Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Pragmatism & Mr Nixon: The Car Crash that was Watergate

frost_nixon_ver2 I PROMISED YESTERDAY TO to discuss the single most important, eloquent and disastrous, example of Pragmatism in the modern political era.*
So sit back, pull up your cushions, and make yourself comfortable.

I give to you as first prize-winner the great political car crash that was Watergate—the scandal that sunk a President, launched a thousand suffixes, and wrote itself so much into modern history that a film merely dramatising four interviews about the scandal could still gross nearly $30 million last year
As one reviewer said, that film, Frost/Nixon,brilliantly presents “twin profiles in pragmatism”: dramatising two “corrupt, self-loathing defeatists who seek power,” and whose rise and fall between them signalled the full-blooded introduction of pragmatism to their respective worlds—something we’re still with today.

While Nixon’s  pragmatic credo (“whatever works”) gave the world wage and price controls, the Vietnam War, and the politics of image over substance -- and delivered to him the scandal that made him one of only three U.S. Presidents to face impeachment-- the self-same credo was shared by David Frost  (“whatever works”), and his work here helped delivered to the world “agenda journalism masquerading as moralism… in retrospect preview[ing] the plunge of the press into the tawdry, trashy institution it is today.”  

Seminal stuff indeed, then, based on a scandal that people still talk about.

Yet the scandal itself that brought Nixon down was simply small beer compared to many other things going on at the time (Vietnam, Chappaquiddick, the bombings of sundry Weathermen) and was unravelled because of little more than a failed break-in to the hotel that gave the scandal its name—a break-in organised by a Pro-Nixon group who self-identified as “practical men” unconcerned with ideology who would simply do whatever was necessary (“whatever works”) to re-elect their man.

Praised for his “pragmatism and flexibility” by no less than the NY Times’s leader writers earlier in his time at the White House, the car crash that was Watergate revealed just how impractical he and his team of so-called practical pragmatists really were. For Watergate and their reaction to it was really a car crash waiting to happen. A car crash that pragmatism drove, and made inevitable.

NIXON HIMSELF WAS THE ultimate pragmatist, a man who it was said “could make a U-turn on a dime (or on a paper dollar), discarding overnight every approximate principle he was approximately believed to stand for.” This is hardly a contentious claim. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Elizabeth Drew says
oogmynqcwn_i-am-not-a-crook-1_QuoteNixon, who ran a rather disorganized presidency, wasn't interested in domestic policy. He essentially handed it off to his aide John Ehrlichman. And there was no unifying philosophy. Nixon called himself a ‘pragmatist,’ and he should be taken at his word: His domestic policy was a blend of the enlightened, the pragmatic and the cynical. In 1969, a Republican senator described Nixon to me as ‘the man with the portable center…’
(Remember yesterday’s post: “The Pragmatists declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standard…”)
In a 1973 NY Times column "Pragmatism and Zeal" by Tom Wicker, he declares the Watergate corruption to be “qualitatively different" from the scandals of the past.
_Quote Without memorable exception, most political corruption has concerned itself with money—payoffs, bribes and kickbacks for crooked or dubious services rendered, or simple theft of the taxpayers' dollars...No charge has yet been made that any part of the vast sums involved in the Watergate case were simply pocketed by larcenous men .... It does not appear that any of the principals had the usual grafter's motive of enriching himself...The motive underlying Watergate was to insure the re-election of the President and the retention of power of those around him .... In their cold pragmatism, some Nixon men apparently saw neither right nor wrong but concentrated on their goal, regardless of right or wrong."
And James Reston, in the same issue of the same newspaper:
_QuoteThe problem [of Watergate] is the assumption that chiseling pays, that dishonesty is the best policy, that loyalty to the President is the same as loyalty to the Republic, and that if the President's objectives or ends are good and honorable, his men can use any means to support him, including discrediting, bugging, burglarizing or vilifying his opponents. [Watergate may] make us wonder whether expediency and pragmatism, divorced from right and wrong, are worthy of the American republic, and even whether they work."
(“Pragmatism wedded to ‘right and wrong’ (i.e., to morality) is a philosophical
contradiction in terms…; Pragmatism denies the validity of any principles, moral
or epistemological. Pragmatism holds expediency as the only criterion of human
values and actions. Truth or falsehood, it claims, cannot be known in advance of
action: truth is "that which works" in a particular situation. According to this
standard, the only way the Watergate burglars could know that they were
doing wrong in their particular situation, was by getting caught.”**

BOTH THE PRESIDENT HIMSELF and all the President’s Men who fell with him were pragmatists to the core.   This was a President who called for polls to decide whether or not to bomb Haiphong harbour, and then waited for the results while his minions worked to skew those very polls. A President whose chief domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, the ideologue of the White House, confessed at the Watergate hearings that he was neither a constitutional lawyer nor an “ideas man.”  Whose adviser’s lieutenant, John Haldeman, “looked upon himself not as an 'issues' man but as a technician and organizer, and the young men he hired and promoted met the same qualifications."

For what use would ‘issues’ or ideas be to such people? For them, politics wasn’t  a battle of ideas, it was a battle of warring political tribes.

(“But the big dilemma for all the pragmatists of the Right, is: what are they to fight
and by what means, if principles are inoperative? Politics is a field in which one deals
with ideas and it requires the ability to argue, to discuss, to persuade. What does
one do in politics if one has discarded the whole realm of ideas? One fights

And Nixon’s young pragmatists who bungled the burglary were all too happy to sign up to such a battle.  Readers can get a sense of the stunted world-view of these entities by reading the autobiography of the man who “organised” the burglary, G. Gordon Lilly. (Called without irony Will,  reviewers at the time called the book “a comedy masterpiece.” It’s that and much more, even if all the comedy was unintentional.)  This is a man whose party trick was holding his hand over a candle until the flesh burned, indicating to everyone (including himself, he hoped) how tough he was; a man who had served his political apprenticeship as part of Richard Nixon’s failed “War on Drugs,” and on which operation he based  what John Dean later called “his dream to build a clandestine police force for the White House”; the man whose “organisation” was responsible for the Watergate operation, after which he offered to stand on whatever street corner he needed to so his bosses could terminate him if their Commander-in-Chief wished it ("...on a street corner, I'm prepared to have that done. You just let me know when and where, and I'll be there”).

Liddy and his fellow “soldiers” in the Committee to Re-Elect the President, a semi-autonomous organisation run out of their Commander-in-Chief’s White House and dubbed by its own troops CREEP, signed up not to an intellectual battle, but to help put down the bombings, riots and mayhem instituted by the various bands of hippies, Yippies and the Weathermen of whom Obama’s friend William Ayers played such a large part.

They did this not by seeking evidence that might convict the perpetrators of these crimes, or engaging in a battle to discredit the ideas the goons used to justify the mayhem, but instead by what they called “rat-fucking” their Democratic opponents in the Presidential election. They gave this campaign of Dirty Tricks the grandiose title of “Operation Gemstone,” and almost immediately began laundering money to pay for the operation; sending out inflammatory bogus letters purporting to be from Democratic candidates; paying for spies in opposing campaigns, and planting bugs in their offices; planting rumours about illegitimate children; burgling psychiatrists’ offices to find material blackening opponents; buying prostitutes to “get close” to their opponents; and organising (or trying to) to put sand in the air-conditioners at the Democrats’ Miami convention in the hope the resulting heat would throw it into chaos.
_QuoteSuch ‘technicians’ [observed Ayn Rand] would know that one is supposed to fight, at election time. What would be a pragmatist's idea of a fight? Ideas—he has been taught—are impractical, it is only immediate events that count; what is true today, may not be true tomorrow; rigid values are childish, cynical ‘flexibility is mature. People—he has concluded—don't think; people are not interested in ideas, only in scandal, they do not care about the good, only about some sensational exposé of somebody's evil.
    “Thus the younger, more impatient pragmatists would come to believe that bugging, spying, burglary, in pursuit of somebody's scandalous personal secrets, are more effective than years of speechmaking about ‘issues.’ Pragmatism is a philosophy of action, of the ‘now. The mentality of the activists of the Left, becomes, on the Right, the mentality of the Watergate conspirators.”
Despite their grand plans for maximum electoral chaos paid for with purloined funds, the burglary that brought them all down was  in fact one of only very few operations they carried out, and it was a triumph of pragmatic “organisation”: it had no aim that anyone involved was aware of; even if successful it would have achieved precisely nothing; and everyone involved thought everyone else had authorised it.  The rest of the Watergate scandal was simply the Nixon White House trying, both pragmatically and unsuccessfully, to put down the whole apparatus of the pragmatic political “operation” that it then exposed—an operation that in the final analysis consisted of little more than eavesdropping on electoral opponents (the Democrats) who their own polls said they were going to beat in a landslide anyway.
_QuoteThe biggest mystery of Watergate [concluded Ayn Rand] is not what Richard Nixon did, but what he thought. No enemy could have destroyed him as thoroughly as he destroyed himself: consistently, systematically, he undercut his own case with every successive public statement he made  and every step he took, until there was nothing left of him or to him. Yet he was known as a ‘smart’ politician, a clever manipulator, not a man of thought, but of action. Moral issues apart, what happened to his purely practical judgment?
There is a paragraph in the first part of Dr. Peikoff's article ‘Pragmatism versus America,’ which answers this question. Reading it, I had an eerie feeling, as if a psychologist were describing the nature of Mr. Nixon's thought-processes—yet that paragraph was written over two years ago, about a philosophy originated in the nineteenth century:
        “ ‘In the normal course of affairs, the pragmatists elaborate, men do not—and need
    not—think; they merely act—by habit, by routine, by unthinking impulse. But, in
    certain situations, the malleable material of reality suddenly asserts itself, and habit
    proves inadequate: men are unable to achieve their goals, their action is blocked
    by obstacles, and they begin to experience frustration, tension, trouble, doubt, ‘disease.’
        “ ‘This, according to pragmatism, is when men should resort to the ‘instrument’ of
    thought. And the goal of the thought is to ‘reconstruct’ the situation so as to escape
    the trouble, alleviate the tension, remove the obstacles, and resume the normal process
    of unimpeded (and unthinking) action.
  “Mr. Nixon's desperate, contradictory, incomprehensible actions were aimed at ‘reconstructing the situation (even though it is unlikely that he had ever heard of this particular metaphysical prescription). But the malleable material of reality stubbornly refused to let itself be reconstructed.
    “This, dear readers, is an example of philosophy's power—of what a particular philosophic theory, pragmatism, did to its most consistent practitioner.”
My advice, therefore, to political proponents of the right whose leaders pledge to govern “in a pragmatic and balanced way,” is to run like hell the first chance you get.
* * * * 
* The “modern political era”? I’d define it fairly loosely as the period that today’s practitioners still remember well.  So in New Zealand we have people still telling war stories about Muldoon; in Britain we have unionists still bewailing Thatchers’ victory in 1979; and in the US we still have people around who’d like us to forget they were once a part of the Nixon Administration. So in short, it’s the era starting just before ABBA, or maybe, just after the Beatles.
** Unless otherwise attributed, quotes and 1973 NYT columns were taken from Ayn Rand’s masterful, full-length, 1976 summary of the Watergate car crash, “Brothers, You Asked For It.”


  1. correction: Two US presidents have been impeached, neither was Richard Nixon.

    1. If you'll look back, it was said he was among the three presidents that faced impeachment. True he was never impeached, he resigned before the full process could be carried out in order to procure a pardon for his actions.

  2. Oops! Yes, you're right. Thanks for the correction. Fixed now.

  3. And Nixon didn't give us the Vietnam War either - I think it American involvement started with Kennedy but it was escalated by Johnson.

    Nixon pulled the troops out in 1972 so you could say he ended it.

    And for style over substance - well the hands down winner was Kennedy on that score.

    Nixon's real problem was he was an outsider a quaker peasant from rural California - an upstart who won a landslide victory to take the
    Whitehouse for a second term.

    And the liberal elite couldn't let that stand

  4. @Andrei: Yes, you're right. American involvement started with Kennedy and was escalated by Johnson.

    What Nixon brought to it was the ultimate pragmatic conclusion: planning withdrawal while sending plane-loads of nuke sot convince the Soviets he would do anything to win; talking peace while spiking peace talks; building up the ARVN to defend the South while making their defence impossible;crusading for a victory during his election, while making victory impossible.

    And, regarding his pragmatism, we're not just talking style over substance here. If that's all you've grasped from what I've written, then I have to suspect there's something seriously wrong.

    And if you really think that Nixon's real problem was being "an upstart who won a landslide victory" that pissed off the liberal elite, then it looks like that suspicion is confirmed: you don't see the battle of ideas I'm pointing out, but only the battle of men. ("You nasty lefty!" "You corrupt righty!"

    Sure, the "liberal elite" were more inclined to investigate Nixon's indiscretions than they were Teddy Kennedy's, Bill Ayers's, or Bobby Bakers, but it doesn't excuse what Nixon did, what was done in his name, and the philosophy of pragmatism that ensured that what was done would end up being disastrous.

  5. Frighteningly, while reading your post, PC, I was continually struck by the philosophic similarities between this truckload of unprincipled opportunists and the party which currently governs this country.

  6. Hmmm
    Nixon's story is like a Greek tragedy - he was almost certainly the most intelligent man to ever occupy the Whitehouse.

    He was loathed by the press and Liberal Elite from the beginning of his political career.

    He nearly won the Whitehouse in 1960 in an election that was even closer than the contested 2000 election.

    He didn't contest it though - do you know why?

    Because he knew it would bad for the country. Unlike Al Gore who did contest in 2000.

    What does that say to you?

    Nixon achieved detente with the Soviets something amazing at the time.

    There is a reason for his huge landslide victory in 1972 you know and that is his achievements in his first term which were significant despite your sneering.

    And if Mao and Brezhnev were scared of him, which they were is that a good thing or a bad thing?

    I wonder what the world would look like today if he had become President in 1960.

    We will never know alas

  7. The issue with Nixon was not what he or his administration did but that he was aware of, and involved with the cover up. He could arguably have got away with all or most of the actual acts but not misleading the US judicial system and the public. The office of President has never been the same since.

    It is perhaps a little unfair to argue that Kennedy was responsible for the Vietnam involvement. The US had been trying to fill a vacuum since Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Kennedy and then Johnson were responsible for the massive escalation.

  8. @Andrei, you crack me up. You say Nixon "was almost certainly the most intelligent man to ever occupy the Whitehouse..."

    That's supposed to be funny I hope? Shall we just start with Thomas Jefferson and work on down ... ?

    "He nearly won the Whitehouse in 1960 in an election that was even closer than the contested 2000 election. He didn't contest it though - do you know why?"

    Yes, I do know why. Because he was an appeasing fool.

    Why do I say that? Because Nixon had both grounds for contesting the election and evidence of huge voter fraud in Illinois and Texas with which to back it up, but he lost whatever bottle he had and started talking about "chaos and bitterness" if he challenged.

    But by refusing "to sacrifice the country to his ambition," it was the constitution he sacrificed to a fraud; it was justice he sacrificed to injustice; and the country he sacrificed to a decade of Kennedy and Johnson-- to the economic bankruptcy those two and their advisers brought about; and the cultural bankruptcy they encouraged. Not to mention the thousands of men sacrificed in the Vietnam War who might not have been sent there if the Kennedy/Johnson decade hadn't happened.

    But it was worse than not just challenging Joe Kennedy's ballet-box stuffing. Nixon didn't just refuse to challenge the result; he helped cover up the fraud to help avoid exactly the sort of "chaos and bitterness" the whole decade engendered -- more than enough on its own to call this whole episode (as commentators like Ayn Rand did) "the darkest moral stain" on his record.

    But here's a great payoff--the ultimate example that reality can bite back: the chap who was the head of Kennedy's so-called "brains trust" was Archibald Cox. And guess who was appointed as special prosecutor of the wWatergate imbroglio? That's right; the same A. Cox, one-time head of a kitchen cabinet that wouldn't have even existed if Nixon had the courage of whatever spine he was born with.

    "Nixon achieved detente with the Soviets something amazing at the time."

    Something he learned from Neville Chamberlain, no doubt. Something he also put to use when he shook Mao's blood-soaked hand and called him a friend.

    About that particular attempted rapprochement, James Reston in 'The New York Times' sagely declared, "The problem here in Tokyo and to a lesser extent in Peking after all this is that officials don't quite know what to expect next. Maybe the Democrats and even the 'regular' Republicans are in the same boat. They recognize the problems and even admire the President's willingness to reverse and even defy his past policies and principles, but they are left without much confidence about where we all go from here .... Mr. Nixon has demonstrated his flexibility and his pragmatism, but where will this lead next month or next year?"

    Or (to bounce off Dave's apposite observation above), he could have said, "but on which cloud will be bouncing from next month, or next year?"

    Andrei, your loyalty to the pragmatic crook would probably be considered laudable in some quarters -- but whatever he himself was loyal to, it sure as hell wasn't any principle.

    And surely even your abject loyalty shouldn't preclude actually looking at the case I've laid out for his failure being a philosophical one.

  9. @Dave: "Frighteningly, while reading your post, PC, I was continually struck by the philosophic similarities between this truckload of unprincipled opportunists and the party which currently governs this country."


  10. PC's Puzzling Choice

    A puzzling choice, PC, to say the least. Out of all the concrete political events/periods one might choose from the past century to demonstrate Pragmatism's irrational nature and disastrous effects you select a relatively minor one?

    Apart from the EPA, the Nixon administration had no lasting effects, and that one was not due to Pragmatism, per se. His resignation caused a big brouhaha for a few months, then the country went on pretty much as before. One might even say that was positive, since it brought us the relative relief of the Ford administration.

    None of the tactics or rationalizations of Nixon or his cronies was in any way original; they've occurred countless times before and since at all levels of American government. He neither introduced nor amplified the influence of Pragmatism in politics, American or elsewhere.

    I'm at a loss why you selected this episode/period. I lived through the period as a precocious and aware teen, and I really can't see by what criteria you selected this as "the single most important, eloquent and disastrous, example of Pragmatism in the modern political era," especially when there are so many other good candidates for that dubious honor.

    For the moderately obtuse ones in the audience like myself, can you flesh out your reasoning a bit? Why is the Nixon administration, for example, more important and disastrous than the Obama one, which is chock full of Pragmatism? Or, if you want to regard Nixon as somehow the midwife to Obama, why not select Eisenhower (appeasing the Middle Eastern theocrats) or Truman (the Korean War, the attempt to nationalize the steel industry) or FDR (a cornucopia of choices here)?

    And why focus on the Executive branch anyway? Plenty of Congressional acts/individuals to choose from. That's not to mention the establishment and growth of the public education system that generated most of the other candidates, etc.

    In short, there doesn't seem to be anything fundamental or even distinctive, nor distinctively larger in impact in your example.

    I honestly don't follow you here, friend.

  11. P.S. I want to add to my list of contenders any of dozens of Supreme Court justices/decisions of the past 100 years. Oliver Wendell Holmes was an explicit Pragmatist and subsequent court decisions following his lead litter the record of the past century, right up to the present.

    See Henry Mark Holzer's Sweet Last of Liberty? or Levy and Mellor's The Dirty Dozen for examples.

  12. Hi Jeff, I hope to reply in more detail later, but here's a quick response.

    First, please note the use of the words "modern era," and the loose definition of that I offer at the bottom of the post. Thst rules out many of your suggestions, and most of the others I got on Tuesday.

    Second, rather than applying the actual philosophical meaning of "pragmatism," I think you're simply using it as as a euphemism for "some nasty shit."

    All those you mention are sure as hell some right nasty shit, but I don't see them as being either as eloquent or as well-known examples of pragmatism as the Watergate bungling--with all the knowledge we now have of the stunted methods of thought of those involved (one useful consequence of all those otherwise useless Watergate hearings)--and the legacy of the pragmatic thinking that they practiced that with them was ushered into modern political life with a vengeance.

    As Rand suggested, this was the era in which the older pragmatists, still with a vestige of honour and integrity, were replaced by the younger weasels who had drunk the Kool-Aid whole--a watershed occasion (if you'll forgive the pun) that ushered in a new kind of rat-like political life-form--John Dean--John Eherlichman--Jeb Magruder--one that first appeared with a vengeance on the world stage at those hearings, and now infests politics the world over.

    Sure, the actual harm caused by Watergate itself was risible, as I point out in the post. But that's why this is such an eloquent example of pragmatism: because this was "action" with no real aim, which achieved no real success, and destroyed everyone involved.

    No more eloquent case study could be found. Perfect!

    Besides, none of the examples you mention are as useful to me as the Watergate example for showing the parallels with our own pragmatist Prime Minister here in NZ--who simply bounces from cloud to cloud with no intention of having any long-range golas except, perhaps, that he'd quite like to remain Prime Minister. For a while. (His ultimate goal: to be Prime Minister--with a blank thereafter.)

    So without yet going into a detailed critique of your list, or the others provided by Lew and Julian et al, them's my basic thoughts.

    I promised to open discussion on "the single most important, eloquent and disastrous, example of Pragmatism in the modern political era." I think I have done--with every one of those words being important in the selection criteria.

    But I'm still open to persuasion. Maybe you should write a post arguing persuasively for another? :-)


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