NEW YORK – Neither fame nor being hated has changed journalist Seymour Hersh (search). He answers his own phone. On the second ring. And just as quickly rains a torrent of words down the receiver.
He'll talk about his stories, "but I am not talking about me anymore," he says, responding to a request for an interview. "I'm not Uriah Heep-ing it, but I'm still working. I owe the magazine that. I owe the magazine my stories."
He means Charles Dickens' hypocritically humble Uriah Heep. The magazine he is beholden to is The New Yorker. And the stories are a shattering series detailing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers in a notorious jail called Abu Ghraib (search).
"Well, listen," he says, softening a bit, "I'll talk to you for a little while until the phone rings. Go ahead, ask me questions. I'll answer them as best I can, but I can't tell you everything because I'm still working on the story."
That should thrill the Pentagon.
Seymour Myron Hersh — "Sy" to nearly everyone — is 67. He is a living journalism legend. Thirty-four years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the My Lai (search) atrocity of the Vietnam War, he is still working, still making people angry and still being called names.
Most recently, it was liar. His latest New Yorker report said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) and others in the Pentagon encouraged the "physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners."
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita called the story "crap." He also called it "outlandish" and "conspiratorial."
Hersh has heard worse.
"Oh, God," he sputters. "I mean, come on. There was a period in my life after My Lai when military people used to call me up and tell me what they were going to do to my private parts. So I'm supposed to be worried about this guy?"
His Washington, D.C., office number and address are listed in the white pages. Likewise, his home address and telephone number.
"I hope they're much more frightened of me than I am of them," he says of the people and institutions he has taken to task. The list includes the Pentagon, the CIA, Henry Kissinger, the legend of John F. Kennedy and various branches of the military.
Forcing Iraqi prisoners to strip naked and to simulate sexual acts, among other abuses in U.S.-run prison camps overseas, constitutes a "colossal, strategic blunder" by American military officials, Hersh says.
"It's nothing like we had in My Lai," he says. "These kids didn't murder people. But we have convinced the Arab world that we are a bunch of perverts."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Hersh has written more than a dozen groundbreaking stories for the weekly New Yorker, which he joined in 1992.
He is driven, obsessed and relentless. His ability to cultivate and keep sources is coveted by colleagues — and criticized by those he covers when those sources are quoted anonymously.
The people who talk to Hersh, he says, aren't usually malcontents, but people who have seen horrible things and still believe in doing right.
"I had a two-star general call me yesterday and he was so mad," Hersh says — not because the abuse had been documented, but because it should never have happened.
The Pentagon, Hersh believes, "has lost its way."
It's not the first time he's thought so.
In 1969, on his own dime, he flew to Ft. Benning, Ga., searching for a young Army platoon leader named William L. Calley Jr., who faced court-martial for killing civilians in Vietnam.
Hersh finally found Calley, after bluffing his way past the base's guards and driving around for hours, he told Rolling Stone years later. They got food and liquor and went to the house of Calley's girlfriend, where they talked through the night about March 16, 1968, when soldiers from the Army's 11th Infantry Brigade overran the village of My Lai in South Vietnam and shot to death at least 350 civilians — some from helicopters, some in their huts, others lined up before ditches.
Hersh wrote the story on the plane home to Washington and peddled it to major magazines. They rejected it. A friend ran the tiny Dispatch News Service, which published the story after selling it to 36 newspapers at $100 a pop.
It won the Pulitzer in 1970.
Two years later, Hersh joined the New York Times' Washington bureau. He stayed for seven tumultuous years, leaving to write his unforgiving "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House." He followed with two more books — one about the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, the other about Israel — in the 1980s.
Another book, 1997's "The Dark Side of Camelot," is an example of when Hersh has gotten it wrong in his career. The book devoted great passages to John F. Kennedy's sex life and was panned by critics, and Hersh had to delete a chapter before publication because it turned out to be based on forged documents involving Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe that Hersh had thought were real.
Writer David Halberstam, winner of the 1964 Pulitzer for his own Vietnam reporting, says Hersh has also authored his pain-in-the-neck reputation. "It is a veneer he puts forth," Halberstam says. "He is cranky and difficult because it saves him from doing things he doesn't want to do."
And it started early, including his 1963-67 stint at The Associated Press.
Former AP Special Correspondent Walter Mears remembers a very young, very intense Seymour Hersh. "He was a brash, tough and fine reporter from day one," Mears said.
After covering the Pentagon and being promoted to an investigative team, Hersh quit the AP after getting into a fight with his editors. "He's always been a thorn in the side of whoever he was covering. And in our case, of who he was working for," Mears says, then laughs.
"He's a man of temperament and passion," says New Yorker editor David Remnick, "and that's part of what fuels his engine."
Hersh has been married for more than 30 years and has three grown children. He grew up outside of Chicago, graduated from college with a degree in history and flunked out of law school before joining the scrappy City News Service — whose alumni include novelist Kurt Vonnegut and whose newsroom provided fodder for "The Front Page."
He finds profiles of himself tedious. "This isn't about me," he says.
He stops talking and takes a breath. He has grown impatient. The implication "I need to get back to work" comes down the phone just as surely as if he'd spoken the words.
"See, there, I've given you more than enough," he says. "If you need more, call me back." Seymour Hersh hangs up.
The journalist has gone back to work.