Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The "Gate-"ful dead... although he's really still alive, I guess. I just needed a pun, y'know?

Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat” is to blame. It’s his fault that the annoying suffix "–gate" is added to the end of every pseudo-, quasi-, and semi- scandal out there (it was even, in an ironic example of historical turnabout, applied to journalist Dan Rather, in Rathergate). This blight on American historical nomenclature, or Gategate as it prefers to be called, now has a central figure—Mark Felt. I hope he’s happy.

He’s no hero, though, that’s for sure. I’m not psychologizing Felt’s motives here, either; whether or not Felt thought he was doing his patriotic duty or just being exemplarily moral is irrelevant. Historical context is what is important.

Watergate has a certain infamy about them, as one of the darkest moments of presidential misbehavior, at least among people of my generation. Ask a random person under twenty-five who's the worst president, and Nixon will be the default response, simply because of the mar left by Watergate. But was Watergate all that bad? (Whether or not Nixon was a good president, I’ll leave to each person to decide, after considered reflection. At least Ben Stein seems to like the guy.)

Watergate was not the height of presidential misconduct, and Felt no hero. In his epic telling of the American story, “A History of the American People,” historian Paul Johnson collects a slew of examples of much more egregious executive conduct:

Bad habits had set in under FDR. He had created his own ‘intelligence unit,’ responsible only to himself, with a staff of eleven and financed by the State department ‘Special Emergency’ money. He used J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the IRS, and the Justice Department to harass his enemies, especially the press and business, and to tap their phones, the mineworkers’ leader John L. Lewis being one victim. FDR’s use of the IRS to ‘get’ names on his ‘enemies’ list’ was particularly scandalous and unlawful. FDR had made persistent efforts to penalize the Chicago Tribune, which he hated, in the courts, and to get the New York Times indicted for tax fraud. He even used the intelligence serve to bug his wife’s hotel room. …. Kennedy had been privy to CIA assassination plots and had been a party to the coup which led to the killing of his ally Diem, though he had opposed the murder itself. At the Justice Department, Bobby Kennedy in 1962 had agents carry out dawn raids on the homes of US steel executives who had opposed his brother’s policies. In their civil rights campaign, the Kennedy brothers exploited the federal contract system and used executive orders in housing finance (rather than legislation) to get their way. They plotted against right-wing radio and TV stations. They used the IRS to harass ‘enemies.’ Under Kennedy and Johnson, phone-tapping increased markedly. So did ‘bugging’ and ‘taping.’ JFK’s closest aides were stunned to learn in February 1982 that he had taped no fewer than 325 White House conversations. The large-scale womanizing of Martin Luther King was taped and played back to newspaper editors. The efforts made by LBJ to protect himself from the Bobby Baker scandal, already mentioned, included the unlawful use of secret government files, the IRS, and other executive devices.

Until the Nixon era, the media was extremely selective in the publicity it gave to presidential wrongdoing. Working journalists protected Roosevelt on a large number of occasions, over his love affairs and many other matters. They did the same—and more—for Kennedy. The fact that Kennedy shared a mistress, while he was president, with a notorious gangster, though known to several Washington journalists, was never published in his lifetime. In Johnson’s struggle to extricate himself from the Bobby Baker mess, the Washington Post actually helped him to blacken his chief accuser, Senator Williams
In fact, part of the reason the WaPo was dead-set against Nixon was personal vendetta:
The Washington Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, was particularly angry, not to say hysterical, because he believed (without any warrant) that the authorities, at Nixon’s insistence, were maliciously opposing the Post’s application for broadcasting licenses. Hence, unlike the rest of the press, the Post had Watergate stories on its front page seventy-nine times during the election and from October 10 began publication of a series of ‘investigative’ articles seeking to make the Watergate burglary a moral issue.
This is not to say that no wrong was done at Watergate. Obviously, breaking into that building was illegal. But even here, for those actually involved (Nixon had no knowledge of the event, and certainly didn’t authorize it) justice was denied. G. Gordon Liddy, one of the Watergate “burglars” (nothing was actually stolen) was given a 20 year sentence and slapped with a $40,000 fine—a punishment completely out of proportion for a first time break-in where nothing was broken or stolen.

And, as noted, Nixon had no knowledge of this. The group that broke into Watergate had initially been created by Nixon to stop leaks of administration secrets, which had been happening with a startling, and, frankly, nation-endangering, frequency. After the famous leakage of the Pentagon Papers, Kissinger finally told Nixon that something had to be done, or else no nation would enter into secret negotiations with America, for fear that info would be leaked about it. So this group, called the "Plumbers," was formed to get the leaks under control. No one really knows what the group was doing at Watergate, but it smacked of amateur cloak-and-dagger election shenanigans, and wasn't part of anything ordered from higher up.

Watergate wasn’t as bad as many think it was, especially when taken in historical context. And Felt was no hero, that’s for sure. That some would say he is, is scandalous. Feltgate, anyone?

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