Sunday, February 26, 2006

My final (?) opinion on Nixon

I decided to take a course about Richard Nixon this quarter taught by a former Nixon speech writer because I was eager to get a firsthand impression of the man and because ever since we watched All the Presidents Men in my high school journalism class, the Watergate burglary and subsequent coverup has fascinated me. Furthermore, Nixon as a person has remained something of an enigma to me. My impression before this course was that he did several bad things, but he had my sympathy because he was a man who achieved success not by winning popularity or looks contests but by working hard all his life.

As I began the course, I developed an even more sympathetic view towards Nixon. Some of the negative impressions I had of him were based on what I knew as his schmaltzy "Checkers speech" and his persistent investigation of former high-level State Department aide Alger Hiss. However, I began to understand through our readings in this course that Nixon's attempt to avail himself of accusations of campaign finance chicanery seemed justified since in fact, there appeared to be no evidence that he had done anything illegal. As for the Alger Hiss affair, it was eventually revealed that Hiss was acting as a spy against the government he worked for, so Nixon's hunch to investigate him seemed vindicated.

However, as we proceeded to study Nixon's career, my respect for him began to dwindle. I realized that even my own sense that he had such a difficult life was borne of Nixon's expressions of self-proclaimed hardships. Yes, Richard Nixon took some hard knocks in life, but, he seemed to use that as an excuse for his later indiscretions. For an idea of how another president publicly presented his difficult upbringing, one can look to Bill Clinton who grew up even poorer than Nixon but emphasized the hope that his life course signified. Unlike Nixon, who waxed kind of oddly at his final White House address that "my mother was a saint," Clinton seemed to have a more grounded and less self-validating view of his upbringing.

Furthermore, the fact that Richard Nixon never made a genuine expression of regret for his actions in the coverup of Watergate rankles me. His sense of those events, where he ordered the CIA to try to end the FBI investigation of the burglary and continued a massive effort at coverup therein, was that he never did anything that his "enemies" had not done, but as I wrote earlier and as others have pointed out, Nixon's corrupt acts far outnumbered his predecessors. There is evidence that he interfered in the 1968 Paris peace talks to end the war in Vietnam, that if true, means that he committed treason. He illegally bombed the country of Cambodia during that war, and even if he was not directly involved in the execution or ordering of the Watergate burglary, he ordered many other unethical and/or illegal actions be committed against Democrats.

Doing research for a final project on Nixon's relations with his successors has only hardened any sense I had that this man deserved our country's goodwill despite his transgressions. The conventional wisdom is that that "he mellowed and grew more philosophical" through his later years, but as this article suggests, he actually became more bitter in his obsession with getting Democrats. He and Clinton established a friendly relationship when Clinton came into office, and Clinton was the first president since Carter to invite Nixon to a public event at the White House. Until Nixon's death, they had relatively frequent phone calls with a good amount of personal exchange. However, Nixon thought that the Republicans should use suggestions that Clinton had been involved in an illegal real estate deal (of which he was later exonerated) to make him "pay the price" for what he felt was unfair targeting of himself over the years. Republicans must not "let [Whitewater] go down, must not let it sink," he said. Nixon called then-Senator Bob Dole to make sure aggressive questioners were placed on a Senate subcommittee looking into Whitewater. He also used his own personal understanding of Clinton to give Dole advice on the President's vulnerabilities (Nixon assumed Dole would be the 1996 nominee). Clinton for his part gave Nixon a gracious and some have suggested too generous eulogy at Nixon's funeral in April of 1994 where he said "May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close."

Nixon's behavior towards Clinton, as I have come to learn, is characteristic Nixon and elicits a characteristic reaction about Nixon. When first reading about their relationship, my feelings warmed towards Nixon, as they had earlier in the course when reading about the misunderstandings around the Fund case and the Hiss case. I was taken in, as many have been, by the "New Nixon" posture. However, Nixon squandered any honorable gesture--as he always had--by allowing himself as usual to get caught up in his petty political vendettas and vortex of self-pity. Although I'm sympathetic to the fact that Nixon probably suffered from a psychological disease that made him depressed and angry, I think the revisionism on his character gives this small-minded man a lot more credit than is due.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The trouble with elitism

I have developed a visceral distaste for the columns of Henry Bowles III and I'm starting to realize why: Bowles's arguments are premised on elitist platitudes that take a distrusting view towards the reasoning power of the majority of people. In an article on protests against military recruiters' presence at a campus job fair from January, Bowles criticizes the recruiters for being at a college campus for this reason:
....To keep the military away from our brightest students [because y]oung males are easily manipulated during the period of their lives when they exist outside the female domain, after the mother and before the wife. They are above all eager to demonstrate masculinity. With its promises of order, fraternity and cohesion, the military taps into this angst. A real tragedy occurs when a young man, susceptible to the military's appeal and nonetheless intelligent and creative, signs up to become cannon fodder.

Bowles goes onto suggest that there are better potential military recruits elsewhere:
Less intelligent people are better equipped for most military positions, and have far less to lose.

The only semi-positive thing I can say about this article is that Bowles openly admits what a lot of university student supporters of the war in Iraq are thinking.

Otherwise, Bowles expresses a belief that humans are automatons equipped with zero ability to judge for themselves whether or not they want to be in the military. If the intelligent male joins the military, he will emerge brainwashed, Bowles seems to suggest, and therefore is himself devoid of any faculties for critical thinking. "Less intelligent people" will be susceptible to the same thing, but it does not really matter, because they have "far less to lose." Bowles first of all fails to explain what distinguishes the intelligent person from the less intelligent person if both are to be brainwashed in his view, but more dangerously suggests that there is some solid group of people in this world who are better equipped to serve in the army simply because they are worth less (one would imagine that the "intelligent and creative" people who Bowles refer to are from a class of people who could afford to go to private boarding schools as Bowles did). Such a viewpoint contradicts every ideal of a democratic society and reveals Bowles's elitist distrust of the individual's reasoning capacity on which such a society is premised.

In the article that I mentioned earlier about Jewish identity with Israel, Bowles again expresses his distrust of individual thought. He makes the baseless assertion that
"Jewish youths, particularly in the U.S., are so well-propagandized that they can hardly think critically on the issue." Of course, as letters to the Daily from today and yesterday emphasize, there is a strong Jewish dialogue on the subject of Israel. Just because Bowles has made no effort to connect with this dialogue does not mean it does not exist. What is notable about Bowles's assertion is again its complete distrust of the power of people to reason and truth-seek. By revealing such a strong suspicion of other humans and in conjunction with it such a strong belief in automatism, maybe Bowles is pointing to his own inability to understand discourse between humans as something other than a struggle between propoganda outlets.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

There have been many excellent responses to the sickening article I referenced yesterday by Henry Bowles the III, but I wanted to excerpt this one because it is the most humorous:

Traditionally, I am a fan of editorials that challenge conventional beliefs. That being said, Henry M Bowles III is far and away the worst columnist I have ever had the misfortune of reading.
It's reached the point that I no longer blame Bowles for his misguided, non-sensical rants. Rather, I blame myself for reading any article situated under the profile-picture of Bowles and his Barry Melrose mullet.
Henry M. Bowles III or "The Trifecta", has an admirable willingness to address hot topics. The problem is that his stance on said topics is always wrong. Completely wrong. How can one be wrong on an issue with no right answer? Simple: They can be shitty Henry M. Bowles "The Third." He's more of a bitch than a bitch.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Anti-Semitism in various guises

The past few weeks have been disappointing for those of us at Northwestern University who had hoped that Arthur Butz's most recent opportunistic attempt to get his Holocaust denial publicized would be largely ignored. To be honest, when I wrote this about three weeks ago, I was not anticipating that Butz would have such staying power in the campus news.

Why has Butz had such power? First, Northwestern's main newspaper, The Daily Northwestern made the absurd decision to solicit and publish an article by Butz. The Daily and a few students who wrote letters to the editor have been operating under the hopeless naivite that a man like Butz is equally as honest as actual Holocaust historians and that revisionistsof his stripe are unfairly persecuted for unpalatable views. On the contrary, as historian Deborah E. Lipstadt of Emerson University accounts in a column from yesterday's Daily, it has been Holocaust revisionists who have tried to persecute others for their views:
I say this with over six years of legal experience defending myself against David Irving, once the world’s leading Holocaust denier. He sued me for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier in one of my books. He waited until the book appeared in the United Kingdom where the burden of proof is on the defendant.

The Daily's decision to publish Butz seemed premised on the belief that Butz's methods for supporting his views are within the paramaters of intellectual honesty. As Professor Lipstadt explained so well, revisionists like Butz do not operate within such parameters. Witness her legal struggle with revisionist David Irving:

Rather than face any legal obstacles, Irving freely repeated his — and by extension Butz’s — arguments in court. The world press reported on them daily. No one faced any legal obstacles. No one was hauled into court except me.

I was able to mount an aggressive defense thanks to a defense fund which raised $1.75 million dollars. We hired a “Dream Team” of historians to closely examine Irving’s claims about the Holocaust. They found his work to be a “tissue of lies.”

By the end of my ten-week trial Irving was left looking like the Court Jester. He had called the judge “Mein Fuhrer,” a telling slip. When asked by Richard Rampton, my barrister, how he could say Herman Goring “goggled” at a certain exchange, when there was absolutely no evidence that Goring was even at this meeting, Irving declared: “author’s license.”

Butz is guilty of this same dishonesty:

Butz, in his column, engages in linguistic tricks. He claims that Timothy Ryback wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “there is little forensic evidence proving homicidal intent” in the ruins of Auschwitz. Butz ignores another portion of Ryback’s comment regarding Auschwitz: “these heaps of dynamited concrete and twisted steel are not only historic artifacts but among the few remnants of untainted, forensic evidence of the Holocaust.”

Why do we not enter further into “debate” with him? Because debating people who deliberately mislead is like trying to nail a blob of jelly to the wall. There is no end to the matter. If they have no fidelity to the truth how can you debate them? They just make things up as it suits them.

Professor Lipstadt's words should be heeded. Unfortunately, in today's Daily, a student columnist has picked up where Butz left off--constructing an uninformed argument that reveals this student's latent belief in age-old anti-Semitic conspiracies of Jewish cabalism and. There's no need to explicate the article itself: the main point is the deeply troubling sanctioning of anti-Semitic views by a student newspaper with a misguided understanding of free expression.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

How to understand presidential indiscretions

Since it was revealed that the Bush Administration has been illegally wiretapping calls coming into or going out of phone numbers in the United States, there have been attempts to justify such an act as White House politics as usual. Such an "everybody does it" mentality can be traced back to the Watergate investigation of the early 1970s that led to the indictment and conviction of a numerous amount of high-levels employees of the Nixon administraion and the resignation of Nixon himself. Such an unprecedented affair did establish one precedent in the American consciousness: that all politicans are equally corrupt.

Ironically, the legacy of Watergate seems to be not a desire to root out presidential indiscretions a la Nixon, but the exact opposite: to let them pass because they are merely representative of politics as usual. Witness, for instance the Iran-Contra Affair, also an unprecedented and wholly illegal act wherein high-level aides in the Reagan Administration actively funnelled money from arms sales to Iran, one of the most rogue nations of our time to fund a violent rightist group in Nicaragua.

Not only has the legacy of Watergate resulted in the excusing of grave presidential indiscretions like Iran-Contra, but it has allowed politicized special interest groups to conflate minor indiscretions with major ones. Thus rabid interests spent the entire two terms of the Clinton Presidency trying to prove Clinton guilty of something, anything, finally forced to try and prosecute on a lie about an unfortunate but hardly impeachable affair with an intern. The rhetorical technique of using the "gate" from Watergate as a suffix to label something a political scandal (e.g. "Monicagate," "Travelgate") helped to conflate made-up indiscretions with the grave indiscretion that had forced Nixon to resign in 1974.

What needs to be cleared up in order to understand whether a president has abused their office is the conventional wisdom that "everybody does it." Does everybody really do it? In studying Nixon in a course this past quarter, that question has nagged me. Nixon's Administration had, as I have learned, yielded some foreign and domestic accomplishments: among them decreasing U.S. involvement in the disastorous Vietnam War, normalizing relations with China and Russia, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, among others. In retrospective accounts, Nixon has been portrayed by many liberals--even people who did not like him at the time--as our last progressive president. If Nixon's prime reason for resignation, which was the accumulation of irrefutable evidence that he actively tried to prevent a government investigation into the Watergate burglary, is simply politics as usual, Nixon could be viewed as a man who became a target of a nihilistic cynicism of the time. Revisionists have in fact persisted at this exercise.

Such revisionism makes it important to understand whether Nixon was just part of politics as usual, and therefore unfairly vilified by the press and a Democratic majority in Congress. I finally arrived at an answer that illuminated this question for me. In one of our books for the Nixon class, a book titled called The Presidency of Richard Nixon author Melvin Small provides some perspective on Watergate. After noting that Nixon's White House taping system was by no means unprecedented, Small goes on to note all that was unprecedented about the Nixon administration:
The Nixon administration would be revealed to be the most scandal-ridden administration in American history. And those scandals did not involve merely looting the public treasury by public officials, as had occurred during the Grant and Harding administrations, or the irresponsible and reckless sexual peccadilloes of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. They revolved around a variety of illegal and extralegal political actions directed by the president and his chief assistants, including the former attorney general of the United States, that attempted to subvert the American political system (273).

and on the National Security claim, which we are currently hearing from the Bush Administration:

National Security was not at stake here. The CIA's only involvement with the burglars involved the technical assitance that Hunt's friends in the agency had provided for the [Daniel] Ellsberg break-in and other intelligence gambits. Nixons' fraudulent employment of national security constituted his first major invovlement in an illegal scheme to curtail the Watergate investigation (277).

Watergate did not begin when CREEP operatives broke into Democratic headquarters in 1972. It began when Nixon took office, armed with a private slush fund, prepared to do battle by fair means and foul against his enemies. Although he felt he was merely playing political hardball, no president before or after ordered or participated in so many serious illegal and extralegal acts that violated constitutional principles. The wiretapping and surveillance of his enemies in politics and the media, his attempts to replace civil-service bureaucrats with loyal Republicans, his intervention in the Democratic primary politics, and his shakedown of corporate America for campaign contributions came close to undermining the entire political system (310).

Such a comparison between Nixon and other American Presidents vindicates clearly and succinctly that the Nixon Administration's indiscretions were unprecedented, that they weren't politics as usual.

Such a comparison is also relevant for us today in assessing whether the Bush administration ought to be investigated for their indiscretions which are, like Nixon's, numerous. John Dean, who was once Nixon's Chief White House Counsel, offers his perspective:

There can be no serious question that warrantless wiretapping, in violation of the law, is impeachable. After all, Nixon was charged in Article II of his bill of impeachment with illegal wiretapping for what he, too, claimed were national security reasons.

These parallel violations underscore the continuing, disturbing parallels between this Administration and the Nixon Administration - parallels I also discussed in a prior column.

Indeed, here, Bush may have outdone Nixon: Nixon's illegal surveillance was limited; Bush's, it is developing, may be extraordinarily broad in scope...later reports have suggested that NSA is "data mining" literally millions of calls - and has been given access by the telecommunications companies to "switching" stations through which foreign communications traffic flows.

In sum, this is big-time, Big Brother electronic surveillance.

Dean goes on to describe how Bush's activities parallel Nixon's. If Nixon's administration was rightly accused of having committed unprecedented, impeachable offenses--as both Dean's and Melvin Small's analyses suggest--so to should Bush's administration.

So now that we have gotten that nagging question of whether Bush and Nixon were playing politics as usual out of the way, can a full and fair investigation of the Bush Adminstration indiscretion please commence?