This was a big week for Watergate geeks like myself; with anniversaries falling like rain, from the initial break-in and arrests on Monday to today, for which we remember the notorious White House tape so damning that 18 1/2 minutes of it came up conveniently missing. Now, considering what was on the rest of the tapes, that little “stretch” of magnetic gossamer must have been quite something.
Not only did the transcripts already released reveal a paranoid, belligerent, and cynical palace guard contemptuously lying and manipulating a bewildered public about, well, everything, but their priggish bowdlerizing of the content by inserting “expletive deleted” for every bit of profanity made them sound like foul-mouthed, hypocritical louts to boot.
Nixon’s infamous words, “How will it play in Peoria?” were gleefully hurled back at his jowly mug in a memorable cartoon that appeared when the major newspapers began publishing the transcripts in their entirety, notably including the (previously) pro-Nixon Chicago Tribune. With no caption, an angry crowd is seen storming out of a theater called “Peoria” with “The White House Tapes” emblazoned on its marquee.
Nixon’s beloved Middle America was revolted, the press was revolted, and heck, even Barry Goldwater was revolted. The release of the transcripts and the casual criminality they made compellingly plain, coupled with the continuing White House refusal to release the actual tapes, which obviously must be worse, marked the effective end of the Nixon presidency.
Ever since, Presidents have contorted themselves even more improbably than that ol’ cocktailhag Rosemary Woods did to ensure that no such transparency ever pesters a White House occupant again, and for the most part they’ve been successful. They would never, certainly, tape themselves again, and as soon as email came along, administrations quickly figured out ways to keep that secret, too.
Theirs, that is. Not yours or mine. Fast forward, if you will, to today. Much of what Nixon did has been made explicitly legal, and worse, large swaths of corporate America have been immunized and lavishly compensated to join in. A spying operation that used to fit in a small room in the White House basement now gobbles up a huge portion of the DC-area land mass, not to mention economy, and has spread from sea to shining sea like kudzu in headsets.
Just as did the military industrial complex before it, the National Security State’s voracious appetite knows no bounds; even amid cruel and niggardly austerity for anything remotely connected to the, uh, General Welfare, as the Founders so quaintly called it, billions are scattered to the four winds to fight “terrorism,” whatever that is purported to be on any given day.
The idea that the public would demand, much less eventually receive, material remotely as damaging to a President as the Nixon Tapes today seems as farfetched as Rosemary Wood’s explanation for that mysterious gap on the June 20, 1972 tape did back then. The classified material Edward Snowden released was not to be declassified until 2038, and whether it would have even been made public at that point seems a tad less than likely.
Back then, a missing 18 1/2 minutes of evidence was a Presidency-shattering scandal; today a quarter century gap is just business as usual. President Nixon had to resort to all manner of skulduggery to get money to fiance his spying and dirty tricks; today a bipartisan consensus shovels scarce taxpayer funds into the same pursuits with seldom a whimper of dissent, even when it means Grandma gets to eat catfood. His arch nemesis, The Washington Post, has now well and truly morphed into a veritable trade publication for the Surveillance State, and the benumbed public greets the whole thing with a collective yawn.
We’ve come an awfully long way in the last thirty years, all of it in exactly the wrong direction.
Photo in the public domain