The Seventeenth Degree
by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 451 pp., $3.95 (paper)
The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits
by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 165 pp., $6.95
“I think,” said George Meany, “Gerald Ford is what he appears to be.” This metaphysical appraisal could have been offered as an epilogue to Mary McCarthy’s The Mask of State. It must have been evoked from Meany by the consciousness that Nixon and his White House had constituted a gallery of false faces, a masquerade. Lawyers, ad executives, experts were actually cadres, armed with “executive privilege,” of The Man on Horseback. The Man himself wore the Halloween phiz of a Sunday-school moralist, with his adoring family around him, his dog, his self-communing strolls by the sea, his “fellow Muricans,” his “goals,” his “work for peace,” behind which, as the tapes revealed, was a tough, mentally dissolute King Ubu, with a vocabulary of the gutter and the attitude toward his job of a bum in a burlesque show playing statesman. Haldeman: “Burns is concerned about speculation about the lira.” President: “Well, I don’t give a (expletive deleted) about the lira. (Unintelligible.)”
Under Nixon (here we’re only talking about him) “facts” were a means of concealment. The news media, applying their traditional techniques, could only present a mixture of data and distortion. As Murray Kempton summed it up in Harper’s last August, “The journalist is, by habit and necessity, increasingly dependent for his rations upon government officials who are more and more inclined to lie.” Reporters went on interviewing and reporting what they were told, but honors were bestowed on those who played, or appeared to have played, the role of detective.
The problem was not to gather the “news” but to get behind it or see through it. The laurel-winning word is “revelation.” In the July Commentary Edward Jay Epstein points out that Pulitzer Prizes this year went to the Wall Street Journal for “revealing” the Agnew scandal and to the Washington Star/News for “revealing” the campaign contributions that led to the indictment of Mitchell and Stans. The point of Epstein’s article is that “reporters at neither newspaper in actual fact had anything to do with uncovering the scandals.” If Epstein is right the prizes themselves are a cover-up of the limitations of the press in getting to the bottom of events. Taking credit for discovering the truth, it simply passes along to the public data that have been handed to it. In varying degrees, the news media are part of the system of hiding what is happening by disseminating information about it. The attack on the media by Nixon-Agnew aimed at confining them more completely to this function.
The compost of unassorted fact, hearsay, and official deception produced in connection with any long-drawn-out event, such as the war in Vietnam or Watergate, attains a density sufficient to prevent any objective conception of what is taking place. To form a picture of the whole the mind is obliged inescapably to resort to arbitrary conjunctions of more or less established information (e.g., corpses at My Lai) with more or less logical inferences (they were produced …