• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Shame of the Republic

The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power

by David Wise
Random House, 356 pp., $8.95

The Crippled Giant: American Foreign Policy and Its Domestic Consequences

by J. William Fulbright
Random House, 292 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Political Prisoners in America

by Charles Goodell
Random House, 391 pp., $7.95


Watergate and all those attendant usurpations, subversions, and corruptions for which the word has become both a symbol and a short cut, is neither a “deplorable incident”—to use Mr. Nixon’s revealing phrase—nor a historical sport. It is a major crisis, constitutional, political, and moral, one that challenges our governmental system. Public attention is, and will long remain, focussed on what happened, but already the interest of publicists and scholars is shifting to the more troublesome question of why it happened. That is really the subject of these three books—all of them written before the Watergate scandal broke, but all in a sense anticipating the psychological and moral problems that Watergate has raised.

The roots of our current malaise go back to the paranoia about communism—first Soviet, then Chinese—that obsessed Americans after 1947. So deep and pervasive was this paranoia that—like the Southern commitment to slavery before the Civil War and to white supremacy after the war—in time it came to dominate our lives and our thoughts, to color our views of politics, economy, education, science, and morality. As in the worlds of Kafka and Orwell, it justified adopting the tactics of the enemy in order to defeat him—just what the Nixon Administration has been doing for the past four years, just what that half-baked “Jeffersonian liberal” Mr. Thomas Huston achieved when he sold Mr. Nixon a vast scheme of repression in order to avert repression. In both the McCarthy and Watergate eras it has justified undermining the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in order, presumably, to save them.

Inevitably Watergate (perhaps we should find a different name, like Nixonism) conjures up and reflects McCarthyism. But something new has been added; indeed much has been added that makes it more dangerous, more corrupt, and more subversive than that earlier foray against sanity and decency. For war has been added—a ten-years’ war which benumbed the American conscience and blunted the American political intelligence.

The cold war itself was largely a product of deductive and a priori reasoning, and therfore a self-delusion, and so, too, in added measure, was the ten-year war against Vietnam. The doctrinaire state of mind lends itself eagerly to paranoia, for real dangers are nothing compared to those our imagination can conjure up. It was almost inevitable that the psychology which imagined the domino theory and envisioned a million Chinese landing (after a good healthy swim) on the shores of California should see in every student demonstration, every sit-down at an airport or a napalm factory, every revelation of government chicanery or of overruns in naval contracts a threat to the survival of the republic. For if the threat of communism is so importunate as to justify the longest war in which we have ever been engaged, the satanic arsenal of weapons used against friends and enemies indiscriminately, the use of napalm the My Lai and other massacres, the violations of international law and of the laws of war, the destruction of a whole nation, then surely it justifies such minor peccadilloes as wiretapping, or the use of provocative agents, or breaking into safes, or the corruption of elections, or Watergate.

Basic to an understanding of the usurpations, duplicities, and irresponsibilities of the Nixon era is paranoia, which has a life of its own, and which still lingers on—even after the “end” of the war and the rapprochement with China—polluting the moral and intellectual atmosphere of the country. Certainly there is little evidence that Mr. Nixon or his underlings think the new relationship with the Soviet Union and China justifies the mitigation of their own paranoia about “national security,” or their conviction that any attack upon official policy is itself a potential threat to security. How else explain the vindictiveness of the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg and the readiness to subvert justice in that prosecution; how else explain the political skulduggery that persisted long after the 1972 election, the persistent use of the FBI and the CIA for political purposes, the readiness to employ provocative agents, the contumacious boast at the POW dinner that reliance on secrecy, even useless secrecy, would go on and on; how else explain the determination to bomb Cambodia back to the Stone Age?

Successive presidents have tried to wash their hands of personal responsibility for the lawlessness and corruption so pervasive in our government in the last decade or so. But whoever planned and launched the Bay of Pigs, whoever engineered the Tonkin Bay fraud, deceived the nation about the danger of communism in Santo Domingo, directed the secret war in Laos, authorized the use of napalm and of free-fire zones, acquiesced in the torture and murder of prisoners; whoever concocted Watergate, rifled the safes, installed the bugging devices, planted the agents, accepted and paid bribes, doctored the polls and the cables—for all these ultimate responsibility lodges in the White House. It is the president who sets the moral tone, who selects the assistants he wishes to work with him—above all the attorneys general—and it is the president who profits from such successes as the chicaneries of his associates and subordinates may produce. It is the president therefore who must be assigned responsibility not only for failures—as with the Bay of Pigs—or for violations of international law—as with Santo Domingo—but for debasing the political standards and polluting the moral atmosphere of the nation.


But it is insufficient, it is almost trivial, to assign full responsibility for our current sickness to particular presidents. After all it is the American people who elected them—in the case of Mr. Nixon by the largest majority in our history. Two competing explanations, or at least illuminations, require consideration. One is that we are confronted not merely with personal offenses and particular failures, but with a major breakdown in our constitutional and political mechanisms. The second is that our government and politics, with all their knaveries, vulgarities, and dishonesties, more or less reflect American society, and even the American character, and that we are, in fact, getting the kind of government that we want. The fault, in short, is in ourselves.

The first of these explanations lends itself more readily to analysis than the second. Put most simply it argues that a Constitution designed for the modest needs of a society of four million people, whose business was mostly farming, and whose political needs were adequately served by local and state governments, and based on the principle that government, like dress, was the badge of lost innocence and that wherever possible the authority of government should be limited rather than enlarged, is no longer adequate to the importunate needs of a nation of 200 million, for effective controls over the economy and technology, for the operation of traditional democracy, or for the requirements of world power and of modern war. Thus those famous constitutional principles established in England and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—separation and balance of powers, limitations on government inscribed in bills of rights, restrictions on executive authority, especially in the realm of making war, legislative control of the purse, due process of law and the impartial rule of law—are dangerously put out of date.

Equally out of date, so President Nixon proclaims by his conduct if not by his words, are those assumptions about the relations of men to government so fundamental that they were either taken for granted or left to the rhetoric of preambles and bills of rights rather than put into the body of the Constitution. Thus, with respect to the assumption that public servants are precisely that, the Virginia Bill of Rights puts it that “all power is vested in and derived from the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.” “Amenable” is not the word that pops into our minds when we contemplate Mr. Nixon, nor does he think of himself and of the Praetorian Guard with which he surrounds himself as servants. He regards the American people as essentially children; he treats their elected representatives with contempt; he says, in effect, that the people have no inherent right of privacy, no inherent right to differ or dissent on great issues of policy, no inherent right even to a free, open, and honest ballot.

No less important, in the eyes of the Founding Fathers, was the assumption of candor and openness in government—the assumption, that is, that the people have a right to know. This was the reason for those provisions in almost every constitution for freedom of the press; this was the logic behind Jefferson’s famous statement that given a choice between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he would choose the latter; this was the philosophy that animated that passion for education expressed by most of the constitution makers: that without enlightenment about politics, and information about government, democracy simply would not work.

It is sometimes argued that the Constitution itself was drawn up in secret session. So it was. It was also debated in twelve state conventions during a period of a year, and by almost everyone who had participated in its making. Not only in the Federalist Papers but in scores of books and pamphlets every line and word of the document was subjected to the most searching scrutiny. No other political document of our history was more thoroughly—or more publicly—analyzed and explored. And on the whole since Washington, presidents have faithfully continued this early tradition, though there are exceptions. The oft-cited case of Washington’s “refusal” to make available to the Congress the papers bearing on the Jay Treaty is of course not an exception. Washington gave the Senate everything it asked for, and the House everything that bore on its constitutional authority to make appropriations. Just as Nixon’s is the first administration in our history to attempt prior censorship of the press—the New York Times and Washington Post—and the first systematically to withhold from the Congress information it requires to fulfill its constitutional obligations, so it is the first to adopt wiretapping as an almost official political instrument, and to condone that habitual politics of lying which is the subject of David Wise’s enthralling and sobering book.

All of this—so runs the argument—is rooted nevertheless not in the in-adequacy or corruption of the men who happen to be in office at any moment, but in the inadequacy and corruption of the anachronistic mechanisms with which we are saddled when we undertake to deal with the complex problems of modern economy, technology, and war.

This brings us back to the central question: can we run a Leviathan state with an eighteenth-century Constitution?

Perhaps the obvious answer is also the right one: so far we have. Needless to say the Constitution is not merely the original document of 1787; it is also the score and more of amendments, some of them fundamental. It is the gloss of four hundred volumes of Supreme Court opinions. It is that organic growth presided over by President and Congress and not unacceptable to the Court. That growth has been extensive, even prodigious. In the case of the Civil War amendments, it has been revolutionary. But both the organic growth and the revolutions were constitutional. So, too, were such political revolutions as produced, over the years, judicial review, the transformation of the federal system, and the evolution of the welfare state.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print