A Great Political Battle Raging? Not So Much
There is, many think, a great political battle raging in the US between the Republicans and the Democrats, between Trump supporters and Biden supporters, including the “Never Trumpians.” This battle is so great, it is said, that the fate of the US and its alleged democracy lies in the balance. Should Trump win again, his opponents argue, the US democracy will lie in ruins, sunk in that swamp Trump promised to drain. Should Trump lose, his supporters say, US democracy will be undermined by those who would make “socialism” the ruling force in the nation, thereby undermining, once and for all, its greatness.
Heady stuff, to be sure. However, two books, neither of which is devoted to analyzing our current situation, make me wonder and even doubt these prevailing thoughts that there is a great political battle raging in the US presently. Those two books are This Town by Mark Leibovich and Secret Agenda by Jim Hougan. The former is or was a fairly well known book on how Washington works, while the latter is a little known analysis of what the Watergate crisis was actually about. Both books illustrate why it is risky to take at face value conventional accounts of what is going on in our nation’s capital.
An example from This Town illustrates these risks, an example dealing with the raid that led to the assassination of bin Laden.
“As it turned out, the president’s involvement [with the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner] was nearly messed up . . . by the US raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. A few days before the mission, on August 28, the tiny group of high-level national security principals who knew about the operation was discussing the timing of it in the White House Situation Room. While the raid ultimately happened on Sunday night, Saturday night was first raised as a possibility. But someone pointed out that Obama was scheduled to be at the Correspondents’ Association dinner that night and his absence (and that of other top administration officials) could tip off the journalist filled room that something was up. At which point, Hillary Clinton looked up and said simply ‘Fuck the White House Correspondents’ dinner’.” [p. 245-6]
So, when planning a raid on bin Laden’s compound and his probably assassination, a group of “high-level national security principals” concerned themselves with planning the attack – deemed to be of overwhelming importance in the war on terror – so it would not conflict with the White House Correspondents’ annual dinner. And from the scheduling it would appear the raid was in fact planned so as to avoid a conflict with that dinner, despite Hillary’s objections.
In This Town, Leibovich makes it perfectly clear that Washington’s social milieu trumps political concerns repeatedly. People who seem to be enemies move in the same social and business circles comfortably and, more to the point, do not let their political concerns disrupt their socializing. Leibovich, for these reasons, dubs the controlling social set in D.C. “the Club.” And he argues: “You could do worse to explain the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country then to assemble a highlight reel from the Correspondents’ Association weekend’s event juxtaposed with scenes of economic despair, a simply military death toll, or montage of poor, oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf Coast, which had suffered the worst spill in history a few days before the 2010 dinner.” [p. 136]
What seem like political phenomena – e.g., the removal of General McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan – are actually social phenomena. McChrystal’s removal had nothing to do with the military situation in Afghanistan. It was just that he and his men had broken the rules, the social rules that govern Washington society. For the same reasons, the reporter who broke the story for Rolling Stone had to be – and was – punished. “The substance and merit of the remarks were beside the point. Because McChrystal was playing the game wrong. He made a dumb PR move.” [pp. 129-30]
And Hastings, the reporter involved, was also punished, being vilified by other journalists for violating “an ‘unspoken agreement’ between reporters and military officials.” [p. 132] “Hastings was treated as a suspicious interloper.” [ibid.] As Leibovich sums it up: “The bigger points in this case concerns the place of a ‘respectable journalist’ in the Washington Club – or lifetime banishment from it. Hastings trashed the Club. He was a skunk at the garden party.” [p. 133] And if you this is an isolated incident, I suggest familiarizing yourself with how the Washington Post treated Jim Webb of the San Jose Mercury after he broke the story of the Contras running drugs into the US during and with the knowledge of the Reagan administration.
Trump himself is a social disturbance and, hence, must be dealt with insofar as he threatens the Club and its status. Trump is especially disturbing because he shamelessly rejects both the Club and membership in it. Those like Trump must be dealt with, their power limited, their reputations besmirched, and even their offices taken from them if possible. Joe Biden, however, is a member of the Club and, hence, he will if elected president restore Washington’s social balance. His politics, his talents or lack thereof are not important because his election will bring “the right people” – the socially acceptable people – back into the government and the Washington social scene. There is no great political battle taking place in D.C. any more than there were great battles in junior high or high school.
In Hougan’s Secret Agenda, it is clear that what was actually going on during Watergate was quite different than what the official story said was going on. In the officially approved story, Watergate was the culmination of Nixon’s paranoid politics, which led to his certain impeachment that was only short-circuited by his resignation. But as Hougan shows, Nixon was as much a victim as a perpetrator. As J. Edgar Hoover said in a newspaper interview: “By God, [Nixon’s] got some former CIA men working for him that I’d kick out of my office. Someday, that bunch will serve him up a fine mess.” [p. 77] Of course, Hoover was correct although he did not live to the mess these men served up to Nixon.
Hoover knew there were CIA men embedded in Nixon’s White House and administration, as did others like H.R. Haldeman and Pat Buchanan. But what Hoover may not have known was that at least two of these CIA men – Howard Hunt and James McCord – were not really working for Nixon. They were working with and for the CIA. That is, Hunt and McCord’s loyalties were not to Nixon or his presidency; those loyalties belonged to the CIA.
Does this mean the CIA brought down Richard Nixon? Not necessarily, although their actions may have contributed to that result unintentionally. But it does mean that Watergate was not “a morality play,” was not “a simple story with the President at its center,” [p.56] as the official story would have us believe. Such morality plays necessitate some playing “the bad guys,” while others play “the good guys.” Most people don’t want to hear, as Hougan puts it, that “Watergate . . . was not so much a partisan political scandal as it was, secretly, a sex scandal, the unpredictable outcome of a CIA operation that . . . tripped on its own shoelaces.” [p. xviii] People prefer to ignore that the Nixon administration was “beset by leaks as massive as the Pentagon Papers, and besieged by critics on the both the Right and the Left,” and all of this amidst “the suspicions of a feuding intelligence community, as least part of which was convinced that . . . Henry Kissinger was objectively . . . a Soviet agent.” [p. 65] As Hougan put it: “our history [of Watergate] is a forgery, the by-product of secret agents acting on secret agendas of their own.” [p. xviii]
In Leibovich’s terms, our real history is one in which the Club’s members seek to preserve their own and the Club’s social status, operating clandestinely because to do otherwise would give the game away. Were it known, for example, that the CIA was successfully seeking compromising “intell” on prominent Washingtonians, the Club would lose it legitimacy, as would its members. Were the Nixon administration to become known as engaging in criminal act, Washington would be perceived as harboring criminal enterprises.
When such phenomena threaten to become public, then it is essential that the Club, the Washington establishment act to preserve its secrets. When such phenomena are exposed, as happened to Nixon during Watergate, then those responsible must be punished while making it look like such acts are aberrations. Hence, the need for what Hougan calls “morality plays” where the perpetrators are characterized as uniquely evil. And, of course, this was how Watergate was played out, as a morality play that succeeded in banishing Richard Nixon.
Turning to our current situation, a president like Trump presents a real challenge to the Club, the established social order in Washington because not only does he despise the Club, he openly, shamelessly despises it. But that does not mean there is a great political battle going on presently, as so many like to say. What’s going on is nothing more and nothing less than the Club, the established order defending itself, defending its status and the status of its members. As a result, previous lines that were thought to be real dividing lines, e.g., lines between those who supported Bush’s war in Iraq and those who didn’t, have disappeared. When the Club’s endangered it is time to circle the wagons. And, of course, Trump must be punished and his punishment must be made to look like a defense of morality, as Trump himself is characterized as a terrible political evil. But he isn’t and there isn’t a battle for America’s soul going on presently. And the proof of this will come out when once Trump is defeated, very little will change socially or politically in the US.