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
Nixon, 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.
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:
The 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 men.”)
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
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.
Such ‘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.
The 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.”
Labels: History-Modern, Hollow Men, Milton Friedman, Philosophy, Politics-US, Richard Nixon, War on Drugs