The War Against Richard Nixon: Woodward and Bernstein Overlook the Right

Jacob Heilbrunn

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reprised their starring role during Watergate by issuing a lengthy examination of Watergate and Richard Nixon in the Washington Post this past Sunday. Their essay was accompanied by an article from Leonard Downie bemoaning the disappearance of the kind of investigative reporting practiced by Woodstein, as they were once known. The gist of the new Woodward and Bernstein piece is that they were were even more right than they knew. They suggest that Nixon had launched a "criminal enterprise," a multifront war—against the media, the Democratic party, the antiwar movement and so on—and that Watergate was simply part of a greater complex. They also include bloodcurdling remarks by Nixon about the supposed perfidy of Jews.

In reading their essay, it is not always easy to detect any real revelations. That Nixon had a dark, pathological side and said very nasty things about his real and perceived enemies is not news. But Woodward and Bernstein's object appears to have been to nip any revisionism about Nixon in the bud—the notion that he was not really such a bad fellow. Woodward and Bernstein adduced a book review by a former Nixon aide named Frank Gannon, who suggested that many questions about Watergate remained open. Whether that review is worthy of the significance that Woodward and Bernstein invest in it is questionable.

But there is more to it than that. Is it really only Nixon loyalists who are trying to polish Nixon's reputation? Or is it, rather, liberals who have started to look more fondly at a president they have come to regard as one of them? A closet liberal. Someone who deviated from conservative orthodoxy. A president who can be held up as the antipode of the right-wingers in Congress who expostulate about rolling back big government. Nixon, after all, created the Environmental Protection Agency. He supported the Philadelphia Plan, which relied upon racial quotas. Stephen F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute observes,

It was under Nixon that social spending came to exceed defense spending for the first time. Social spending soared from $55 billion in 1970 (Nixon’s first budget) to $132 billion in 1975, from 28 percent of the federal budget when LBJ left office to 40 percent of the budget by the time Nixon left in 1974. While Nixon would criticize and attempt to reform welfare, he nonetheless approved massive increases in funding for other Great Society programs such as the Model Cities program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some of the changes in spending policies that Nixon supported, such as automatic cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients and other entitlement programs, contributed to runaway spending trends in successive decades.

Nor is this all. He and Henry Kissinger tried to wind down the arms race. They pushed for détente with the Soviet Union. They recognized China. They did not try for all-out victory in Vietnam—instead, they pushed "Vietnamization." So some liberals have begun to look more fondly upon Nixon.

Woodward and Bernstein also overlook another, related aspect to his presidency. It was the Right that went to war against Nixon, not just the Left. Nixon was pilloried by the budding neoconservative movement for abandoning the fight against communism. The old cold warrior, the exposer of Alger Hiss, it was suggested, was now capitulating to the Reds. And it wasn't just the neocons who were in high dudgeon. Conservatives were in despair as well. As David B. Frisk reports in his new book If Not Us, Who?, a group centered around the National Review, which included William F. Buckley Jr., Frank Meyer and members of the American Conservative Union, also voiced its disappointment with what it saw as Nixon's compromises. The group called itself the Manhattan Twelve—its manifesto deplored "excessive taxation" and "inordinate welfarism" and was published in the National Review.

The Right was restless. It didn't trust Nixon. So in 1972, Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook ran against Nixon in several Republican primary states. His famous statement about Nixon was "we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop but then we realized he was a centipede." His aim was to represent the true conservative voice—one that would emerge in full flower with Ronald Reagan in 1980, who essentially repudiated the Nixon-Kissinger approach to foreign affairs by substituting a combination of the old rollback doctrine and neoconservative anticommunism. Nixon had become a ghostly presence in the GOP. He worked assiduously at his rehabilitation, but his efforts did not take place within the GOP. Rather, Nixon sought to transform himself into an elder statesman with his books on foreign affairs and visits to Russia.

Why exhume this history? Merely to suggest that the Woodward and Bernstein essay does not tell the entire story. Indeed, it might be fair to conclude that what is new in the piece is not interesting and what is interesting is not new. The authors suggest that the new information simply confirms their original hunches and conclusions. Woodward and Bernstein wrote the first draft of history and provided the material evidence that people needed to make the moral judgment that the times called for. But with greater distance and perspective, it seems clear that Nixon did not represent the high point of the imperial presidency. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have gone further in foreign affairs than Nixon ever did, the former in authorizing torture, the latter in personally signing off on the assassination of terrorists, including an American citizen. Next to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Nixon was a piker. Of course, the excesses of Nixon should not be waved away. But they can also be viewed in a broader context than Woodward and Bernstein appear prepared to allow. Like some of Nixon's aging and dwindling and die-hard defenders, they are stuck in something of a time warp.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Leaky Thinking About Secrecy

Paul Pillar

The leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees issued a joint statement Wednesday that expressed concern over recent leaks of information about sensitive activities overseas, called on the executive branch to do more to detect and deter leaks, and declared an intention to consider new legislation that somehow would help to combat leaking. The committees summoned Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI director Robert Mueller to discuss the matter on Thursday, and there is talk about the possible need for a special counsel. I wish the committees well. If anyone has any good ideas for new procedures or penalties to ameliorate the problem, bravo. But as the committee leaders put it with understatement, “the problem of leaks of classified information is not new.” The sad fact is that most leaks are inherently difficult to investigate and police. Meanwhile, the revelations and accusations that stimulated this statement involve some misconceptions about government secrecy and some unhelpful conflation of different issues.

Even though Democratic and Republican leaders agreed on the committee statement, the issue of recent revelations about national-security matters has been, like just about everything else in Washington, politicized. With a Democratic administration in office, it has been the Republicans' turn to accuse the administration of disclosing national-security accomplishments as a way of burnishing President Obama's public image in an election year—which the president forcefully denied in comments to reporters on Friday. The previous Republican administration was no stranger to politically motivated disclosure, the most notorious example of which involved revelations about the identity and status of a covert CIA officer as part of an effort to discredit the message from her retired ambassador husband, who had written publicly about the phoniness of one aspect of the Bush administration's public brief about Iraq.

In one of the recent cases, the Obama administration held a conference call with outside commentators about a foiled terrorist plot but failed to inform the intelligence committees about the plot until after it was reported in the media. This was an embarrassing misstep that no doubt accounts for the Democratic as well as Republican leaders signing on to the sort of statement the intelligence committees released.

Public revelations reflect a highly selective slice of national-security matters, but the selection is often not a matter of puffery about an administration's accomplishments or other high-level manipulation. Failures are more likely than successes to become publicly known, given the inherently more visible public footprint of many failures. And many more revelations reflect the personal agenda (or neuroses, or resentments) of an individual leaker.

The fact that leaks reflect the individual agendas of misfits or anyone else with the moxie to violate the rules is one reason that leaks are bad. They have nothing to do with public accountability, or at least any form of accountability that is sufficiently orderly and dedicated to the nation's interest to be worthy of that term. Meanwhile, there is all the other damage that is caused to work performed on behalf of national security, from impeding the conduct of diplomacy to blowing sensitive military or intelligence operations. And yet, leakers sometimes get viewed as laudable whistle-blowers. Maybe the traditional American aversion to secrecy among their rulers has something to do with it.

The interests of the press, for which leaks are lifeblood, have a lot to do with it. The press's dependence on leaks naturally affects the way the press treats leaks as a subject of its reporting. A front-page piece by Scott Shane of the New York Times about secrecy brands as “inconsistency” and “contradictory behavior” the aggressive prosecution of leakers by the administration led by Mr. Obama, who while a candidate denounced his predecessor's secret prisons and coercive interrogation techniques. There is nothing contradictory or inconsistent about it. The use of torture should not have been a private prerogative of the executive branch, but the proper and most reliable check against this is oversight by the people's representatives in Congress, not the random initiative of some disgruntled rule-breaker. A problem was that the briefings on this subject by the Bush administration were so constricted that proper oversight was impeded.

There are serious issues of public accountability and policy direction that involve the matters that have been the focus of recent revelations. One involves targeted killings through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Although many details of such operations are appropriately kept secret—and random revelations of the details are not helpful—the public and the Congress still know too little about the criteria applied to such operations and the calculations about how they do or do not serve the variety of national interests at stake. Attention is needed not to juicy details but to higher-order policy (and legal and moral) considerations.

Then there is the waging of cyberwar. Leaks of the sort that underlie David Sanger's remarkable reporting on this subject are also damaging, and to the extent the intelligence committee leaders' statement is a response to these particular leaks, it is an appropriate response. But cyberwar is war. That is how the United States treats it with respect to how responsibilities for it are organized in the Department of Defense. And war, of all things, should not be initiated and conducted as a private prerogative of the executive branch. To do so is a serious offense to our constitutional order.

The executive and legislative branches have a lot of work to do about these matters. Leakers have nothing to contribute to that work except more damage and confusion.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsCyberwarMediaThe PresidencyTerrorism RegionsUnited States

The Real Issue in Wisconsin

The Buzz

The Scott Walker detractors have been in overdrive since Tuesday in trying to interpret the Wisconsin governor’s big victory in his recall election. The aim seems to be to avoid at all costs the idea that they were on the wrong side of an issue that has become fundamental to America’s financial health.

Thus, it was all about the money. Republicans reportedly raised some seven times more cash than Walker’s opposition. And that money poured in, much from out of state, not just to save Walker and his effort to clip the power of his state’s public employee unions, but also, as The New York Times put it in an editorial, “to turn a once-reliable blue state into a laboratory for Republican ideas, where business could grow free of union fetters, taxes could be cut and thousands of people could be removed from Medicaid rolls.”

Nowhere in the Times editorial is there even a nod toward what the election was really all about—the power of public employee unions to lay claim to the public fisc with such effectiveness that many states and localities now face severe economic hardship.

Consider: Since 1946, the number of state and local government employees has increased from 3.3 million to 19.8 million—a 492 percent increase in a nation whose population grew by 115 percent during the same period. In 1947, national income was divided along these lines: 78 percent to the private sector, 16 percent to the federal government, and 6 percent to state and local governments. Now the percentages are 54 percent private, 28 percent federal government, and 18 percent state and local government.

This represents power, and public-employee unions have used this power to feather the nests of their members to the detriment of the fiscal health of the governmental entities they work for. That’s what this election was all about, as were the equally important elections in San Diego and San Jose.

The Times is free to fashion a kind of conspiracy theory of bad guys buying votes to upend sound government. But that’s manifestly a flawed interpretation.


The MBA Myth

The Buzz

Columnist Vivek Wadhwa has stepped off the high dive and belly flopped in the Washington Post with his latest “Would the Facebook IPO have Bombed if Mark Zuckerberg had an MBA?”

Proposing that the degree would have given Zuckerberg a better understanding of “corporate finance and capital markets,” Wadhwa starts out just fine. After all, even those who hold degrees could probably benefit from a refresher course or two. But then he begins to brandish the degree like a potent panacea that would fix even Zuckerberg’s “awkward behavior such as hiding out in the bathroom” or his “taking the stage wearing a hoodie.” Last this writer checked, advanced degrees lack any magical ability to ward off business failures, social awkwardness or fashion faux pas.

If the possession of an MBA alone is so critical to success, why do companies spend time training new hires out of business school? While an MBA is undoubtedly useful, professional experience is paramount. Wadhwa claims “you can learn and grow outside the classroom, but it takes more time and is often painful because you learn by trial and error.” But an IPO launch is not carried out by one person; Wadhwa acts as if Zuckerberg worked on it at home like some long-term research project. Undoubtedly a few bearers of the sacred MBA were involved. How difficult for them to learn by trial and error, like the rest of us mortals.

Money is not the only means by which to measure success, but many people rack up business achievements without a professional degree. Zuckerberg’s IPO bombed, one failure in an otherwise impressive run. This howler can’t see over its own glasses.


The Perils of Nation Rebuilding: Sesame Street and the Corruption of Pakistan

Jacob Heilbrunn

Characters from Sim Sim Hamara, the Pakistani version of Sesame Street.To grasp just how toxic and corrupt and venal America's relationship with Pakistan has become it is not necessary to focus on drone strikes or military or farm aid. Instead, the revelation that the U.S. Agency for Aid and Development has now shut down a $20 million program to bring the children's television show Sesame Street to Pakistan serves as perhaps the most telling sign of the moral rot that suffuses our alleged ally in the war on terror. The show was called Sim Sim Hamara. It was supposed to do all the good things that Washington wants to inculcate abroad—preach tolerance and diversity and educate youngsters, who would learn along the way that America is not the Great Satan.

But it appears this is another exercise in what might be called nation rebuilding that has gone awry. An outfit in Lahore called the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop has allegedly been acting like a Miss Piggy rather than an upstanding Elmo. It should be enough to make even proponents of foreign aid feel as grouchy as Oscar. The group apparently has been misusing State Department funds—about $7 million so far—that have been sent to it. USAID's Mark Toner explained that

We did receive via that hotline what we believe were credible allegations of fraud and abuse by the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop. So we did launch an investigation into the allegations. We've also sent the theater workshop a letter that terminates the project agreement.

What has the workshop, which denies the accusation, doing? Shortchanging the costumes of the characters to skim off some of the money? Stiffing the set designers?

More seriously, the question for Congress, which is scrutinizing futher aid to Pakistan, has to be what kind of oversight is being exercised over the hundreds of millions that are disbursed each year to Pakistan. The answer is probably not very much. The relationship with Pakistan is more that of an extortionist than a grateful recipient, which is why Islamabad is currently attempting to blackmail Washington into paying top dollar for port and highway access into Afghanistan to resupply soldiers. Fortunately, the Obama administration does not seem to be acceding to Pakistan's cupidity, at least when it comes to these latest demands.

But the Romney campaign surely has an opening with which to question the entire American relationship with Pakistan, and its questioning should start with the matter of Sesame Street. USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah has been extremely active in Pakistan—even a cursory look at his organization's website suggests the breadth of its activities, which run into the billions of dollars in the past two years alone. But as Shah himself noted, Pakistan is a financial cesspool. In a speech this past April, Shah said, "By most accounts, fewer than 2 percent of the population pays taxes-and the wealthiest often pay the least. So long as this remains true, Pakistan simply won't have the resources it needs to prosper."

Yet the Christian Science Monitor is complaining that "If Sim Sim Hamara goes off the air, but US bombs keep dropping, another generation of Pakistanis will have only one thing to associate the US government with: war." Please. Such handwringing amounts to blaming the victim. There's no cogent reason for America to fund corruption. And if even an innocent children's show ends up being pilfered for dollars, how can Washington have any confidence that its more substantial aid programs are being implemented effectively?

Image: U.S. Embassy Pakistan

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States