Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Ted White is a writer who enjoys figuring out how things work. He famously analyzed US presidential elections in the 1960s and 70s, after working as a correspondent for TIME magazine in China during World War II.
One of his more fascinating analyses is found in “Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon,” detailing of course, the Watergate Scandal of 1972.
I’ve read a lot about Nixon, and White’s book comes the closest, I think, to providing an analysis of how Nixon worked, both as a person and as a president. More importantly, White analyzes how American politics work, with many prescient things to say that apply to our current election quandaries.
In a campaign there is no conflict between ends and means. The end is to win victory, and, as in war, the means do not matter -- deception, lying, intelligence operations are common in all campaigns; a campaign is no place for squeamish men. But what happens, said one of Richard Nixon's advance men of 1960 long afterward in 1974, what happens when the advance men become government? "What happens when they all sit in the same room in Washington and the President trusts them and nobody is squeamish, nobody is there to say, Wait a minute, is it right or wrong?"
If we were at this point in 1972 – and certainly we were at that point long before then – where are we now? I can’t believe things have gotten better.
We can’t have a no-holds-barred campaign followed by a moral, ethical presidency. Because those guys and gals who got the bum elected want a reward after the “work” is done, right? And, as Kurt Vonnegut might say, so it goes.
It’s like “The Producers” brought us a presidential election – and Bloom and Bialystock had planned on robbing the voters blind but instead came up with a winner.
But don’t let me sidetrack down Broadway.
The most fascinating analysis comes in the book’s final pages when White takes a long view at the clashing cultures of liberalism/progressivism and conservativism, noting how both took the “my way or the highway” route that led to further political divides that last today.
The only part of the analysis I fault White on is an incomplete look at how election reforms immediately prior to Watergate impacted the current political landscape. White starts out like this:
Nixon provoked the new campaign-financing law of 1974. It’s new rules will change the nature of American campaigning. They all but eliminate the possibility of new national parties ever again rising from a limited base of opinion; in this sense, they restrict the arena of politics to established parties.
And he leaves it there. I’d like to know how these laws limit the birth of new parties – and I’ve tried reading the law and its amendments. I’m no lawyer, so I can’t fathom what he’s hinting at. Maybe in a subsequent book he develops this idea further, but here it’s lacking.
A highly-recommended book for any one fascinated with Nixon, or wanting to add to their Theodore White library.