Sunday, June 12, 2005

Bush's Ruthlessness and the Lessons of Deep Throat

Most of the "controversy" over Deep Throat is, of course, phony, fueled by the posturing of convicted felons and liars trying to rewrite history to exonerate Nixon and win one retroactively for a secretive, power-hungry, imperial presidency.

It's clear that Mark Felt was not a "hero" in any meaningful sense of the word. As much reporting (summarized in this column in today's WaPo) has made clear, Felt himself participated in a number of efforts to use illegal tactics when investigating left-wing organizations and then helped cover up the misdeeds--abuses not unlike those for which Nixon was impeached.

But criticizing Felt on these grounds is the opposite of the attacks launched in recent days by the likes of Pat Buchahan, Chuck Colson, and G. Gordon Liddy. Any serious defender of constitutional rights would take the position that Felt should have been consistent about his whistle-blowing, refusing to abet government break-ins and illegal searches no matter which agencies participated in them and exposing the wrong-doing by any means available. By contrast, Nixon's Repug defenders say Felt should have gone along with Nixon's crimes, just as he went along with J. Edgar Hoover's, and shut his mouth about it--which of course is what they mean by words like "honor" and "loyalty."

No, Mark Felt's role as Deep Throat didn't make him a hero. But then, history isn't made only by heroes. People with mixed records and mixed motives sometimes do the right thing, even if it's for the wrong reasons. This is not, in the end, a terribly complex or difficult judgment to render.

The disturbing aspect of the story is the ongoing effort to whitewash Nixon and, in effect, hand George W. Bush a license to shred the Constitution in pursuit of his political goals.

When President Ford pardoned Nixon back in 1974, I was among the millions who were appalled and outraged. The reason wasn't that I wanted to see Nixon suffer personally for his crimes. If Ford had commuted a Nixon jail sentence after he'd been tried and convicted, I wouldn't have objected. But pardoning Nixon before he faced indictment and trial precluded a public forum in which the truth about Nixon's actions could be openly debated with protections for the accused, traditional rules of evidence, and other hallowed legal guarantees of due process. If Nixon had been convicted under those circumstances, it would have made it harder (though not impossible) for today's right-wing to pretend that he was the innocent victim of a politically-motivated conspiracy.

The trial of Nixon could have played a healing role similar to that of the "truth commission" in South Africa after apartheid by forcing the nation to confront and accept unpalatable truths about its history. Ford prevented that and opened the way for "stab-in-the-back" theories which blame not only Watergate but the collapse of Vietnam on treacherous liberals. In fact, some of the ruthlessness of the Bush administration and its supporters can be traced back to the conflicts of the 1970s: Embittered by Nixon's downfall, later generations of Repugs like Karl Rove have clearly decided they will stop at (almost) nothing to prevent a similar fate from befalling them.

If that means out-Nixoning Nixon, so be it. And that's what we see unfolding on the American stage today.
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