Despite the enormous impact of the Watergate scandal, the actual purpose of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices has never been conclusively established.
-- Wikipedia, The Watergate Scandal.
I was thinking about this long-mysterious motive after reading Thomas Mallon's subtle, well-imagined historical novel Watergate, which speculates (among other things) that the purpose of the illegal spy operation in June 1972 that eventually brought down Richard Nixon's presidency was to find evidence of a Fidel Castro/Cuban connection to the Democratic party. This is one of several common explanations for the spy operation.
Another one, suggested by Bob Haldeman and tentatively endorsed by Jeb Magruder, is that Nixon wanted to find evidence that the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes was secretly funding the Democrats. Others have suggested that Nixon wanted dirt on Ted Kennedy, and a recent book called Watergate: The Hidden History: Nixon, The Mafia, and The CIA by Lamar Waldron tries to build a case for a Mafia connection. Still others have guessed that the whole botched operation was a trap by Nixon's opponents, intended to embarrass the President (if this was the case, the trap was an amazing success).
I don't think that any of the above answers are very good, and I have a better one to suggest. The motive for the Watergate break-in is something primal, dreadfully familiar, awkwardly obvious. The answer is there in plain sight -- and it's also certainly there in the memoirs written by the principal Watergate criminals, particularly Blind Ambition by John Dean, An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate by Jeb Magruder, The Ends of Power by Bob Haldeman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years by John Ehrlichman, Will by G. Gordon Liddy and Born Again by Chuck Colson (all of which I've carefully read and reread to help me reach the conclusion I'm about to explain).
Watergate is not a very distinctive title for a novel about the 1972-74 USA presidential scandal by Thomas Mallon. It was, however, a great name for the scandal.
The term "Watergate" originally referred to the office-hotel complex in downtown Washington DC where, on a quiet day in June 1972, a gang of hapless spies with indirect connections to the Nixon White House were caught in a botched bugging operation. The name "Watergate" always felt right for the scandal, even though it's a made-up word, the invention of a real estate corporation. The "water" refers to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, which merge at the complex's northwestern edge, and the "gate" does not seem to refer to any specific thing at all. (UPDATE: see comments below for a variety of interesting explanations for this name.) But the Watergate complex was a cool, exciting new locale in 1972, a swirling, innovative work of postmodern architecture that belongs to the same era of urban design as New York City's World Trade Center. The image of water crashing through a barrier seems to evoke something meaningful about the entire scandal that was born there.
It's not clear what Thomas Mallon was aiming for when he gave his imaginative novel the flat title Watergate. There are already many books called Watergate, and this one is different because it's a sensitive, smart literary historical novel, a work of creative invention. Fortunately, the title is the only thing about this clever, humane book that doesn't work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it helped me think about the years of Nixon's fall in a few new ways.
The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has died. We've written about Achebe on Litkicks before: Juliana Harris wrote a brief biography, and I had a chance to hear him read at a PEN World Voices festival in 2006.
A few months ago, we discussed the disturbing suggestion that there could ever be a rulebook for drone warfare. Most of us are horrified by the fact that remote-control killer aircraft is now a "thing", and we should be.
But we should also be horrified by the thought of non-remote-controlled killer aircraft. A big news story broke in the United States of America last week when Rand Paul staged a filibuster in the Senate to ask whether or not a military drone could ever be used to kill an American citizen on American soil. This is a good question, but it makes no sense for Rand Paul to stop there, since there doesn't seem to be a big moral distinction between the use of a drone to kill an American citizen on American soil and the use of a drone to kill a non-American citizen on non-American soil. There also doesn't seem to be a big moral distinction between the use of a drone to kill any person on any soil and the use of a different weapon to do the same thing.
It's good that the scary new phenomenon of drone warfare is causing Americans to question the foundational principles of militarism, but this inquiry won't amount to much unless we are prepared to realize the obvious truth: militarism itself is the problem, and the entire institution of war should be the target of our protest. There are small glimmers of hope that the recent debate over drone warfare is leading a few smart thinkers to ask the bigger questions about militarism, even though many others who've heard about Paul's filibuster are missing the point.
I've been trying to develop a theory on this blog -- a theory that I'm finding difficult to explain because the basic idea is so obvious that it barely merits the lofty term 'theory'. And yet it must be a theory, because its implications are important, and stand in surprising contrast to the way we tend to think about global conflicts.
I'm talking about the idea, previously described here in blog posts titled What Militarism Does To Our Brains and The Trauma Theory, that the primary cause of current and future war on our planet is current and past war. War is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, a feedback monster.
I sure am going to miss Andrew Sullivan.
Actually, I hope I'll still get to read his awesome blog, which has variously enraptured and informed me for many years, even though he just announced that he's putting up a paywall. But the Daily Dish paywall will be porous, he says, and this is good news for me, since I don't want to stop reading him. Here's how he describes the mechanism he's putting in place when he moves to a new site:
Our particular version will be a meter that will be counted every time you hit a "Read on" button to expand or contract a lengthy post. You'll have a limited number of free read-ons a month, before we hit you up for $19.99. Everything else on the Dish will remain free. No link from another blog to us will ever be counted for the meter - so no blogger or writer need ever worry that a link to us will push their readers into a paywall. It won't. Ever. There is no paywall. Just a freemium-based meter. We've tried to maximize what's freely available, while monetizing those parts of the Dish where true Dishheads reside.
I say it's a paywall, and I won't be paying. That's not because I don't think $20 a month is a fair value for Andrew Sullivan, who may be the single best blogger in the history of the format. I won't pay because supporting website paywalls for editorial and news content is against my religion.
There's a big national conversation going on in the USA about gun control and gun violence. We must have been overdue for this conversation, because there seem to be a whole lot of angles to this issue.
A Slate article presents the personal angle of Sons and Other Flammable Objects novelist Parachista Khakpour. Her piece is called Why did Nancy Lanza Love Guns?, and in it the author answers the question by remembering a phase she once went through in which she became attracted to guns and began surrounding herself with them, constructing a new self-image that pleased her and others.
I was talking with friends about the post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" shopping craze that has become an increasing meme in the United States of America over the past few years. The prevailing opinion among my friends is that this trend represents yet another terrible new turn towards casual violence, selfishness and greed in our craven society, and reports of maniacal frenzies at spots like this Walmart in Moultrie, Georgia seem to bear this interpretation out. One person caught in the Moultrie, Georgia frenzy was quoted expressing disgust about what went down:
This surreal image is a real screenshot from a real website -- the victory website that went live after the polls closed on USA election day 2012, because apparently, stunningly, incredibly ... Mitt Romney's staff was that sure that they would win. They had given unconditional orders -- unconditional! -- to launch the website when the election ended.
Four days after the election, the revelation that not only Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan but their entire entourage and staff were sure they would win is still rocking the world. It turned out that Romney spent the evening of election day stewing in his hotel room with his yes-man entourage, doing nothing but smoothing out the final draft of his acceptance speech.
The prior evidence that he would lose was, of course, rather overwhelming. His campaign had gone unusually badly in the public eye, he had barely unified his own party, and had never dominated any polling cycle. Nate Silver, the most influential poll analyst in the world, a nonpartisan observer who in the past had correctly predicted Republican victories as well as Democratic ones, had already announced in the New York Times that polling numbers strongly favored President Obama. The Obama administration knew it would win, and said so. I knew Obama would win. Even Bob Dylan knew Obama would win.
Yes, of course, the Romney campaign was projecting confidence in its public statements, and everybody on Fox News and conservative talk radio was parroting the weak evidence that Romney might win, but few of us imagined that the Romney inner circle had wrapped itself so deeply in delusion that they believed it deep inside. This was a greater cognitive disconnect than anyone expected. Isn't Mitt Romney supposed to be a solid businessman? Don't businessmen use actual information and data to make decisions? If his judgment was so murky about his own chances to beat a popular President, how could he be expected to produce rational policies involving, say, the chances that a hostile approach towards Iran or China would be successful, or the chances that greater tax breaks for the wealthy would help the middle class, or the chances that deregulating Wall Street banks would not enable another orgy of corruption, or the chances that global climate change was not a serious scientific concern? Romney's final day as a candidate found the man who would be President at an absolute peak of cluelessness, his head completely in the clouds.
The Literary Kicks upgrade/redesign is progressing well. I'm on a rare family vacation out on Long Island, catching up on my reading and thinking (sometimes it feels great to just take in, to not be writing) and I'm looking forward to coming back refreshed in early September.
Meanwhile, up in the real world, some people are asking if Mitt Romney's selection of enthusiastic Ayn Rand follower Paul Ryan as his running mate represents the closest Ayn Rand has ever come to the White House, the zenith of her influence on American politics. Actually, Ayn Rand has been in the White House, and in Congress, and all over Washington DC, for nearly 40 years now.
Ronald Reagan was a Randian (though the fiercely independent Ayn Rand herself refused to salute him back). Trickle-down economics -- the idea that government policies should favor the wealthy, ignore the middle and lower classes and "allow the rising tide to lift all boats" -- is Rand's economic philosophy in action. This unfortunate and dangerous ideology, which culminated in the ruinous financial crash of 2007/2008, has dominated federal economic policy since the 1980s. Even the supposedly liberal administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have barely managed to make a dent in the trickle-down system. The fact that President Obama's call for the wealthiest Americans to pay more taxes is controversial (I think it's a no-brainer that wealthy Americans need to pay more taxes, and begin to pay off the deficit they voted for) shows the powerful presence of trickle-down policy in American economics today.
The photo at the top of this page shows Ayn Rand and her close friend and prize student Alan Greenspan, along with their spouses, visiting President Gerald Ford in 1974. Alan Greenspan had just been appointed chairman of Ford's council of economic advisors, and would eventually go on to run the Federal Reserve Bank under Ronald Reagan. Greenspan was not a strict Objectivist -- a strict Objectivist could never endure the endless compromises of real-world politics -- but his vision of deregulated and hyper-charged American capitalism was highly consistent with Ayn Rand's economic philosophy. That was nearly forty years ago. The important question today isn't whether or not Paul Ryan intends to bring Ayn Rand into the White House. The important question is: what do we have to do to finally get Ayn Rand out of the White House, and out of Congress?