Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Trust and secrets

When I turned on my idiot box this week, I was beset by bold pronouncements that “Deep Throat” had finally come out of his hole and declared himself. Former second-in-command of the FBI, W. Mark Felt, now 91 years old and in fragile health, has admitted to the public, in a “Vanity Fair” magazine interview, that he secretly went to the press with the information about the Watergate break-in. His family has proclaimed him to be a hero for helping to destroy a presidency. What’s more, they seem to think he is now entitled to some of the money that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein netted from their book, “All the President’s Men”.

Yes, they should surely be proud of a lawman who, when hearing of a crime being committed, went straight to the newspapers instead of taking the information to a prosecutor. It’s so much more noble to put a man and an administration through the court of public opinion than it is to put them through the more stringent, fact-based, no-innuendo-allowed criminal court system. It’s the responsibility of a man, isn’t it, to see that the man who is negotiating with China -- to someday bring balanced trade and thus greater freedoms to its citizenry -- is publicly destroyed and his work left undone for at least another generation? Especially when the man in the highest office has already agreed to bringing troops home from a war that was begun and escalated by the other party, it’s greatly patriotic to -- under cover of darkness -- work to destroy not just the man, but the very office of the presidency itself. Yes, it’s heroic to risk your job to destroy the highest office in the land, because you didn’t get the office promotion you expected.

These days, through the documents left behind, we are finding that Nixon was not the monster the left would paint him to be. He had weaknesses, but by and large, he was no worse than any other human being holding high office. His fatal flaw was in trusting the wrong men to help him in his campaign, and that trust cost him his job. So, through Nixon’s trust of H. R. Haldeman, E. Howard Hunt and company, the Media’s trust of Felt (and the corrupt juggernaut that was Hoover’s FBI), and the world’s trust of the Media, the most powerful office in the world became the most reviled, as well.

Twenty years later, the presidency was still largely mistrusted, politicians in general were viewed in poll after poll as the most corrupt Americans, and -- miracle of miracles -- journalists were seen as among the most honest people in the country. Thus, through Felt’s noble sacrifice, the Media gained power over the government in such a way that we are still struggling to find our way out of the mire. Those men who chose to trust him with his information, and who chose to run a story instead of taking it to the investigative and prosecutorial authorities, became the people who shaped elections. The Media Party became the ultimate dictators in Washington, as well as in our state capitals. Until only recently, whatever the anchors said on network news was taken for gospel, and the public voted pretty much as directed by CNN. But it hasn’t taken very long for the worm to turn. “Trusted sources” just like Felt have ultimately led to the public shaming of the new government powers: CBS, Newsweek, the New York Times, and others. Just ask Dan Rather about the impact, on his career, of trusting his not-so-secret sources.

Mark Felt is not a hero. But neither is he a demon. He is a man who was, it seems, led by career disappointment and political partisanship to undercut a man he disliked. He made a wrong choice, in going to the press. As a man in law enforcement, his first choice should always have been to follow the proper procedures for prosecution, and he failed to do that. That doesn’t mean that Nixon is a saint and that Felt should be drawn and quartered for heresy. Wrong choices should have consequences, though. He did not do his job. He certainly does not deserve to be rewarded for bypassing the legal system he was sworn to uphold, and thereby undercutting a man in office. He should not get a cut of the royalties from “All the President’s Men”.

I am glad that Felt has had to live with the discomfort of keeping his secret for thirty years. Deep in my heart, I hope it caused him some real anguish to see the country tossed into such great shame and turmoil over such a petty issue. But I don’t trust that it will occur to him.

Update: Ben Stein has a few worthy words on the subject of taking Nixon down.

On a more upbeat note, I’d like to congratulate Daily Review Atlas reporter and columnist, Matthew Smolensky, on his recent nuptials, and wish him and his bride many years of wedded bliss and loving trust: Here’s to your future together!

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