Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Russians Smrussians

I have become an amateur dabbler into the history and minutae of Watergate. Every time I find a book on Watergate, Richard Nixon, or the politics of the 1960s, I read it. I drive my wife nuts with it. “Look!” I’ll shout. “Another Nixon book!” And she’ll roll her eyes and that’s about it.

So when I read Franklin Foer’s piece at Slate.com, “The DNCHack is Watergate, but Worse,” I just had to laugh. Then I read it further. And I had to laugh out loud.

Foer does little more than clutch his pearls and call for the fainting couch to be brought out as he compares the hack and subsequent leak of Democratic National Committee emails showing favoritism to Hillary Clinton over rival Bernie Sanders. And while he does compare it fairly to the seriousness of Watergate, he slips into the same arguments Nixon used to keep his tapes private in decrying the leak of these emails to the world.

Foer makes much of the fact that “the Russians” committed this leak as a “strike against our civic infrastructure.”

He goes on to say:

[I]t’s not really even the inner working of the Democrats that have been revealed; the documents don’t suggest new layers of corruption of detail any new conspiracies. They’re something closer to the embarrassing emails that fly across every office in America – griping, the testing of stupid ideas, the banal musings that take place in private correspondence. The emails don’t get us much beyond a fact every sentient political observer could already see: Officials at the DNC, hired to work hand in glove with a seemingly inevitable nominee, were actively making life easier for Hillary Clinton. It didn’t take these leaks to understand that Debbie Wasserman Shultz is a hack and that the DNC should be far more neutral in presidential primaries.

So in other words – this is just the DNC doing workaday spitballing. You know, trying ideas out and such. And we already knew they were corrupt as hell, so we didn’t need this leak, did we?

Or, in other words – and particularly to Bernie Sanders supporters and to those who still maintain faith in our nomination process – they are, to borrow another phrase from the Nixon era, the smoking gun. They are proof that the sneaky allegations of collusion between Clinton and the DNC are, in fact, not allegations, but fact.

That it was the Russians that leaked this – timed at a point to cause “maximum damage,” in Foer’s words – is immaterial. Had they been discovered by two young, intrepid journalists at the Washington Post, say, rather than by a foreign government, and released at the same time, why, put the fainting couch away and release the pearls, right? News organizations, working against politicians they abhor – rightly so, because even if they didn’t order the bugging of the Watergtate they sure as hell colluded to cover up the fact to protect their buddies – can sway elections. And, if not elections, sentiment. And sentiment swayed led to resignation, if I remember my Watergate history correctly.

But there’s more. The American public at the time of Watergate – even its elected representatives in government – were swayed not by the fact that The Washington Post or the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times revealed the truth about Nixon and his malfeasance, but because of the malfeasance revealed about Richard Nixon and his administration. The truth could have been beamed to earth from the Martians, and it still would have been the truth.

There are many who, while aware of the provenance of the leak, seem to think the real damage being done is to the Democratic National Committee, not democracy itself.

And the Nixon tapes – that smoking gun – was there to be seen (except, of course, for that missing 18 ½ minutes, culled by Nixon as Foer accuses the Russians of culling DNC emails). It was there to be read. I’ve got a copy of it on my bookshelf. 

But that’s not the end of Foer’s poor reasoning. He also says this:

We should be appalled at the public broadcast of this minutiae. It will have a chilling effect—campaign staffers will now assume they no longer have the space to communicate honestly. This honest communication—even if it’s often trivial or dumb—is important for the process of arriving at sound strategy and sound ideas. (To be sure, the DNC shouldn’t need privacy to know that attacking a man for his faith is just plain gross.) Open conversation, conducted with the expectation of privacy, is the necessary precondition for the formation of collective wisdom and consensus. If we eviscerate the possibility of privacy in politics, we increase the likelihood of poor decision-making.

Sounds familiar, right? Nixon himself said much of the material subpoenaed by Judge John Sirica should not be made public for just the chilling effect that Foer defends in the DNC. Nixon was eviscerated – and rightly so – for trying to extend the right of spitballing, for honest conversation amongst he and his advisors to avoid the very chilling effect, to avoid the increased “likelihood of poor decision-making” that Foer wants to defend. Would Foer be willing to offer Nixon that loophole? Or Donald Trump*, for that matter, who tends to do his spitballing out loud for the entire world to hear?

*On the record: I support neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton in this election cycle. Nor am I a disgruntled Bernie Bro. My boy John Kasich crashed and burned in the primary, which I can only hope was done honestly; I’d love to see a Wikileaks examination of the Republican side as well.

Foer concludes by saying this leak is a hack job meant to bring down Clinton, a politician Russian President Vladimir Putin “abhors.” Foer conveniently forgets that hackers also released opposition reports from the DNC on Donald Trump. Maybe that’s just a carrot thrown in for the illusion of a balanced attack – but it’s still a carrot many are going to chew on. And chewing is a much better reaction to all of this than clutching at pearls.

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