Stranger Than Fiction

Truth. . .And Consequences: Seven Who Would Not Be Silenced By Greg Mitchell Dembner Books: $14.95; 330 pp.

"THE NAIL that sticks up," a Japanese saying warns, "will be hammered down." Robert E. White, former United States Ambassador to EI Salvador, learned that lesson well last January. White told reporters that the Salvadoran government, contrary to its official declarations, had failed to conduct a "serious investigation" into the horrifying murders of four American missionaries. After publicly speaking out against additional U.S. military aid to EI Salvador, White was immediately relieved of his post by the Reagan Administration. To add insult to injury, after testifying candidly before a House subcommittee. White was "retired" from the Foreign Service at the request of an embarrassed Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.

In Truth. . . And Consequences, White is but one example of a person who did not "go along"--someone who "could have lied, evaded, or covered up--but instead, at great risk to [his own] well being . . . committed truth." Author Greg Mitchell tries to enlighten what he sees as a vast majority of Americans who view "whistleblowers" as "zealots, fanatics, cranks, or finks."

In vividly describing the struggles of seven Americans who chose to "speak the truth," Mitchell asks, "Why do some people feel compelled to right what they perceive as a wrong, while others, who have witnessed the same crime or abuses, turn away?" But while the author, a 35-year-old journalist, succeeds in depicting the pyretic victories of his seven warriors, he fails miserably to answer the larger, topical questions he presents as important:

Why do peers and the public at large tend to condemn those who 'go public' with legitimate grievances? And why, When the need for internal vigilance is increasing, have companies muzzled their employees, and the government only paid lip service to protecting civil servants? . . . Why not call them whistleblowers and let it go at that? . . . Why do some venture? And why do others fear to tread? Why do most of those who don't step out inevitably turn against those who do? Why, in a society rife with corruption and vulnerable to environmental disaster, does it seem to be a national policy to discourage inside witnesses? And what, if anything, is the public going to do about it?

Granted these questions are abstract ones, with no easy answers. But aside from a simplistic nine-page afterward. Mitchell's only efforts to resolve these enigmas of social responsibility are the graphic, tepid biographies of his heroes. With seven vivid examples of "mavericks who would not be silenced," the author whimpers through his point by implicit example. Unfortunately, the examples Mitchell chooses are banal and consequently they ring hollow. For example:


* Maude De Victor, a Veterans Administration counselor, uncovered the potentially lethal effects of the herbicide Agent Orange an American GI's and almost lost her job. (Does this story sound familiar?)

* 45-year-old Jim Maslinski, an inmate at a Florida State prison, testified against three jailhouse rapists and exposed himself to violent threats of reprisal. (Wasn't that the subject of a recent NBC movie?)

* Sheriff Ron Donell of West Virginia went undercover to gather evidence against a corrupt prosecutor and two reputed mobsters and was rejected by voters in the next election. (Dallas, Dynasty, Lou Grant, Quincy, Knots Landing--take your pick.)

BECAUSE HE DEVOTES the bulk of Truth . . . And Consequences to tracing the wins and losses of the seven heroes who spoke their minds, Mitchell can never pinpoint precisely why so few Americans are brave enough to speak out. However, citing a recent trend towards making more government officials accountable for their actions, the author optimistically notes:

I'm not sure how much longer nearly everyone can or will remain silent. . . . Frank Service once said that of the Police Academy cadets he graduated with in New York City ten percent were incorruptible, ten percent were corrupt, and the rest were eminently adaptable. It will always be easier to row with the flow than against it, but perhaps the tide will turn, or maybe we can turn it.

While it's nice that he ends his book on an upbeat note, Mitchell's hope seems to be a cop-out. Mitchell's conclusions are about as realistic as it is to expect arms negotiator Paul Nitze to conclude, "Sure there are nuclear weapons on the face of the earth, but maybe--just maybe--someday, they'll disappear." With overworked examples--if thorough ones--and with an endless array of profound questions. One can only ask why the author didn't spend an extra chapter analyzing the motives and machinations of men and whistleblowers.

As it stands Truth . . . And Consequences is merely a collection of biographies of seven individuals who really had something to say. Too bad Mr. Mitchell didn't learn from their examples.