Avoiding Nostalgia In a Dangerous World

Say what you will about Richard Nixon, he doesn’t disappoint, even from the grave.

When the story broke identifying W. Mark Felt, the former assistant director of the F.B.I., as Deep Throat, the papers ran this clip from the Watergate tapes, in which Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, discussed the matter:

NIXON: What would you do with Felt?

HALDEMAN: [taking the question seriously] Well, I asked Dean [John Dean, White House counsel] ….

NIXON: [as tough guy] You know what I’d do with him, the bastard? [Pulling back, knowing that he isn’t a tough guy really.] Well, that’s all I want to hear about it.

HALDEMAN: [trying to please by assigning a base motive to an enemy] I think he wants to be in the top spot.

NIXON: [as wit] That’s a hell of a way for him to get to the top …. [Veering suddenly] Is he Catholic?

HALDEMAN: Jewish.

NIXON: [astonished at the perversity of the world] Christ, put a Jew in there?

Once again, we are back in the early 70’s. Nixon’s moral 5 o’clock shadow was so much more toxic than his facial 5 o’clock shadow. The former, unlike the latter, was under his control, though he believed that it was imposed on him by his many enemies.

Say what you will about The New York Times, it doesn’t disappoint, either. On matters close to its heart, it is always grave.

The Times greeted the Deep Throat revelations with three pages of stories on June 2. That’s two more pages than the Dutch referendum shipwrecking the European Constitution got, but after all, Deep Throat is history-American history and, more important, journalistic history. On June 3, there was another page of stories, the top one by Todd S. Purdum (“Three Decades Later, ‘Woodstein’ Takes a Victory Lap”).

“The writer Murray Kempton once called them the Tom and Huck of American journalism [poor Kempton, poor Twain-to be exhumed for this], and their surnames became a single, swashbuckling compound noun [with three modifiers, though]: Woodstein …. They long ago went their separate professional ways, Mr. Woodward to stability and riches, Mr. Bernstein to a more peripatetic stroll along the rich buffet of life. [What does that mean-is Mr. Bernstein bulimic?]

“‘One was colorful and flamboyant, and the other one thought that was absolutely fine,’ said Robert Redford, who helped produce the film of All the President’s Men, in which he played Mr. Woodward. [What is Robert Redford doing here? When The Times writes about the Middle East, does it quote Charlton Heston because he played Moses?]”

I will spare you the multiple adjectives that follow. The upshot of Mr. Purdum’s discreet piece is that Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein have had a checkered relationship. Mr. Bernstein implicitly gets blamed for it because he had a drinking problem, though this, like Nixon’s beard, must have been only a manifestation of deeper tensions. Tensions that Mr. Purdum cannot discuss in an un-Redfordized way, however, because he is writing the lives of saints, even as Nixon wrote his own life as a sinner.

So much for retro Kabuki. What more should be said about Watergate for anyone born after 1965?

Nixon in the White House was secretive, and therefore paranoid-not only because he was Nixon, but because he and Henry Kissinger were pursuing a risky and complicated foreign policy. They wanted to get out of Vietnam, without throwing the South Vietnamese to the wolves. To do this, they needed the cooperation-or at least acquiescence-of China and the Soviet Union. To get that, they sought to play the Communist superpowers off against each other-in a nice way, of course. All this, they hoped, would lead to a more stable world.

Accomplishing this strategy involved secret approaches through Pakistan and the secret bypassing of the State Department. All of it might unravel if one, two, many Pentagon Papers came out; so could Nixon’s re-election. (He didn’t have faith in the Democratic Party, which would give him the gift of George McGovern.) Hence Nixon’s obsession with leaks, and hence the plumbers, who thought they had found a leak at the Watergate, then a dull, pompous apartment complex, not yet a place with a numinous aura, like Armageddon.

There were a number of problems with Nixon’s strategy. It despaired of the world situation, seeing the Communist powers as powerful and perdurable, forces to be dealt with, not (as Ronald Reagan would say) transcended. It was a leader-to-leader strategy, cutting out the degraded masses of the Soviet and Chinese empires, as well as the American public. It depended on Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.

The Watergate crisis unraveled Nixon and his strategy, which led to the unraveling of Southeast Asia. This wasn’t a necessary consequence; conceivably, some Democrat might have stepped into the breach. After all, it was the Democrats who began the Vietnam War in earnest. But by the mid-70’s, the Democratic Party was a different animal. George Wallace was a racist, Henry Jackson was a corpse; the two relatively conservative Democrats who rose to national leadership were Jimmy Carter, who pardoned Vietnam draft dodgers, and, many years later, Bill Clinton, who was a sort of draft dodger.

Meanwhile, the South China Sea filled with boat people, and Arlington filled with Vietnamese restaurants. Lose a country, gain a restaurant. When I saw Mr. Felt giving his thumbs-up on the AOL start-up menu, I thought he should stroll into the nearest Saigon Palace and see what reception he got. No doubt, there would be no hard feelings. That was another country; the dead are gone. Now Vietnam wants American investment and tourism.

Now we are involved in new foreign wars, minus any scandal greater than John Bolton’s attitude. How do we avoid muzzy nostalgia 40 years later, and millions of dead along the way?

The hard left, and the anti-war right that is its ally-Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Taki-are much weaker than the left of the Vietnam era. The media, which made and broke Presidents, is weaker still; Leonardo di Caprio is not about to play Dan Rather. The main difference is that George W. Bush, unlike Richard Nixon, doesn’t care what his enemies, real or imagined, think.

But the distracted are always with us. Perhaps the way to peace is giving the Palestinians a state, or the Koran a dust jacket without infidel cooties. Can we hope for a next President who is imperturbable?