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The Watergate Triangle

By From the October 1973 issue

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Although the press has by now expended far more verbiage on Watergate than on the Kennedy assassination, the psychic shock to the Republic so far has not been comparable. While the response to Watergate has been serious, the public is taking it in stride, perhaps because politicians are expected to act nefariously. The assassination was different: regicide committed by rifle savaged the American soul far more than regicide committed by news coverage, and thus the public concern about Watergate assumes a lower profile than the press coverage would indicate. If impeachment proceedings are inaugurated against the President, that may change. (The Democrats, seeking to maximize the damage but avoid a constitutional crisis, have two options: censure, or initiating an impeachment debate in the House, and then arranging a close — but failing — vote.)

In the Watergate embroglio, Lord Acton's famous aphorism has become flesh and blood — especially its latter half: absolute power corrupts absolutely. For it is obvious that whatever crimes were committed were done before the altars of power rather than for personal gain. These were not pocketliners, but patriots, refulgent with a zeal to advance the power and security of their sort of president. It is a phenomenon of an increasingly corrupt public life that its participants assume public and private personalities; that what is done and said for public consumption varies sharply from the private man. Thus in Washington one finds men who publicly speak the King's English, but profane the air in private (Lyndon Johnson was such a one). Men who punctiliously commend their own parties and leaders publicly, while raging at them in private; men who in private discuss the racy aspects of power — sex, money, campaign contributions, blackmail — with an easy certitude about their impact on public affairs, but who in public never so much as hint of such things. This duality of politicians lies at the heart of Acton's formula. To the extent that politicians have dual personalities, one of those personalities is serving the goddess of power. The wider the difference between their public and private selves, the more corrupt they are. (There are exceptions, of course.) In this sense, power has corrupted most politicians on the Potomac. There are few indeed whose public and private lives and utterances are mutually consistent.

Among those who have acquired a dual nature in the service of power is Richard Nixon. One can say this without regard for his technical guilt or innocence in the Watergate affair. We have been treated over the past four or five years to some remarkable presidential moral insights that ought to have set the tone for his whole administration. It was President Nixon who warned us that a Republic requires a virtuous citizenry; who has reminded us of the decline of Rome and its lessons. Who has begged for the restoration of simple virtues, for abandonment of greed, swift punishment for criminals, the restoration of calm, a justice reasonably balanced between public order and the rights of defendants. Here was a president who welcomed the Rev. Billy Graham gladly, who set a tone of piety in the White House, who resorted to Quaker philosophy, who saw the positive result of his efforts to calm the nation. He was sincere. Totally sincere, totally earnest. There was not a one of his homilies that he did not believe in the center of his soul.

But the presidency, since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, is no longer the simple executive office of a New World republic, but rather the pinnacle of global power. In part, it grew to such incomprehensible power because liberals wanted to build the office. Liberals were infatuated with a strong executive, able to run around Congress and appeal directly to the people. But in part, also, the growth of the office is the aftermath of triumph in World War II, followed by decades of cold war and constant crisis, all of which thrust imperial power on a people and government not particularly eager to assume such roles. The result is that today American presidents — to put it in an unvarnished way — have the powers of absolute monarchs. For example, no such monarch in prerevolutionary Europe had the power to conscript his subjects for military purposes, or to tax a third of their income away. Richard Nixon's actual powers and discretionary authority surely excel even that of the sun-king, Louis XIV. We are governed by kings, but we also elect our kings every four years rather than accept dynastic rule, and thus plunge ourselves into a ceaseless struggle for power, a struggle that has reached unconscionable dimensions. Such struggles give rise to the underground politics of Watergate.

It is precisely because Mr. Nixon and his cohorts believed deeply in law and order and decency that they resorted to underground war to preserve that vision. The guerrilla war against political enemies and the press was abominable. The monstrous hypocrisy of it apparently never even occurred to those who were conducting it in behalf of the icons of virtue. They were the schizoid men of politics who did public things and private things, whited sepulchers. Most of Mr. Nixon's adult life had been spent in politics, to the point where the imperatives of power had remolded his character. It was instinctive both for him to be virtuous, even sanctimonious in public, and to establish that virtue in private not by the force of reason, but by turning the White House into a commando post from which issue political raids on his opponents.

But Watergate neither begins nor ends with Republican hypocrisy. The same monarchical power that devolved upon Mr. Nixon had also devolved upon Messrs. Kennedy and Johnson. Prior to Watergate it was they and their minions who had acquired the public reputation for underhanded and nefarious politics — and not the Republicans. (The press, which usually accompanies its coverage of a scandal with backgrounders and histories of previous corruption in other administrations, has been curiously silent about recent history.) The history of both Democratic administrations is studded with circumstances which could have been blown into Watergate proportions if the press had been so inclined. In 1964, for example, at the height of the Goldwater campaign, the senator's press secretary, Vic Gold, threw a female Democratic spy out of the Goldwater entourage, and the press treated it as an amusing feature story, never bothering to inquire who had planted her there, never moralizing about political spying, never lusting to nail the crime on higher-ups in the Johnson Administration. Bugging? Attorney General Robert Kennedy apparently authorized bugs, and had a spat or two with J. Edgar Hoover about their use, if memory serves me correctly. And he surely harassed Jimmy Hoffa and Roy Cohn, among others. Then there was the bugging of State Department security expert Otto Otepka, and the perjured cover-up of that event. Otepka had occasioned the Kennedy Administration's wrath by blowing the whistle against several of its appointees. Coverup? There was the instance of Clark Clifford scurrying around to the Washington press to quash stories about the troubled Johnson aide Walter Jenkins, and the amazing gathering of the whole Camelot hierarchy at Chappaquiddick to put a gloss on events there. Obstruction of justice? It has yet to be explained how Ted Kennedy emerged from an apparent negligent homicide with nothing more than a slap on the hand. Harassment of newsmen? Ask Pulitzer-prize winning Clark Mollenhoff about the stones turned over by the Johnson Administration -- which Mollenhoff had assailed — to prevent him from ascending to the presidency of the National Press Club. Cover-up? From the memoirs of Robert Winter-Berger we learn that Lyndon Johnson felt himself fully impeachable as the result of the financial manipulations of his protégé Bobby Baker.

Is there any doubt that the Democrats had used nefarious means to maintain their power? Except for the Johnson-Baker pocketlining, the Democrats no less than the Republicans were motivated purely by the instinct for power. One of the more fascinating things to come to light in the wake of Watergate is the revelation that the Kennedy regime had harassed Richard Nixon with IRS audits — which is a standard tactic of underground politics. Thus if Mr. Nixon and his cohorts turned out to be masters of the game, it is because they had excellent teachers in previous administrations. For the Democrats to discover now that all evil emerges from the bowels of the opposition party is to indulge in unspeakable cynicism. Even Saint George McGovern, we recollect, voiced differing public and private opinions about Senator Eagleton, and was thus among those who for the sake of power say one thing publicly, another thing in closets.

But there is a third factor in Watergate. It is not only Republicans and Democrats who have been twisted by power, but also the press, whose own hypocrisies outweigh all the others combined. The press, now congratulating itself for playing the vigilant watchdog over the affairs of governors, conveniently forgets its own spying and electronic surveillance and dubious tactics. The watchdog barks only at certain trespassers, namely Republicans and conservatives. Why did it not begin barking in 1964 when it was revealed that Senator Goldwater had been spied upon? There might at least have been an effort to trace the espionage to its source, even to the President if it had been authorized that high up. But no. No essays about public morality or excess presidential power then. And yet, was such spying by the incumbents any less nefarious than the spying by GOP incumbents? The press also had a chance to howl for the head of Lyndon Johnson in the Baker affair — Life had even detailed the evidence of the unseemly growth of Johnson's wealth in office. That surely ought to have sent the press into a spree of digging and moralizing, with scores of bloodhound reporters on the case. Camelot, too, had its unsavory aspects which might have occasioned some hard digging by the press. The Robert Kennedy Justice Department had been turned into a giant political force, but where were the watchdogs? Eating at Camelot's table! One senses the hypocrisy of it all, even if the press is quite blind to the disorders in its own house.

In one sense, Watergate is the creation of the press. Without its a priori hostility to Richard Nixon, Republicans, and all who are right of center, without its lust for machismo, its eagerness to commit regicide Watergate would not have been blown into such unusual proportions. It would have glided by, even as Democratic scandals of comparable venality glided by previously. None of this exonerates the Republicans, of course: rather, the point is that Watergate is a conscious, selective effort to redress the American political balance leftward, after its rightist drift. Thus one can take the self-congratulations of the press these days with more than a grain of salt.

But there remains the problem of watching the watchdogs. It is common knowledge among journalists that some reporters love to spy; that some are unabashed Jack Anderson types. Like the Nixonians who spied for political virtue, the press spies to uphold the public virtue. A couple of years ago, when I was a journalist in Montana, I attended a meeting under news management auspices in which our speaker was a Helena bureau chief freshly returned from a seminar at the American Press Institute on investigative reporting. The prestigious API, at Columbia University, stands in relation to American journalism approximately as Mount Sinai stood to the Jews — it is the source of the Word, the Law, and the Prophets. Our speaker discussed what he had learned in New York about investigative reporting, which is often a euphemism for such deep digging tactics as espionage, bullying information out of people, buying information — and electronic spying. Among the participants at the API seminar, according to our speaker, were a couple of Life reporters who instructed the group on the rises of electronic spying, and discussed pridefully their successful use of bugs to supply the material for several expose type stories in the magazine. Our speaker named several such stories, and noted that at the API seminar there had been little malaise about such illegal activity, because it helped newsmen fulfill their watchdog function. In fact, he reported, some had felt that bugs were a positive good, and a vital investigating tool. Now of course, all this is hearsay, but I have no reason to doubt the truth of it, especially when the speaker was waving an issue of Life containing, he said, a story acquired by illegal bugging. The response among my colleagues was equally enthused; indeed, I was nearly the only one there who felt that the end did not justify such nefarious means.

At that paper I had already waged my struggle against spying. Earlier, as a reporter, I had been assigned by an intensely liberal city editor to spy on some Republican politicians. I was to slip into the hotel where they were meeting, and listen to their campaign plans while hiding behind an accordion-like plastic room divider. I found an excuse not to do so, and a young lady was sent in my stead. She duly recorded the plans, which it turned out were not as damaging as the city editor had hoped, and their publication occasioned great glee in that newsroom. That sort of mindless joy in snooping can be easily discovered in most of the nation's newsrooms, where press ethics are honored in the breach.

So we are entitled to ask whether the press' opposition to electronic spying is principled. If it is true that Life reporters bugged sources illegally, would the gentlemen of the press agree that such reporters should get the same twenty to thirty-five year sentences meted out to the Watergate conspirators? One suspects, after all, that such sentences are draconian, and that one does not normally spend a quarter or a third of a lifetime in prison for a first offense of breaking and entering. But has the press respectfully pleaded with Judge Sirica for a more temperate sentence? The judge is a reasonable man, and would surely listen if a respectful request for a better justice were directed to him by the press. But the press is in a vengeful mood, and is inclined to approve the Watergate justice. One wishes that each reporter who had similarly used bugs illegally might spend an equal time behind bars.

Cabell Phillips, in a book called The Truman Presidency, written in 1966, indicates that the press has been bugging its victims for a long time. On page 421 he recounts a little bugging at the 1952 Democratic convention:

On the Sunday preceding the Monday opening of the convention, the Illinois delegation caucused in a private dining room of the Morrison Hotel in Chicago. As chairman of the delegation, Governor Stevenson pleaded earnestly with his fellow delegates neither to place his name in nomination nor to support such an action by any other delegation . . . . The assurances he had pleaded for were not given. While no final commitments were made one way or the other, it was obvious that Stevenson's name would go before the convention regardless of his wishes.

The press had been excluded from the meeting. But the room had been bugged by an enterprising radio correspondent, and a group of other reporters, clustered behind a plastic room divider behind the speaker's table, overheard the entire proceedings. Even before the caucus broke up, news wires across the country were crackling with speculations 'on the highest and most unimpeachable authority' that Adlai Stevenson's name would be put in nomination and he would not block it.

Note Phillips' use of the adjective "enterprising" in describing this sort of buggery. That is the highest encomium normally paid to newsmen: the want ads in the trade publication, Editor and Publisher, bristle with requests for enterprising reporters and editors. Phillips, writing in 1966 when the bugging issue had been well aired, chose to use tacit praise rather than condemnation of such tactics. One wonders whether he would also tacitly praise the Watergate conspirators. It is noteworthy, also; that this press bugging was not employed to rout out malefactors or improve the public weal, but was used purely to satisfy a lascivious curiosity.

The sad thing is that such illegal activity by the press will eventually cause some grand juries to begin an investigation of invasions of privacy by the news media, and the result may well by a curtailment of our first amendment liberties. Watergate is a beast with a lashing tail, a tail that may well strike Democrats and the press.

It is uncertain what the future may bring. There may well be a drastic change in our political structure once the dust settles, including the possibility of multiparty politics if the two main parties die or decline from a lack of funds and trust. But all that is conjectural. For the next months, we will be treated to the accusations of three hypocritical factions, each calling the other kettles black.

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