Friday, June 25, 2010

Attn, David Brooks: Where the "culture of exposure" came from

Once again today, Times readers are treated to a bit of sanitized cultural history by David Brooks.  Tracing the progress of American media from a "culture of reticence" about the private lives and off-the-record grousing of public figures to a "culture of exposure," Brooks recounts:

Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.

Gee, I wonder where that assumption of "secret corruption deep down" came from?  Rick Perlstein's Nixonland has answers on almost every page, documenting ten years of relentless government lying about Vietnam as well as the pervasive criminality and war criminality of the Nixon White House.

Take, for example, the response of Nixon's henchman to columnist Jack Anderson's exposure of a memo documenting ITT's swap of a $400,000 campaign donation for a promise that the Nixon Justice Department would lay off on antitrust enforcement:

     Still and all, through spring, the ITT lid threatened to blow.
     Which was why G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt brainstormed their own solution to the problem. Liddy no longer worked in the white House. Like Mitchell, and also former commerce secretary Maurice Stans and former White House assistant Jeb Stuart Magruder, Liddy had been promoted to a more important job, with the Committee to Re-Elect the President, John Mitchell, chairman. (Harry Dent had wanted Magruder's job but Bob Haldeman thought him "too much of a boy scout": he refused dirty-tricks assignments.) Magruder was the committee's deputy director; Stans its treasurer; Liddy "general counsel." And what the general counsel suggested, at a meeting with Hunt and a physician who once specialized in nondetectable "accidents" for the CIA, was that Jack Anderson be assassinated--a car crash, perhaps, or a drugging; or, Liddy suggest, Anderson could "just become a fatal victim of the notorious Washington street-crime rate." Their consultation completed, Liddy pulled out a $100 bill from Committee to Re-Elect the President funds to pay the good doctor for his time.
     Liddy carried $100 bills everywhere for such purposes; he was something of a sink for campaign cash. When Mitchell was still running the Justice Department, Liddy met with Magruder and John Dean in the attorney general's office. He came loaded down with easels and flip-charts, like an advertising account executive pitching a campaign for a new national brand, and presented his plan to keep the Democrats out of the White House.
     It was called GEMSTONE, he explained. Operation DIAMOND would field a Nacht und Nebel sabotage team ("night and fog," Liddy said, translating from the German; the men would have Mafia experience, he explained, warning, "Like top professionals everywhere, they don't come cheap.") RUBY would tail the Democratic contenders, COAL would push Shirley Chisolm for the nomination, EMERALD would eavesdrop on the Democrats' campaign planes and buses, QUARTZ intercept telephone traffic, CRYSTAL float a barge off Miami Beach that would serve a double purpose: as electronic surveillance headquarters and a bordello to lure Democratic luminaries for blackmailable sex. GARNET was a plan for dirty hippies to stink up Democratic banquets. There were also Operations OPAL I, OPAL II, OPAL III, OPAL 1V, and TOPAZ.
     He saved Operation TURQUOISE--Cuban commando teams slipping by night into the Miami Convention Center during the Democratic convention to sabotage the air conditioners, engulfing the hall in 110-degree-heat--for last.  John Mitchell smiled at that one. What he did not do was order the man who had just marched into the office of the attorney general of the United States to outline a massive criminal conspiracy arrested on the spot. When Mitchell heard Liddy's proposed budget--a million dollars--he just asked him to come up with a cheaper plan (pp. 636-637).
Regarding Vietnam, Nixon spoke thus to the American people in April 1972 to justify the carpet bombing of North Vietnam in response to an offense that was routing the South Vietnamese:
     "My fellow Americans, let us therefore unite as a nation in a firm and wise policy of real peace--not the peace of surrender, but peace with honor, not just peace in our time, but peace for generations to come. Thank you and good night."
    It marked a profound chasm between the public and private transcripts. The previous day Henry Kissinger had outlined their next options: hitting power plants, docks, mining Haiphong Harbor, bombing civilians.
    "I still think we ought to take the dikes out now," Nixon offered. "I think--will that drown people?"
     "Zhat will drown about two hundred thousand people."
     "Oh, well, no, no. I'd rather use a nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?"
     "Zhat, I think, would be too much. Too much."
     "The nuclear bomb. Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ's sake!" (pp.    649-650)
 Not exactly news, I realize. But it's good to be reminded where our cynicism about government -- and the media's reflexes toward exposure -- comes from.

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