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Uncivil liberties.

For the first few weeks that New York City had two highly publicized libel trials going on at the same time--William Westmoreland v. CBS and Ariel Sharon v. Time Inc.--I waited quietly for people to seek my counsel. I am, after all, the citizen litigator who only fourteen years ago forced a Bronx fuel-oil company to its knees: rather than go toe-to-toe against me in Small Claims Court, the fuel-oil moguls agreed to settle for a payment of $37.50, a mere half of the disputed bill. These things get around.

Also, I happen to have expert knowledge of all four sides. During my own military career, I was in the combat platoon that landed by helicopter on Governors Island, in New York Harbor, swept down the airfield and captured an incinerator from a detachment of computer clerks, as part of Armed Forces Day Open House in 1959. My knowledge of the technical details of filming televison interviews is so extensive that I know the operative sentence of any such enterprise: "We're not getting any audio here, Harry." I was once employed by Time--I am remembered there as the writer who tried to get out of the Religion section by putting the word "alleged" in front of any historically questionable religious event--and although I have never visited Israel, I was the counselor who advised a Presbyterian acquaintance known for his capacity for chopped liver that he could demand Israeli citizenship on the ground that the intent of the Law of Return was clearly to admit any person who carried a schmaltz level of 0.5 parts per thousand in his blood-stream. In other words, I know my onions.

I was a bit surprised that the first person to seek my counsel about the trials was an old friend named Richie Levine, whose previous consultation with me had concerned what is called in the rade a matrimonial: Richie and his wife, Linda, had decided to split up because of irreconcilable differences over what sort of Passover seder to attend. After being dragged to a seder conducted by radical feminists who refused to recognize the killing of the Egyptians' first-born sons as a curse, Richie started spending his Passovers back in his hometown of Detroit, where as child he had always gone to seders at the home of his Uncle Mo the Gonif. (Richie had two uncles named Mo--one of them a failed actor who lived off his relatives, and the other a prosperous businessman who had once been accused of embezzlement--and to keep them straight the family called them Uncle Mo the Schnorrer and Uncle Mo the Gonif.)

"I guess you want my reading on the Westmoreland trial," I said, knowing that Richie had nurtured an interest in military affairs ever since he learned that his Great-Uncle Zalman, who emigrated from Kharkov to Detroit, had deserted three different armies. I told Richie the secret of the Westmoreland trial: although Westmoreland's report on troop strength did indeed consist of whatever his superiors wanted to hear, that was nothing for CBS to get excited about because everyone in the Army reports whatever his superiors want to hear. That's the way the Army works. Any company clerk could have told Mike Wallace that, without being grilled. Nobody who has been in the Army for more than ten minutes would even consider believing anything he reads in a report. If he wants to know what's going on, he simply drops into headquarters and asks the first sergeant--as Lyndon Johnson was free to do.

I knew that even before I began my military career. At my physical examination, an Army sergeant holding a clipboard demanded "three physical marks or scars" from a frightened and patently unblemished farm boy who was standing next to me. "I'm awfully sorry, sir," the farm boy said, futilely examining his shoulder for so much as a freckle. "Three physical marks or scars," the sergeant kept saying. The farm boy thought for a moment; then he reported three physical marks or scars. Today he is probably a general.

Richie said that although he found all that interesting, he had come about the Sharon trial. His Uncle Mo the Schnorrer, after reading Sharon's accusations against Time, had decided that the people who had been calling him Uncle Mo the Schnorrer all these years had committed a blood libel on the Jewish people. He was suing Richie's parents and Richie's Uncle Sydney for $12 million.

"My mom tried to reason with him," Richie said. "She told him that a blood libel on the Jewish people would libel her and Pop and Uncle Sydney, since they were all Jewish people, so that meant they were libeling themselves."

"What'd he say to that?" I asked.

"He said, 'So sue,'" Richie replied.

A brilliant legal strategy occurred to me. "Divert him!" I said. "If what Time said about Sharon was a libel on the Jewish people, Uncle Mo the Schnorrer should sue Sharon for his share of the action."

"We thought of that," Richie said. "Uncle Mo the Schnorrer said he couldn't convince a jury that people would blame him for anything that happened during a military operation: he hardly ever leaves the house. What I was wondering was if you'd be a witness."

"You mean as an authority on libel law?"

"No," Richie said. "As someone who has an Uncle Mo."

It's true that our family has one Uncle Mo--called simply "Uncle Mo." Richie figured that if I testified to that, it would be obvious that his family calls his Uncle Mo the Schnorrer "Uncle Mo the Schnorrer" for identification purposes rather than for the purpose of libeling the Jewish people. We keep the direct examination narrow so we don't open up for cross the question of whether my Uncle Mo is both a schnorrer and a gonif. Not bad! I would have told Richie that he had the makings of a trial attorney himself, except that he already is a trial attorney.

"You can count on me, counselor," I said. "I suspect that hearing I'm involved in the case will force Uncle Mo the Schnorrer to his knees and he'll settle for half."

"That wouldn't be bad," Richie said. "Uncle Sydney says Uncle Mo the Schnorrer is schnorring nearly that much from him already."
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Title Annotation:satire on libel suits
Author:Trillin, Calvin
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Jan 12, 1985
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