Thursday’s New York Times carries a largely hagiographic obituary by Marc Charney of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, worshipped in left-wing circles for his anti-war protests of the 60s from his position of influence as chaplain of Yale University.
“The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., a civil rights and antiwar campaigner who sought to inspire and encourage an idealistic and rebellious generation of college students in the 1960's from his position as chaplain of Yale University, then reveled in the role of lightning rod thrust upon him by officials and conservatives who thought him and his style of dissent dangerous, died yesterday at his home in Strafford, Vt.”
“In one of the most celebrated trials of the day, Dr. Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock and three others were accused of conspiracy to encourage draft evasion. Dr. Coffin, Dr. Spock and two others were convicted, but the verdicts were overturned on appeal. The case became a cause célèbre for the antiwar left and civil libertarians, who considered the prosecution's eventual failure an incomplete vindication of the right of free speech.
The Times insists Coffin loved his country:
“Dr. Coffin had a distinctive view of his own role as a dissenter. His argument with American social practices and political policies, he said, was that of a partner engaged in a ‘lovers' quarrel.’ It was a position he could claim almost as a birthright, considering his lineage and the patrician positions he held.”
He does point out one prominent dissent:
“Another Yale man of the time, President Bush, has spoken of a less affectionate memory: After Mr. Bush's father lost a Senate race in 1964 to Senator Ralph Yarborough, Dr. Coffin told the young man, then a freshman, student that he knew his father and that the better man had won. (Dr. Coffin disputed the anecdote.) After Dr. Coffin left Yale, disgust on the part of alumni with his political activities was often blamed for a decline in alumni contributions. But Yale was not the only university to deal with that problem in the 1970's.”
But Charney follows:
“The athletic and voluble Dr. Coffin became a familiar figure on Yale's campus, riding his motor scooter, joking with students and challenging them to stand up for what they thought. But by 1967, the campus that had largely welcomed him back from Montgomery as a man of courage was convulsed with the passion surrounding the Vietnam War.
“Much of the turmoil was over the draft, from which young men in college were exempt but which was waiting for them as soon as they left academia. Dr. Coffin, a critic of the country's war policy since 1965, had been a founder of a group called Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. But he had concluded that letter-writing and seeking out policy makers and members of Congress were having no effect. In 1967, he chose a course of civil disobedience. First, he offered the chapel at Yale as a sanctuary for those who were refusing to serve in Vietnam.”
As usual, you have to go elsewhere for a less whitewashed view, of the left-wing hero as enemy stooge.
At The New Criterion, Roger Kimball writes that
“Coffin was seldom in doubt about what justice demanded. When the Vietnam War got going, it demanded that he aid and abet young men in burning their draft cards, that he participate in marches on the Pentagon, and that he travel to Hanoi courtesy of the North Vietnamese government (where he promptly discovered ‘a very special feeling for the North Vietnamese, a feeling I attributed to the fact that we were friends because we had deliberately refused to become enemies’).
Kimball runs down a 1970 editorial (from the New York Times, of all places) criticizing Coffin’s view that the trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale for murder in New Haven was “legally right but morally wrong.”
Back then the Times wrote:
“Mr. Coffin said that even if Mr. Seale were to be found guilty as charged, the entire nation stands accused of bringing him to the state of mind in which the alleged crime might have been committed. This is a legally and morally wrong and dangerous concept, even when supposedly elevated to the level of theological doctrine.” One can hardly imagine the Times taking that point of view today.
Another flattering image: “In 1979, he was one of three American clergymen who, along with a fourth from Algeria, went to Tehran at their own expense to help the American hostages held there celebrate Christmas.”
But Mark Bowden, writing for The Atlantic, has a darker take on Coffin’s Christmas visit, showing him up as a stooge and quoting something Coffin said before going to Iran: "We scream about the hostages, but few Americans heard the screams of tortured Iranians."
Bowden writes of Coffin’s left-wing naivete during one of his meetings with a group of American hostages in Tehran:
“In a brief conversation with Bill Keough, the former head of the American High School in Tehran, who had come to Tehran to retrieve school records and found himself trapped by the takeover, Coffin remarked jokingly that he had often longed for an extended period of quiet in which to read and think and contemplate. Keough smiled grimly. It was the remark of a free man who was not being threatened daily with trial and execution.”
For more liberal bias in the New York Times, visit Times Watch.