The Press: The Case of Senator X

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Gravely, before a packed, worried Senate, Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley opened his package of dynamite. "I ask the privilege," he began, "of making a statement at this time about a matter which involves the highest privilege of the Senate and the highest personal privilege of a Member of the Senate."

The Senators did not need to be told what he was talking about. For a fortnight their cloakrooms had been tense with one of the worst scandals that ever affected a member of the Senate—charges made in a series of articles by the New York Post against David I. Walsh, senior Democratic Senator from Massachusetts and Chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee.

Thereupon Senator Barkley proceeded to announce that the Department of Justice had completely exonerated Senator Walsh of the Post's charges that he frequented a Brooklyn "house of degradation" which was also a hangout for Nazi spies, a place where sailors were lured by drink to tell military secrets. Senator Barkley did not then or later give out the FBI 25-page report. He said it was too "disgusting and unprintable." He contented himself with declaring flatly that the whole "weird and fantastic story" was a case of mistaken identity: the man called Senator Walsh by the Post was really a different visitor altogether, portly like the Senator, about his age, but otherwise resembling him no more "than I look like Haile Selassie."

Thus, in this sidewise fashion, one of the strangest incidents in the history of the U.S. press came to general public knowledge: a major scandal had broken and for a fortnight only one paper had published anything about it.

The incident opened on May 1 when the pro-New Deal Post published a first installment based on the affidavit of one Gustave Beekman, convicted proprietor of a Brooklyn male brothel where "Senator X" was alleged to have met sailors. For illustration, the Post ran a front-face silhouette of the Senator's head with the features washed out.

Later the Senator's name was spelled out: SEN. WALSH NAMED AS SEN. X—LINKED TO NAZI SPY NEST. A bold-head box quoted the Senator: "It's a diabolical lie." In an editorial the Post declared there was no evidence to show that Senator Walsh had "wittingly or unwittingly" given away secrets to Nazi agents.

The story was generally known in New York City and Washington, but except for Manhattan's PM (which published brief, cautious mention of the Post stories) all the rest of the U.S. press, afraid of libel and shrinking from dirt, avoided the story like the plague. The Senate tiptoed about, unwilling to face the fact that accusations of the worst kind had been publicly leveled at one of its members. Senator Barkley last week offered an excuse: when Senator Walsh came to him, "visibly agitated," he advised him to sit tight until the FBI could be got to make a private report.

Senator Barkley also congratulated Senator Walsh "upon the calm demeanor which he has exhibited in the face of this contemptuous and contemptible charge." Last week, after Senator Barkley revealed the scandal to the nation at large, Senator Walsh's calm demeanor continued. Up to this week he had yet to file a libel suit against the Post.

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