Up Against the News

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 by shooting done under orders, not by accident). As Molotov was quoted as saying sometime around World War II: “The facts are nothing but propaganda”—that is, what counts is the framework of belief which causes the data to fall into place.

The die-hard Nixonites on the House Judiciary Committee entrenched themselves behind the contention that all the evidence on which the majority based their articles of impeachment lacked “specificity.” Their position duplicated that of the defense lawyer in The Brothers Karamazov who advised the jury that “there is an overwhelming chain of evidence against the prisoner, and at the same time not one fact that will stand criticism, if it is examined separately.” Proof can exist only when there is agreement that data ought to be combined according to given rules. “Prior to Mr. Nixon’s revelation of the contents of the three conversations between him and his former chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, that took place on June 23, 1972,” asserts the Minority Report of the Committee on the Judiciary,

we did not, and still do not, believe that the evidence of presidential involvement in the Water-gate cover-up conspiracy, as developed at that time, was sufficient…in finding Mr. Nixon guilty of an impeachable offense beyond a reasonable doubt…. We cannot join with those who claim to perceive an invidious, pervasive “pattern” of illegality in the conduct of official government business generally by President Nixon.

In the human outer space of Wiggins, Sandman, Latta, et al., Nixon’s own words were the sole legitimate evidence of his guilt—everything else was mere appearance and subject to whatever interpretation one chose to give it. For a public raised on the news media controversies can only be decisively resolved in the manner of a Perry Mason courtroom drama—by a confession wrung out through cross-examination.

The masses of data and opinion accumulated by the news media surround events with a zone of moral weightlessness in which the attribution of responsibility becomes increasingly far-fetched. As a result, public reaction to the constantly rising mountain of matter labeled “Vietnam” or “Watergate” tends to be an intensified numbness—a state of mind that was recognized by the media themselves in their prediction that Americans would get bored with Watergate if congressional hearings on it were televised in full.

Nixon, too, counted on this boredom in his strategy of calling for a quick end to “wallowing” in Watergate and a return to the serious business of trips abroad and watching inflation grow. Again with an eye on factual overkill as a weapon against truth, he tried to knock out the impeachment inquiry through the landslide of details contained in the tape transcripts he chose to deliver—having buried the public under thousands of pages, Nixon insisted that the conversations had to be considered in their totality, although only some of the tapes were made available, much of them was incomprehensible, and the rhythm of interruptions by unprintables and inaudibles drove the reader to distraction.

If the majority did not get fed up with Watergate—and won’t—it is because they have refused to play the game of suspending their judgment while waiting for the final piece of the puzzle to be collected. That public discussion of Watergate became increasingly subjective and “prejudiced” prevented the issue from being sidetracked by disingenuous appeals for “fair play” on behalf of the criminals and their allies. The new facts that kept appearing fitted into the derogatory image of Nixon which his enemies had been holding up for years. If any conclusion was ever objectively verified, it was the antagonism, malice included, felt by those who had watched Nixon’s performance since the beginning of his career.

Mary McCarthy has been perhaps more vitally involved than any other American literary personality in the two large political issues of the past decade: Vietnam and Watergate. The reason may lie in the fact that she spends most of the year in Paris, where an American is held more responsible for America than in America. In 1967 McCarthy went to Saigon, and in 1968 to Hanoi, and she wrote books on her impressions of both places. She reported on the trial of Captain Medina for his part in the My Lai massacre. Reflecting on responsibility for the war, she composed a vigorous polemic against Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. All these writings reappear in The Seventeenth Degree, which includes as well an introductory chapter describing circumstances that led to her going to Vietnam. Also issued this year, The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits consists of physical and moral-intellectual sketches of the persons who appeared before the Senate committee hearings on Watergate.

Mary McCarthy’s books are not histories but eyewitness accounts, and were they only summaries of what she saw and thought at the time they would be swamped under events that have taken place since they were written. Also, as a reporter she has certain peculiarities, chief among which is a complete, self-confessed absence in her of journalistic neutrality, of the pretense of “objectivity” discussed above: in her introduction to The Seventeenth Degree, called “How It Went” (“How I Went” would have been more accurate), she makes clear that she did not go to Vietnam in order to learn more about the war but because she wanted to “do something” to help stop it.

Her going was a political action—“I wanted to move.” She had been day-dreaming of one measure after another—tax refusal, sit-ins in factories—that she and her friends could take, and going to Vietnam was a step of that order. To resolve to act presupposes that one is in possession of enough information to form a decision—by implication it asserts that it is possible to have enough information to close the issue. Obviously this state of mind is different from the doctrinal open-mindedness of the professional journalist, as well as the social scientist, for whom there can be no end to data-gathering. One way of putting it would be that McCarthy went to Vietnam not as a reporter but as a writer.

Friends tried to dissuade her from taking on the Vietnam assignment, not on the grounds that books and magazine articles don’t stop wars but out of the American superstition regarding specialization—in their view, McCarthy couldn’t handle current events because she lacked journalistic training. Aware of her shortcomings as a reporter, she was wise enough to discount them. If she didn’t know how properly to interview Ky and Westmoreland—and even found the idea of interviewing temperamentally repugnant—she could look, listen, and converse on the streets, in hotel lobbies, offices, hospitals, refugee and prison camps.

The most serious argument against her trip came from her old friend Nicola Chiaromonte. The gist of it was that the act of a writer is to write, hence McCarthy ought to stay at her desk rather than take off for Saigon. This was a persuasive point, as McCarthy realized, but action sets its own conditions. She was enduring in Paris the anguish, common in our historically conscious epoch, of being aware of atrocity and impending disaster and being powerless to avert them. “How It Went” is an interesting case study of the state of being intellectually stymied yet feeling that “talking while continuing your life as usual [is] not enough.”

The typical response to this frustration is a kind of modern acedia—infamy and feared catastrophe are kept at a distance by an indifference that becomes habitual. McCarthy was exceptional in that she continued to be emotionally disturbed over the war, perhaps, as noted, because of her overexposure to European critics of American policy. Trapped between not knowing what to do and the inability to sit still, she found the opportunity to throw herself into the event offered by an assignment from The New York Review of Books all but irresistible. In action there is always the chance that something unforeseen will present itself—also by its very nature it generates new material for the participant.

Chiaromonte, a rationalist, who had written a trenchant critique of Malraux’s activism, had, according to Mary McCarthy, “a mistrust for action and its theatrics”—apparently, it had not occurred to him that action could also be a means of discovery. In response to her friend’s doubts, she marshaled pragmatic excuses for taking the plane to Saigon. Basically, however, getting into the act enabled McCarthy to function without being constantly reminded of the ineffectiveness of what she was doing. Going to Vietnam changed her from a frustrated spectator into a member of the cast, though one without a clear-cut role. In the last analysis, it was on herself that her adventure produced its maximum effect. The climax of The Seventeenth Degree comes in the closing pages of the section on Hanoi when McCarthy, meditating on her feelings about America and communism, concludes that she had come not to win a victory for peace but to satisfy a conscience with which she was in the process of becoming familiar. “Nothing will be the same again, if only because of the awful self-recognition…the war has enforced.”

Concerned as they are with what Aristotle calls “the arts of persuasion,” The Seventeenth Degree and The Mask of State are rhetorical works. “I had the conviction,” writes Mary McCarthy, “(which still refuses to change) that readers put perhaps not more trust but a different kind of trust in the perceptions of writers they know as novelists from what they give to the press’s ‘objective’ reporting or political scientists’ documented and figure-buttressed analyses.” In the medium of rhetoric, style plays an essential part; we are attracted as much by McCarthy’s metaphors and witty snapshots—“his words and phrases seem to have been born in a brief case, like the compendious one he carried”—as by her information and ideas. As performance, McCarthy’s political writings are as alive today as they were during the events that inspired them. And as issues, Vietnam and Watergate are alive too—the attitudes that brought them into being cannot be resolved by new happenings, as someone ought to advise President Ford.

In The Washington Monthly, which appears to be some kind of organ of journalism, Mr. James Fallows, one of the editors, attacks McCarthy’s newsgathering capacity and, with added vehemence, her apparent lack of respect for finding out the facts. The mood of Fallows’s article, “Mary McCarthy—The Blinders She Wears,” is reflected in what is presumably a sketch of McCarthy that accompanies it—it is an abysmal work, both as an attempt at a likeness and as a drawing. Had it occurred to Fallows that a drawing, too, says something, he might have hesitated to allow this mean and incompetent caricature to comment on the spirit of his criticism.

Dealing with an impudent outsider who, doubtless through public ignorance, seems to be running off with medals in his field, Fallows is fiercely ironic, as if he spoke from a height to a breathless groundling. His case against McCarthy consists of citing instances in which she dared to speak while being less than fully informed. In a section elegantly subtitled “Glued To Her Seat,” Fallows scorns her insufficient legwork, to him synonymous with laziness, and admonishes her that “journalism is a serious business.” Relying on what he terms “Pure Sensitivity,” she was destined to be confronted with “things that are actually different than they seem” (Meany implied that it was Nixon, not Sensitivity, who faced Americans with things different from what they seem). For Fallows the routines of journalism are sufficient to penetrate these disguises. When, however, Fallows continues, the facts are inaccessible, good reporters “reserve their opinions” (I’ll be back tomorrow with more news), while McCarthy “goes on to interpret the situation boldly and incorrectly.”

Fallows counts heavily on his charge that McCarthy took at face value the antics of John J. Wilson, who represented Ehrlichman and Haldeman at the Senate hearings—she compared this rasping old reactionary, who yipped at the senators like a furious lapdog, to Rumpelstiltskin. According to Fallows, Wilson’s rages were not genuine but were put on in order to scare the senators off his clients. I am not sure if Fallows is arguing that Wilson is not really Rumpelstiltskin, but unless this is his contention, McCarthy’s comparison would apply—Wilson looked and behaved like Rumpelstiltskin whether or not his behavior was fake. Fallows is convinced, however, that he has McCarthy in a corner—it is “alarming,” he sputters, that she did not “ask a lawyer or even another reporter about what was going on.” The road to truth lies through interviews—and with men, not with angels. Had McCarthy “asked a lawyer” she might have learned that lawyer’s opinion of Wilson; had she asked a hundred lawyers she’d have collected a hundred opinions. From “another reporter,” she might have elicited a quantity of gossip, which would have scarcely affected the suggestive metaphor that flashed into her mind when she looked at Wilson.

Yes, “journalism is a serious business”—and it needs to be put in its place as a catch-as-catch-can mode of communication kept at varying distance from the truth by the conditions under which it operates, by the formats evolved by each medium to spare its public the need for intellectual effort, by the conventions that spring up in all forms of thought to distort the transmission of experience. Journalism is by now an aging craft, all but paralyzed by the hardening of its assumptions and procedures. With a million-dollar corps of reporters in Vietnam, the war in Cambodia was, as Kempton reminds us, kept hidden for a year. Fallows can think of no higher function for a writer than to add his voice to that buzz.

As the ultimate insult, Fallows charges that the conclusions stated by Mary McCarthy in her Watergate portraits are not “more provably true than those reached at dinner-table conversations in half the households of America each night.” In comparing McCarthy’s writing with these discussions, Fallows comes as close as he is able to the meaning of what she is doing. But in judging the great debate of the nation, which held Nixon responsible for Watergate, by the test of “provably true” he loses touch with the world. After watching the Watergate witnesses Mary McCarthy concluded by a process of elimination that Nixon himself had authorized the Watergate break-in—a conclusion that was certainly not “provably true,” although it made a great deal of sense and now seems likely to be confirmed by yet unrevealed evidence. McCarthy’s political writing does indeed belong to the genre of people talking to one another, not to that of the daily delivery of nuggets speckled with a few grains of fact. What distinguishes McCarthy’s discourse is not any secret access to the truth but its high analytical quality and metaphorical reference—as talk it ranks with the best we have.

For Fallows the issue is, what good is talk if it isn’t “provably true”? He ridicules McCarthy’s attention to style as a species of snobbery—in the news media good writing is a luxury to be partaken of in Sunday editions and the columns of humorists. I take leave of Fallows with the to him no doubt scandalous suggestion that there can be no more valuable contribution to the life of this country than to raise by a single notch the style and imagery of its popular table talk.

If Mary McCarthy does nothing more, she infuses into situations that intelligent people keep talking about the liveliness of an ever-active mind and an alert sensibility—her constantly sparking style makes historical events as tangible to her readers as they are to her, instead of pushing off these events into the dead space of the media. To benefit from her forensic eloquence, in which facts are adduced not for their own sake but as demonstrations, it is not necessary to agree with what she says. My readings on Vietnam, but also my experience as a whole, led me to see eye to eye with her on the rot produced by the American presence in Saigon. The same experience made me more suspicious than she was of the humanity-loving attitudes she encountered in Hanoi—compared with that of communist governments, Washington’s “mask of state” is comparatively transparent.

I believe that McCarthy has made a highly valuable, even unique, contribution in her denunciation of America’s academic intellectuals who took a leading part in the war. I think she is right in her estimate of “the best and the brightest” when she writes that it is hard “to be impressed, as Halberstam clearly is, by their social and cerebral endowments…. What came to Washington was not brains and birth but packaged ideology, a form of overweening stupidity generated in university departments of political science and government, where the ‘honed-down intelligence’ of a stick like McGeorge Bundy could be viewed with awe.” If to Fallows this is nothing but McCarthy’s “notorious knife work,” it is plain to me that America could do with more butchers and fewer interviewers of great men.

I admire also McCarthy’s analysis of the part of language in the character structure of America’s villains and men of probity. “Men who had formed the habit of speaking like a letter from a credit company or a summons to appear in court were oblivious of their remoteness from normal communication.” But the judge in the Medina case possessed a “speech [that] was surprisingly pure and precise…it was probably his concern for exactitude of language (which some construed as mere fussiness) that helped one feel that he was concerned with getting at the truth.”

To the “half of the households” where Watergate is discussed, I recommend The Mask of State for the pleasure of having an unusually brilliant participant in the family table talk, as well as a way of measuring how much people noticed about the witnesses who followed one another on TV. Mary McCarthy’s mastery of the intricacies of the Watergate conspiracy is astonishing in its detail; the running conjectures with which she tries to get through what the witnesses say to what they actually know are subtle and imaginative; her verbal candid-camera shots and character analyses of Ulasewicz and Kalmbach, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell are psychologically apt, socially suggestive, and contain the proper pinch of humor to indicate the inherent farce of these gamblers for power.

His [Ehrlichman’s] behavior with the courteous old legislator [Senator Ervin] was so contumacious that the hearing-room grew turbulent; there was a general incensed feeling that the senators should not take this lying down. I slipped into one of the reveries of the impotent and imagined the Chairman signaling to the sergeants-at-arms: “Arrest that man.” The sneering devil, like Iago (I day-dreamed), would be hustled out, preferably in chains, down to the old prison below the House of Representatives where persons in contempt of Congress used to be held. That was what he deserved, to be kicked back several eras into the antique history of the Republic.

In my view, Mitchell is a much more culpable scoundrel than McCarthy considers him to be, though I concur that he is a more old-fashioned scoundrel than the White House insiders, hence a scoundrel that fitted less well into the radical conspiracy of which Watergate was an episode and which is now endeavoring to tie together its torn strands.

McCarthy, it seems to me, missed a vital element in the Senate hearings through being out of the country when Patrick Buchanan took the witness stand. Nixon’s speech writer openly affirmed the strategy of seizure of power by his minority group and keeping hold of it permanently by incapacitating popular opposition. Faced with this blatant program of sedition lodged in the White House, the senators proved too deficient in historical and theoretical understanding to grasp that what Buchanan was saying could not be reconciled with legitimate American political activity but represented the promulgation of crime. Instead of directing their questions to the ideological conspiracy against representative government thrust into their faces by Buchanan, they indulged in their customary information-seeking queries and seemed to be plaguing the witness with trivialities.

Publicly defeated by this young literary tough, the committee lost heart and public prestige. Only Senator Talmadge scored—having served on a committee investigating foundations, he was able to bring out that whereas the Senate sought to keep foundations out of politics, Buchanan was scheming to turn them into a political tool of the right. Challenged along these lines, Buchanan wavered and backed away. His portrait would have been a valuable addition to McCarthy’s masks, and analysis of his testimony could have deepened her interpretation of the motives and meaning of Watergate.

The Seventeenth Degree and The Mask of State represent a major effort on the part of a highly developed literary talent to make sense out of the myth matter of our epoch. This enterprise, it seems to me, is basically the same whether it takes the form of novels, theoretical essays, or “reporting.” “Men,” said Aristotle, “have a sufficient natural instinct for what is true, and usually do arrive at the truth.” It is the function of good writing to heighten this instinct and stimulate greater reliance on it.