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The American Amnesia

Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years

by J. Anthony Lukas
Viking Press, 626 pp., $15.00

The Time of Illusion

by Jonathan Schell
Knopf, 392 pp., $10.00

According to St. Augustine—no better name to invoke when one is discussing political sin—“the seat of mind is in memory.” If Augustine was right, the nation is now mindless, and we shall have to find such comfort as we can in the hope that when mind goes, habit and instinct may still remain, assuring life if not direction.

Surely the most striking aspect of the present political scene is the absence of the recent past from it. There seems to be something like a tacit agreement among the presidential contenders, and between them and the public, that the record of recent events has no bearing on our present condition and future prospects. The closest Ford comes to touching the past is in vague allusions to some dragon called détente, which he will guard us against just as he will preserve our ethnic treasures here at home. Those fronts secured, we can move forward into the third century, which is to be the century of American Individualism. Ronald Reagan sounds like Teddy Roosevelt, all teeth and bluster, about to lead the Rough Riders in another charge, this time into the Panama Canal. Jimmy Carter overleaps the recent past by centuries, and assures us that America still stands in a covenant of nations with God. The people and their leaders agree: let’s forget the recent past and get on with the business of building a brighter future. That, of course, is exactly the advice Nixon gave the nation at the height of Watergate.

This silence is all the more remarkable when one remembers that among the events unspoken are a constitutional crisis greater than any since the Civil War, absolute proof that for years national law enforcement and intelligence agencies violated law and elementary decency here and abroad, and a desolating war in Southeast Asia. The constitutional crisis has been reduced to an exciting film entertainment about the thrills and triumphs of investigative reporting, and to something like court scandal based on dubious research methods and ethics. Behind the scenes, the war continues to exist in the same basic doctrines and inflated military budgets that produced and sustained it in the first place. Out front, it exists only in occasional stories about the affairs of Lieutenant Calley and the difficulties of adjustment experienced by the Vietnamese refugees.

As the Mayagüez incident showed, not even the most obvious “lessons” of Vietnam have been accepted. In that episode, President Ford replayed Vietnam in miniature. He unleashed force against a small Asian country without consultation outside the Executive. The force was vastly greater than any sensible appraisal of the situation would have recommended. The affair was misrepresented to the public and casualty lists were falsified. The president crowed that the encounter was a victory for America, proving once again that we would stand behind our word and use our arms to back our interests.

Not one of the major contenders in the presidential primaries was an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam. The meaning of the war is not discussed. The military budget booms. The Trident program has been launched (ten submarines planned, each capable of virtually destroying a continent). President Ford has proposed a plan for reorganizing the “intelligence community” which amounts to a method for making it easier for that community to do what it has always done. The same kind of doublethink that characterized foreign policy during Vietnam still prevails: then, we withdrew ground troops while secretly bombing Cambodia, and mined Haiphong harbor against Soviet ships while secretly arranging grain deals with the Soviet Union; now, we pour money into the hands of rightist foreign politicians and make huge arms sales to a dozen despots while mouthing the slogans of peace and democracy.

Apparently, nothing has changed and nothing is remembered. Public discussion in this presidential year has virtually nothing to do with recent public reality. It appears that the political parties and electoral politics are no longer a force for memory, even as they long ago ceased being a force for change. They have joined Congress as vestigial organs—likely to flare up and cause a little trouble now and then, but with no vital function to perform in the body politic.

Given this decay of public life, is it possible now to write about Watergate-And-All-That and hope to have some good effect on national politics? Has that whole convulsive decade which produced and culminated in the abuses of the Nixon presidency been so thoroughly repressed as to be inaccessible to ordinary methods of public recollection? That is an interesting problem in political psychology, and a question of some significance for the future.

Woodward and Bernstein’s book The Final Days solves the problem neatly, albeit in the most likely way. They have shown, with the help of a national news magazine, that there is still a lot of interest in politics as a spectator sport, and a lot of money to be made in selling tickets to the game. Their book has presented the image of the Nixon presidency that is most likely to remain fixed in the public mind: a befuddled and desperate Nixon beseeching a frightened Kissinger to kneel with him in prayer, all else having failed. Let us hope that this vignette will be enough for Nixon haters and Nixon lovers alike: no more need either to bury or to praise that Caesar. And The Final Days, in reducing Watergate to personality and entertainment, will relieve many of having to think more deeply about the special brand of elective Caesarism that is now the dominant feature of national politics in this country.

Woodward and Bernstein’s melodrama will also reduce the impact of Anthony Lukas’s Nightmare. That is regrettable, for Lukas has written a solid, comprehensive, and excellent contemporary history not just of the Watergate events but of the systematic abuse of power during the Nixon presidency which Watergate exposed and typified.

The problem with writing a contemporary history of Watergate is not the scarcity of facts but their abundance. Congress and the press got off to a late start in exposing the crimes and abuses of the Nixon presidency, but what they lost in time they made up for in zeal. There are now carloads of data—and much of it contradictory, based on obscure sources, issued for selfish motives by persons of doubtful reliability. The problem is not one of discovery, but one of sifting, assessing, and connecting the available evidence. On the whole, Lukas has done a workmanlike job. He has not added much to our knowledge of the abuse of power in the Nixon presidency but he has brought a great many facts together and strung them on a lively narrative line.

In Lukas’s version—and he is surely correct—the Watergate story began long before the bungled break-in of June 17, 1972. It began in the earliest days of Nixon’s first term, with the small, tentative, first steps toward the building of a secret and illegal spy apparatus: “investigative support for the White House,” John Ehrlichman called it. That small seed, planted in the soil of hate and weakness, cultivated by the self-righteous lackeys of a president who needed assurance the way an aging actor needs applause, soon blossomed into the “enemies list” and wiretaps of May 1969. By the midterm election season of 1970-1971, the blossom was in full flower. Watergate and the cover-up were of a piece with all that had gone before.

Lukas covers all this familiar ground thoroughly. In addition, he explores with particular care some of the darker regions of the terrain: the Howard Hughes-CIA-White House links; the sale of influence and office for money; the full sweep of the Plumbers’ activities; the misuse of federal agencies and money to reward friends and punish enemies.

The book is as long on facts as it is short on analysis. Nightmare is all foreground: personality, event, episode. In so far as Lukas offers an explanation of the forces that pushed these men, he centers on their fear of losing and their resentment of those for whom winning seemed easy. Not really tough, but just mean, resentful, and opportunistic, these men were driven by their fear of losing to the point where they became the sleaziest, clumsiest pack of losers in American history. Nixon swept into office by a huge margin, and still saw himself weak, hated, standing virtually alone in a world of enemies. H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, all righteousness and rectitude, wheedled and cajoled Nixon for a pardon on Nixon’s last day in office, and suggested the deed might be sweetened by issuing at the same time a blanket pardon to all draft resisters and evaders.

John Dean, who saw politics as “just like selling Wheaties,” ended up selling out his own boss. Tom Huston, that Jeffersonian Democrat, reduces Dostoevsky to banality, in his maxim that “everything is valid, everything is permitted” if one’s object is the defense of liberty. Charles Colson, whose heroes were John Wayne and General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, and whose personal motto was the Green Berets’ “When you’ve got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow,” lied and bullied as long as he could, and then turned tail and ran as fast as the rest of them. Of the whole pack, only John Mitchell emerged with any personal dignity.

Well, it’s all there in the 626 pages of Nightmare. If you need it, read it.

The last ten years or so have surely been the most bewildering in American history. During that time the nation seemed to become a stranger to itself—unsure of its own purposes, divided and angry, its projects and hopes reduced to confusion. Nothing seemed to come out right, and nobody really knew why, though lots of people had lots of theories, ranging from the terminal crisis of capitalism to the hair styles of the young. Disaster followed upon disaster, each adding to the confusion of the one before it. The movement for racial justice ended in bitterness. The program to end poverty ended with the poor still poor. The New Left fell apart and the “cultural revolution” dissipated. The parties splintered. Lyndon Johnson left office bewildered and saddened. Thousands of people met violence and jail in protests against a war that the nation did not want but could not end. Nixon swept into office promising peace and unity, and immediately expanded the war abroad and opened hostilities against the opponents of the war at home. Congress lost all ability to shape events while more and more power was concentrated in the small circle of men around the president.

The Watergate disclosures revealed that for years the Executive had systematically deceived the public and had carried on a secret war against the other branches of government. The true thoughts and the spoken words of the men in power seemed to have nothing to do with each other. Nor did their words make sense of their deeds. Nor were the words and deeds of one “point in time” intelligibly connected with the words and deeds of other points in time. As one phase of the crisis opened onto the next—without warning, without apparent connection—the bewilderment deepened. We seemed to be the victims of a senseless fate, carried along by forces we could not name toward an end we could not see.

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