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.

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