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Ask Auntie Pinko

June 9, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie,

I'm not old enough to remember Watergate and the Nixon impeachment, resignation, etc. All I understand about it is that Nixon hired people to break into Watergate and spy on the Democratic campaign headquarters, and when it was discovered he tried to cover it up. I'm not sure what, exactly, Mark Felt did to blow the cover-up, or why some people are calling him a traitor and others hailing him as a patriot.

It doesn't sound to me like Nixon did anything worse than what the Bushies have been doing to Democrats for the last six years. How come Nixon got impeached for it and had to resign, but no one seems to care what Bush and Rove, etc., are doing? Do we need a "Deep Throat?" Would it help?

Kim S.
Waycross, GA

Dear Kim,

The simple version is that the Committee to Re-Elect the President (not-so-fondly called "CREEP" back then) did indeed hire people to break into Democratic campaign headquarters and gather information they hoped they could use to damage the Democrats' campaign and/or discredit Democratic candidates and staff. When it was discovered, it caused a scandal, but Mr. Nixon denied all knowledge of the incident. It was portrayed as the criminal actions of lower-level people without any real connection to Mr. Nixon's staff or himself. This was (apparently) confirmed when the men who broke in were prosecuted for burglary and claimed it was all their own idea, that they had no connection to the President.

After the election, it became clear that there was more to it than had come out in the early stages of the investigation and prosecution of the burglars. Reporters followed up rumors that some of the burglars were connected to people on Mr. Nixon's staff. Enough corroborative evidence emerged to force the White House to authorize an investigation. The FBI had been involved from the beginning, and they were initially in charge of the investigation. Over several months it became clear that although the White House had authorized an investigation and appointed a special prosecutor, they were being less than cooperative. And there was still no solid evidence tying the organizers of the burglary to Mr. Nixon's top-level staff.

It was only when an anonymous source, "Deep Throat" (Mr. Felt, as we now know) guided reporters from the Washington Post to "follow the money" that it became clear Mr. Nixon's senior staff - and probably he, himself - had to have been aware of, and involved in, planning the burglary and other illegal and unethical campaign activities. "Following the money" led the reporters to identify who provided the funds for the illegal activities, which implicated the highest level White House staff in soliciting and dispensing those funds.

As this evidence began to surface, Mr. Nixon involved himself personally, as well as top administration officials, in attempting to cover up the criminal activity and prevent the investigation from proceeding, while continuing to deny all knowledge and involvement. But as the facts emerged, these actions, along with suspicion that he'd been involved from the beginning, were sufficient to lose Mr. Nixon the support of his own party members in Congress and the Senate. He resigned rather than face the inevitability of impeachment.

Auntie Pinko does not regard Mr. Felt as a shining hero of devotion to Truth, Justice, and the American Way. His involvement in domestic spying on American citizens, authorizing illegal surveillance and other operations under the COINTELPRO project are hardly meritorious, and probably should have resulted in his own prosecution at some point. His actions as Deep Throat may have been motivated as much by personal pique and internal power politics between the FBI and the White House as by any noble desire to ensure that Right Would Prevail.

However, even if, in that instance, Mr. Felt may have done the right thing for the wrong reason, the fact remains that he did, indeed, do the right thing. Those who are criticizing him for "disloyalty" have forgotten one essential fact: all the institutions of American government are finally responsible, not to other institutions or leaders in government, but to the American people. We, the people, were Mr. Felt's "ultimate boss." We own the FBI, we own the White House, we own the Justice Department. We own the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Now, it is never a good management principle to encourage employees to make end runs around their immediate boss to someone above that boss in the chain of command. Indeed, if such behavior were common, institutions could not function effectively at all. There is a good reason why we establish who reports to whom, and expect people to follow those rules. In the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases, things work better when those procedures are followed, and get badly messed up when they are ignored.

But when the chain of command goes bad, it is the responsibility of any conscientious, ethical employee to move up the line and alert someone in higher authority to the problem. "Whistleblowing" is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that it can be abused for the whistleblower's own personal agenda. But if someone has been bent, it is required of their subordinates to take the risk and blow the whistle. Mr. Felt assured that his ultimate boss, the American people, would get the information about his immediate boss's (the White House) unethical, criminal, and damaging activities. In doing so - regardless of any pleasure he may have taken in getting back at the White House for what he thought was improper interference or attempts to control the FBI's activities - he acted rightly.

As to the activities of Mr. Bush's administration and its supporters, there do appear to be some eerie parallels, don't there? However, we must keep several things in mind, the most important being the cultural differences between the America of 1973 and the America of 2005. The America of 2005 is much closer, culturally, to the America at the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. We are cynical, and accustomed to high levels of corruption and unethical, even questionably legal, activity among our public servants.

Stories of bribery, suspected bribery, improprieties and ethical lapses from both sides of the political aisle are a dime a dozen. New ones appear virtually every day at some level of government - local, state, or federal. Our cynical pragmatism seems to accept anything up to and even on the line of legality with a sort of "all's fair in war and politics" dismissal. We try to work up vast public indignation about the lapses of those other people, the ones on their side of the aisle, while excusing those on our side as "necessary retaliation," or "having to play the game."

This was not the case in the early seventies. Once Prohibition was repealed and the corruption scandals associated with it had subsided, America's attention was occupied elsewhere. Whether the levels of corruption actually decreased or not, much less attention was focused upon it in the crises of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. The occasional scandals that did erupt (military procurement in the 30s, the Alger Hiss/Whittaker Chambers matter, the bribery scandals that brought about Mr. Nixon's own famous "Checkers" speech) were regarded as shocking exceptions, rather than routine business.

By the early 1970s, Americans did not necessarily trust their government any more than they ever had. Certainly there was much public distrust engendered by the McCarthy hearings, the FBI's attempts to contain domestic dissent, disagreement over the Civil Rights movement, and government lies about America's actions in Vietnam. But their distrust was related more to disagreement with policies and how the government pursued them, than to the individual corruption of particular officials. The revelations of Watergate began an escalating spiral of scrutiny, accusation, and retaliation that have become part of our routine news fare for thirty years.

In this atmosphere, offenses that would have shocked America thirty years ago are "ho-hum, what can you expect from those sleazy politicians." That attitude creates a higher (or I guess it would be lower - much lower) standard for behavior that will actually galvanize the American people into hollering "enough!" And our elected officials know it. They are, after all, the ones who benefit from it.

Auntie wishes I could be more optimistic about what it will take to clean up the mess, Kim. But unfortunately, I think it will need to get worse before it gets better. And both parties will have to take responsibility and hold themselves (rather than each other) accountable for changing the standard operating procedure. It will happen, that I firmly believe - cynical as we may be, Americans do not have a limitless tolerance for sleaze and criminality among our public servants.

It's possible that Mr. Bush and his associates have already crossed that line. If so, perhaps a Deep Throat would indeed help. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed, anyway, and I hope you will, too. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko, Kim!

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