Monday, June 30, 2008

Watergate and the True Believers

I just came across this outstanding piece by Jim Hougan:

On the New Inquisition

It is a wonderfully scathing and perfectly on-point indictment of the MSM and Watergate:

The real issue, which in the end may be even more important than the who-shot-who of Watergate, concerns the arrogance of media such as the Washington Post, which pretend to an infallibility they do not have. For decades, the Post and its cousins have refused to tolerate (much less undertake) a re-examination of the Watergate affair---or any other major story in which they may be said to have a stake.

Watergate, after all, was journalism's finest hour. Courageous editors and intrepid young reporters risked everything in a brave effort to save America from a White House ruled by Sauron and the hordes of Mordor. To question the received version of the story is, therefore, a kind of heresy. And so the Post becomes the Inquisition, labelling its critics "conspiracy theorists" while warning the public against the "danger" of such thinking. Clearly, the Post would rather its readers let the newspaper do their thinking for them


Hougan’s point was on display a few days back on CSPAN. They rebroadcast a 1994 panel discussion put on by the Discovery Channel to promote a five hour mini-series on Watergate and the companion book by Fred Emery.

Among the participants was John Dean, James McCord, and Daniel Schorr. The documentary hewed carefully to the Standard Account (i.e. John Dean’s story) and the discussion initially followed this well trod ground.

Before too long, unexpected challenges appeared. Critical questions were raised. Each one of them threatened to undermine the documentary and the narrative it promoted. In each case, the questions were not answered; they were simply brushed aside.

The most electric moment occurred when a gentleman in the audience introduced himself as John Barrettone of the police officers who arrested the burglars in the DNC’s offices. He could not understand why the documentary made no mention of the key that one of the burglars, Eugenio Martinez, tried to hide during the search. Barrett stated that he had photocopies of the key, the notebook it was hidden in, and FBI reports that confirmed that the key opened the desk of Ida “Maxie” Wells, a DNC secretary.

As readers of Silent Coup or Secret Agenda know, Wells is central to the revisionist accounts of Watergate which all posit that John Dean was involved in the break-in as well as the cover-up. (See Hougan’s article for a concise synopsis).

Barrett’s question pointed to a grievous hole in the documentary. How could it ignore such an important item?

Norma Percy, one of the producers, blithely dismissed his concerns. “We looked into that” and “Martinez does not corroborate your story”. The panel quickly moved on.

It was a stunning demonstration of how the True Believers do history. Percy clearly believed that she debunked a pernicious myth. Her evidence, however, was the word of a convicted felon. Moreover, her team seems not to have spoken to a critical witness (Barrett) or to have looked at his evidence. For all her cool confidence, her work sounds less like research and more like grasping at straws.

Of course, Barrett’s question had to be ignored. It completely undercut the documentary’s status as the “definitive history”.

The next two challenges came from one of the panelistJames McCord. Both were pointed comments to John Dean that were ripe with hidden meaning.

McCord’s first question related to the promise of presidential pardons. All the defendants came to believe that they would receive them. However, the Nixon tapes show that the president was only willing to consider a pardon for Hunt.

As McCord emphasized, it was the phantom promise that convinced the burglars to shut up, plead guilty, and receive long prison sentences.

Daniel Schorr, who moderated the session, was completely uninterested in this subject and moved on before McCord received a satisfactory answer.

The question is potentially explosive. If we accept McCord’s version of the story, someone at the White House pushed the cover-up far beyond what Nixon authorized. It would be good to know who this eager beaver was and what motivated his lies.

Again, the True Believers were uninterested in enlightening the public and simply repeated their catechism: “Nixon bad, Nixon bad.”

The final, and funniest moment of the discussion, came in response to the great, unanswered Watergate question: What were they looking for?

The consensus answer was the same old same oldcorrupt paranoid Nixon was worried that the DNC had damaging information about Nixon’s dealings with Howard Hughs. (NB: A panel that began by praising the documentary for its meticulous and exhaustive search for the facts was now proffering only theories, speculation and rumor.)

Dean, however, had to answer and answer carefully. Twice questions from the audience had hinted that he might be responsible for instigating the break-in. His response was solemn and judicious and artful.

Of course he had no inside knowledge and he could only answer as an honest truth-seeker: “talking to people after the fact.” He then gave a tremendous non-answer- “they” (who?) “were on a fishing expedition.”

If Dean had offered a motive, then some one might have wondered if his own motive was a better explanation than Mitchell’s or Colson’s or Nixon’s. But Dean’s answer is that there is no answer. If there is no answer, then we should just forget the question.

Then, Dean tried for a bridge too far. “Jim McCord,” he informed the audience, told him that Spencer Oliver’s office was just “a target of opportunity.” The team had an extra bug; they had to put it somewhere; and Oliver’s office was nearby.

Brilliant! McCord’s own words get Dean off the hook. If Oliver’s office was not targeted, then there is no reason to ask what happened in that office.

And then Honest Jim McCord, the man who blew the lid off the cover-up, slapped John Dean silly.

Instead of supporting Dean’s recollections, he almost blew derailed the proceedings.

“John, you have an interesting memory.” McCord described it as “slippery”. It slides over things” and “omits things that are key.”

He went on to describe how Dean once offered to testify on his behalf in a civil trial if McCord would give him dirt on CIA.

We never got to hear all of what McCord had to say. Other panelists intervened and herded the discussion back to safe topics like Nixon’s paranoia and the righteous work of the Ervin Committee.

Our loss; Dean’s gain. Par for the course in Watergate history.

Some might ask if any of this matters. The break-in happened over 36 years ago. Nixon is gone and so are most of the other principals.

The simplest answer goes back to Solzhenitsyn’s admonition: “Live not by lies.” Watergate triggered the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. Our understanding of it should be based on the “best obtainable version of the truth” rather than self-serving stories by interested participants.

An event as big as Watergate should be a fertile subject for historians. By now, there should be competing schools interpretation, relentless digging in the archives, and a bookshelf of heavily-footnoted monographs examining every angle of the affair.

Instead, what we see are historians mechanically ratifying the first rough draft of a narrative set down in 1973-74.

James Rosen, now of Fox News, was present at the conference and tried to get the producers explain why they backed away from the Silent Coup thesis. He did not get a respectable answer then but he has never stopped asking questions. He just recently published his biography of John Mitchell which adds to our understanding of the break-in and its cover-up.

In a recent interview with Hugh Hewitt, Rosen underlined a gross dereliction of both journalists and historians:

What I did want to mention was two sets of archives that no other researcher had every before asked to see, which I was quite shocked. One was the internal files of the Watergate special prosecution force.

This is a terrible indictment of both the MSM and professional historians. Here we have two groups who pride themselves on their curiosity and skepticism. Yet both are almost willfully blind when it comes to researching one of the most important events in our past. But, as Hougan points out, that does not prevent them from telling us how we should think about Watergate.

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