Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Best and the Brightest: Conventionally Written History

 

The Best and the Brightest: Conventionally Written History

Peter Schultz

 

            I am re-reading David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest, and just wanted to comment on its conventionality.

 

            Halberstam writes of “the China tragedy unfold[ing].” [p. 111] But why is the Chinese revolution to be seen as a “tragedy?” He never says, apparently assuming that this description is just common sense, is accurate and irrefutable. But contained in those words are all the flaws of US policy both regarding China and Vietnam, in fact, regarding all of Asia in the aftermath of World War II. Keeping nations, not “losing” nations to communism, would prevent “tragedies,” regardless of whether people living in those nations viewed the revolutions therein as tragic. They might even have seen those revolutions as Americans view their own revolution, as vast improvements over the corrupt regimes they replaced. As General Giap, commander in chief of the Vietnamese military fighting the US said in response to Robert McNamara’s statement that the Vietnam War was a tragedy: “It may have been a tragedy for the US because it was an imperialistic war, but it wasn’t a tragedy for the Vietnamese because it was a war of national liberation and unification.”

 

            Or consider Halberstam’s words, again written without apparently needing any justification, “the fall of China.” [p. 120] Why did its revolution constitute China’s “fall?” Fall from what? Fall to where? Halberstam never says but we can assume that this fall was like Adam and Eve’s fall, which led to their exiting the Garden of Eden. And what was that garden from which the Chinese fell? Well, it had to be the American empire or the American sphere of influence. The Chinese had committed the sin of turning against the American elites and their plans to remake China in the image of the United States.

 

            Throughout Halberstam’s account are such expressions that reveal his conventionality. At another point, he wrote that “US governments [found] themselves prisoners of that rhetoric,” of anti-Communist rhetoric. But it is clear even from Halberstam’s account that US elites weren’t “prisoners” of such rhetoric; they were producers of such rhetoric. They embraced such rhetoric because it served their purposes; for example, in Eisenhower’s inaugural address in 1953 when he said that “the French soldier in Indochina and the American soldier in Korea were fighting the same thing.” [p. 120] And by pre-arrangement, Senator Lyndon Johnson asked Dean Acheson whether he could “comment … where our allies are helping us elsewhere? I mean Indochina.” And Acheson responded: “That is an excellent point. The French have been fighting that battle since World War II.” [p. 120] So, Acheson, who once thought the French war in Vietnam was a colonial war, embraced the rhetoric of anti-communism. If he was a prisoner of such rhetoric, Acheson had incarcerated himself, and the United States, voluntarily.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Biden v. Trump: WTF?


Biden v. Trump: WTF?
Peter Schultz

            Given that both the Biden campaign and the Trump campaign are hollow, are empty of almost any substance, I feel compelled to ask: What’s really going on? Is there anything going on at all?

            Whatever it is, it can’t have anything to do with partisan politics because the candidates agree about the major issues. To wit: Both want to keep or make America great, meaning that the both support US imperialism generally and the overthrow of governments not to their liking specifically. [Venezuela and Syria] They both support further distribution of the wealth to the wealthy via tax policies and humongous “defense” budgets. Both oppose “Medicare For All” and both want to “reform” policies of mass incarceration, “reforms” that are meant not undermine but to fortify mass incarceration. And the list goes on.

            So what is all the “fire and brimstone” generated by the campaigns about? Russia? China? Hardly, because despite superficial differences, both campaigns agree that the US must confront both nations. Moreover, both parties want Assange dealt with harshly, along with Snowden if that could be arranged.

            It all seems so odd.  So much to do about so little – and trying to make that little look like a lot. So something is afoot while being disguised as something else. What could it be?

            While I am pretty sure I don’t’ know, I am sure that this has happened before and even with some frequency. I felt this way in 2000 when I would joke that the choice was between “Bore and Gush,” as if it were difficult to tell distinguish between Bush and Gore. Although I didn’t feel this way at the time, I have come to see the Bush v. Clinton election in 1992 the same way. Regarding that election, I feel it’s a good bet Bush threw the election to Clinton in order to protect himself and his kind of politics from being exposed and undermined as illegitimate in a constitutional republic insofar as it was about to become clear that as Vice President, Bush was up to his eyeballs in Iran-Contra and that Iran-Contra was about much more than its public billing allowed. Reagan and Bush had been dealing with, allying with jihadists and other radicals, often Islamic, in order to help fund and maintain US imperialism. And this had to be hidden, even at the cost of George Bush, Sr., taking a dive. His loss also allowed him to pardon without consequence those who could have blown the whistle on his and Reagan’s policy of relying on extremists, something Caspar Weinberger threatened to do.

            Could the same game being played now? That is, could it be that the US has found it still necessary to deal with jihadists as allies, as partners in order to successfully maintain and fortify its imperialistic world order? Doesn’t the destruction of Libya suggest or even confirm this? And, of course, all the fire and brimstone surrounding Hillary’s role in that destruction conceals what was actually going on, does it not? Blaming Hillary hid the more important issue of whether our elites should be in bed with jihadist extremists. How else explain the situation in Syria, where the US openly relies on jihadists – labeled “moderates” of course – to accomplish its goals there, and to maintain US dominance? What of US support of alleged “democrats” in Venezuela, for example, “democrats” that are more accurately described as right-wing extremists? And of course the US is rather openly siding with right-wing extremists in Ukraine and Belarus. Again, the uproar about Trump’s allegedly threatening phone calls to some in Ukraine served to hide what is actually going on, viz., the necessity for US elites to rely on, to ally with extremists to maintain and fortify the American imperialistic world order. And so while mocking Trump, the Democrats are not mocking his appeals to greatness, while the fact that this greatness now requires relying on extremists goes unacknowledged.

            As Barry Goldwater once said: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Of course, it remains a question – largely unasked now – whether extremism can ever protect or maintain liberty. Several revolutions suggest rather strongly that the answer to that question is “No.” And recall, if you would, that even the American Revolution did not lead to liberty for several million human beings, both black and native. It could be, as I suspected long ago, that Goldwater was wrong. And this could prove quite important insofar as our elites are embracing extremism to maintain the American empire. They may maintain that empire but they will sacrifice liberty in the process.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Law and Order: The Politics of Injustice


Law and Order: The Politics of Injustice
Peter Schultz

            Question: Why are Biden and Trump responding similarly to the protests in US cities? Answer: Their responses are similar because neither one is primarily concerned with justice, with the justice of protesters grievances. And when there isn’t a concern with justice, the only policy remaining is “law and order,” a policy that masks the accepted irrelevance of justice.

            This is, actually, a phenomenon that elites in the US replicate over and over. It is one of the reasons that those elites may be called, accurately, “power brokers.” They deal in power, not justice. And “law and order” is essentially and deeply a power play. Again and again, when protests and disruptions against injustices occur in the US, the elites, the power brokers’ embrace “law and order.” So, while sympathizing with the protesters’ grievances, former President Obama said: “Violence is never justified,” a sentiment repeated by Biden. But such a sentiment only makes sense when the protester’s appeals to justice are ignored or considered irrelevant. As anyone who thinks about human history for thirty seconds realizes, violence in the face of injustice is often justified.

            This is, however, a scenario that US elites, both “left” and “right,” don’t want to consider. And they don’t want to consider it because once they do, they would be forced to admit that the prevailing order is marred by, perhaps even based on injustice. In other words, elites avoid, even suppress questions of justice in order to protect the status quo and the power and the authority the status quo confers on them. To question the status quo threatens the current elites, while “law and order” does not. In fact, “law and order” reinforces, fortifies those elites and their power, their authority.

            Bottom line: Embedded in the American political order is a deep antipathy toward justice. Concerns with justice are ignored, hidden, even suppressed in order to reinforce, fortify the reigning political order, thereby disguising the fact that that order is permeated with injustice. And when this fact threatens to become visible, the reigning elites must double-down on “law and order;” that is, double-down on their injustices.

            As Niccolo Machiavelli taught us long ago, those who wish to succeed in this world “must learn to be able not to be good.” Whatever justice exists in this world rests on injustice or, as Machiavelli also put it, that justice rests on “inhuman cruelty.” Or as a more recent commentator put it, that justice rests on “the management of savagery.”  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Conspiratorial Political Science: What We Need


Conspiratorial Political Science: What We Need
Peter Schultz

            Conventional political science sees politics as primarily composed of battles over particular public policies, e.g., US policy toward China, toward Russian, toward the environment, toward education, and so on and so on and so on. So presented, politics is not seen as a series of battles between, say, republicans and oligarchs, or between democrats and aristocrats, between the not-wealthy and the wealthy. These larger issues are ignored, even buried by conventional political science, to the point that it seems we no longer have to deal with them.

            One problem with situation is that although it appears that our politics is all about a series of battles over particular public policies, in fact those larger battles are being fought and decided with consequences of the utmost importance. But these larger battles are being fought clandestinely, covertly, and it behooves us to take note of this.

            This is where what I am calling a “conspiratorial political science” comes in handy; is, in fact, indispensable because conspiracy theories reveal or at least hint at the battles over these larger issues. For example, the question “Who killed JFK?” points toward the possibility that JFK was killed by, say, a conspiracy of right-wing oligarchs who were convinced that Kennedy, if allowed to continue as president, would undermine the authority they had been enjoying prior to Kennedy’s election in 1960.  Or consider the question: Was the Watergate scandal a way to remove Richard Nixon in a coup, a coup engineered by those who were opposed to Nixon’s Vietnam policies, his China policy, and his policy of détente with the Soviet Union?

            And this helps explain why conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists are treated by many with disdain: Because such theories threaten to expose (a) what is actually going on and (b) that what is going on calls into question the legitimacy of the reigning political honchos because these honchos have achieved or are maintaining their power by undemocratic, un-republican means. Conspiracy theories replace the view of conventional political science that politics is normally, ordinarily about open disputes and battles over particular public policy questions, a view that implicitly embraces the view that the existing political order is legitimate. So, in conventional political science, any suggestion that the reigning political order is illegitimate seems out of order. According to conventional political science, attempts at clandestine changes should be dismissed as mere conspiracies and, hence, not worth serious attention because they do not constitute normal, ordinary politics. They are aberrations, often the aberrations of distorted minds.

            As a result, many aspects of our political battles are ignored or buried, e.g., the fact that the Nixon administration was being spied on by the Pentagon, or the fact that JFK cancelled a scheduled trip before his fated trip to Dallas because there had been intell that there would be an attempt to assassinate him. And this means that much of the reality of our political battles disappears or is repressed, and as a result we don’t actually know what is going on in our own government. What looks like, say, competing foreign policies are actually competing imperialistic schemes, schemes embraced by different groups seeking power. And none of these groups want these competitions to be decided in the public arena because, of course, in a nation that aspires to be republican, imperialism cannot be openly embraced. If the nation is to wage war imperialistically, this must be done on the sly, must be dressed up to look like reluctant war-making. But again and again, this reluctance is overcome. Or, as conventional political scientists like to say, the US keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over. But, in reality, these wars aren’t mistakes. They are being waged, clandestinely as it were, to serve one faction or another.

            Often, it is asked: Why don’t things in the US change, even in the face of significant public dissatisfaction? One reason is that our elections don’t decide public policy in the United States. What decides public policy in the United States, as is true I would imagine of every national political order, are the conspiracies that happen before, during, and after our elections. Until we understand this, we will go on as we have been for a long time now, allowing our conspirators to decide our fates.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Disengagement: Is It Always Morally Reprehensible?


Disengagement: Is It Always Morally Reprehensible?
Peter Schultz

            Is disengaging politically always morally reprehensible? This is a question I ran into today on Twitter, when I was charged with “the morally inexcusable act of throwing up my hands and disengaging politically.” To which my response was that there are times when it is morally reprehensible not to disengage. And when faced with a choice between two parties, both of which embrace a violent imperialism, the militarization of society, some form of mass incarceration, no universal health care, regime changes whenever it suits US interests, and the drone assassinations of people who are merely trying to go about their lives but fit a certain “profile” that makes them legitimate targets, it seems to me time to disengage and, further, it seems to me not to disengage is reprehensible.  

            More broadly, I wondered how many Vietnams, how many Koreas are needed before a person decides to disengage? How many innocent human beings incinerated by drones are needed before a person decides to disengage? How many people have to die as the result of a virus because of poor health care and health care facilities before a person decides to disengage? How many people have to die as a result of police behavior before disengagement becomes justified? And, of course, the list could go on and on and on, but the point seems clear: There must come a time when disengagement, so far from being morally reprehensible, is in fact a morally responsible act.

            When I would teach the book No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, I would emphasize the part where Sheriff Bell thinks to himself that it is necessary for him to quit because to do otherwise would endanger his soul. I emphasized that part for two reasons: First, to remind students that they have souls and that their souls needed nurturing, needed care. They weren’t so much interested in that. After all they all had phones. And, second, because almost always, no, always some students rebelled against Sheriff Bell’s decision to quit, to disengage. They took the position that Bell should have stuck it out. “Even if there is no hope for improvement?” I would ask. “Well, there’s always hope for improvement,” they would respond. “Even if Bell is correct that by staying he’d be endangering his soul?” I would ask. Well, that was more than they were able to process and, so, we would end up at a standoff.

            I took away from these discussions that it is hard, extremely hard for human beings to disengage from their society. It seems like “giving up.” And, of course, in some sense it is. But what if the alternative is “giving in?” That is, giving in to inhumanity, to injustice, to savagery. What then?

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Nixon and the Politics of Secrecy

Nixon and the Politics of Secrecy

Peter Schultz

 

            In their book, Silent Coup, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin pass the following judgments of how the Senate Committee investigating Watergate responded to John Dean’s testimony in July of 1973.

 

            “The committee bought Dean, lock, stock, and barrel … because he was an arrow…pointed…toward the president.” [318-19] And then: “In effect, Dean had a free ride” despite the fact that “there were many holes in Dean’s story, and logical inconsistencies…[which weren’t] closely scrutinized.” [319]

 

            While factually, these assessments are correct, what Colodny and Gettlin don’t get is that Dean needn’t have been completely truthful, that he only needed to be partially truthful, only truthful insofar as his charge that Nixon had participated in the cover up. Even the facts that Dean initiated and implemented the cover up, which were true, were irrelevant so long as it could be established that Nixon had participated in the cover up. Even the fact that Dean tricked the president to participate in the cover up was irrelevant. What the committee witnessed, along with the American people, was the John Dean Show, just as what the nation had witnessed decades earlier regarding Alger Hiss was the Richard Nixon show. Dean’s motives and actions, just like Nixon’s motives and actions, were irrelevant because Nixon, like Hiss, was the accused. If the accusation was meant to cover up Dean’s own criminal acts, that was irrelevant.

 

            In other words, that Dean lied was irrelevant so long as he could establish that Nixon had lied. By establishing that Nixon had lied, Dean exposed Nixon as lying, as a liar, just as Nixon had exposed Alger Hiss as a liar – who was then convicted of perjury, not treason. Once Nixon’s culpability was established, anything that was said to impeach Dean, like the “Golden Boy” memo, was irrelevant. Hence: “The Golden Boy assault on Dean’s credibility soon faded, reduced in the press and in the senators’ minds to…an attempt to throw mud at the witness.” Even if some of that mud stuck to Dean, it was irrelevant.

 

            But more importantly than the Dean v. Nixon drama that was played out in 1973 is what this drama reveals about the politics of secrecy, about a covert politics. While such a politics is appealing because it seems to fortify a politician’s power, because it seems to protect politicians, one of its flaws is that once the secrecy is pierced, the politician is exposed and, worse, is powerless to protect himself or herself from charges motivated by partisan concerns, even from charges that mask some of the truth. Having lied or committed a fraud, the practitioner of a politics of secrecy, when exposed, is powerless. Once a fraud is exposed as a fraud the perpetrator of the fraud is just that, a perpetrator of a fraud, even if he is president of the United States.

 

            Interestingly, those who don’t embrace the politics of secrecy, that embrace what might be called a politics of transparency, are immune from such exposure, from such charges. For example, when Pat Buchanan testified before the Senate committee investigating Watergate, his testimony was praised, even by his political opponents like Sam Ervin. For example: “Senator Ervin: Well, I have to say I admire the Buchanan recommendations. They are very forthright.” [342, Nixon’s White House Wars] Or this from Senator Baker, after Buchanan laid out his four gradations of electoral shenanigans: “This is really a fascinating line of inquiry, Mr. Buchanan, and you are a fascinating witness in that you not only have a clear perception of your role in the political realm of the United States, but the verbal agility to express them most clearly and forthrightly….I do greatly admire your descriptions of the gradations of political activity.” [342-343]

 

            What Baker attributes to Buchanan’s “verbal agility” is actually the fact that Buchanan refuses to embrace a politics of secrecy, a covert politics. As a result, he cannot be exposed as a fraud, no matter how bizarre his politics might seem. Given Buchanan’s rejection of the politics of secrecy, to confront him it is necessary to confront his political views. Because he doesn’t hide his politics, the only recourse is to take on his politics. There are other examples of such political activity, e.g., G. Gordon Liddy. Again, as bizarre as Liddy was – and he was bizarre – he could not be exposed as a fraud. He embraced his actions, even his covert actions, to such an extent that he maintained his silence, even at the price of going to prison, because he genuinely believed that his loyalties to his superiors were in the service of national security. Again, many don’t agree with Liddy’s understanding of the requirements of national security, but to take Liddy on it is necessary to critique his understanding. He cannot be charged with fraud, with pretending to act in ways he had no intention of acting.

 

            So, it may be said that his politics of secrecy is what, in the final analysis, brought Nixon down. Being cunning, when cunning is understood to encompass a politics of secrecy, does not, despite appearances, fortify a politician’s power. Rather, it leaves politicians exposed or potentially exposed to charges of being frauds. And, yet, despite this, our politicians repeatedly embrace a politics of secrecy, or covert politics. Such is the appeal of lording it over others, of manipulating others, of playing the puppet master as if one were a god.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Politics as the Pursuit of Power


Politics as the Pursuit of Power
Peter Schultz

            It is difficult to understand how central the pursuit of power is for politicians in part because they come to us disguised as problem solvers or policy makers. But that these are just disguises is suggested by examining how politicians act.

            For this purpose, I want to unpack some passages from Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin’s Silent Coup, a comprehensive analysis of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. The following quote concerns John Dean’s decision to meet with the prosecutors dealing with the trial of the Watergate burglars, a decision that Dean promised would “deliver the P.”, that is, that would reveal Nixon as a coconspirator in the Watergate mess.

            “Dean’s plan for his testimony was . . . brilliant . . .. Dean would say that he had been complicitous, and paint a picture of how he had been enmeshed in the conspiracy because he was so ambitious and eager to please.” [273]

            Note, first, that Dean presents himself as being seduced into his criminality, as “enmeshed in the conspiracy,” almost against his will. But, second, note that Dean does not claim that he was seduced by the conspiracy itself, by its illegality, or by its criminality. That is, Dean became “enmeshed in the conspiracy;” he did not embrace the conspiracy, which was and is clearly not true. Dean initiated the Watergate cover up, meaning he chose to act conspiratorially, chose to act illegally and did so in order to maintain and even fortify his power in the White House.

            Dean’s presentation of himself is “brilliant” because he played all the right political notes, as it were. Decent people, politicians react to events, they seek solutions to problems. If they go astray as it were, then we want to believe that they were led astray by, say, in Dean’s case ambition or an eagerness to please. Committing illegal or criminal acts, or acting covertly have no intrinsic appeal in and of themselves. Decent people, politicians make mistakes; they do not embrace conspiracies, act conspiratorially, act covertly in order to display, acquire, or maintain their power. But acting illegally or conspiratorially is appealing, even seductive, because such acts are displays of power, and serve to confirm a conspirator’s, a politician’s power. Dean did not become enmeshed in the Watergate conspiracy. Rather, he created it, embraced it and he did so because it was how he could display and maintain his power. That it involved him in illegalities or crimes was not a deterrent at all. In fact, that the cover up involved illegalities and crimes made it more attractive to Dean, not less. At least as long ago as Augustine’s Confessions, the appeal of illegal or criminal acts should have been clear.

            There is a tendency to underestimate the importance of having and displaying power, especially in those we call politicians. So, for example, we prefer to think that our politicians, like John Dean during Watergate, became enmeshed in Vietnam, were drawn into what was called the quagmire of Vietnam. They made “mistakes,” they didn’t want to make war there, but apparently they couldn’t resist or made misstep after misstep until it was too late to get out. It’s all so very mysterious, isn’t it? But again it is pretty clear that LBJ, for example, embraced the war in Vietnam and did so as a way of displaying US power and, hence, his own power as well. He wasn’t going to be the first American president to lose a war, by golly! Certainly many others also embraced that war, although they usually hid their enthusiasm for the war behind arguments for its necessity, e.g., to prevent those alleged “dominoes,” the nations of Southeast Asia, from falling over and becoming communist overnight, as it were. That they enjoyed having and displaying their power is rarely considered as a possibility.

            It should be understood that illegal acts, conspiratorial acts are, in fact, seductive and they are as displays of power, even as displays of power exercised righteously. So, even John Dean, despite having created and executed a conspiracy that he managed to trick Nixon and other men to buy into by means of lies and deceit, could in the end come to believe that he had acted righteously by dethroning someone he said and still says was “evil.” I am not one to praise or even defend Richard Nixon. But to consider John Dean and his actions righteous is to mythologize him and Watergate.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Nixon, Watergate, and Covert Politics


Nixon, Watergate, and Covert Politics
Peter Schultz

            In their account of Watergate in their book, Silent Coup, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin emphasize that Richard Nixon reacted in similar ways to, first, the revelation in December 1971 that there was a spy ring operating out of the Department of Defense that was spying on the White House and especially on Nixon and Henry Kissinger and, second, to the revelation that “the magnitude of Watergate” went well beyond “out-of-control employees at the CRP” [Committee to Re-elect the President]. In both cases, “without full cognizance of the facts . . . the president [sprung] into action . . . “ in order “to limit the investigations and prevent political damage.” And as Colodny and Gettlin point out, “There seems to have been no hesitancy on the part of Haldeman, either, to embrace this line of action.” [200, 202]

            It is worthwhile to speculate about these apparent coincidences and to do so, not from a psychological point of view but from a political point of view. That is, Nixon, twice being confronted with apparent “crises,” opted to act, to “spring into action” by acting covertly and apparently doing so without a second thought. It would seem as if Nixon was controlled by what might be called a politics of covert action; that there were forces that led Nixon to readily succumb to the temptation of acting covertly, and this without even knowing whether such covert actions were actually necessary or desirable. And insofar as there is a politics of covert action, what made it so “seductive” that Richard Nixon embraced it almost unthinkingly?

            Certainly there are practical reasons for acting covertly, e.g., limiting the political damage exposure would bring. But is that the whole story, so to speak? Or is there more to be said about the appeal of acting covertly, which may account for the fact that Nixon made a choice to cover up Watergate despite knowing the dangers such a cover up posed to himself and his presidency? That Haldeman did not hesitate to embrace a cover up, and readily agreed to act covertly, contributes to the thought that there is something seductive about a politics of covert action.

            To start, it is worthwhile to point out that covert action seems especially useful and appropriate when confronting crises. Crises need to be resolved quickly, with “secrecy and dispatch,” as Alexander Hamilton put it. And acting covertly is well adapted to such expeditious actions. This illuminates one of the attractive aspects of covert action: It gives at least the illusion of control, of the ability to act with secrecy and dispatch. When acting covertly, a politician need not seek the consent of the governed, so to speak. Necessity governs a politician’s action in crises, making deliberations or debates seem undesirable. In a crisis, a politician acting covertly is wielding power; as Colodny and Gettlin put it regarding Nixon, “the president was springing into action.” By acting covertly, Nixon was acting powerfully, thereby proving he deserved to have power. By acting covertly, Nixon was confirming his fitness to be president. And that kind of confirmation would be hard to resist.
            A political of covert action and a politics of crisis are then intertwined, which helps explain why Nixon never really stopped to wonder if in fact the burglary at the Watergate, even if it did involve some White House personnel, was a crisis or needed to be treated as a crisis. But that covert action and crises are intertwined is also borne out by the fact that Nixon’s “enemies,” his political opponents, also saw before them a crisis, the Nixon administration itself, and one to which they responded covertly. Just as Nixon saw the Watergate burglary as a crisis requiring covert action to resolve, so too his opponents saw the Watergate burglary and the Nixon administration generally as crises that would be best resolved by covert action, ala’ by secret liaisons between journalists and “leakers“ like “Deep Throat,” and by spy rings. Nixon’s opponents also found the appeal of covert political action irresistible.

            Another appealing characteristic of a politics of covert action is that those acting covertly need not seek consent to justify their actions. To put this differently, a politics of covert action is not a republican politics because republican politics requires the consent of the governed. Republican politics involves, essentially, reciprocity between the government and the governed, whereas covert action allows the government to bypass the requirement of consent, to bypass the governed. As a result, what might be called republican reciprocity is short-circuited, thereby freeing the powerful to use their power as they see fit. This is a temptation, as we know or should know all-too-well, that is neither often resisted nor used to advance the public good.

            So beyond any particularities of Nixon’s psychological make-up, such as his all too obvious insecurities and suspiciousness, there were political forces at work that help explain why Nixon – and so many others by the way – acted as he did during Watergate. And these political forces help to explain why John Dean was able to successfully initiate and implement a cover-up that tricked Nixon and others in the White House to buy into it and that led, ultimately, to Nixon’s downfall. Because after all, Dean’s actions appeared “normal” to those who had succumbed to the temptations of acting covertly and so no one, until it was too late, questioned Dean’s activities, which should have set off alarms from very early on.

            And those same political forces, those same temptations, affected how Nixon’s opponents behaved. Both Nixon and his opponents saw crises and assumed that these were best handled covertly, that is, without appeals to the people. Although both sides appealed to republican values to justify their actions, neither side practiced republican politics. So, to see Watergate and its resolution as a triumph of democracy or republicanism is to mythologize it. Or as one commentator wrote regarding Watergate: “Our recent history is a forgery, the by-product of secret agents acting on secret agendas of their own.” [Hougan, Secret Agenda. xvii]

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Watergate, Richard Nixon, and American Politics


Watergate, Richard Nixon, and American Politics
Peter Schultz

            To being nowhere near the beginning of this piece, I will point out that American politicians, perhaps like all politicians, are managers, meaning they want to manage issues, address them, meaning in ways meant to preserve or fortify their power. So, for example, with regard to race, the issues are handled, managed in ways meant to maintain and fortify the power of the politicians involved. Hence, at times, this would mean passing civil rights legislation; while at other times it would mean criminal justice “reforms” that lead to the mass incarceration of racial minorities. What dictates how issues are managed or handled are calculations about which means will best deal with the issue while preserving or extending the power of the politicians involved.

            For similar reasons, any election results must be managed in order to deal with the issues the elections revolved around while preserving the power of those invested in the prevailing order. Such managing is necessary because all elections are potentially disruptive, but especially those elections that occur in the midst of widespread popular unrest, dissatisfaction, anger, or even rage. So, finally coming the point of this essay, after the 1968 presidential election, the Nixon administration had to be managed even while it was attempting to manage the affairs of the nation. Politics is, in this sense, a two way street. This was especially true in 1968 given the popular unrest that then existed and given that Nixon’s politics represented his desire to change the existing alignment of political forces. Beyond this, there was the fact that Nixon had never been accepted as a member in good standing in those forces that were socially and politically dominant, forces represented by the likes of the Washington Post and the New York Times. He was, in brief, looked upon suspiciously. He knew this and it affected him repeatedly.

            From this perspective, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation from the presidency was not, as it is so often portrayed, a purification, a cleansing of the American political, an act of statesmanship that rescued American democracy. Rather, it was an illustration of the certain political forces who were seeking to protect themselves, their power, and the system that conveyed their status upon them. They were resisting Nixon, yes; but their resistance was against Nixon and his politics that would have represented significant political changes were Nixon successful. It was useful to present Nixon as a fundamentally flawed individual, driven by his insecurities to try to undermine American democracy. But actually the oligarchic forces that had prevailed prior to Nixon’s presidency were trying to protect themselves and their power. If they happened to protect American democracy as a result that was not their primary objective. They weren’t trying to protect American democracy; they were trying to protect themselves.

            This doesn’t mean that Nixon was seeking democratic changes to offset the oligarchic forces that were opposed to him. Nixon was no more a democrat than were his opponents. But his politics represented a threat to a broad swath of the existing powers that controlled or tried to control US politics, forces like those in the mainstream media like the Washington Post and the NY Times, the military, corporate elites, and “the Club” in Washington, D.C. Nixon’s “New Majority,” which was said to appear in full force in the 1972 presidential election, had to be handled, be managed by these powers because otherwise they were facing displacement by Nixon’s “New Majority.”

            Because Nixon knew that his policies, which he claimed were underwritten by that New Majority, were a threat to the existing order, he also knew that he had to proceed secretly or covertly if he were to be successful. He knew, for example, that he wouldn’t be able to leave Vietnam outright or early in his first term because he knew that the south would then fall and he would be blamed for “losing South Vietnam” and probably not be re-elected. So he had to extend the war, continue it until he as re-elected or almost re-elected, after which he would be immune from the consequences of a Communist reunification of Vietnam. Of course, he could not pursue such a strategy openly, given the intense opposition that had arisen against the war, and so he pursued it secretly, keeping it a secret even from the military, parts of which were still committed to victory in Vietnam.  

            Similarly, Nixon knew that his “opening” to Communist China would be opposed, intensely opposed, and were he to make his strategy public, his opponents would do all they could to undermine it. He had to present it as an accomplished fact and this required the utmost secrecy. His opponents were spread across the political spectrum, as they included both right-wing Republicans and anti-Communist Democrats like Henry Jackson, not to mention anti-Communists in the military like Admiral Zumwalt and Admiral Moorer. Thus, secrecy was of paramount importance to Nixon’s China policy and had to be maintained even against the likes of Nixon’s own Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird.

            Nixon’s Soviet policy of “détente” was represented most importantly by his search for mutually agreeable limitations on strategic arms, hence, the SALT agreements he negotiated with the Soviets. But the strategic arms limitations policies could not be hidden because they necessarily involved treaties and treaties have to be ratified by the Senate and, hence, publicly debated. But Nixon knew he would again be opposed by both right-wing Republicans and anti-Communist Democrats and, hence, he would have to try to outflank these forces, which he managed to do for a little while. That is, he did so until his “Watergate troubles” began and were eventually placed front and center by Nixon’s opponents, some of them who were like Alexander Haig pretending to be in Nixon’s camp. To think that Nixon’s “Watergate troubles” had nothing to do with opposition to his policies would be, in a word, naïve.

            And, generally, to think of Watergate as having little or nothing to do with Nixon’s politics would be just as naïve. Given the threat that Nixon posed to some of the most powerful forces in D.C., a threat enhanced by Nixon’s landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election, Nixon had to be managed, handled, including even forcing him out of the presidency and sending him disgraced into a kind of exile in San Clemente. Nixon, of course, did much to help his opponents dispose of him as president, most importantly by obstructing justice while trying to cover up Republican participation if the Watergate burglaries. But beyond that Nixon had a good deal of help, for example, from his chief of staff, Alexander Haig and even some from Henry Kissinger, not to mention John Dean, in helping his opponents remove him from office. Yes, a time would come when Nixon could be rehabilitated as an “elder statesman,” but only when he was old and had no real political power. And even then, Nixon’s rehabilitation did not include real acceptance. President Clinton tried to do that but if he succeeded, he only did so at Nixon’s funeral. Dead presidents, here Nixon, can be safely praised.

            So far was Watergate from being a cleansing, a purification of a political order that had been corrupted by Nixon, who sought to impose his will on America by secret and covert means, it was in reality an illustration of some powerful political forces protecting themselves, their power, and the system which made them what they were. During Watergate and after, the media, for example, was presented as helping to save democracy, when in fact the likes of Woodward and Bernstein, for example, were fed by the likes of Mark Felt, an FBI bigwig, and more importantly by Alexander Haig, a four-star general whom Woodward had briefed when both worked at the Pentagon. Woodward and Bernstein and others, even many others, were working for and with those forces that were most threatened by Nixon and his politics.

            Just by the by, as it were, during the Iran Contra scandal, when the media seemed to go out of its way to protect the Reagan administration from any thoughts of impeachment or resignation, the media had only changed its tactics, not its goal, which was to protect those powerful forces supporting the Reagan administration and its politics. So, while it looked like the “muck-raking” media of the Watergate years had changed, becoming accommodationists in the 80s, these looks were deceiving insofar as the media’s goal was the same in the 70s and the 80s, to protect some of the most powerful political forces in D.C. The goal was the same; only the means had changed.  

            Today, the question should be asked: Will ridding ourselves of Trump represent a cleansing, a purification of the American political order or just another protective – and reactionary – oligarchic operation? No doubt, should Biden prevail in the 2020 presidential election, the media will tout it as a cleansing, a purification of that order. But given Biden’s status as a penultimate insider, no more controversial than Gerry Ford was when he was appointed Nixon’s vice president, it seems doubtful that there is or will be much cleansing going on. The prevailing but floundering oligarchy will be restored, just as other powerful forces were restored when, as Gerry Ford put it after Nixon’s resignation, “Our long national nightmare has ended.’ But then there are nightmares and there are nightmares. For me, the most frightening nightmare is one in which those powerful forces are celebrated as democratic forces and the oligarchy rolls on and on and on.  

Monday, July 27, 2020

How John Dean "Nixoned" Nixon


How John Dean “Nixoned” Nixon
Peter Schultz

            I am reading a very interesting book entitled Haig’s Coup: How Richard Nixon’s Closest Aide Forced Him From Office, by Ray Locker. It is an account, drawn from the Nixon tapes, from memoirs, and from interviews of how Alexander Haig, who had become Nixon’s chief of staff after the resignation of H.R. Haldeman, manipulated Nixon and events to get Nixon to resign the presidency. And it seems to me that Locker makes his case, that indeed Haig, in large part to protect himself and some others, did successfully drive Richard Nixon from office.

            I wish to focus on just one part of the book, that dealing with John Dean’s testimony to the Watergate Committee and Nixon’s response thereto. It is fair to say that Dean did to Nixon what Nixon had done to Alger Hiss, when Nixon managed to discredit Hiss and eventually get him convicted of perjury when Nixon was a representative and a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948.

            Dean testified, essentially, that Nixon had been involved in the cover up of the Watergate burglary and that he, Dean, had warned Nixon that there was “a cancer on the presidency,” a cancer that would unless dealt with unseat Nixon and harm the presidency itself. But, as Locker points out, “The context in the actual conversation [between Dean and Nixon], which would not be seen for months, was different [than as described by Dean]. Nixon and Dean met with Haldeman, not alone, and Dean’s warning to Nixon was not one of aggrieved conscience but one of concern that the cover up would not hold.” [106-107] And there were in Dean’s testimony other “exaggerations, distortions, [and] discrepancies,” as was pointed out in what is known as the “Golden Boy” memo put out by the White House after Dean’s testimony.

            Later, though, Nixon came to realize that he “was worried about the wrong problem. I went off on a tangent, concentrating all our attention and resources on trying to refute Dean by pointing out his exaggerations, distortions, discrepancies. [But] it no longer made any difference that not all of Dean’s testimony was accurate. It only mattered if any of his testimony was accurate.” [added]

            While Nixon doesn’t seem to realize it, Dean had done to him what he had done to Alger Hiss in 1948. That is, Nixon then accused Hiss of being a communist, of what might be called a “status crime,” rather than an actual criminal act. Once Nixon could show, as he did, that any part of Hiss’s testimony wasn’t true or that any part of Whittaker Chambers, a former communist party member, was true, then Hiss would be deemed guilty as charged.

            Dean was accusing Nixon in a similar way, as being involved in an obstruction of justice, being involved in the cover up of the Watergate burglary. Once it was demonstrated that Nixon was involved in any way in the cover up, then Nixon would be deemed guilty as charged, no matter how inaccurate Dean’s testimony might have been in places. As Nixon realized later, it served no purpose to argue, as he tried to do immediately in response to Dean’s testimony, “I was not as involved in the cover up as Dean claims I was.” Such a claim, while true, was irrelevant. The only testimony that could’ve saved Nixon would be if he could have testified that when he met with Dean to discuss the White House response to the burglary, he had said: “We have only one option: We must come clean about the burglary and let the chips fall where they may.” And, of course, he would have had to mean it and act on it.

            Although Nixon didn’t know this at the time, nor did anyone else beside Dean, had Nixon come clean, Dean would have been hung out to dry because the burglary itself as well as the cover up were his ideas. Dean sent Liddy and Hunt back  – they had been in there once before – into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate because he was concerned that his then girlfriend might be implicated in a call girl ring that used the DNC phones to set up assignations or “dates.” And when the burglars were caught and arrested, Dean started the cover up by claiming, falsely, to Haldeman that John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general for awhile, had recommended asking the FBI to back off its investigation because of a secret CIA operation the agency did not want revealed. Haldeman took this recommendation to Nixon, who thought it was a good idea, as it would use national security to shield the Watergate burglars from prosecution. Nixon and Haldeman even praised Dean for this suggestion based on Dean’s meeting with the acting head of the FBI, Patrick Gray. Little did they know they were being or were going to be set up by Dean when the cover up came undone.

            There is an old expression that what goes around, comes around. Well, it would seem that this is what happened to Richard Nixon. Or as other expressions have it: “Just a little old fashioned justice going round, just a little old fashioned karma coming down. It really ain’t hard to understand: If you’re gonna dance, you gotta pay the band.” And it is safe to say, Nixon paid the band. His cunning ultimately led to his downfall. Sometimes, honesty is the best policy.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Trump's Time Is Up


Trump’s Time Is Up
Peter Schultz

            If I am not mistaken, Trump’s time is up. That is, it’s time for the Donald to go. Why? Because he has served his purpose: Re-legitimizing the reigning but floundering oligarchy.

            And he has served that purpose well. In fact, he has served that purpose better than a Hillary presidency ever could have. Why? First, because he is almost a caricature of himself and, second, because Hillary had too much “baggage.”

            So, expect that Republicans will begin, subtly but definitely, to allow the Donald to “swing in the wind” as it were, especially congressional Republicans, as they try to hold onto power and avoid the kind of electoral results that will cost them not only the White House – that’s OK with them given Biden is the Democratic nominee – but also the Senate.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Cunning Shits Seeking Power: US Politics


Cunning Shits Seeking Power: US Politics
Peter Schultz

            Pat Buchanan’s account of the presidential campaigns of 1972 illustrates that a good description of our politicians and their advisers is cunning shits seeking power.

            In response to the charge that a passage in his memo to the president entitled “Dividing the Democrats” was “the quintessence of Nixonian cynicism and a morality,” Buchanan wrote:

“In 1971 and 1972, we drove wedges through the ideological, cultural-moral, economic, and sectional fissures of America’s majority party. And . . . we shattered the Roosevelt Coalition and created a New Majority that would give the Republican Party forty-state victories in four of the five subsequent presidential elections, two of them forty-nine-state victories.” [260]

            So, Buchanan’s response to the charge that his was a politics of cynicism and amorality was “It worked! Cynicism and amorality work!” And to think that Buchanan sees himself and the Republican Party as the sources of a “moral mission in the world,” the representatives of “a moral people [who] believed we were ‘on God’s side.’” If confirmation were needed for the fact that Buchanan’s principles, his appeal for a moral politics were merely covers to disguise what was nothing more than a conspiratorial politics that seeks power, his own words provide such confirmation.

            More importantly, Buchanan never raises the question: How did his cynical and amoral electoral activities affect the “New Majority” he helped to create? He seemed to think that engaging in cynical and amoral political activity would not affect the character of that “New Majority.” For Buchanan, the means employed would not affect the ends achieved. Cynical and amoral electoral activities did not render Nixon’s New Majority cynical and amoral.

            Clearly, however, Buchanan was wrong. Part of his strategy of driving “wedges” into the “fissures” of the Democratic Party required that he do all he could do to fortify George Wallace’s power and popularity. In fact, supporting Wallace while dissing Muskie became a key link in Buchanan’s wedge strategy in order to have Wallace defeat Muskie in the Florida primary. Wallace’s victory in Florida left Muskie “bleeding badly,” but it also fortified the hateful politics that Wallace represented. Buchanan and Nixon were rooting for the racist Wallace to win in Florida, apparently unconcerned how such a victory affected the nation’s commitment to racial justice. Shattering “the Roosevelt Coalition,” as Buchanan claimed he had done, carries with it implications for the kind of politics the nation would embrace. The means employed affect the ends that appear, and cynical and amoral means guarantee cynical and amoral ends, as reflected by the fact that soon after the Florida primary “the President asked Congress to enact a ‘moratorium’ on court-ordered busing of school children.” [265]

            Buchanan is cunning and proud of that fact, celebrating dirty tricks and appeals to racist forces to help Nixon win the presidency. He is oblivious to the impact that his cynicism and amorality have on the nation’s politics. He even seems untroubled by Hunter Thompson’s repudiation of Muskie in the following words: “Sending Muskie against Nixon . . . was stone madness from the start [because it was] exposing Muskie to the kind of bloodthirsty thugs that Nixon and John Mitchell would sic on him.” [266] Apparently, Buchanan had no objection to being called a “bloodthirsty thug.” At least he registered none

            No wonder that the title of Buchanan’s chapter on these events is “Turn the Dogs Loose.” But sadly for Richard Nixon, those “dogs” eventually undermined his presidency when he was forced to resign the presidency disgraced.

Buchanan, China, and US Politics


Buchanan, China, and US Politics
Peter Schultz

            Buchanan’s responses to Nixon’s decision to visit and thereby recognize Communist China as China makes for interesting reading, as those responses underline how his principles do not affect his politics. That is, ultimately his principles provided little guidance or limits to his political activities.

            On the one hand, Buchanan was appalled by Nixon’s opening to China because it meant consorting with and even praising the Chinese Communists who had “played the leading role in killing 33,000 Americans in Korea [as well as] brainwashing our POWs.” And in China itself, the communists proved themselves to be mass murderers because “After the triumph of their revolution in 1949, they had slaughtered millions.” [241] And given what Buchanan calls the sellout of the Shanghai Communiqué that was jointly issued at the end of Nixon’s trip to China, Buchanan was “angry, disgusted, and ashamed.” [241] In the end, Buchanan had “made up [his] mind . . . to resign.” [245]

            On other hand, Buchanan began “to have second thoughts , , , because [he] wanted to see [Nixon] reelected. . . .” [246] As Haldeman reported in his diary after talking with Buchanan that he, Buchanan, “now realized . . . that there was no need . . . to express [his dissent] any more publicly . . . and that he could do more good by being on the inside . . . and therefore he decided to stay on.” [247] In Buchanan’s own words, he had decided that had he resigned “I would have made a great mistake.” [247]

            So, despite asking, “When all is said and done, what did we gain from the China trip?” and answering in essence not much, Buchanan did not resign. Apparently, despite principles that made Buchanan feel “angry, disgusted, and ashamed,” those principles did not guide Buchanan’s actions. Rather, what guided his actions were calculations about the need to go public or about the advantages of being on the inside rather than the outside. In brief, Buchanan chose power over principle, illustrating how his principles provided no guidance, no limits to his pursuit of power. Politically, his principles were empty and were overridden by Buchanan’s desire to retain his power, much as Nixon had frequently decided to compromise his principles in order to fortify his power as president. As Buchanan wrote: “I wanted to see [Nixon] reelected and had been working toward that goal for a year.” [246]

            Power, successfully pursuing and acquiring power, is what US politics is all about. And this means, even for Buchanan, that power is to be sought, acquired, and preserve by any means necessary. As in the case of Nixon’s China trip, this meant betraying “flag-waving, God-and-Country patriots.” So despite Buchanan’s criticisms of the “liberal intellectuals [who] sneer at denunciations of ‘godless communists’ and ‘atheistic communists’,” he was prepared to betray those who believed “we were on God’s side” and who believed that the US had “a moral mission in the world.” [246]

            For Buchanan, as for Nixon and other “pragmatists,” calculations about power trump principles. So when push comes to shove, as it always does, politics is nothing more than cunningly seeking, fortifying, and maintaining power, personally as well as nationally. Principles serve to disguise this reality, that is, disguise what are “cunning shits” struggling for power. Should more than this be expected, disappointment is guaranteed.