A Surrender to Trust

Richard Nixon taught the nation a painful lesson about secrecy and the White House. How soon we forget.

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Richard Nixon was impressed. It was February 1972, in Beijing, during the 37th president’s history-making trip to China. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, sitting by Nixon’s side at a sports exhibition, was quietly presented a folderful of papers. Zhou leafed through them, looked up, nodded. Henry Kissinger asked an interpreter what had just transpired. Kissinger was told that Zhou had approved the layout of the next day’s People’s Daily. Nixon, according to Richard Reeves’ recent book, President Nixon: Alone in the White House, then muttered, “I’d like to rearrange a front page now and then.”

During his own trip to China last fall, George W. Bush was similarly impressed upon witnessing President Jiang Zemin end their joint news conference by walking away after the second question. A few months earlier, during a perilous moment for his legislative agenda, he had joked that “a dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier.”

Richard M. Nixon. George W. Bush. Is there anything useful to learn from the comparison? Last April, John Dean, the former White House counsel who blew the whistle on Watergate nearly 30 years ago, told a Los Angeles audience that the Bush administration’s obsession with secrecy and executive privilege has “turned back the clock to before Watergate” — to before, that is, Nixon’s crimes forced a national reckoning and led to a string of laws designed to prevent presidents from keeping too many secrets. It was then that the republic relearned an old lesson: The institutions built up to guard a secret can do more damage than openness could ever have done.

And here we are again. The lesson is being forgotten.

It took until February of this year for the New York Times to publish a comprehensive account of one of the most remarkable facts of George W. Bush’s presidency: its extraordinary lack of transparency. But the reckoning could have come months earlier — in the wake of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s October memo advising federal agencies that “the Department of Justice will defend your decisions” to deny the public access to documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It could have come in response to the lockdown on information from the battlefields in Afghanistan, or to the secret detention of hundreds of Arab residents. A roundup of executive secrecy could even have been written within the Bush administration’s first 100 days. Just ask any reporter who has tried to get straight, simple information from the White House Press Office.

The problem is not just the press. Recently, I asked a group of college students for what cause they might be willing to put their bodies on the line. None, they answered. I asked how they’d feel being strip-searched in an airport. “I was strip-searched in an airport,” one piped up. “I didn’t mind at all. If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.” Appreciative nods of assent all around. I’ll note two things. The first is that many of us now nod the same way. The second is that it would have been much the same before September 11: This has been the drift of our politics for some 20 years. In a profound failure of the civic imagination, we now behave in a way that our founders never intended us to: When it comes to the actions of our government, we have surrendered to trust.

People are beginning to talk about Bush’s predilection for secrecy more often now. But it took some embarrassing exigencies to force the issue. It took right-wing crackpot Larry Klayman to sue for Dick Cheney’s energy files, thus forcing a belated controversy over Ashcroft’s FOIA memo. It was professional historians who raised the alarm when Bush signed an executive order that drastically limits access to all public records from living presidents.

It took an angry letter from senators Robert Byrd and Ted Stevens in March to question why homeland security czar Tom Ridge has not been required to testify before Congress. Not long afterward, an embarrassed Trent Lott admitted on Meet the Press that he and other Senate leaders had not been informed that a cast of federal functionaries were being kept in bunkers to run the government in case of catastrophe. And finally, in May, the administration found itself forced to explain why after September 11 it had not disclosed the warnings of imminent terrorist attacks received by intelligence agencies last summer.

Is it appropriate, in this moment of national security peril, to begin to toss around the N word that liberals have been tossing around in the dark of night for decades, every time that same impotent rage against Republicans steals up on them? Nothing we know about W. suggests even a hint of the venality, vindictiveness, narcissism, and madness of the man who brought us Watergate. Right? It is not to cast undue aspersions to suggest that — well, at this point we can only assume so.

And that’s just the thing. Our Federalist Papers forefathers once wrote something wise enough to deserve to be affixed to our civic doorposts: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” We need not wonder whether George W. Bush is angelic to make the point: Both external and internal controls are falling by the wayside in this White House.

Secrecy and power are intimates: Both tend to corrupt; both, when absolute, tend to corrupt absolutely; and both can steal up like an addiction. The cover-up, even of an innocent error, can be worse than the crime. That is why any break in any check or balance in our constitutional power structure should make the front page. Every time. But they almost never do. Consider Richard Nixon’s first term, when all too many were all too ready to proclaim the man, if not an angel, at least a “New Nixon.”

It was a moment, much like our own, in which a browbeaten press wore feelings of guilt on its sleeve for having become too accusatory and mean. Journalists had been beating up on Nixon unfairly for decades (or so Nixon said, and so much of the press, for a time, chose to believe). Even journalists who were no friends of Nixon’s bent over backward that first year to give him a chance: In the spring of 1969, CBS’s Dan Rather praised the new man’s “candor and direction.” By then, Nixon had already chartered a new committee designed to keep his re-election finances beyond regulatory oversight; ordered 24-hour surveillance of political rival Edward Kennedy; and begun illegal secret raids into Cambodia. Some of this the press actually knew about but didn’t challenge — much as Bush is not being challenged now.

They were, in a sense, simply giving the public what it wanted. In Chicago in 1968, police went on a rampage at the Democratic National Convention, sending even some of the reporters who covered the event to the hospital. For a brief moment, the media fused in a rare display of antiestablishment solidarity. Katharine Graham, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Otis Chandler, executives from all three networks, and the editor-in-chief of Time sent a furious telegram of protest to Mayor Daley. Then the public spoke: Upwards of 80 percent of those who wrote letters to Mayor Daley said the police had done the right thing.

Contrite, the press pulled punches. At the end of Nixon’s first year, the Washington Post’s David Broder proclaimed that, despite the best attempts of a minority of liberals and radicals, the “breaking of the president” had failed and Nixon had “restored confidence in government’s ability to govern.” In 1970, as Nixon began to reorganize the federal government to make it easier to rule by fiat and without congressional oversight, few questioned him; the New York Times even praised his initiative to “center the making of policy in highly visible executives.” Americans were, mostly, awed by the graveness of the statesman’s task, the high-wire riskiness of his visit to China (planned entirely in secret).

Much of the nation had surrendered to trust, and at the worst possible moment. In June of 1972, a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices occurred. It found coverage only in the back pages of most newspapers, the crime’s connections to the White House ignored until the following year, when Woodward, Bernstein, and various investigations began to reveal the truth.

We don’t know what our current administration is hiding with its vampirelike aversion to sunshine. It could be anything or it could be nothing; it could be a thousand small cuts or a dozen substantial gashes. But no matter. In the abeyance of obvious abuses, once again our national default state seems to have been to surrender to trust.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that George Walker Bush is, if not an angel, at least a thoroughly decent man. It doesn’t matter. All presidents feel the urge to rearrange the front page, if they are sane. And wouldn’t anyone but an angel be tempted to thoughts of dictatorship now and then? We’re supposed to act as if our leaders might well be thieves; that is the very genius of the American system.

The press, eventually, caught up with Richard Nixon. We remember what followed as a period of epic cynicism. But what came in Nixon’s immediate historic wake was actually creative, intelligent, restorative — a moment for building, not for tearing down. We passed laws: about campaign finance and personal privacy, about executive transparency and accountability. And, for a time, issues of administrative structure — the ways and means by which future less-than-angels occupying the White House could cut themselves off from scrutiny — returned to the front pages of America’s newspapers.

And so we return to our own president, a man who routinely re-enacts administrative dances with the Constitution that should feel familiar to anyone who lived through Watergate. George W. Bush is certainly no Nixon. His urges to censor don’t merely ßash through his mind like lust in his heart; he verbalizes them in unguarded moments, for all to hear. All the more excuse — though no excuse is necessary — to begin distrusting our presidents on the front page again.


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