, and friends of the family who were heartened and encouraged by his intuitive intelligence and positive nature over many decades.”

But, and this is a big “but,” his son adds that, “there was a time when Elliott Maraniss was a communist. I say this without hesitation, without shame or pride. There are aspects of his thinking during that period that I can’t reconcile, and will never reconcile, as hard as I try to figure them out and as much of a trail as he left for me through his writings. I can appreciate his motivations, but I am confounded by his reasoning and his choices … among other indefensible positions, how could he buy the Soviet line after the 1939 Nonagression Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany?”

He concedes that, “for an extended period of his young life” his father was “naively in the service to rigid ideology, to the God that failed, as the title of a powerful book of essays by former communists put it. Perhaps he was even blinded by love, though I find it inadequate to attribute his involvement with communism to an attempt to please my mother, Mary Cummins Maraniss, who with her older siblings was a young communist long before meeting him.”

In his attempt to reach a balanced verdict on his father, David Maraniss concedes that he “was not falsely accused” but follows up with a rhetorical question: “[D]idn’t being a citizen of this country give him the freedom to affiliate with the politics of his choosing and to write and speak his mind, as long as he didn’t betray his country as a foreign agent?”

There is no simple answer to this seemingly simple question. Pushing the party line in Communist publications which we now know were subsidized and supervised by Stalin’s Soviet Union was certainly not an act of espionage per se. Nor did Elliott Maraniss’ congressional interrogators ever claim it was. It did, however, mean joining an organized Stalinist effort seeking to undermine American democracy.  

Elliott Maraniss never stood trial for anything. But when, at the height of the Cold War, he refused to testify about his Communist links, he undermined his own credibility as a journalist and a citizen. In the author’s words, both of his parents had “latched on to a false promise and for too long blinded themselves to the repressive totalitarian reality of communism in the Soviet Union. And now they were paying the price.”

Fortunately for them, the “price” they had to pay was comparatively light. No jail, no starvation, no gulag, no bullet in the back of the head. Instead, a brief series of career setbacks — most major American publications were understandably reluctant to hire a writer who was on record as an unrepentant communist — that meant frequent moves and a tight family budget in the 1950s. This didn’t stop the kids from getting good educations and excelling in their own right, and Elliott himself eventually found a lasting journalistic haven in Madison, Wisconsin.

I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed knowing him. But, at the end of the day, I think I would still consider Elliott Maraniss an unanswered riddle, a man who — whether he realized it or not — was at least as wrong as he was wronged.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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By David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster, $28, 416 pages

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