December 5 - 12, 1 9 9 6

Crime and Publishing

Mark Singer's inquiry into the denial of a prisoner's rights began as a relatively straightforward magazine story. But as he dug deeper, his project became a morass of deceptions and ethical dilemmas worthy of Dostoyevsky.

by Yvonne Abraham

Part 3

In the summer of 1992, Singer traveled to Memphis to meet with Kimberlin. Though he was serving time for planting eight bombs in the small town of Speedway, Indiana, in the spring of 1978, Kimberlin was best known as an accomplished marijuana smuggler who had brought huge shipments of pot into the country during the '70s. The cleverness that had helped him succeed in smuggling had now made Kimberlin a model prisoner. Singer met an articulate, well-read, apparently erudite man who'd spent his 13 and a half years in jail earning a college degree, learning Russian, and becoming a jailhouse lawyer of some repute -- and intensity.

"I remember going to see [Kimberlin] in this meeting room in Memphis," Singer recalls. "I spent two days there, and he never even got up to pee. He never left that room. He didn't eat, drink, or go to the bathroom for two days, seven hours running." A Scheherazade in prison-issue khakis, he pled his case to Singer, presenting him with piles upon piles of legal documents to support his contention that he was innocent of all crimes (except the marijuana smuggling), that he'd been the victim of an unfair trial, and that he'd been a martyr to the Republican cause since 1988.

Kimberlin had some hefty support -- most visibly from Trudeau, most fervently from politically connected journalist (and ardent Democrat) Cody Shearer, and most convincingly from respected former US Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, who eventually told Singer he believed Kimberlin was a political prisoner.

While Singer was in Memphis, Tina Brown took over the New Yorker. Singer was worried about keeping his job, so when Brown called to say she thought his was "a very hot story," and that she wanted it in six weeks, and as the main article in her debut issue, he set about delivering the piece in short order, working faster than he ever had on a project of this scope.

"For me, it was unprecedented," he says. "It was very fast. I'd never worked for [Brown] before, and I didn't want to be shown the door. That's been my home, so I just did everything I could." Asked if it was too fast, he says no: "I never said it wasn't enough time." But it was exhausting; Singer practically lived in his office at the New Yorker for a month, sleeping little.

Singer had also been under other intense pressures while writing the piece, possessed of what he calls, in Citizen K, "a mild delirium. My home telephone, I had become convinced, was wire-tapped," he writes. "Urgently, inordinately, I wanted the Democrats to win the election; otherwise, I envisioned an unfriendly audit of my federal tax return. Worse, I entertained a fantasy that I would be invited to the Clinton-Gore inauguration. . . . For several months, my marriage of 20 years had been in a final stage of disintegration. Writing about Kimberlin had the virtue of providing a socially useful outlet for my obsessiveness."

But despite all that, Singer says now, he wrote the article he intended to write. "It was enough time to write the story of whether or not this guy had been politically persecuted," he says. "It was enough time to look through what happened to Brett Kimberlin from 1988 on, and that's all it attempted to do." The article, called "The Prisoner and the Politician," was not about Kimberlin's guilt or innocence in the bombings, he says. It wasn't even about Quayle's drug use. It was about the abuse of power, and Singer made a strong case for the fact that the outcome of the 1988 election had been tainted, and that Kimberlin's rights had been violated.

The article was not met with universal acclaim, however. Garrison Keillor told Singer he thought it had jumped to its anti-Quayle conclusion too readily. In his syndicated column, Garry Wills wrote that, although it certainly looked as if Kimberlin had suffered political persecution, Singer had been irresponsible "to print his charges without more verification than he has been able to supply." And an interview with Singer on NPR's Fresh Air was pulled at the last minute because Singer seemed "a little too close to the subject."

Still, Knopf was impressed enough with the article to offer Singer a generous book contract, under which Kimberlin would receive a share of the royalties for his cooperation. "The venture was predicated on the idea that there was an even richer and more elaborate story to tell than I had previously told," Singer writes in Citizen K. "Looking back at that moment, I think we both assumed we had the same story in mind -- an assumption that now strikes me as both conspiratorial and naive."

Singer had become one of Kimberlin's strongest supporters. He urged Senator Levin to begin public hearings into Kimberlin's treatment, thereby, he writes, "crossing the line from impartiality to advocacy." After the election, Singer even called Clinton's people to ask that Kimberlin be furloughed for the inauguration. "The thought still makes me wince," he says in Citizen K.

Almost as soon as he started working on the book, Singer discovered big problems. Friends to whom Kimberlin had referred him, to vouch for his upstanding character and attest to his innocence, proved lukewarm on him at best. Some were certain he'd committed all of the crimes of which he'd been convicted, and more. Others were dead, especially those who could provide irrefutable proof of his innocence. One former drug dealer told Singer that "The Prisoner and the Politician" was "revisionist history," and that Kimberlin's Quayle claims were "complete and utter bullshit."

And Kimberlin soon began undermining his own credibility. The more Singer got to know him, the stranger the prisoner became. Believing himself exceptionally talented, Kimberlin was certain he'd become an international recording star, and he thought he might just ask Sting or Paul McCartney to co-write some songs with him. He'd also tried to intervene in the Iraq crisis of 1990, in the hopes of averting the Gulf War, thereby making a hero of himself. "The plan was for Hussein to release these hostages -- the human shield -- to my mother," he told Singer. Naturally, his own subsequent release would have been a given had the Iraqi ambassador to the United States acted upon the letters Kimberlin had his mother hand-deliver.

It dawned on Singer that he'd been "sucked whole and cast adrift inside Kimberlin's narcissistic universe." But rather than abandon the project, Singer became more interested in it than ever. "I knew I was going to finish writing this book," he says. "I never toyed with the idea of tossing it. Not even for a moment. If what this guy was telling me was right, that means I got it wrong the first time. I had to figure it out. I didn't have a choice."

Singer checked out Kimberlin's stories, from the big ones (his innocence in the bombings, for example) to the small ones (his proficiency in Russian), and dug away at them for four years and 363 pages. In the end, the only part of Kimberlin's original tale left standing is the essence of the 1992 New Yorker piece -- that the prisoner's rights had been violated in 1988.

Clearly, that piece would have been quite different had Singer concluded in 1992 that Kimberlin was deceiving him, which he might have done with more time and under less pressure, his comfort with his deadline notwithstanding. Believing Kimberlin guilty of the crimes of which he'd been convicted would have made him "question the credulousness of the people who vouched for [Kimberlin's] credibility," says Singer. "It would have made me more skeptical of both Trudeau and Griswold, not to mention Cody Shearer, who had political motives." How would "The Prisoner and the Politician" have been different? When pushed on this question, Singer says he would have cast Kimberlin less as a victim and more as a protagonist. Is it possible the article would not have run at all?

"Would it have existed is another question," Singer says. "I don't think I can answer that."

Some of Citizen K's reviewers have focused almost obsessively on the flaws of the 1992 article. The conservative Weekly Standard (inexplicably heading its take "Mark Singer Loves a Mad Bomber") criticized the writer for being unwilling "simply to eat crow and apologize." The Los Angeles Times , on the other hand, called the book "the longest correction of a magazine article ever produced." Harper's publisher John MacArthur was merciless. Had Singer "admitted that his motive for writing the book was revenge or embarrassment, or the unpleasant prospect of returning a large advance," he wrote in Newsday, "we might have had an interesting work of journalism, or at least media criticism."

But Singer bristles at the suggestion that his having been conned by Kimberlin compromises the essence of the 1992 New Yorker piece, pointing out again that the article was not primarily about Kimberlin, but his treatment and its political implications. In any case, he says, he was sufficiently humble in his book. "I have admitted I'm a human being," Singer says, "which is important, that journalists are fallible. That doesn't mean journalists are inherently corrupt or meretricious. That doesn't mean I was wrong to write that piece."

Part 4

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yabraham[a]

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