Sunday, May 10, 2009

Today's History Lesson--Nixonland Edition

I'm reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, a fascinating and exhaustive (but not exhausting) tour of the mindset of Richard Nixon and of those parts of American culture that supported and responded to him.

I've been fascinated with politics and history since I was 8 years old (too young, I know) and had read quite a lot about both before I studied history at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I focused on modern American history, particularly Vietnam and the Cold War, and I think it's safe to say that I know quite a bit about both. Nixonland contains a lot of details with which I was already familiar--but it includes an awful (in more ways than one) lot more.

For example, I knew that the U.S. government was directly implicated in the coup leading to the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, and that JFK and others in his administration felt morally culpable in the aftermath and obliged to continue the war. I had no idea, however, that the decision to give the green light for the coup was the result of a plot hatched by the American ambassador to South Vietnam and the CIA. Nor did I realize the connection between the Diem assassination and Watergate. As Perlstein explains,
The Plumbers were part of Nixon's reelection master plan. It was the same strategy he'd chartered in 1966: set Democrats at each other's throat. The motive behind implicating JFK in the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem was to tarnish the Kennedy name among both antiwar Democrats and Catholics (Diem was Catholic). Edmund Muskie was also Catholic, and his foreign policy adviser--the dreaded W. Averell Harriman--could also with some creativity be implicated in the deed.

The problem resided only in the historical facts. In truth, the responsible American officer in the overthrow and murder of Diem was a Republican--Nixon's 1960 running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, then serving as ambassador to South Vietnam. In conspiracy with the CIA, Lodge had deceived President Kennedy into giving an ill-advised green light for a coup that Kennedy himself had naively been shocked to see end in an execution. These truths were why Howard Hunt was hard at work cobbling together new "facts." (p.594)

Nor had I realized that the 1972 GOP national convention took place only because of funding from the international conglomerate ITT as the result of a bribe, disclosure of which by investigative journalist Jack Anderson, led Nixon's Plumbers to threaten an ITT lobbyist into public recantation, and to scheme about the possibility of assassinating Anderson.
You have to read this to get a sense of the level of criminality involved in all this:
The 1972 Republican meeting [their national convention] was to take place in San Diego: a nice, quiet, conservative Southern California city, nearby to the president's San Clemente retreat. But the city fathers had not cooperated, and the business community wasn't ponying up.

So the White House approached an angel.

The multinational conglomerate International Telephone & Telegraph had acquired three companies in 1969 in a deal bureaucrats in the Justice Department worried fell afoul of antitrust laws. Thus it was that in the middle of 1971 an ITT lobbyist named Dita Beard convened a lollapalooza negotiating session whose principals included John Mitchell, Maurice Stans, John Ehrlichman, Chuck Colson, Bud Krogh, and Vice President Agnew. The upshot: ITT promised $400,000 in donations to help stage the San Diego convention. Mitchell would protect the merger.

The deal created more problems than it solved. As the Florida campaigning entered the home stretch, columnist Jack Anderson published a 1971 memo in which Dita Beard exclaimed to her boss that their “noble commitment has gone a long way.” The memo also included the observation, “Certainly the President has told Mitchell to see that things are worked out fairly.” Its famous last words: “Please destroy this, huh?" Beard's boss didn't.

The reference to the president and attorney general of the United States--now Richard Nixon's campaign manager--as direct parties to a bribe was more than a little embarrassing. So Howard Hunt was sent to cajole Beard into claiming she'd never written such a memo.

“Who exactly do you represent?” Dita Beard's daughter asked of the red-headed stranger who appeared on her doorstep.

“High Washington levels who are interested in your mother's welfare,” he replied.
Beard's public recantation clamped the lid on what Nixon feared was the biggest threat to his reelection so far...Still and all, through spring, the ITT lid threatened to blow.

Which was why G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt brainstormed their own solution to the problem. Liddy no longer worked in the White House. Like Mitchell, and also former commerce secretary Maurice Stans and former White House assistant Jeb Stuart Magruder, Liddy had been promoted to a more important job, with the Committee to Re-Elect the President, John Mitchell, chairman...Magruder was the committee's deputy director; Stans its treasurer; Liddy “general counsel.” And what the general counsel suggested, at a meeting with Hunt and a physician who once specialized in nondetectable “accidents” for the CIA, was that Jack Anderson be assassinated--a car crash, perhaps, or a drugging; or, Liddy suggested, Anderson could “just become a fatal victim of the notorious Washington street-crime rate.” Their consultation completed, Liddy pulled out a $100 bill from Committee to Re-Elect the President funds to pay the good doctor for his time.

Bear in mind, now that you've read this, that Dick Cheney believes that Nixon did nothing wrong and made a mistake by resigning. I imagine that many of his acolytes feel much the same way. And so goes the history of modern American conservatism...

No comments: