Trial by firestorm:  the case of Christina Jeffrey teaches a lesson in journalistic ethics - and political loyalty

By Tracy Lee Simmons
National Review
May 15, 1995
 1995 by National Review

 

     RECRUITED by Newt Gingrich last December as the new House Historian -- who is charged with documenting and informing the public on the workings of the House -- Christina Jeffrey rose swiftly from relative obscurity as a college professor from Georgia, only to fall twice as fast, branded an anti-Semite, Nazi sympathizer, and racist before the entire nation.

     On January 9, Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) rose to the House floor and called Mrs. Jeffrey's appointment "an affront to my constituents who survived the Holocaust . . . and millions of Americans."  Barney Frank (D., Mass.) had already called her views "wacko" and "offensive."  Even after Gingrich fired her, some Democrats weren't satisfied.   Minority Whip David Bonior asked ominously, "What did Speaker Gingrich know about her extreme views, and when did he know it?"  Patricia Schroeder (D., Colo.) wanted to know the same thing.  And Mr. Schumer contended that questions remained which "must, must be answered."

     Enter the watchdogs of the Fourth Estate.  The New York Times pronounced Mrs. Jeffrey an "ideologue" who was wrong for the job even before these "alarming revelations," and wagged its magisterial finger at Gingrich, accusing him of "small-town cronyism for hiring a constituent."  The New York Post weighed in, saying Mrs. Jeffrey was "either a woman with no judgment and limited control over the manner in which she expresses herself -- or she's an indiscreet bigot."  Raymond Sokolov, in the Wall Street Journal, let off a barrage of abuse in a commentary entitled, "Shunning the Yahoo Point of View," calling her an "unreconstructed anti-Semite" who hails from an "unenlightened backwater."  "It is one thing to hate Jews," he wrote.  "Any moral dwarf can do that.  But it takes an especially ignorant and fact-resistant sort of historian to believe that there is a viable Nazi point of view on the subject [of the Holocaust]."

     Clearly, Mrs. Jeffrey's transgressions had rated high on the roster of grave public sins.  But did any of these people who so confidently take responsibility for shaping public policy try to ascertain just what her views were?


The Smoking Gun


     MRS. JEFFREY'S crime had been committed more than eight years before.  In 1986, when she was teaching in Alabama, she accepted an invitation from the U. S. Department of Education to act as a volunteer lay reviewer of various grant proposals for the National Diffusion Network.  One of those proposals, called "Facing History and Ourselves," aimed to instruct middle-school teachers on how to teach ethics, or "values clarification."  Genocide was used as a situation example.

     In her confidential review, Mrs. Jeffrey raised candid objections.  The proposal "used the Holocaust to try to paint the United States as genocidal and to scare middle-schoolers into accepting leftist ideology about this country," she later wrote.  "The course also compared the illegal lynchings of blacks in the South by the KKK with the legal extermination of millions of Jews in Europe. . . .  I was appalled at this exploitation of the Holocaust and tried to say so in my response on the grant review instrument."

     That instrument -- the one and only smoking gun in this case -- was eight pages of standard government-issue paperwork.  Reviewers were instructed that "in applying each criterion the Secretary [of Education] considers the extent to which excellence, balance, and imagination are demonstrated in the proposed activities."  Thus the word "balance" came to be used when Mrs. Jeffrey made her evaluation.  Asked "the extent to which the strategies and activities proposed to implement the project are likely to accomplish the project's objectives successfully," Mrs. Jeffrey wrote:  "The project itself lacks balance; will former Nazis, etc., be asked to speak?"  She explains, "I was making fun of the very idea that a program on the Holocaust even could be evaluated for balance.  What kind of balance could there be?  It can't be done."  Missing the sarcasm, opponents later used this sentence as proof that Mrs. Jeffrey placed Jews and Nazis on an equal moral plane.

     On the eighth page she was asked for an "overall assessment" of the grant application.  In the last of four paragraphs, she wrote, "The Nazi point of view, however unpopular, is still a point of view, and it is not presented; nor is that of the Ku Klux Klan. The selection of only two problem areas, Germany and Armenia, leaves out many others, many of which are more recent.  I am thinking of the USSR, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia among others.  No explanation of this selectivity is given."  The program as written, she thought, had failed to account for the origins of the Holocaust, origins that would only be obscured further by the imputed linkage between the lynching of blacks in the American South and the government-sanctioned murder of Jews in Nazi Germany. In short, this effort to "clarify values" made for bad history.

     Mrs. Jeffrey wasn't alone in her criticism of "Facing History and Ourselves."  Writing in 1990 for Commentary, Holocaust scholar Lucy Dawidowicz agreed:  "Putatively a curriculum to teach the Holocaust, Facing History was also a vehicle for instructing 13-year-olds in civil disobedience and indoctrinating them with propaganda for nuclear disarmament."  Mrs. Dawidowicz also said the last chapter of the proposed text supplied "exercises in outright political indoctrination in currently fashionable causes."

     That version of the grant proposal was ultimately rejected.  But the political flak had just begun.  Two years later, in October 1988, Representative Ted Weiss (D., N.Y.) chaired hearings in a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations on the "Department of Education's Refusal to Fund Holocaust Curriculum."  Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Department was obliged to release a list of the reviewers' names, but actual reviewer comments were not to be disclosed.  In fact, Mrs. Jeffrey's review had already been leaked to the press.  Suddenly the fall guy for the Department in the face of liberal criticism, she was dubbed anti-Semitic, and her review was printed in the official record.  Not informed of the hearing, she submitted a written defense afterward, but her statement was excluded from the record.

     Mrs. Jeffrey believed the Department of Education had consented to her vilification.  In 1989 she appealed to Senator Richard Shelby (D., Ala.), who secured a letter of explanation and regret from Assistant Secretary Patricia Hines.  "Denial of that funding application has created an extended controversy, and disclosure of her comments in the media has created a great deal of misunderstanding about the program and [Mrs. Jeffrey's] own views," Miss Hines wrote.  While conceding that certain comments were "ambiguously phrased," she stated that in fact Mrs. Jeffrey had acted "in good faith" and "to the extent that any Department of Education official has characterized [Mrs. Jeffrey] herself as racist or anti-Semitic, we do indeed apologize."  This was not the most spirited defense, but it did go some way toward setting the record straight.  And there the whole matter ought to have rested.

     In 1989 Mrs. Jeffrey met Newt Gingrich, who would soon become her congressman when she moved to Georgia to teach at Kennesaw State College.  As a professor of political science, she arranged internships for her students to work in Gingrich's district office.  She also helped him promote his televised college course, "Renewing American Civilization," defending him when other members of the faculty objected to the course being taught there.  Thus were the two professionally and politically linked before the Republican victory last November.  In December, he offered her the post of House Historian, a job she had not sought.  She accepted.  By New Year's Day, she had moved with her family to Arlington, Virginia, to take up her new duties.

     They didn't last long.  Scenting blood, Democrats charged to the floor to voice their indignation that a "Nazi sympathizer" and "racist" had been named House Historian.  After a few days' bombardment from colleagues and the press, Gingrich capitulated and fired Mrs. Jeffrey on the evening of January 9.  In the aftermath of the firing, members of Congress showed no compunction about having used Mrs. Jeffrey as cannon fodder.  Representative Frank, whom I tried unsuccessfully to reach, told the Washington Post, "Gingrich is the one who fired her.  We just pointed out what she had done."  Josh Isay, spokesman for Representative Schumer, said, "If anyone ruined Christina Jeffrey's chances to be House Historian, it was Christina Jeffrey.  She was fired for no other reason than her own extremist views of history and education."  Even White House spokesman Michael McCurry joined the fray, wondering "how someone with those extreme views would have been considered in the first place."

     However reprehensible such behavior may be coming from her enemies, it is at least politically understandable.  Not so much the behavior of her allies.  Immediately upon Mrs. Jeffrey's dismissal, a ruckus arose over what Gingrich and his staff had known about her background before she was hired.  "What she said, what she stood for, was not hidden," Schumer said.  "Why didn't they find it?"

     This is not a bad question.  On January 12, three days after the firing, Richard Cohen wrote a scurrilous column for the Washington Post in which he called Mrs. Jeffrey a "jerk" whose criticism of the original grant proposal had been "insensitive and outrageous, not to mention false."  But he also speculated that "the swiftness with which Gingrich dispatched Jeffrey to her academic Dogpatch suggests that he knew all too well what she had written."  And he implicated Gingrich's staff as well.  This drew the ire of Tony Blankley, Gingrich's press secretary, who wrote back to the Post and, referring to Mrs. Jeffrey as "that woman," claimed that he and the Speaker had been unaware of the earlier controversy.  Unquestioned by Cohen and Blankley alike was Mrs. Jeffrey's guilt; the only issue to be settled was the assignment of blame for bringing her aboard.

     But those who know Mrs. Jeffrey well have rejected the charges of bigotry since they first arose.  In 1987, after the first story about the curriculum evaluation appeared in the New York Daily News, Rabbi Bernard Honan of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia, wrote on Mrs. Jeffrey's behalf to the Atlanta chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.  Rabbi Honan, who had known Mrs. Jeffrey for 17 years, said she was "an intensely fair person, and it is my conviction that she has been maligned viciously."  He noted that she had "suffered mental anguish unfairly at the hands of a newspaper . . . which has never been known for the quality of its journalism or for its objective reporting."

     Perhaps the most impassioned and eloquent defense has come from Barry D. Friedman, an associate professor of political science at North Georgia College, who has known Mrs. Jeffrey for 8 years.  Friedman, the son of a Holocaust survivor, hurriedly faxed a letter to Gingrich's office on January 9, certifying Mrs. Jeffrey's credentials and character.  "From where I stand," he wrote, "seeing one of my closest friends vilified as a person who is hateful toward or insensitive to people of my ethnic background would be laughable were it not so manifestly and profoundly unjust."

     Three weeks later, Mrs. Jeffrey's job lost and her reputation soiled, Friedman wrote another letter to Gingrich.  "By making it apparent that Christina is a villain, you and Mr. Blankley have manufactured a smoke screen that will confound decent people trying to understand the world around them.  That you have let this happen, and it now appears to have been fully deliberate, is an unforgivable offense.  Accordingly, I will never forgive or forget what you have done to Christina, to those of us who care about her, and to those who might have liked to know the truth about her."


Gingrich Breaks His Silence


     SO WHY didn't Gingrich and his staff support her?  Did they in fact come to believe the charges?  Gingrich himself was uncharacteristically mute during the crucial hours when Mrs. Jeffrey was hung out to dry.  She was abandoned without a consoling word to her or an exonerating word to the public.

     Finally speaking on the issue after three months, Mr. Gingrich readily concedes that Mrs. Jeffrey is neither an anti-Semite nor a racist.  "As time goes on," he says, "and as people get to see and hear her on talk shows, read her op-eds, and get to encounter her as a person, they'll realize that there's an enormous gap between the engaging and intelligent woman that they're now seeing, and this caricature that the Left has tried to create."

     Gingrich explains his decision to fire her this way:  "She made in what should have been a confidential document a deliberate hyperbole to drive home a point about a program which many people agree was biased and prejudiced.  However, taken out of context, that hyperbole was so unsustainable that the amount of effort we could have put into explaining it would have been drowned by the efforts of the Left, who at that moment were desperately seeking some way to destroy my speakership and stop the momentum of the House Republicans.

     "Christina saw herself under attack, and she wanted her friends to stand up for her, and that's legitimate on her part.  But at the same time, she had never been through what a Washington firestorm is like once the full mechanisms of the Left are engaged.  I don't think she had any sense of just how vicious it could get.

     "Now, our consideration was two-fold.  First, in the end, was she likely to survive?  And our feeling was, no.  Second, we were likely to use so much capital over a job that, historically, either had not existed or had not been noticed.  And it would have absurdly slowed down the momentum of the Contract [with America].  So as a practical matter, I wanted her to back out before she got smeared so bitterly, because she could never have recovered.  Frankly, one of the most bitter decisions I had to make in the first months of the 104th Congress was this one."

     Mrs. Jeffrey, who is writing a book about her experience, understands the reasoning but disagrees.  "All it would have taken would have been the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish people coming forward and setting Newt straight," she says.  "Then the Democrats would have had to back off.  Nobody would have believed them.  You can always back down.  But how long can you do that?"

     It may well be that, after the savage attack on Mrs. Jeffrey's character, saving her job would have burned precious political fuel.  Nonetheless, why was no effort made to explore the validity of the allegations against her and, if they proved unfounded, to try to clear her name before she returned home?  After all, the professional and personal reputation of a friend was involved.  Shallow spadework would have revealed both the honest misunderstandings and the political posturing behind the charges.  Instead, Gingrich was silent, and Blankley exacerbated suspicions about Gingrich's loyalty by speaking dismissively of Mrs. Jeffrey to reporters.  Asked recently by Roll Call whether the Historian's position would soon be filled, he said he didn't know, adding, "I'm just glad that the other one is gone."  Mr. Blankley did not return my calls.

     Human Events reported that Gingrich's action had "appalled many conservatives who feel he needlessly -- and brutally -- mistreated a woman who has been a stout friend and supporter."  It quoted an anonymous Republican staffer who sounded the same note:  "Those conservatives who saw how easily Gingrich ditched Jeffrey have to wonder how loyal he's going to be to his own troops."

     Before leaving Washington, Christina Jeffrey arranged what turned out to be a pleasant meeting with one of her detractors, Representative Schumer.  By her account (Schumer's office did not reply to repeated requests for an interview), the congressman said he recognized she was not an anti-Semite.  "But," he said, "your friends should have supported you."

 

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Last updated on February 2, 2009, by Barry D. Friedman.