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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.

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