Saturday, April 30, 2022

Gaslit, Watergate, and the Madness of Politics


Gaslit, Watergate, and the Madness of Politics

Peter Schultz


            As illustrated by the television series, Gaslit, the more I ponder what is called Watergate, the stranger it becomes. The conventional wisdom about Watergate, as illustrated by that series, is that it represented American politics as a drama about a quest for justice and/or democracy in the face of the threats represented by the Nixon administration and its covert and overt activities directed at its “enemies,” as well as at the democratic election process. And, in the end, the “good guys” won, as Nixon was forced to resign the presidency and, as President Ford said, “Our long national nightmare [was] over.”


            The conventional wisdom, however uplifting it might be, is anything but an accurate portrayal of what happened during Watergate or an accurate portrayal of politics generally. Watergate was a veritable madhouse, where, for example, as presented in Gaslit, an alcoholic, depressed, spurned woman played, allegedly, a prominent role in taking down the most powerful man on the planet – for better and worse. Watergate was largely the result of a “blindly ambitious” young man, John Dean, who was willing to chance exposing his girlfriend’s close friendship with a “madame,” who was managing a call girl ring by using the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate, all for the sake of his political advancement. The same young man was more than willing to implicate others in criminal activities to hide his own culpability. Watergate also involved, revolved around a paranoid president, Nixon, who allowed himself to be played by others to the point that he was forced to resign in disgrace, while his most trusted – and his most trustworthy – cohorts and colleagues went to prison. And this while his least trustworthy aides, e.g., Dean and Alexander Haig, were rewarded with accolades as “heroes” who helped save American democracy, along with those “enemies,” like Woodward and Bernstein, who, although hailed as heroes, willingly engaged in their own covert activities to take down the president. And that the CIA was also covertly involved in Watergate must be taken as fact now, adding another layer of madness to the scandal. “One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”


            Blaise Pascal wrote that when reading Plato and Aristotle, in their writings on politics, they should be read ironically, because they were convinced that trying to reform political life is like trying to bring order into a madhouse. If what occurred during Watergate wasn’t madness, then the concept of madness has no meaning. Apparently, Plato and Aristotle were as aware of the madness of political life as was Machiavelli. But despite his reputation for being “Machiavellian,” it seems Richard Nixon wasn’t aware of the madness that surrounded him and that, ultimately, brought him down. In fact, when reading about Watergate, it becomes clear that Nixon was na├»ve to a surprising degree, and this despite – or perhaps because of – his paranoia. Perhaps Nixon, like so many, believed that the political life is about justice, rather than a never-ending contest for power among those Aristotle described as “sick” individuals. There are lessons to be learned from Watergate and even from Gaslit, both about American politics and about politics generally. But learning them requires a capacity of irony, a willingness to see just how insane our cuckoo’s nest is.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Watergate: A Morality Tale with No Morality


Watergate: A Morality Tale Without No Morality

Peter Schultz


            To understand the Watergate scandal, it is necessary to pay attention to the fact that John Dean, in November of 1971, had his assistant, John Caulfield, tell Anthony Ulasewicz, another Dean underling, to walk through the Democratic National Headquarters offices in the Watergate office building. This order made little sense to Ulasewicz, and it has made little sense to most other people who have noticed it. For example, Gordon Liddy never understood why Dean wanted to break into and bug these offices. But Dean had a reason for doing so and it is key to understanding what became the Watergate scandal.


            Dean was then in a relationship with Mo Biner, the woman who later became his wife. And Mo was friends with a woman whose real name was Erika L. “Heidi” Rikan, otherwise known as Cathy Dieter. Cathy/Heidi, as she is referred to in the book Silent Coup: The Removal of a President by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, had been a stripper in Washington, D.C. from 1964 to 1966, when she moved into management. That is, she managed a sex-for-money operation in D.C., which was eventually closed down. After that, she managed a sex-for-money “call girl ring” at Columbia Plaza, which is what she was doing when she met John Dean in the 70s, who was, as noted, dating, and living with Mo Biner, who was a good friend of Cathy/Heidi, even staying with her when Dean was out of town.


            Around Labor Day in 1971, an attorney named Phillip Mackin Bailley, Cathy/Heide, and Mo Biner, whose nickname in Bailley’s address book was “Clout,” met and discussed a new opportunity for expanding Cathy/Heidi’s business, namely, a Bailley connection who was a Democratic official housed in the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate office building. Bailley thought it feasible that his contact, Spencer Oliver, or someone else at the DNC would agree to steer visiting politicians to women who could make their evenings pleasurable. After a couple of tries, Bailley was successful and managed to establish a contact who would, for a commission of course, steer politicians in the direction of Columbia Plaza and Cathy/Heidi’s women.


            Two things that are clear about John Dean is that he was quite ambitious – entitling his memoir Blind Ambition – and that he determined early on in his office in the White House that political intelligence, gathering and controlling it, was the way to rise in the Nixon administration. Although later he tried to minimize his efforts in this regard, it is fairly obvious that Dean repeatedly tried to get approval for political intelligence operations that would prove useful and would enhance his reputation. So, when Dean, who was “great friends” with Cathy/Heidi, learned of the DNC connection with Heidi Rikan’s business, he knew this would be, if tapped (couldn’t resist), a gold mine of political intelligence that could be used to compromise Democratic politicians, thereby advancing the power of Republicans and his own power. This was why he had Anthony Ulasewicz walk through the DNC headquarters, to assess the feasibility of bugging those offices in order to get damaging political intelligence on Democrats. That is, Dean knew what no one else knew, “that valuable intelligence information could be gleaned from the DNC.” It was opportunity an ambitious fellow like Dean would not pass up, especially as he had the personnel and the means to covertly enter the DNC and bug its phones and offices.


            The problem was – and it was or would become a big problem – that there was another agency that knew of and was taking an active interest in the call girl ring at Columbia Plaza, and that other agency was the CIA. For some time, the CIA had engaged in such clandestine spying in order to discover and record politicians in compromising situations. The CIA’ interests in this regard was two-fold: To draw up what it called “machines” or psychological profiles of politicians so it could predict what they would do and, perhaps, influence their doings as well. In fact, the CIA was involved in such clandestine activities with regard to the Columbia Plaza call girl ring, which included as “johns” some of the most prominent political and social persons in the D.C. area, including some judges and even a senator.


            Well, you can see the problem that Dean ran into. His operation to spy on the Democrats and the Columbia Plaza call girl ring could and probably would in all likelihood expose the CIA’s operation, which was of course illegal. Therefore, Dean’s operation had to be stopped, had to be undermined, which was made possible by the presence of at least two CIA assets working in the Nixon administration, E. Howard Hunt and James McCord, both of whom claimed to have left the CIA. But, of course, they hadn’t done that and by making “mistake” after “mistake,” making the burglary look like “a third-rate burglary,” as the Nixon people described it, the burglars were caught red-handed, as it were. And then with an assist from McCord, who wrote to Judge Sirica to say perjury had been and was being committed, the attempted cover-up failed and, eventually, Richard Nixon was forced to resign as the Watergate operation, an operation initiated by John Dean, was seen as part of a broader attack on America’s democracy. That this alleged attack on America’s democracy was subverted by the CIA acting secretly should lead one to question the conventional understanding of Watergate as a morality tale wherein democratic heroes from the Washington Post and elsewhere road to rescue of American democracy.


            In fact, if this was a morality tale, it was one where no one acted morally. John Dean’s attempt at a cover-up could be seen as his attempt to protect the honor or reputation of his love, Mo Biner, but of course that love and her honor didn’t stop him from undertaking a covert operation that, if exposed, would have compromised her reputation and honor as well, and all for the sake of satisfying his “blind ambition.” The CIA did not, unsurprisingly, act morally, as it gathered intelligence it could use to compromise politicians, thereby undermining democracy. Nor did Nixon and his administration act morally. Indeed, if Nixon had acted morally, that is, had he actually tried to discover what the burglary was about, and who was responsible, instead of covering it up, he would have saved his presidency and come out “smelling like a rose.” Nor did Nixon’s enemies act morally, as they proved willing to ignore aspects of the situation that would have lessened their animosity toward Nixon and compromised their desires to destroy him politically. But a morality play needs “good guys” and “bad guys,” and so Watergate continues to be seen through the eyes of those who were allegedly the “good guys.” And it is quite remarkable how many flaws get covered up by designating someone one of “good guys.”

Monday, April 25, 2022

Idle Questions: Modernity, Nihilistic Savagery


Idle Questions: Modernity

Peter Schultz


            Two idle questions: (1) What if in fact the United States does represent the peak of modernity? (2) But what if that peak proves to be a nihilistic savagery – disguised as “progress,” as “globalization,” as “the war on terror,” as “anti-Communism,” as “humanistic war-making,” or as “a new world order?”


            If so, then the savagery we see around us is not “aberrant behavior.” Rather, it lies at the heart of our “civilization,” “the Heart of Darkness.”