Politics & Policy

Down from Watergate

G. Gordon Liddy in 1981 (Hulton Archive/Getty)
Scandals in the rearview mirror appear smaller.

‘Who is G. Gordon Liddy?” There are some questions that no normal ten-year-old asks, and that is one of them. This was some time ago; I had been asked to watch the boy while his father tended to an unexpected business matter, and he had found his way into a computer game that he was not supposed to play (Leisure Suit Larry, if you’re wondering). The Liddy inquiry was part of the game’s age-screening protocol, a series of questions designed to keep little ones from participating in Larry’s adult-themed adventures. I asked the boy if his father allowed him to play that game, and he assured me that this was the case. “Let me call him and confirm that,” I suggested. His story changed ricky-tick.

Liddy, now retired, ended his career in public life as a sort of minor folk hero, a sort of beloved crazy uncle. He ran a security company for a while, as reformed burglars sometimes do, and when asked about how his felony conviction in the Watergate affair affected his ability to offer armed services, he explained: “Mrs. Liddy has an extensive collection of firearms, some of which she keeps on my side of the bed.” It probably was inevitable that figures from the Watergate scandal — which at the time was the biggest controversy in American history since the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson — would eventually end up being, like Leisure Suit Larry living on in a Grand Theft Auto world, emblems of a more innocent time. That is one of the few consolations of conservatism: Given a long enough timeline, a great many crimes and scandals look better in retrospect — witness the occasional outbreaks of Clinton nostalgia on the right.

Richard Nixon was a snake who understood himself as such but had sufficient vestigial conscience to be ashamed of his snakery. When Tricky Dick wanted to spread a nasty rumor about a political rival, he insisted on a few degrees of separation between the deed and himself; when Harry Reid wants to spread lies about someone, he does so from the Senate floor and then laughs about it. In Nixon’s time, the political misuse of the IRS was considered a serious crime; today, it happens quite in the open without consequence. When Nixon insisted that his attorney general violate his official responsibilities for political reasons, Elliott Richardson understood what duty required, and resigned; Eric Holder, by way of comparison — suffice it to say that he understands his duty somewhat differently.

Plus ça change: The worst interpretation of the Iran-contra affair was that senior figures in the Reagan administration, conspiring in secrecy, negotiated the sale of arms to the Iranians in order to secure the release of Americans being held hostage by Hezbollah, using the profits from that exchange to aid those fighting against the murderous Soviet proxy in Nicaragua. Sneaky and illegal but intended to secure real American national-security interests — surely, somewhere in the penumbras of the federal government, there is a black-budget agency chief who has approximately that as a job description. The Democrats howled about the sale of those anti-tank missiles to Tehran, of course, and one of the loudest howlers was John Kerry — who has just signed off on a deal delivering Tehran a nuclear weapon in a blue Tiffany box. Exactly what vital national-security interest that secures remains a mystery.

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Nixon complained that he could not get a break from the liberal press, that the Washington Post and the New York Times would go after him no matter what, that journalism had been replaced by vendetta. In 2015, when mobs threatened to descend upon a nonconformist pizzeria and burn it to the ground, the so-called liberals in the media cheered for the arsonists and argued that a business being threatened with violence for the unpopular political opinions of its owners is only getting “exactly what it deserved.”

The Indiana hysteria is an excellent indicator. Ron Fournier of National Journal, who for some reason is generally esteemed, argued with a straight face that Indiana’s freedom-of-religion law is “not unlike Jim Crow laws at all,” which is true if you ignore the slavery and categorical subjugation and the use of state violence in the service of a program of general political and social repression and the first few centuries of American history and all. Moral panics have their uses: If you convince yourself that your opponent is evil — not wrong, not operating from a set of values at variance with your own, but evil — then there is no crime of which he might not be suspected — and, more important, no crime that one might not commit oneself in order to frustrate his wicked aims.

Needless to say, this line of thinking can be suspended when the politician is confronted with real but politically convenient evil, e.g., those Sandinistas that the Reagan administration was fighting. This is why in the popular history of 20th century, the bad guys aren’t the Communists who murdered 100 million people and their American enablers, but the meanies such as Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy, who tried to expose them.

You Might Also Like: “Moral Heroism without Morality,” by Jonah Goldberg

If the other side is evil, then anything is permissible. Of course Harry Reid doesn’t feel guilty about lying about Mitt Romney: “He didn’t get elected, did he?” Of course so-called progressives are willing to lock up nonconformist bakers or merrily cheer on those who promise to set their businesses on fire. Of course the Obama administration will try to sign us up for a phony nuclear deal with Tehran that undermines our national security — and that of our allies — in the service of its own political interests.

“Who is G. Gordon Liddy?” Among other things, a criminal who did his time. Who is Lois Lerner? A criminal who almost certainly will never hear the prison door slam shut behind her, who probably will live out her days on a generous pension paid for by the very same taxpayers whose government she converted into a weapon to be used against them.

There are those who call this “progress.”

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