Gaslit, Watergate, and the Madness of Politics
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 naïve 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.