Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In Search of the Bad Guys

Given the level of disgrace that can now be associated with the current Administration, it seems almost quaint to look back on the Administration of Richard Nixon, who remains the only President to have resigned his post. He did so in the wake of articles of impeachment drawn up by the House Judiciary Committee, which had been reported to the full House but not yet put to a vote. The grounds for those articles were never further investigated, because Nixon's successor to the Presidency, Gerald Ford, issued a blanket pardon for Nixon shortly after taking office (and after having told the American public that their "long nightmare is over"). These days, perhaps the greatest value that comes from understanding the enmity that Democrats felt (and probably continue to feel) towards Nixon is that it provides a model for the enmity that Republicans feel towards the Clinton family.

I therefore find it interesting that Book TV has recently been highlighting books that try to make the case that the Nixon Administration did not consist entirely as villains by offering their subjects as counterexamples. Ford himself participated in writing one of those books, working with Dale Van Atta on With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics. The former Secretary of Defense emerges from this book as the one cool head who understood the magnitude of the mess in Vietnam and committed himself to withdrawing the troops. He is also portrayed as Henry Kissinger's most formidable opponent, at least where American policy in Southeast Asia was concerned. This makes him a victim on several fronts: in the National Security Council, where Kissinger always managed to prevail, and before the press, who decided that, where mistakes in Vietnam were concerned, the proper place for the buck to stop was on the desk of the Defense Secretary. We have known that the press chose the wrong fall guy at least since Stanley Karnow wrote about Laird in Vietnam: A History; but we also know that Kissinger was very good at playing the press, so good that we have to wonder to what extent he has been advising the current Administration on the best techniques for manipulating the media.

The other book shifts the reader's attention from Vietnam to Watergate. It is the memoir of L. Patrick Gray III, former Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, written with his son, Ed Gray, entitled In Nixon's Web: A Year in the Crosshairs of Watergate. In the lecture he gave at the Nixon Library, which was broadcast on Book TV, Ed Gray presented this as another case where the press chose the wrong fall guy; but he carried the argument into new territory. He now entertains the hypothesis that the now public identification of "Deep Throat" is erroneous, that the source labeled "X" in Bob Woodward's notes is almost certainly several different individuals, one of whom happens to be Mark Felt, who has now "confessed" to being "Deep Throat." Thus, for anyone with the resolve of an Oedipus to learn the "whole truth about Watergate," the nightmare is far from over. The younger Gray has made a compelling argument about any number of loose ends that remain, most of which, like Harry Truman's buck, seem to dangle in the Oval Office.

It is hard to tell how much attention these books will get. Time passes a lot faster in the Internet age; so books like these already have to compete with the first crop of tell-all books coming out of the current Administration. Also, how much is to be gained from sorting the political cast of characters (present or past) into heroes and villains? This is the stuff of our media at its most simplistic, which has done little other than to infantilize our electorate. We shall only begin to grow up when we recognize that all the players in the cast are all-too-human and that our Constitution has the machinery to compensate for their weaknesses, as long as it is given a chance to do so.

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