Thursday, June 12, 2014

Watergate and history

Max Holland has an eye-opening look at Timothy Naftali’s tenure as director of the Richard M. Nixon Library:

Naftali Reconsidered
Worth noting is how Naftali worked to bolster and shore up the false narrative of All the President’s Men and served as an apologist for Mark Felt (Deep Throat). As Holland writes:

The oral histories about the scandal are “Woodwardian,” as an archivist at the Nixon Library, put it. “There’s nothing new. A lot more real research would have had to occur. But it was easier to stay with what’s popular with the parlor set, the accepted version” of Watergate
Naftali is fond of portraying himself as the beleaguered defender of historical truth fighting against the whitewashing propensities of Nixon loyalists. Holland shows that he is actually a self-serving drama queen who sacrificed history on the alter of the Washington Narrative.

Stephen Hunter:

The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them. It's so powerful because it's unconscious. It's not like they get together every morning and decide 'These are the lies we tell today.' No, that would be too crude and honest. Rather, it's a set of casual, nonrigorous assumptions about a reality they've never really experienced that's arranged in such a way as to reinforce their best and most ideal presumptions about themselves and their importance to the system and the way they have chosen to live their lives. It's a way of arranging things a certain way they all believe in without ever really addressing carefully. It permeates their whole culture. They know, for example, that Bush is a moron and Obama a saint. ... And the narrative is the bedrock of their culture, the keystone of their faith, the alter of their church. They don't even know they're true believers, because in theory they despise the true believer in anything.
It’s a real shame because there is so much we do not know about Watergate let alone the rest of the Nixon administration.

Historian Beverly Gage on Robert Redford’s documentary All the President’s Men Revisited:

As far as it goes, the film is a reasonably adequate primer on Watergate mythology, and it’s certainly fun to watch. But it is also a missed opportunity for historical reflectionand one that, given the age of most Watergate participants, is unlikely to come around again. Forty years out, we know most of the basic facts about Watergate. The real challenge is figuring out what they all meant.
It is not true, however, that we know most of the basic facts. For instance, James Rosen has a few questions for CIA:

Watergate -- 40 years later, questions endure about CIA's role in the break in

These are important questions, for they conjure, like unwelcome ghosts, the enduring mysteries of the momentous events we lump under the catch-call name of “Watergate.” The deaths of Nixon and many of his top aides in the intervening decades render the pursuit of these questions no less important or urgent; what mattered to a nation of laws in 1972 should matter today, too. And the answers to these questions will not be found in the collected works of Woodward and Bernstein. Neither of their Watergate books the now-much-discredited "All the President’s Men" (1974) and "The Final Days" (1976) even mentions Wells or Oliver. The first answers started appearing in Hougan’s landmark of principled revisionism, "Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA" (1984); more evidence surfaced in Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin’s controversial bestseller "Silent Coup: The Removal of a President" (1991) and my own book, published, after seventeen years of research, in 2008, sought to advance the story further, on several fronts.

Anniversaries like this tend to trigger a lot of pontification about the “lessons” or “myths” of Watergate, but not much reexamination of, or search for, the facts. Let this, then, be the chief “lesson” of Watergate: that facts matter most of all, and that our lone duty to history, as Oscar Wilde once said, is continually to rewrite it.
Here’s a key Watergate question that may never be answered now. This is Charles Colson from an interview he did in 1976 shortly after he was released from prison.

According to [Bernard] Barker's testimony, Hunt recruited the break-in team four months before I employed him at the White House. Hunt went to Miami in April, 1971 and left a note for Barker saying, "If you're the same Barker I worked with before [on anti-Castro operations for the CIA], call me. Eduardo." I didn't recommend Hunt to the White House staff until July. So why was Hunt recruiting the Watergate break-in team before he even knew he was going to be in the White House?
The question remains as interesting and as important today as when Colson asked it.

Hougan’s Secret Agenda has been around for 30 years. It is full of such revelations and pregnant questions. Sadly, few serious historians have pursued them.

I reviewed Holland’s book on Mark Felt/Deep Throat here:

An inconvenient book (Part One)

An inconvenient book (Part two)

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