The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power
The Crippled Giant: American Foreign Policy and Its Domestic Consequences
Political Prisoners in America
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.
Is the crisis of the present so imperative that it requires an unconstitutional revolution—requires, that is, abandoning the separation of powers, discarding limitations on the executive authority, weakening legislative control of the purse, subverting the traditional rule of law, and covering with a fog of secrecy the operations of government? Clearly Mr. Nixon and a good many of his followers think that it is—and now we are back with the phobia about communism and paranoia about national security.
Each generation tends to think—it is of course one of the many forms of vanity—that the crisis which it happens to confront is the gravest in history. Nothing that we face today compares in gravity with the crisis of the Civil War—when it seemed that the nation might be rent asunder and slavery prosper—or the crisis of the great depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s. All three of these were attended by political and constitutional revolution—the Civil War crisis by a very disorderly revolution, but constitutional nevertheless. It might well be questioned whether we even face a crisis today other than the crises we have masochistically brought upon ourselves—the crisis of the cold war, the crisis of our paranoia about China, the crisis of the reckless betrayal of our fiduciary obligation to posterity through the destruction of natural resources, the crisis of confidence in republican government brought about by unconstitutional war and unconstitutional domestic policies, the crisis of morals. It is of course all familiar enough: you create a real crisis by moving convulsively against an imaginary one.
There is indeed no reason to suppose that the problems which confront us cannot be solved by regular political and constitutional means. While it is no doubt true that this administration would be unable to function as it has functioned over the past four years if it were required to observe the strict limits of the Constitution, the conclusion is not that we should therefore acquiesce in the relaxation of constitutional restrictions but that the administration should abide by them. For in every instance of administrative challenge to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it was the challenge that proved disastrous, not the constitutional limitation.
Would we be worse off if Nixon had confined himself to the constitutional limitations of his office? Would we be worse off if he had been unable to wage war in Laos, invade and bomb Cambodia, mine Haiphong Harbor; spread a pall of secrecy over not only military but domestic operations that had any connection with “national security”; establish censorship in many areas of governmental operations; use the CIA not only to subvert foreign governments but in domestic politics, and violate the constitutional obligation to “make a regular Statement of all…Expenditures of all public Money” with respect to the five or six billion dollars which the CIA annually spends; destroy domestic programs that the Congress had voted by impounding appropriations; authorize wire taps on foreign embassies, congressmen, the National Security Council, newsmen, and others; invoke executive privilege, and spread the mantle of executive immunity over his henchmen, use agents provocateurs to smoke out “antiwar radicals,” and subvert the processes of justice by turning the Justice Department into a political agency? What Mr. Nixon complains of being unable to do under a strict interpretation of the Constitution is precisely what those who wrote the Constitution intended he should not do and should be unable to do.
Yet we cannot ignore the fact that one part of the Constitution has always given us trouble, and that is precisely the provision for the executive and for executive power. In no other area has the Constitution had to be so patched up—four amendments no less, all dealing with the executive branch—this compared to one dealing with the judiciary (and that speedily nullified), and one—popular election of senators—dealing with the legislative. Not surprising; after all the office was new and, with the possible exception of some American states, unprecedented; after all, everyone took for granted that Washington would be the first president, and there he sat, presiding over the Convention, the very symbol of rectitude; after all there were as yet no national parties to take charge of elections and even of administrations.
The framers were confronted by an almost insoluble dilemma: fear that power always corrupts and awareness that the man who presided over their deliberations and would be the first president was incorruptible; conviction that the executive power, especially in the area of making war, was highly dangerous, and awareness that Washington had already demonstrated that with a man of honor there was no danger. Nor could they devise any method which would ensure a Washington—or an Adams, a Jefferson, a Madison—in the presidential chair.
They took refuge therefore in studied ambiguity, and ambiguity has presided over the executive power from that day to this. Consider, for example, the problem of the executive power in foreign relations. It is, said Woodrow Wilson a century or so later, “very absolute”; clearly Mr. Nixon thinks so too. But it rests on very uncertain constitutional authority, for that document says merely that the President shall be commander-in-chief (which does not necessarily concern the conduct of foreign relations), that he shall, with the advice and consent of the Senate, appoint ambassadors and make treaties, and that he shall receive ambassadors. That is the whole of it, and what a superstructure has been reared on that foundation!
The dilemma persists. To allow the president to take us into war, as he did on two recent occasions, is to invite disaster; to tie his hands in emergencies is also to invite disaster. Experience, to be sure, has so far justified only the first, not the second, of these dangers. Perhaps such a bill as the Javits-Stennis War Powers Act may at least mitigate the problem, but it is improbable that any legislation can deal adequately with the many-sided facade of executive powers as well as with complex problems of tenure, removal, impeachment, succession, and so forth. Perhaps in this respect the only ultimate reassurance can come in a courageous and revitalized Congress, a truly independent judiciary, and that eternal vigilance which the Founding Fathers took for granted.
Watergate then cannot be explained merely as the consequence of incompetence or knavery of men in high office: these terms can be applied to the Grant and Harding administrations as well, when not only the republic but the presidency survived and flourished. Nor can the American people so easily shift responsibility onto Mr. Nixon. After all he had not led a precisely private life, and 42 million Americans who should or could have been familiar with his public career after 1946 voted for him. Surely we must conclude that they got not only what they deserved but what they wanted, and that in a democracy the people have a right to get what they want as long as they do so according to law.
Nor can Watergate be explained as the result of intolerable stresses and strains on our constitutional and political mechanisms; these have held up under far greater strains during the Depression and the Great War, and indeed it is not the Constitution and laws that have failed us, but persistent resort to lawlessness.
A third possible explanation is that implied in different ways by Senators Fulbright and Goodell, and by Mr. Wise, namely that responsibility for our crisis is rooted in changes in the American character, the American mind, American habits or traits—use what term you will—over the past quarter century, changes reflected in Mr. Nixon and his associates and in the current style of American politics.
Much here is in the realm of conjecture, for to fix national traits is like fixing quicksilver, and to go on from there to trace cause and effect is almost to indulge in mysticism. Yet, at some moments of history anyway, national styles do seem to be reflected in politics: the style of the Old South, for example, in the politics of slavery; the style of Bismarck’s Germany in the war and diplomacy of the last half of the nineteenth century—how different from the almost music-box Germany of early romanticism; the style of the Japan that launched the great Pacific war. Styles change, and have in the South, in Germany, and in Japan. If Jefferson is a representative figure of the American Enlightenment, faithfully reflecting its virtues, its optimisms, its faiths, its limitations, so perhaps Mr. Nixon is a representative figure of contemporary America, reflecting its arrogance, its violence, its passion for manipulation, its commercialism, but not reflecting its generosity or idealism or intellectual ferment.
Consider first something very large, the shift in the concept of America’s role in history, and of the American “mission.” To Jefferson’s generation that role was clear—to provide a model and a moral example to the peoples of the world. The American empire was, in the almost hackneyed phrase of the Founding Fathers, an Empire of Reason. Mr. Nixon too believes in an American mission. That mission is to be achieved, however, not by reason but by power—force at home to whip recalcitrants into line, force abroad to whip lesser breeds into line—force in little things like breaking into safes, force in big things like building the greatest arsenal in the history of the world.
The corruption of the Jeffersonian view of mission emerges wherever we look: for moral mission, the military; for a unique vision of self-government, hostility throughout the globe to the forces of popular insurgency; for a welcome to radicals and dissenters who had fled the tyranny of the Old World, a refusal to grant visas to those whose ideas might be thought radical by the Daughters of the American Revolution; for faith in the wisdom of the people, a conviction that the people are children whose judgment is not to be trusted; for what Jefferson called “the illimitable freedom of the human mind,” a deep distrust of freedom as something inescapably tarnished by subversion; for passion for peace and disarmament, an exaltation of the military and a readiness to rely on it without mercy or compassion.
Our search for peace is rooted in the assumption that we are—far more than other great nations—selfless, idealistic, and peace loving. If this is indeed so, then it follows logically that the wars we fight must be an expression of those qualities. When we develop the most elaborate weapons system in the world, it is for peace; when we maintain 2,000 military establishments overseas, it is for peace; when we authorize the CIA to operate secretly in sixty countries and subvert those governments we do not approve of, it is for peace. We changed the government of Guatemala for peace, we invaded Cuba for peace, we landed marines in Santo Domingo for peace, we support the Generals in Brazil and the Colonels in Greece and the colonialists in Portugal for peace; we came to the aid of Diem and Thieu for peace. Now that the war in Vietnam is over, we are bombing Cambodia every day as a kind of peace mission. What is most frightening about all this is that from Mr. Nixon on down the American people can swallow this wonderland logic without gagging.
Nowhere is our changing sense of history more pronounced than in the changing attitude of most Americans toward posterity. The generation whose bicentennial achievements we are about to celebrate was deeply and pervasively posterity-minded: the conviction that everything must be done for the benefit of future generations animated almost every one of the Founding Fathers. That attitude profoundly influenced the American concept of history, too—that though Old World nations were the prisoners of history, America was not, that though in the Old World history is retrospective, in America it was prospective. Both these attitudes pretty well faded out in the past half century or so and now they are but a memory: who now believes that America is the model for the world, or that the new nations of India and Africa look to us for moral and spiritual guidance?
We early got into the habit of taking the future for granted. As President Wilson said in his first inaugural address, “We were very heedless, and in a hurry to be great.” The passion to be great joined with the passion to be rich, in justifying exploitation of those resources which should be the property of posterity, with almost unparalleled ruthlessness. What we sometimes overlook is that it is not only the material heritage we lay waste with our exploitations, our strip mining, and our pollution, it is the political and the moral heritage as well. How little thought our government, our Corps of Engineers, our great corporations, our road builders and “developers” give to posterity; but how little thought, too, those who are prepared to sacrifice the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the principle of due process of law, the ideal of even justice, the respect for, the integrity of the ballot box, the dignity and privacy of the individual human being, give for posterity.
The growing habit of taking refuge in such terms as “national commitments,” “national security,” “obligations of power,” “peace with honor,” along with that jargon which burgeoned so luxuriantly during the Vietnam war—the “free-fire zones,” the “protective aerial reaction,” the “surgical strikes,” and “incontinent ordnance”—all this bespeaks a steady drift away from the world of realism to the world of self-delusion, from the inductive, the functional, the pragmatic in American thought to an indulgence in the abstract, the deductive, and the doctrinaire.
The rationalization of the cold war, and of the Vietnam war, was rooted in this kind of abstraction. We conjured up a world conspiracy, a monolithic communism, a domino theory—what did we not conjure up?—without feeling any need to provide supporting evidence for our fears. President Nixon reduced the whole thing to a kind of obscene absurdity when he announced that the most powerful nation in the world would be a “helpless, crippled giant” if it could not invade Cambodia! It is the implications of that concept, the cost of that kind of thinking, that Senator Fulbright has explored with his customary lucidity, cogency, and judiciousness, but with passion too. “This kind of thinking,” he writes, “robs a nation’s policy makers of objectivity and drives them to irresponsible behavior. The perpetuation of the Vietnam war is the most terrible and fateful manifestation of the determination to prove that we are ‘Number One.’ ” And he adds that Assistant Secretary of Defense McNaughton’s conclusion that “to avoid a humiliating United States defeat” accounted for some 70 percent of the logic of our war in Southeast Asia, “suggests a nation in thrall.” We sometimes forget that thrall means slavery.
The two other books under review reveal how we transferred this same psychology—and tactics—from the foreign to the domestic arena. In the realm of the law—the Dennis case is the most notorious example—we conjured up “conspiracy,” searched out not dangerous acts but dangerous “tendencies,” and created crimes almost as remote from reality as that of “imagining the death of the King.” We took refuge in public manifestations of patriotism like compulsory flag salutes, loyalty oaths, and the antics of the state and congressional un-American activities committees whose business was to provide such activities if they could not discover them, and who did.
Senator Goodell’s account of the politicizing of our justice—or resort to wiretapping, the use of provocative agents, the misuse of the grand jury, the readiness to prosecute as a kind of political punishment even when evidence of a crime was lacking—and sometimes to provide the evidence itself—all this is chilling but convincing. He was himself, he recalls, a victim of harassment: “When I was in the Senate, speaking out against administration policies, I learned that my official telephone was tapped and that Military Intelligence agents were following me around the country, building a dossier on my public remarks.” He learned more about these techniques when he was counsel for Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case—the only criminal prosecution, he reminds us, in more than 4,000 instances of the violation of government regulations concerning classified materials; his book was written before the revelations of breaking into the office files of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
Perhaps even more sobering are two statements which he quotes from men who occupied positions of great power. The first is from William Rehnquist, now sitting on the Supreme Court, who, when assistant attorney general, told the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights that the Constitution “empowers the President to prevent violation of law by maintaining surveillance of those who in his opinion, might violate it” (italics mine). As no one over five can safely be excluded from this category we shall all have to engage in surveillance over each other. The quotation comes from the now happily retired Attorney General Kleindienst, who, in 1971, assured us that it would be unnecessary to suspend the Constitution in order to cope with political unrest because:
There is enough play at the joints of our criminal law—enough flexibility—so that if we really felt that we had to pick up the leaders of a violent uprising we could. We would find some things to charge them with, and we would be able to hold them that way for a while.
Mr. Nixon and his attorneys-general have indulged in the same kind of thinking, and used the same weapons; if the current cri de coeur is no longer simple communism or international conspiracy but “protecting the national interest,” the animus is the same, and the logic. The current phrase is potentially even more dangerous than its predecessors; it is broad enough, as Mr. Wise’s book shows, to embrace supporting Pakistan against India, asking for prior censorship on the Pentagon Papers, resorting to wholesale wiretaps, authorizing mass arrests without warrants, the corruption of the election process, secret agreements that imply, if they do not require, military commitments with Spain and Portugal—the list could go on and on, and in Mr. Wise’s horrifying book it does. But as Governor Reagan has sagely observed, those guilty of misdeeds are not criminals for they meant well. So, no doubt, did Benedict Arnold.
With growth, complexity, and technological impersonality has come, almost inevitably, a weakening of individualism and of that “contrary-minded” quality which used to be so pronounced in the American character. This has meant a readiness to “follow” the president on the ground that he must know best, to accept official handouts at face value, and to resent criticism of the government as something faintly unpatriotic. It has meant, too, a ready acquiescence in regimentation, manipulation, and secrecy.
This attitude is not of course confined to military matters; it is more ostentatious in the readiness to accept the erosion of individual personality and the invasion of privacy in the world dominated by the computer. We are, statistically, far better educated than we were a century ago, but our education takes the form of thinking for ourselves rather less than it did a century ago. Whether because television has shortened our attention span, or the war benumbed our capacity for moral response, we do not appear seriously shocked by My Lai or wire taps, or even by Watergate until it appeared to be connected with the White House. Many Americans see nothing wrong in political threats against newspapers and the television networks; indeed there is a kind of curious counteremotion that the newspapers are being unfair to the president.
We look with indifference, too, at the growth of what would once have been regarded as royal attributes in our rulers—the numerous luxurious residences they require, the special jet planes, the fleets of limousines, the vast entourage which accompanies them wherever they go. How odd to remember that when Thomas Jefferson walked back to his boarding house after giving his inaugural address, he could not find a seat available for him at the dinner table, or that a quarter century later President John Quincy Adams should have the same experience on a ship sailing from Baltimore to New York.
Now government policies and tests screen out strong-minded individualists. It is improbable that any one of our greatest diplomats—Albert Gallatin, John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams—could even get into the Foreign Service today. The world of business, finance, the military, even the world of the great universities, testifies to the same preference for the impersonal chairman of a board rather than a powerful but abrasive personality who will set his stamp on an institution; perhaps it is only in the films, sports, art, music, and literature that Americans still have a cult of individualism.
One of the most pronounced shifts in the American character appears to be a function of this decline in individualism. I mean the growth of a habit of mind that responds uncritically to manipulation. Advertising and “public relations” are the most familiar symbols—and instruments—of manipulation. No previous administration has been so “public relations” minded or has relied so heavily on the manipulation of the public as Nixon’s. Everything, so Mr. Nixon and his “team” seem to believe, can be manipulated: elections, justice, the economy, science, great issues of war and peace, the Constitution and the courts; it all depends on the “game plan,” on your control of the media, and on your cunning.
Mr. Nixon thought that the Democratic party nomination could be manipulated—and perhaps he was right: that the election could be manipulated—and perhaps it was. Newspapers were not to be won over by sound policies and sound arguments but by petty pressures like excluding reporters from |social functions, and by powerful measures like denying them access to information. Congress is to be won over not by arguments but by force or cunning; the courts by playing games with appointments—remember the Nixon caper of the six possible nominees to the Supreme Court. Justice is to be achieved by using provocative agents or rifling files; public opinion polls are made by flooding the White House with phony telegrams; history by doctoring cables; the economy is directed by Alice in Wonderland statistics that never mean what they seem to mean. The president himself is to win the support of the people not through the force of his personality but by some “image” that is created for him.
Wars can be manipulated, too, both for our side and for the enemy—thus the monthly assurance that the war was really over, thus the lies about the Vietnam invasion in 1964 and about Tonkin Gulf; thus the glowing picture of thousands of Asians from Korea to Australia fighting on our side, almost all of whom turned out to be mercenaries (we didn’t use to like mercenaries, but that has changed); thus the famous body counts which made clear that there were really no North Vietnamese males left to fight.
Supreme Court decisions, such as those on wiretapping and busing, can be manipulated to mean something different from what they seem to mean. The Constitution itself can be manipulated to prove the opposite of what the Founding Fathers had written. None of this would work if the American people had not been corrupted for more than a generation by the kind of advertising which floods all media day and night, and whose essential principle is manipulation and seduction. A society trained to accept the preposterous claims, the deceptions, and the vulgarities of American advertising can perhaps be manipulated into accepting anything.
An administration which relies so largely on images and packaging and manipulation has neither respect nor capacity for larger ideas or views. In the end it may not be corruption but intellectual aridity that is the distinguishing feature of this administration.
These reflections raise more questions than they answer. We are confronted with the spectacle of our corruption, a corruption not only moral and social but psychological and intellectual, confronted with a threat not only to the constitutional and political system, but to constitutional and political thought. Where is the center of gravity? Is it in the White House; is it in the Praetorian Guard that has infested the White House; is it in the apparatus of secrecy we associate not only with the FBI and the CIA and with the Pentagon, but with the whole of the administration? Or is there perhaps no center of gravity at all, no center of corruption even; do we have the sociological equivalent of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”?
Those guilty of what is moral treason to the Constitution, and of subverting the political system, are not evil conspirators, consciously bent upon destroying the America we have known. They are, at the top, the proud products of the American system of Private Enterprise, the very vindication of the American success story; those down the line are for the most part clean-limbed, clear-eyed, upstanding young men, the kind who figure in all our most stylish advertisements, the kind who are commonly voted “most likely to succeed” by their admiring classmates. These are not the makers and shakers of O’Shaughnessy’s poem; they are the squares and the jocks of the post-college generation. What kind of society is it that produces—and cherishes—men of these intellectual and moral standards? If our own conduct was scrupulous, if our own standards were honorable, would we really have permitted the Mitchells and Magruders and Deans and Haldemans and Kleindiensts to have imposed their moral standards upon us? Are we sure we have not imposed our moral standards upon them?
Our indignation and our outrage are both a bit shame-faced. After all there is nothing new about the illegalities and immoralities of the Vietnam War; but we still tolerate the Cambodian war. After all there is nothing new about the iniquities of the CIA; that has been going on now for almost twenty years with scarcely a murmur of protest. After all there is nothing new about the warnings of secrecy in government—that goes back 180 years to the principles of the Founding Fathers. After all there is nothing new about the danger of the arrogance of power and the impropriety of using men and societies for our advantage; that goes back to Kant’s great categorical imperative. After all there is nothing new about the moral that power corrupts—you can read that in Plutarch, if you ever bother to read Plutarch—or about warnings against imposing your will on weaker peoples—you can read that in Thucydides, if you bother to read Thucydides.
The Founding Fathers did read Plutarch and Thucydides. They knew that power tended to corrupt and set up a system of checks and balances which they thought would protect the Commonwealth against that corruption. This administration has tried to paralyze those checks and balances—and who has protested? Who but a handful of journalists, senators, and scholars?
The Founding Fathers knew instinctively what Montesquieu proclaimed in his Spirit of the Laws, that virtue is the animating principle of a republic. And to the Commonwelath they served—almost always at great personal sacrifice—they paid the tribute of virtue. But this administration which gibbers about “peace with honor” does not exalt virtue, and does not practice it.
But do we?