Sunday, June 12

Nixon and Bush, pt.2

Don't Follow the Money

THE morning the Deep Throat story broke, the voice on my answering machine was as raspy as Hal Holbrook's. "I just want you to remember that I wrote 'Follow the money,' " said my caller. "I want to know if anybody will give me credit. Watch for the accuracy of the media!"

The voice belonged to my friend William Goldman, who wrote the movie "All the President's Men." His words proved more than a little prescient. As if on cue, journalists everywhere - from The New York Times to The Economist to The Washington Post itself - would soon start attributing this classic line of dialogue to the newly unmasked Deep Throat, W. Mark Felt. But the line was not in Woodward and Bernstein's book or in The Post's Watergate reportage or in Bob Woodward's contemporaneous notes. It was the invention of the author of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Marathon Man" and "The Princess Bride."

This confusion of Hollywood's version of history with the genuine article would quickly prove symptomatic of the overall unreality of the Deep Throat coverage. Was Mr. Felt a hero or a villain? Should he "follow the money" into a book deal, and if so, how would a 91-year-old showing signs of dementia either write a book or schmooze about it with Larry King? How did Vanity Fair scoop The Post? How does Robert Redford feel about it all? Such were the questions that killed time for a nation awaiting the much-heralded feature mediathon, the Michael Jackson verdict.

Richard Nixon and Watergate itself, meanwhile, were often reduced to footnotes. Three years ago, on Watergate's 30th anniversary, an ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans couldn't explain what the scandal was, and no one was racing to enlighten them this time around. Vanity Fair may have taken the trouble to remind us that Watergate was a web of crime yielding the convictions and guilty pleas of more than 30 White House and Nixon campaign officials, but few others did. Watergate has gone back to being the "third-rate burglary" of Nixon administration spin. It is once again being covered up.

Not without reason. Had the scandal been vividly resuscitated as the long national nightmare it actually was, it would dampen all the Felt fun by casting harsh light on our own present nightmare. "The fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before" was how the former Nixon speech writer William Safire put it on this page almost nine months ago. The current administration, a second-term imperial presidency that outstrips Nixon's in hubris by the day, leads the attack, trying to intimidate and snuff out any Woodwards or Bernsteins that might challenge it, any media proprietor like Katharine Graham or editor like Ben Bradlee who might support them and any anonymous source like Deep Throat who might enable them to find what Carl Bernstein calls "the best obtainable version of the truth."

The attacks continue to be so successful that even now, long after many news organizations, including The Times, have been found guilty of failing to puncture the administration's prewar W.M.D. hype, new details on that same story are still being ignored or left uninvestigated. The July 2002 "Downing Street memo," the minutes of a meeting in which Tony Blair and his advisers learned of a White House effort to fix "the intelligence and facts" to justify the war in Iraq, was published by The London Sunday Times on May 1. Yet in the 19 daily Scott McClellan briefings that followed, the memo was the subject of only 2 out of the approximately 940 questions asked by the White House press corps, according to Eric Boehlert of Salon.

This is the kind of lapdog news media the Nixon White House cherished. To foster it, Nixon's special counsel, Charles W. Colson, embarked on a ruthless program of intimidation that included threatening antitrust action against the networks if they didn't run pro-Nixon stories. Watergate tapes and memos make Mr. Colson, who boasted of "destroying the old establishment," sound like the founding father of today's blogging lynch mobs. He exulted in bullying CBS to cut back its Watergate reports before the '72 election. He enlisted NBC in pro-administration propaganda by browbeating it to repackage 10-day-old coverage of Tricia Nixon's wedding as a prime-time special. It was the Colson office as well that compiled a White House enemies list that included journalists who had the audacity to question administration policies.

Such is the equivalently supine state of much of the news media today that Mr. Colson was repeatedly trotted out, without irony, to pass moral judgment on Mr. Felt - and not just on Fox News, the cable channel that is actually run by the former Nixon media maven, Roger Ailes. "I want kids to look up to heroes," Mr. Colson said, oh so sorrowfully, on NBC's "Today" show, condemning Mr. Felt for dishonoring "the confidence of the president of the United States." Never mind that Mr. Colson dishonored the law, proposed bombing the Brookings Institution and went to prison for his role in the break-in to steal the psychiatric records of The Times's Deep Throat on Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg. The "Today" host, Matt Lauer, didn't mention any of this - or even that his guest had done jail time. None of the other TV anchors who interviewed Mr. Colson - and he was ubiquitous - ever specified his criminal actions in the Nixon years. Some identified him onscreen only as a "former White House counsel."

Had anyone been so rude (or professional) as to recount Mr. Colson's sordid past, or to raise the question of whether he was a hero or a traitor, the genealogical line between his Watergate-era machinations and those of his present-day successors would have been all too painfully clear. The main difference is that in the Nixon White House, the president's men plotted behind closed doors. The current administration is now so brazen it does its dirty work in plain sight.

In the most recent example, all the president's men slimed and intimidated Newsweek by accusing it of being an accessory to 17 deaths for its errant Koran story; led by Scott McClellan, they said it was unthinkable that any American guard could be disrespectful of Islam's holy book. These neo-Colsons easily drowned out Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, both of whom said that the riots that led to the 17 deaths were unrelated to Newsweek. Then came the pièce de résistance of Nixon mimicry: a Pentagon report certifying desecrations of the Koran by American guards was released two weeks after the Newsweek imbroglio, at 7:15 p.m. on a Friday, to assure it would miss the evening newscasts and be buried in the Memorial Day weekend's little-read papers.

At other times the new Colsons top the old one. Though Nixon aspired to punish public broadcasting by cutting its funding, he never imagined that his apparatchiks could seize the top executive positions at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Nor did he come up with the brilliant ideas of putting journalists covertly on the administration payroll and of hiring an outside P.R. firm (Ketchum) to codify an enemies list by ranking news organizations and individual reporters on the basis of how favorably they cover a specific administration policy (No Child Left Behind). President Bush has even succeeded in emasculating the post-Watergate reform that was supposed to help curb Nixonian secrecy, the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

THE journalists who do note the resonances of now with then rarely get to connect those dots on the news media's center stage of television. You are more likely to hear instead of how Watergate inspired too much "gotcha" journalism. That's a rather absurd premise given that no "gotcha" journalist got the goods on the biggest story of our time: the false intimations of incipient mushroom clouds peddled by American officials to sell a war that now threatens to match the unpopularity and marathon length of Vietnam.

Only once during the Deep Throat rollout did I see a palpable, if perhaps unconscious, effort to link the White House of 1972 with that of 2005. It occurred at the start, when ABC News, with the first comprehensive report on Vanity Fair's scoop, interrupted President Bush's post-Memorial Day Rose Garden news conference to break the story. Suddenly the image of the current president blathering on about how hunky-dory everything is in Iraq was usurped by repeated showings of the scene in which the newly resigned Nixon walked across the adjacent White House lawn to the helicopter that would carry him into exile.

But in the days that followed, Nixon and his history and the long shadows they cast largely vanished from the TV screen. In their place were constant nostalgic replays of young Redford and flinty Holbrook. Follow the bait-and-switch.