Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Washington Merry-Go-Round whirls on

Maybe this book doesn't seem to hold together because the events it covers were a falling apart -- and they presaged no subsequent coming together. Or maybe Rick Perlstein really has just thrown a lot of research at a wall and we're presented with what sticks. I came away from reading it unsettled. I wanted to be enthralled, but The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, an account of the political history of the years 1973-76, didn't impress me as equal to the analytical coherence of Perlstein's superb Nixonland. (I still have not gotten to his earlier Barry Goldwater book, Before the Storm, and still mean to.)

As with Nixonland, my reading of this one is influenced by having lived this history, though since I was in San Francisco, I was busy enough locally not to pay very close attention to national events. During the Watergate investigations, I worked as a messenger on foot in downtown San Francisco. Sometimes it seemed as if every time I emerged from a building, a new headline had gone up on the boxes of the San Francisco Examiner on every corner. I consciously decided at that time that I would not try to follow the ins and outs as they emerged, but would wait for more coherent journalistic accounts after the fact. Eventually I read All the President's Men and probably some other Watergate books, but I don't carry a catalogue of malefactors and events around in my head the same way I do for more recent eras. I did enjoy that great moment when the U.S. was expelled from Vietnam and also watching Nixon slink away after his resignation. Some good things happened in those awful days.

So what new insights do I take away from Perlstein's over-800 page opus? Certainly a much clearer grasp of the history and chronology of Watergate. An explanation of why Massachusetts is still flying the POW/MIA flag: I had not known that the Nixon administration allowed relatives to believe that many US soldiers fallen in Vietnam whose bodies were not returned might someday turn up, even when they knew better. That cruelty should have been an impeachable offense! I also learned that many of the so-called "Watergate Babies" -- Democratic Congressmembers elected in the wake of Nixon's fall -- were skeptics about using government for reform from the get-go, setting up the center-right Democratic policies of Carter, the ineffectual Democratic opposition to Reagan, and the accommodating Democratic Leadership Council style of "reinventing government" under Clinton(I).

At the center of Bridge is that putrid con man, Ronald Reagan. Perlstein makes the case that for several decades our politics were dominated by a politician who responded to being raised in an alcoholic home by constructing his own reality and then honing his ability to draw others into his fantasies. As a child, he wished himself into boys' adventure tales; as a man he presented himself as the hero-savior who would rescue a forever innocent and always good America from evildoers. And far too many of us wanted just that in a leader. Sadly, Perlstein's picture feels a truthful indictment of this country much as Stephen Kinzer's The Brothers concludes we wanted comforting Daddies in the frightening atomic '50s.

People want to believe. Ronald Reagan was able to make people believe.

We're suckers for this kind of thing.

The era Perlstein is chronicling here included the nation's last attempt -- before the Senate Intelligence Committee report released last December -- to rein in our spooks. In the Senate, Frank Church investigated the CIA and turned up assassinations and coups in other nations galore. I had not, before reading this, been so aware of Congressman Otis Pike's House committee whose work was perhaps even more revealing.

The report ... was, for a government document, a literary masterpiece and hard-hitting as hell. ... [it documented] the CIA's wasteful spending, ... its bald failures at prediction, its abuses of civil liberties, and its blanket indifference that any of this might pose a problem. ... it detailed a number of failed covert actions -- not naming countries, but with plenty of identifying details to make things obvious enough for those who cared to infer. ...And something about all this seemed to spook cowed congressmen -- who were soon voting to neuter themselves.

The CIA offer the usual complaints -- security would be harmed and operatives endangered -- and Congress voted to suppress its own report. CBS reporter Daniel Schorr had a leaked copy and, with some difficulty, got it released. Most of the media thought he should have been fired. The upshot was the creation of the ineffectual Congressional committees that still offer the sole legislative oversight of our spooks. Perlstein reports an interview with Congressman Pike:

"It took this investigation to make me realize that I had always been told lies, to make me realize I was tired of being told lies." And he explained why he thought the intelligence scandals hadn't achieved the public concern of Watergate ... "Oh, they think it is better not to know. There are too many things that embarrass Americans in that report. ... they are asked to believe that their country has been evil. And nobody wants to believe that ...."

Still true -- but if we can't toughen up enough to look at what is done in our name, this so powerful, so unconscious, so well-meaning, so brutal country will remain a force for evil indeed. Will we settle for that?

I borrowed the title for this post from a newspaper column I connect with that time. Now I have discovered that Washington Merry-Go-Round has a sort of life after death as an occasional opinion piece.

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