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Go Down, Moses

The Times treated conservative acting legend Charlton Heston and CIA turncoat Philip Agee with equal hostility.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine put out a special end-of-year edition, "The Lives They Lived," featuring profiles of a couple of dozen significant personages who passed away in 2008, and named 21 others in a one-page list. Among those who merited naming but not a full profile were conservative icons William F. Buckley, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, and Jesse Helms.



Among those who got the full profile treatment: Turncoat C.I.A. agent Philip Agee, considered a traitor for his 1974 book in which he revealed the names of every C.I.A. officer he could think of. Agee, who died in exile in Havana, was profiled by liberal historian and journalist Rick Perlstein, who went soft on Agee in "Unspooked - The spy who turned his back on the C.I.A."



The saga of Philip Burnett Franklin Agee, who died this year in exile in Havana, was one of the signal melodramas of what pundits called the "Year of Intelligence." Americans were reeling from the resignation of Richard Nixon. The Watergate story was itself thick with C.I.A. shenanigans; then, in December 1974, Seymour Hersh published a blockbuster Times exposé revealing that the agency spied on American antiwar activists. Senate and House committees were impaneled to investigate C.I.A. abuses, including attempts at assassination of foreign leaders. Agee's book became available in the middle of the mess.


The C.I.A., Agee explained to interviewers abroad (he would never return to live in the United States), was "promoting fascism around the world."....In his book, he arrived at a typically New Left solution: the institution must not be reformed, for "reform" is the very myth by which the Leviathan nourishes itself. It must be destroyed. This root-and-branch determination turned what might have been a noble, if controversial, vehicle for intelligence reform into something destructive. Amid its overwhelming welter of details ("It almost takes the stamina and interest of a Soviet spy to get through," Walter Pincus wrote in the Times review), the book included the real names of every C.I.A. officer, agent and asset Agee could recollect. Shortly after its publication, Richard Welch, a C.I.A. officer not named by Agee but whose name was published by a Greek newspaper in the worldwide fad for agent-outing that followed "Inside the Company," was murdered by anti-American militants. The year began with strong momentum for intelligence reform; the C.I.A. took advantage of Welch's martyrdom to defend the status quo.


Contrast that treatment to the pretty hostile remembrance of legendary actor and conservative activist Charlton Heston, from novelist and playwright Anthony Giardina, who was saddened by Heston's gradual shift to the right.



"What does it matter what you say about people?" Marlene Dietrich asks at the end of Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil." Dietrich is standing over the bloated corpse of Welles, eulogizing him as "some kind of a man" who nevertheless, in the movie, suffered a bad decline. But the fact that she's shared the scene with Charlton Heston, whose life had a similar trajectory, gives her words an unintended irony.


Heston was an actor about whom what we say, now and forever, is likely to be determined by the huge, looming bookends of his career. Barely out of his 20s, he put on a beard, dyed his hair gray and descended Mount Sinai carrying the tablets in "The Ten Commandments" (1956). Some 40 years later, Heston carried a different set of tablets for the N.R.A., extolling its members' rights with a passion that edged close to zealotry.


With liberal myopia, Giardina doesn't see Heston's early support for civil rights and his later supportfor Second Amendment rights for citizens as similar embraces of freedom, but instead as a sour turninto bitter conservatism. Employing as ammunitionleft-wing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore's ambush on a mentally ailing Heston is particularly lacking in class:


The look of disgust [Heston] wears in [sports movie] "Number One" seems, finally, directed less at the male sportsman than at a society going haywire.


That look - bitter, hardened, unwelcoming - was the one we began to associate with the later Heston. Only in an unthreatening political atmosphere do certain liberals feel comfortable enough to throw their weight behind social change. In the 1970s, Heston, like others, seemed to seize up against a too-quickly-moving tide. In 1972, he justified his vote for Nixon, his first for a Republican for president, with a critique of the Democratic Party's leftward tilt: "America is not spelled with a K." His acting choices devolved into a series of low-risk disaster movies like "Airport 1975" and "Earthquake." Over time, his concern turned to those rights he saw as endangered. Having once stood up against "the wild-eyed screamers" opposing gun control, he eventually became the wild-eyed screamer in chief. In 2000, as president of the N.R.A., he delivered the peroration: "I'll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands." Two years later, in "Bowling for Columbine," the man who had fought to make films suggesting the limits of masculinity revealed his own limitations; faced with the evidence of mounting gun violence, a visibly weakened Heston clung to a defense of the constitutional rights vouchsafed by the "dead white guys that invented this country."