Watergate and American Politics as A Morality Play
It will shock no one when I say that there is a tendency in the United States to see politics as a morality play; that is, as a conflict between the “good guys” versus the “bad guys.” Nor will it shock anyone when I assert that this is what Watergate became.
It might shock people when I say that Watergate was anything but a morality tale. That is, it was a tale of a guilty president seeking to survive politically; a tale where the president’s closest advisers, Haig and Buzhardt, were trying to get him out of office before their “sins” were exposed; and a tale of journalists, working with an anonymous source, seeking to udo a presidency surreptitiously or covertly, almost like the CIA.
But despite its character, the power of morality tale scenario is attested to by the fact that President Nixon played along with it. That is why Nixon, virtually from the outset, denied any White House involvement in the Watergate burglary, denials that weren’t true, although he didn’t know that, and denials that would come back to haunt him, and even cost him his presidency.
Think about it: What if Nixon had decided to treat the burglary for what it was, as a crime. That is, if he had treated it as simple, straightforward criminality. If he had done that, he wouldn’t have had to “stonewall” or “cover up.” This was the genius of John Mitchell’s recommendation that the White House adopt what was called “the hang out” strategy; that is, let “it” all hang out with the purpose of punishing those who were guilty of those crimes. “Sure,” Nixon could have said. “Some people in the White House committed crimes and they will be punished. But these criminals are just that, criminals, and they don’t indicate that my administration is defined by immorality, any more than the fact that there are criminals in the United States means that it is defined by immorality.”
But let me broaden our concern with this tendency toward moralization. After the attacks of 9/11, a debate occurred, ever so briefly, about whether to treat the attacks as criminal acts and their perpetrators as criminals or to treat the attacks as acts of war and the perpetrators as terrorists. The latter view prevailed of course as we all know. But if the former had prevailed, then what would have followed would have been investigations and then trials. As the latter prevailed, what followed was wars, torture, and assassinations. One may ask if we are better off as a result of the moralizing those attacks leading to the war on terror.
But there is even another consideration, viz., the question as to whether understanding the world in moral terms clarifies or obfuscates the human condition? Does understanding the world in moral terms shed light or darkness? [Remember: Vice President Cheney, who viewed the attacks in moral terms, said we had to go “the dark side” as a response.] Does understanding the world in moral terms enable people to see or blind them to “real reality?”
These are or should be serious questions, that is, questions whose answers have significant implications. For example, Aristotle seems to have ascended from a moral view of the world to a political view, as his Nicomachean Ethics ends by pointing to his Politics. Plato might be said to have ascended from a moral view to a philosophic view of the human condition. And Machiavelli might be said to have ascended – or should we say descended – from a moral view of the world to a “realistic” view. So perhaps it would be worthwhile to reconsider our moralistic views, not only of Watergate but of politics generally.