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But what if it had not been Nixon who was brought low by revelations of improper wiretaps? After all, as the title of conservative journalist Victor Lasky’s bestseller asserted, It Didn’t Start With Watergate.
DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTS from FDR to LBJ had also turned their surveillance powers to political ends, a string of abuses Lasky gleefully catalogued.
Saintly Franklin Roosevelt had instructed the FBI to open files on the authors of telegrams criticizing his foreign policy. Harry Truman saw wiretap transcripts of Supreme Court justices discussing who would succeed the late Chief Justice Harlan Stone, and what it might mean for the court.
John F. Kennedy won a legislative fight over sugar policy with the help of reports on surveillance of Agriculture Department officials and congressional staffers. Perhaps most famously, Bobby Kennedy signed off on wiretaps and microphone surveillance of Martin Luther King; J. Edgar Hoover would later play recordings of King’s extramarital trysts for Lyndon Johnson.
A reasonable inference from all this might be that surveillance authority without oversight was bound to be abused for personal and political gain. That conclusion would certainly fit with the general conservative principle that government always tends to grow beyond its proper limits.
Perhaps some such instinct motivated Henry L. Stimson, the staunch conservative Republican who served as Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state. Stimson ordered the shuttering of the American Black Chamber, a precursor of the modern National Security Agency, declaring that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”
House Speaker Newt Gingrich rediscovered that principle during the 1996 wiretap fight. “When you have an agency that turns 900 personnel files over to people like Craig Livingstone,” Gingrich said in an interview, referring to the White House staffer who had improperly accessed FBI records, “it’s very hard to justify giving the agency more power.”
Lasky’s main conclusion, however, was that Nixon had been unfairly railroaded. Most conservatives since have followed his lead, citing surveillance authorized by Democratic presidents, not as a cautionary tale, but as a model. Many conservative pundits now, perversely, appear to regard “Bill Clinton did it” as an irrefutable form of justification. National Review interns, beware!
With Congress currently deadlocked on FISA reform, it seems entirely possible that no permanent agreement on expanded wiretap powers will be reached until a new president — perhaps, God help us, another Clinton — inherits the Oval Office in January.
Maybe then Republicans will rediscover the conservative virtue of skepticism about presidential spying.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?