Remembering Robert Leiken

By Jerry Kammer on June 20, 2017

Last week the New York Times published a fine obituary for a remarkable man, Robert Leiken, who died June 7 at the age of 78. I want to make a personal tribute to Bob Leiken. We had a friendship that began about 20 years ago, when he was a scholar at the Nixon Center and I was a reporter in Washington.

In addition to being a warm, witty, big-hearted man, Bob Leiken was a brilliant scholar and journalist whose work was informed by extensive research and deep-dive reporting in the field. (The Center has published some of his work.) Another decisive element was his aversion to political ideology that hardened into stereotypes that, in turn, constructed blind spots in the visual field of those who failed to resist them.

When Bob died, he was writing a memoir with the working title How I Lost All My Friends. It was to be an account of how his challenges to political orthodoxy — first on the left and then the right — alienated former allies.

In the 1980s, activists on the left denounced Bob's groundbreaking reporting from Nicaragua on the Soviet-backed Sandinistas' brutal treatment of their countrymen. Sandinista enthusiast Noam Chomsky said Bob's reporting and analysis, published in the New Republic, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, were "a fantasy" concocted by a "lobbyist" for the Contra rebels, who were seeking the support of the Reagan administration.

Two decades later Bob antagonized the right with his view that the Muslim Brotherhood was not the menace that many conservatives claimed it was. As the obituary in the Times notes, Bob co-wrote a 2007 article arguing that the Brotherhood was "a relatively moderate group and a sworn enemy of Al Qaeda that could be engaged in negotiations."

As a reporter, I was struck by Bob's 2002 book, Why Nicaragua Vanished. It was a deep dive into the failed reporting of many American journalists in 1980s Nicaragua. Bob wrote that the reporters, still fixated on the debacle of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, failed to see that the Contras represented a broad-based insurgency with wide support among the Nicaraguan people. Borrowing a term from Walter Lippmann, he said their reporting was clouded by "a system of stereotypes" in which the Contras were misunderstood as tools of U.S. imperialism. This ideological blind spot made them incapable of anticipating that the Sandinistas, far from the beloved nationalists they pretended to be, would be routed in national elections in 1990.

Here is how Bob described the journalistic failure:

The journalists' spotlight was focused so narrowly on the conflict between the United States and the Sandinista government that it obscured the domestic opposition to the latter. If the Sandinista government was a genuine, if flawed, attempt at national independence and social progress, it followed that armed resistance was an illegitimate attack by reactionaries and foreigners. The Contras and the journalists covering them inherited a frame.

I was struck by this description because I had noted something similar in press coverage of immigration. The hostile reporting on such anti-illegal immigration zealots as Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and state legislator Russell Pearce reminded me of Leiken's descriptions of reporters' disgust at the ugly swagger of some of the Contra spokesmen. The reporters recoiled at the spokesmen's "expensive clothes and expansive bellies in the swank hotels of Miami and Tegucigalpa." Bob quoted a dissident Contra who said the leadership was so unattractive that it appeared they "had been designed to their critics' specifications."

There is another parallel here to the immigration story. Many reporters, sincerely committed to civil rights, equality, and inclusiveness, believe in the cause of illegal immigrants. They accept a powerful system of stereotypes that pigeon-holes those who want to limit immigration and stop illegal immigration as bigots whose motivation has nothing to do with respectable concerns and everything to do with bigotry.

Bob understood that the immigration story is far more complex than that. He wrote that the benefits of unconstrained immigration tend to be concentrated "on unauthorized immigrants, new guest workers, low-wage employers and ethnic lobbies — while its costs are dispersed mainly to taxpayers in destination states and to people working in low-wage jobs."

Writing in 2001, Bob also issued a prescient warning of a possible backlash: He wrote, "An economic downturn could bring out resentment against foreigners, although those most challenged economically by migrants — African Americans, other minorities, and poor whites — are also those with the weakest political voices."

Bob embraced political, moral, and human complexity. He resisted group-think of the left and right. He was one of poet Stephen Spender's "truly great", who "left the vivid air signed with their honor". Ave atque vale.