Politics & Policy

Clinton’s Rosenberg Case

Before we "move on."

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the March 19, 2001, issue of National Review.

Bill Clinton’s last days in office were busy ones; and the stomach still revolts from them.

Hours before his successor was sworn in, Clinton granted clemency to a pair of longtime terrorists from the Weather Underground, Susan Rosenberg and Linda Sue Evans. These women are less well known than the glam figures Bernadine Dohrn and Kathy Boudin, but they are deadly enough. For the last decade and a half, they have been on the roll call of the darlings of the violent Left, along with Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, and other “political” killers. Their world is unforgettably described in Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s 1989 book, Destructive Generation.

Rosenberg and Evans were the kind the authors dub “radical airheads.” These were white women, brought up in privilege, who placed themselves in the service of more unflinching killers, usually black. They were support players in the Underground: drivers of getaway cars, haulers of weapons, securers of safehouses. They let others pull the trigger, but were always faithful abettors. In the 1970s and ’80s, Rosenberg and Evans participated in a string of armed robberies and other crimes, leaving corpses, mayhem, and fear in their wake.

The two belonged primarily to the Weather group, but all such outfits worked together, in an alliance of terror: the May 19th Communist Organization, the Black Liberation Army, the Red Guerrilla Resistance, the Republic of New Afrika, and so on. Collectively, they were known, in positively bourgeois fashion, as “The Family.”

Rosenberg–on whom we will focus–was born in 1956 and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her father was a dentist, her mother involved with the theater. The girl attended the “progressive” Walden School and, at 17, traveled to Cuba as a member of a “youth work brigade.” In time, she left such activities for the harder action of The Family.

The Family’s most notorious crime occurred on October 20, 1981, in Nanuet, N.Y. This was the operation code-named “Big Dance.” (Details of the crime are given in John Castellucci’s 1986 book, Big Dance. Castellucci, a reporter with the Providence Journal, remains a leading authority on the case and its many actors.) The gang held up a Brink’s truck, killing a guard named Peter Paige. In flight, they killed two police officers, Waverly Brown and Edward O’Grady. Brown had been the first black man admitted to the local force–a real pioneer. This fact should be remembered in light of the contention of Rosenberg et al. that they were dedicated to black people and black progress everywhere.

Rosenberg’s role in the crime was that of getaway driver and general accomplice. Four of her partners were immediately caught. At least eight others escaped, including Rosenberg herself.

Their ranks somewhat thinned, The Family continued with their robberies, bombings, and other assaults. In 1983 came their attack on the U.S. Capitol. Their bombs killed no one, but caused considerable damage and spooked the nation. A statement sent to a radio station read: “We purposely aimed our attack at the institutions of imperialist rule rather than at individual members of the ruling class. We did not choose to kill any of them this time. But their lives are not sacred.” Rosenberg, Linda Sue Evans, and five of their cohorts were indicted for the Capitol bombing. Their numerous other targets included the Naval War College, an Israeli-owned company, and a patrolmen’s benevolent association.

Relatively little is known of Rosenberg’s years as a fugitive; she has not told. We know, however, that she lived for a period in New Haven, Conn., with a fellow terrorist, Marilyn Jean Buck. Buck was known as the “quartermaster” of The Family, responsible for abundant materiel.

Law enforcement caught a break on November 29, 1984, when Rosenberg was spotted at a storage facility in Cherry Hill, N.J.: She was loading over 700 pounds of explosives into a rented bin. She also had with her an arsenal of guns, and the accouterments of her trade: The Anarchist Cookbook, Guerrilla Warfare, counterfeit police IDs. In addition, she had plans for future attacks. The explosives Rosenberg was handling were enough to destroy the entire area; she was charged with transporting them “with intent to kill and injure.” Yelled Rosenberg, as she was led away, “We’re caught, but we’re not defeated. Long live the armed struggle.”

In a tense trial, with helicopters whirring overhead and the courthouse thick with guards, Rosenberg pleaded innocent. “We are not criminals,” she said. “We are revolutionary guerrillas. We are from an armed clandestine movement within the United States.” She wore an Arafat-style headdress and lectured the court about the Middle East, Central America, and other subjects. Her claque in the courtroom cheered and whooped. When Rosenberg was convicted, she raised her fist in defiance and delivered yet more “revolutionary” speeches. It was not she who had lost, she said, but the U.S. government, which had been exposed as an enemy of the people. She asked the court to give her the maximum sentence–the better for revolutionary ferment–and got it: 58 years, for weapons possession and conspiracy. No punishment had ever been so severe in such a case. Satisifed, prosecutors declined to pursue charges relating to the Brink’s murders and the other crimes.

A couple of months later, police got another break: Marilyn Jean Buck and Linda Sue Evans, operating together, were detected and nabbed outside a diner in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. At their trial, they, too, preached revolution and waved fists. One of Evans’s slogans was “Free the land.”

These are some of the bare facts; the enormity of them is not to be missed. In June 1986, when Rosenberg and the others were safely in prison, another huge cache of explosives was discovered in New Haven, abandoned by them. It had been a close call. The explosives were leaking and dangerous when police, after evacuating the neighborhood, removed them. The Family had not intended this material for a Fourth of July display.

In prison, Rosenberg managed to keep her name before a devoted leftist public. She complained of ill treatment, and a documentary was made about her and her fellow inmates, who included other Family members (and one member of a related family: the Manson Family’s Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to kill President Ford). Rosenberg signed her letters “Venceremos, Susan.” The usual lot–William Kunstler, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Berrigan–signed petitions demanding her release. She wrote “A Poem for Mumia [Abu-Jamal],” which featured the lines: “Their message is so clear / Do not be Black / Do not be radical / Do not be a political prisoner / There is still time to / SHAKE IT LOOSE.”

In a 1990 interview, she said, “I don’t consider myself an extraordinary person at all, but I do believe that my comrades and I made extraordinary decisions.” She utterly rejected the sweet, poetic label “prisoner of conscience”: “I am not a prisoner of conscience. For all of us here, it is our political beliefs that have led us to take action that put us into antagonistic conflict with the government. My ideas led to certain actions that led to this ongoing conflict with the government.”

All the while, she was what wardens term a “model prisoner.” She got a master’s degree, developed an “AIDS curriculum,” and caused few problems. Sometimes she claimed to have renounced violence, and at other times she affirmed the “right of oppressed peoples to armed struggle.” It is possible she saw, and sees, no contradiction. Her statements have been, to say the least, confused. In the mid ’90s, she came up for parole. She expressed a kind of regret for the explosives at Cherry Hill–the crime for which she was convicted–but denied involvement in the Brink’s robbery and her other acts of terror. Wrote U.S. attorney Mary Jo White to the parole commission, “Even if Susan Rosenberg now professes a change of heart about her pursuit of violence as a means to achieve her political objectives, the wreckage she has left in her wake is too enormous to overlook.”

But Rosenberg and her allies mounted a smooth campaign. Last December, 60 Minutes did a segment on her that was extraordinary for its softness, and soft-headedness. It left the impression that Rosenberg was basically a political leafleteer, perhaps caught up with the wrong crowd. To read a transcript of the segment, in light of the totality of the information on Rosenberg, is jaw-dropping.

Remarkable, too, was the spectacle of Susan Rosenberg mouthing legal arguments–a form of the old “popular frontism.” It was unfair, she said, that her crimes as a whole weighed on the parole commission, when she had been tried only for the particular explosives. Officials were failing their duty, she said, were being untrue to the legal system. Of course, this was the system of the very government she had given her life to destroying. She had always forsworn use of the American process as “counterrevolutionary.” Prosecutors respond, in part, that Rosenberg chose to flee rather than stand trial for–to give one example–the Brink’s robbery. And the weapons sentence was supposed to put Rosenberg away, pretty much for good.

Yet her release was a cause of the Left, and Rosenberg petitioned for presidential clemency. She must have been heartened by Clinton’s August 1999 springing of Puerto Rican terrorists in New York, Weather-like criminals she proudly acknowledged as her comrades. And the Puerto Ricans had not even asked for clemency; Clinton had simply bestowed it on them, as his wife ran for the Senate. One of those who went to bat for Rosenberg was Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents the Rosenberg family on the Upper West Side. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Nadler had been a key defender of Clinton’s at the time of the president’s impeachment.

On the morning of George W. Bush’s inauguration, Clinton gave Rosenberg what she wanted. He did the same for Linda Sue Evans. They walked.

When the news hit, the cries of the victims’ families were almost unbearable to hear. Their incomprehension at what the president had done was heartbreaking. They were not unforgiving people, they said; rather, Rosenberg–to stick with the chief figure–had not shown any remorse for what had happened to them. She had never said she was sorry, never owned up to any responsibility. One victim’s widow said, “I never believed in my heart Clinton would do this. After Oklahoma City, how could you pardon anybody who was caught in this country with weapons of mass destruction?”

New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who, as a U.S. attorney, had prosecuted the Brink’s case, said, “I’m shocked.” The city’s police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, who had also dealt with Rosenberg, said, “It sickens me.” Even Hillary Clinton’s fellow senator from New York, Democrat Charles Schumer, denounced Clinton’s action.

Rosenberg, for her part, returned to her parents’ apartment on West 90th Street. She rode out to Coney Island to see the ocean. In a radio interview, she said–blandly, passively, self-absolvingly–”It was an extreme time.” No, it was not. She was extreme in it. And she knew exactly what she was doing, embraced a choice, on a kind of principle. David Horowitz put it neatly the other day: “That’s radicals for you: They declare war on you, arm themselves, make bombs, and kill people, but when you catch them, they’re just idealists, and they feel persecuted. I’m sure that’s Rosenberg’s mentality today.”

A passage from his and Peter Collier’s book applies here. It has a Weatherman, after years of crime, rejoining society and marveling, “Guilty as hell, free as a bird–America is a great country.”


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