Monday, June 23, 2008

Barry Siegel's "Claim of Privilege"

Barry Siegel, a Pulitzer-Prize winning former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, directs the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of six books, including three volumes of narrative nonfiction and three novels of legal suspense.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets, and reported the following:
My book, Claim of Privilege, chronicles how the deaths of three civilian engineers in a mysterious 1948 Air Force plane crash led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing the “state secrets” privilege. What drew me to this story were, in part, the important national issues: This state secrets privilege now gives the government unbridled powers—whenever it invokes national security concerns—to conceal conduct, withhold documents, block litigation, wiretap and jail people without due process claims. Yet what equally attracted me were the personal tales about ordinary citizens whose lives intersected for a time with those of the country’s most powerful leaders. The meshing of the private and public: Here was history writ both small and large.

On p. 99 of Claim of Privilege, we see the personal up close. Patricia Reynolds, just 20, has lost her husband of two years, Bob Reynolds, in the plane crash—he was one of the three civilian engineers. In shock, she has retreated to her mother’s home in Indianapolis. She is about to stir, about to seek redress, about to launch the litigation that would lead to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, U.S. v Reynolds. But not yet. She remains, on p. 99, in a fog.

Patricia Reynolds could recall nothing about the first few days after the crash. Phoning her mom, meeting at the Georgia airport, contacting Bob’s family—she had blacked it all out. Pat remembered being in a hotel room the first night. The next thing she remembered was the funeral in Springfield, Massachusetts.
That funeral. Yes…Pat recalled standing with Bob’s brother Dick and her cousin Jim. They were on the veranda. Talking and laughing. Pat was saying, I can’t believe we’re laughing...I can’t believe there’s still laughter in us….

Pat had [another] memory of that day: up on the hill, the cemetery. Trees, lush foliage—a beautiful sight. For a girl from Indiana, hills were incredible.

Pat could not recall retrieving Bob’s possessions. What had happened to Bob’s trombone…?

On the next page in my book, a lawyer from Philadelphia will call Pat. She will resist at first, then agree to join a lawsuit against the government charging negligence. During discovery, the government will refuse to hand over the Air Force accident report about the plane crash. A federal district judge and an appellate panel will side with Pat and the other widows, but then the Supreme Court, in March 1953, will reverse those judges, ruling that the government need not turn over the accident report. So came formal recognition of the state secrets privilege—with profound consequences ever since for our country.

Yes, the meshing of the private and public, that’s what drew me to this story. That, and the chance to evoke a time and place in our country’s history that seemed to resonate today. I wanted to set my particular tale against the context of the time, as a way to understand what happened back then—and what was happening now. By evoking the past, I aim to illuminate the present.
Read an excerpt from Claim of Privilege, and learn more about the book and author at Barry Siegel’s website.

--Marshal Zeringue