Torture, Nixon, Obama

For many, Watergate is just a word, but it's relevant now as we consider what to do with Americans who tortured. Let's hope they don't get off as lightly as Wall Street's CEOs.
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Stacy Keach as Nixon in Frost/Nixon

For many, Watergate is just a word, but it's relevant now as we consider what to do with Americans who tortured. Let's hope they don't get off as lightly as Wall Street's CEOs.

I recently participated in a panel on media and politics keying off the play, Frost/Nixon, which will be opening at the Paramount Theatre May 6 with Stacy Keach in the Tricky Dick role. The panel took place at the downtown library's Microsoft Auditorium and before it started excerpts from the actual 1977 Frost/Nixon interviews played overhead, a chance to see Big Brother Nixon's famous sweat and five o-clock shadow on the big screen.

It's hard now to believe that 35 years ago, the nation was riveted by this man and his scandal. One of the panel members, University of Washington political science professor Mark A. Smith, said that to most of his students, Watergate is just a word. Yes, it was another time. Impeachment was still a scary concept untested for a century. Shame was still possible in America. A nation was challenged to prove that our democracy could work through its most difficult political challenge: to uproot corruption at the highest levels of power.

The power of the play-turned-to-film Frost/Nixon is that it dramatizes and humanizes Richard Nixon without letting him off the hook. To a great extent, democracy won: The House of Representatives voted to impeach Nixon, who resigned office in disgrace. That showed that we could navigate difficult times, that our democracy was resilient, that it could be reformed, that we could transition peacefully to new leadership, even in the middle of a war (Vietnam).

Nixon was not hung by his boot heals, but pardoned and self-exiled to California where he could begin his self-rehabilitation process (writing endless books on foreign policy, talking with David Frost). He partially succeeded: The villain is now a tragic character of Shakespearian dimensions: complex, wounded, unhinged, brilliant, at times sympathetic. In Frost/Nixon the movie, Frank Langella's Academy Award-nominated performance reveals the easily reviled Nixon as a person, not just the "I am not a crook" (shake jowls here) of stand-up comics, nor the purely evil caricature of his most devoted enemies on the left. He is redeemed in history as human.

Watergate was a catalyst for a host of changes and reforms, and its slow resolution revealed flaws and gave rise to a wave of solutions. Open government, lobby reforms, and campaign finance laws, a new generation who came to Washington to clean and open it up, a reinvigorated press. Hard to remember in this time of dying daily newspapers and media meltdown, but during the post-Watergate years, journalism became the hot new profession for young people. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were rock stars. Students flocked to work at their college papers and young scribes eyed every provost as a target, the next Nixon.

Some of the changes were not all positive: The media did get too big for its britches after Watergate, treating every public official as covering-up scandal, yet at the same time inflating its own righteous sense of importance to the point of arrogance. The press reveled in being a check on power by becoming a power player itself, ingratiating itself with the establishment. And the post-Watergate message that Washington, DC was no longer welcoming to the merely power-hungry had an unanticipated result. In the early 1980s, I had lunch with a top Northwest lobbyist in DC who told me that ambitious young professionals had decided after Watergate that there was no future in Washington. All the new youthful energy was flowing to Wall Street. We now know how that turned out.

Not all the business-types wound up there. George W. Bush got an MBA and decided to run the country like a CEO. He brought Wall Street's values and American corporate-style management to the White House. James Hoopes in his book, Hail to the CEO, pointed out the hazards of this, an Enron-style of management running the country. We have a leadership that believes in its own virtue and thus ignores (or makes its own) reality, that substitutes management skills for cronyism and loyalty (that's what made Brownie a heckuva guy). The CEO style is one that conflates virtue and wealth, a kind of prosperity gospel masked as moral leadership when, in fact, it is the opposite.

The resulting Bush era fiascos have produced crises far beyond what Richard Nixon manufactured: a global economic crisis, widespread electronic surveillance, a country that abandoned its real virtues to torture its enemies in the name of virtue but in the tradition of our worst enemies — Communist totalitarians and the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

The crooks have had a field day. We live in a country where there is no shame and wrong-doing is rewarded. The old saying, "I don't care what you say about me just spell my name right" could now be "It doesn't matter what I did, just check out my Facebook page and my new show on Fox." Bad publicity merely builds one's brand. Blago gets a reality series, Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and Bill Bennett are cable TV pundits, Elliott Spitzer worms his way back into the public eye.

The CEO style offers major benefits to miscreants. One is further insulation from failure. Wall Street's bad actors are still on track to get their bonuses and many of the most irresponsible received taxpayer money to bail them out of trouble. They also get golden parachutes and, perhaps most precious of all, protection from ever being held responsible. The buck stops nowhere: the pennies of responsibility are scattered in 100 different directions. Is the CEO to blame for anything? No, it was the system, the guys in accounting, the rogues in the derivatives department, the regulators, the people who took out loans they couldn't afford....

This is now playing out in the torture memos release too. President Obama and Congress are loath to wade into into investigations and prosecutions over torture. Who can blame them? They have multiple wars and crises on their to-do list. It'd be nice if it never happened, if it would all go away. But remember: We survived and recovered Nixon's downfall even during a war and an energy crisis.

The reluctant should take heart from the Watergate example — as messy, flawed and yes political, as it was. When America was on the brink of falling apart, the exposure of corruption and the fixing of blame with investigations, hearings, and prosecutions, even pardons and paroles, renewed our democracy. It forced us to look at its reality. Tens of millions of people watched the live televised Watergate hearings and later the Frost/Nixon interviews because they were captured by the drama of how the story of democracy itself would turn out. It is no sure thing. As Ben Franklin said, "A republic, if you can keep it."

Democracy is strengthened by the public airing of shameful events, not the willful forgetting, the "walking on" of people who don't want to think about the unpleasantness. This is more than a time to "reflect," as Obama has said. In our democracy, a sense of justice must prevail, and if we let the torturers walk, if we simply write it all off to bad memos, bad legal advice, folks following orders, and the pressures of war, we'll be ignoring a major wound. If a house divided cannot stand, neither can one burdened by dry rot.

Let's not treat the torture crowd like Wall Street CEOs and give them a pass, the golden parachute of willfully "forgetting" what they've done. Let them be investigated. Let them testify. Let them explain. Let them be punished. Let them be officially pardoned by this or the next president if he or she sees fit. Yes, it'll be distracting and ugly, but it will be right.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.