The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times

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9781586484422: The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times

In 1957, Herbert L.Matthews of the New York Times, then considered one of the premiere foreign correspondents of his time, tracked down Fidel Castro in Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains and returned with what was considered the scoop of the century. His heroic portrayal of Castro, who was then believed dead, had a powerful effect on American perceptions of Cuba, both in and out of the government, and profoundly influenced the fall of the Batista regime. When Castro emerged as a Soviet-backed dictator, Matthews became a scapegoat; his paper turned on him, his career foundered, and he was accused of betraying his country. In this fascinating book, New York Times reporter DePalma investigates the Matthews case to reveal how it contains the story not just of one newspaperman but of an age, not just how Castro came to power but how America determines who its enemies are. He re-creates the atmosphere of revolutionary Cuba and Cold War America, and clarifies the facts of Castro's ascension and political evolution from the many myths that have sprung up around them. Through a dramatic, ironic, in ways tragic story, The Man Who Invented Fidel offers provocative insights into Cuban politics, the Cuban-American relationship, and the many difficult balancing acts of responsible journalism.

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About the Author:

Anthony DePalma has been a correspondent and reporter at the New York Times for almost twenty years and is the author of Here: A Biography of the New American Continent. In 2003 he was awarded a fellowship at Notre Dame's Kellogg Institute for International Studies to research the role of the media in shaping America's foreign relations. He was recently part of the special team of reporters that looked into the impact of class divisions on life in the United States for the Times. He now writes about the environment. He and his wife, who was born in Cuba, live in Montclair, New Jersey.

From The Washington Post:

Writing about Cuba is not for sissies. Covering this fiercely contested slice of Caribbean real estate has singed the fingers of many, but few have felt the burn as badly as New York Times correspondent Herbert L. Matthews.

Back in the 1950s and '60s, Matthews was the first in a long succession of reporters bedazzled by the wily Fidel Castro -- think of the 2002 televised interview sessions that inspired David Letterman's "Top Ten Signs Barbara Walters Is In Love With Fidel Castro." (One of them involved her telling him, "You have led a violent overthrow of my heart.") But Matthews enjoyed a singular distinction, as he noted to his editor in 1958, "as [the] inventor of Fidel Castro." Of course, Castro didn't need Matthews to invent him, though it's hard to imagine Castro having achieved a more satisfying result without the eager Timesman.

In December 1956, UPI gullibly trumpeted a government report that Castro had been killed; in fact, the 29-year-old leftist rebel leader was hiding out in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Desperate to jumpstart his revolution -- and his life -- Castro dispatched an emissary to find an A-list messenger.

After a grueling trek, slogging through the near-inpenetrable Sierras, Matthews was told to wait in the wet, chilly, dark woods. It was dawn before Castro, ever mindful of stagecraft, descended from the hills -- establishing his standard, media-savvy operating procedure. The result was a heroic portrait that landed on page one of the Times and ran for three days.

Anthony DePalma, another Times reporter, carefully chronicles Matthews's Cuba story and decades-long career. Cuban history aside, The Man Who Invented Fidel is a cautionary tale about the uses and misuses of the media.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the erudite and multilingual Matthews enjoyed an unusual hybrid perch as both editorial writer and news reporter. It was a woeful arrangement for which both sides would pay dearly. But Matthews, an elegant writer and dresser (he was partial to fedoras, gloves and spats), had become the paper's golden-boy correspondent. It didn't hurt that he was a favorite of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the paper's publisher (and grandfather of the current one), or that Sulzberger's wife, Iphigene, was godmother to Matthews's son.

Even prior to his stint writing editorials, Matthews's coverage often took sides: Mussolini's fascists in Ethiopia and the anti-Franco forces in Spain. Matthews's failure in covering Cuba stemmed not from his original, flattering Castro interview but from his analysis over the next decade. He never grasped that Castro's scorching hunger for personal power would quash any democratic reforms. In late 1959, Matthews was still assuring his publisher that Castro intended "to clear the Reds out of the army" and wanted "good relations with the United States."

The reality was far muddier. In December 1961, UPI reported Castro declaring that "I am a Marxist-Leninist and I shall be to the last days of my life." In fact, Matthews believed that UPI had gotten the story wrong: In a rambling, five-hour speech, Castro had actually stated that his political ideology had evolved slowly. Nevertheless, the "confession" stuck -- and made life for Matthews, who had assured his readers otherwise, a living hell.

Hate mail began to arrive at the Times, some addressed to "Comrade Matthews," and magazines like Time and Newsweek questioned his judgment. But the most memorable attack came from the young conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr., who headlined his tongue-lashing article in American Legion magazine "I Got My Job Through the New York Times." (Curiously, UPI's Francis L. McCarthy, who was responsible for reporting both Castro's "death" and the mistranslated speech, never received the opprobrium served on Matthews.)

DePalma makes clear that Matthews was not a "useful idiot" in the mode of Walter Duranty, the Times Moscow correspondent who went famously soft on Stalin. Matthews's sin was that he was incapable of "simply explain[ing] the world," writes DePalma, and his irrepressible longing "to change it." Even Castro came to weary of Matthews's self-appointed role as Cuba expert and meddler. "I am sick and tired of that old man who thinks he is my father," Castro complained at one point.

DePalma is especially good on the rivalry between Matthews and Ruby Hart Phillips, the Times's resourceful woman in Havana, though there are a few missteps here: DePalma understates the alliance between Cuba's Communist Party and the dictator Fulgencio Batista, as well as Castro's fame prior to Matthews's notorious interview. (Castro had been a household name in Cuba since his assault on the Moncada military barracks in 1953 and his subsequent trial.) There is also some clumsy diction and repetitions that beg for another round of rewriting and editing.

Most usefully, DePalma's rendering of the Matthews/Castro/Times triangle is an illuminating meditation on some burning media issues. Few readers will fail to see parallels with a more recent flap concerning the overly credulous Times reporter Judith Miller and her reporting on Saddam Hussein's supposed doomsday arsenal.

After a decade of painful marginalization, Matthews resigned in 1967 and went off to write books, hoping, like Castro, that history would absolve him. It didn't. He died in 1977. Some at the Times, like executive editor Turner Catledge, had second thoughts about their treatment of Matthews, writing that "in retrospect I have the haunting thought that Matthews was more sinned against than sinning." It is an assessment with which DePalma seems to agree.

Reviewed by A.L. Bardach
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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