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Turn the lights on! What we can learn from KPFA’s Bill Mandel

William Mandel and some friends at KPFA [kpfa.org]

William Mandel and some friends at KPFA [kpfa.org]

William Mandel has died. Mandel broadcast over KPFA’s airwaves for almost half a century, offering commentaries on the now-defunct Soviet Union. He wrote books about the USSR, among them Soviet Women and Soviet but not Russian: the Other Peoples of the Soviet Union. He spoke at just about any public event at which someone would let him appear. He died peacefully in his Kensington, California home in the very early hours of Thanksgiving morning. He was 99.

I doubt that I am the only person who knew William Mandel and thought that his favorite subject was himself. To be fair, this is a condition common to media people, but Bill took it to unique heights. I can recall no conversation with him that did not become a discussion about him. Back in the 1980s and 1990s I lost count of how many of his weekly programs were dedicated to presenting himself as one of the unsung heroes of the McCarthy Era. They all gravitated around rebroadcasts of his famous takedown of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC), which held hearings in San Francisco City Hall in 1960. “Honorable beaters of children, sadists, uniformed and in plain clothes, distinguished Dixiecrat wearing the clothing of a gentleman . . . ” a subpoenaed Mandel floridly railed before the Committee, and he was just getting started.

This speech was and probably still is the most repeated audio in KPFA’s history. It always thrilled Bill’s fans, but eventually tried the patience of a larger, younger cohort. That’s a shame, because in truth, despite his endless bragging, William Mandel was one of the unsung heroes of the McCarthy Era. What he accomplished during those difficult years should be remembered, especially in these coming difficult times.

William Marx Mandel was born in 1917 to a dedicated communist family. His father planned to name him Karl, but instead named the boy for his uncle, who had died several days earlier. So committed were the Mandels to the Soviet cause that they migrated to Siberia for a spell to help build socialism. Bill briefly attended the University of Moscow, then the clan returned to the United States. He studied at the City College of New York, then during World War II parlayed his knowledge of Russian into work for Life, Time, and United Press International, followed by a gig at the Army Specialized Training Program in Syracuse New York. Next came a fellowship at the Stanford Institute for Slavic Studies. That was probably the highpoint of his career.

McCarthyism swept all this aside. When Bill gave a talk about the Soviet Union at the Palo Alto public library, police took down license plates in the nearby parking lot. By the time Senator Joseph McCarthy made his infamous speech at Wheeling, West Virginia in 1950, Mandel had been blacklisted by everyone except pacifists and communists. He had little to lose when the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee subpoenaed him in 1952. Mandel appeared at the hearing, assertively but not aggressively arguing with the Senators at every turn of the discussion.

The next day Bill scanned the newspapers for coverage of his appearance, but could find nothing. “What,” he asked himself, “had gone wrong?” At this point we should pause to appreciate this remarkable question. By 1952 the Hollywood Ten, a small company of screenwriters who refused to cooperate with HUAC, had done time in prison after unsuccessfully invoking the First Amendment in their defense. Hordes of witch hunt victims were fleeing for their lives, making deals, informing, naming names, and doing everything they could to avoid the anti-Communist limelight, but not Bill Mandel. He had not been rude enough, he concluded. Next time he would come at his inquisitors “with both fists flying.”

The next time came on March 24, 1953, when none other than McCarthy himself subpoenaed him. Mandel started his testimony by sucker punching McCarthy’s attorney, Roy Cohn. “A Jew who works for McCarthy is thought of very ill by most of the Jewish people,” he squintily declared. When asked if he had ever been a member of the Communist Party, Mandel minced no words. “This is a book burning,” he shouted. “You lack only the tinder to set fire to books as Hitler did twenty years ago and I’m going to get that across to the American people!”

I described the rest of the firefight in my first book on Pacifica radio: “It went on like that for quite a while, a cat contending with a very obstreperous mouse. At one point Mandel accused McCarthy of driving a staff member of the Voice of America to suicide. Later, ready to throw Mandel out of the building, McCarthy ordered a security guard to stand by.”

To Mandel’s delight, the whole proceeding was televised for two hours and received coverage in The New York Times. Still not satisfied, he sold his testimony before McCarthy to fans via mail order service as a 33 rpm vinyl record. William Mandel understood that McCarthyism would not be defeated by the genteel criticisms of twice trounced Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. In both hearings he invoked the Fifth Amendment not only to avoid prosecution, but so that he could keep on publicly bludgeoning his opponents with legal impunity.

It was in this context that HUAC subpoenaed Mandel in 1960. America had gotten a little braver by then. Hundreds of high school and college kids came to protest the hearing. Police attacked them with fire hoses and dragged them down the City Hall stairway. Despite this, some managed to get to the hearing room at which Mandel would give his subpoenaed testimony. There they watched Bill astonish his persecutors by gesticulating to a group of television reporters nearby.

William Mandel at the San Francisco HUAC hearing

William Mandel at the San Francisco HUAC hearing

“By the way,” Mandel said, “if the television men want some news they can put their lights on. They can put them on if they want something to show their audiences.”

“You want the lights on?” a startled HUAC lawyer asked.

“Yes,” Mandel shot back. “I want the lights on. I want the fullest glare of publicity on this committee’s activity.” Twenty minutes later the Committee asked The Question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” To which Mandel gave his celebrated reply:

“Honorable beaters of children, sadists, uniformed and in plain clothes, distinguished Dixiecrat wearing the clothing of a gentleman, eminent Republican who opposes an accommodation with the one country with which we must live at peace in order for us and all our children to survive. My boy of fifteen left this room a few minutes ago in sound health and not jailed, solely because I asked him to be in here to learn something about the procedures of the United States government and one of its committees. Had he been outside where a son of a friend of mine had his head split by these goons operating under your orders, my boy today might have paid the penalty of permanent injury or a police record for desiring to come here and hear how this committee operates. If you think that I am going to cooperate with this collection of Judases, of men who sit there in violation of the United States Constitution, if you think I will cooperate with you in any way, you are insane.”

The May 1960 San Francisco HUAC hearings, preceded by the Greensboro, North Carolina civil rights sit-ins of February, literally heralded in The Sixties. Bill Mandel proudly and ostentatiously took part in that moment, offering his example and message to anyone who would listen: These people aren’t so tough. They’re only strong when you are silent. They only look normal when you pretend they are. So don’t be silent and don’t pretend they’re normal. Watch me. Watch me do it. Watch me stand them down . . . . 

As we enter the Age of Trump I have every confidence that new Bill Mandels with similarly healthy egos will surface, make their mark on history, then spend the remainder of their days insufferably celebrating their battles. I look forward to celebrating with them.


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2 Responses to Turn the lights on! What we can learn from KPFA’s Bill Mandel

  1. creinsch December 2, 2016 at 12:40 pm #

    I am sad to hear this. We carried Soviet Press and Periodicals from 1964 to 1974. For the KRAB archive I have tried to find examples of his programs from during that period, but none of surfaced. He inspired one of our programmers, Frank Krasnowsky, to produce his own long-running a series called Left Press Review.

  2. Bob Mason December 2, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    I love this article. The last paragraph is so delicious:

    “As we enter the Age of Trump I have every confidence that new Bill Mandels with similarly healthy egos will surface, make their mark on history, then spend the remainder of their days insufferably celebrating their battles. I look forward to celebrating with them.”.

    Perhaps I don’t have quite so much confidence as you, but here’s hoping our side can muster up some battle worthy egotism to match the formidable amount arrayed against us. To borrow a phrase from George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, Mr president, we must never allow an insufferability gap!
    This could be one arms race in which Pacifica can compete, and compete with flair.

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