Gerald Nicosia: In the Media Eye as He Rushes to Finish an Article About John Kerry's Anti-War Years

Historians in the News

Stephanie Salter, in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 11, 2004):

Historian, biographer and poet Gerald Nicosia was juggling five separate interviews by news media teams from Berlin to Brazil when his 8-year-old daughter provided a reality check.

Alarmed and not a little irritated, she scolded him from her younger brother's room: "Daddy, the lizard has no food!"

The family's pet lizard, Gecky, eats live worms, you see, and Nicosia is the only one who can stand to feed them to him.

"I just didn't have the time to get to it," Nicosia said. "It's one more sign of how out of control things are."

The son of social-justice-minded Chicago Democrats, Nicosia has never been a tidy, button-down, 9-to-5 insurance-office type. A lifelong activist and writer, he is a post-Beat generation poet, novelist and the author of "Memory Babe" -- a frank and not always flattering biography of Jack Kerouac. In 2001, he entered the nonliterary history field with "Home to War," a 690-page compendium of stories and remembrances from the Vietnam veterans' anti-war movement.

But the past two weeks have been too high-octane even for Nicosia, not unaccustomed to attention (or flak) on the Beat and political fronts. Fourteen boxes of FBI surveillance files that he battled for more than a decade to obtain have suddenly become a mother lode of information about the 1970s anti-war activities of Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry. So enticing are the contents of those files, somebody slipped into Nicosia's modest Corte Madera home on March 25 and made off with several thousand pages -- most dealing with Kerry's years in Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

"As I started to count the boxes, I just got this sickening feeling," said Nicosia. "I mean, I'm 54 years old and I know I have memory lapses, but I knew I'd specifically counted 14. Three of them were gone, along with hundreds of pages of bookmarked files that were out, lying on top of boxes. It's really shaken me up. I worked so hard for 11 years to get them. Now 20 percent are gone."

The anxiety of a home burglary alone is enough to unnerve most people. Add to that the loss of the files, the police investigation, transferring the remaining files out of the house to a safe location, the steady stream of info-hungry journalists and Nicosia's own looming deadline to finish a magazine piece on all that 30-year-old surveillance. No wonder Gecky's dinner got lost in the shuffle.

Earlier this month, the producers of MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" booked Nicosia for a segment of the show. He was promised, he said, a chance to talk about the meaning of the FBI's extensive and expensive surveillance of the Vietnam vets' group, not just the notorious Kansas City meeting. After the taping in a San Francisco studio, he was enraged.

"I was given about 30 seconds to establish that I had the files, then I was kept mum for seven minutes while 'experts' Scarborough and Pat Buchanan told the country that the files establish that Kerry was present at an assassination plot!" he said. "Two hours out of my day, just to be set up as a stooge, a dummy, for those dishonest bums! In 27 years of being interviewed, I've never had an experience like that."

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