Excerpt: A wilderness of mirrors
An excerpt from James Bowman’s article “A wilderness of mirrors” in The New Criterion.
The New York Times ran a curious piece by Peter Baker claiming that, after almost half a century, the long-dead former President Richard M. Nixon had finally been rumbled. There it was, in black and white: the long-desired, long- anticipated smoking gun (to mix our metaphors) proving that the long- rumored “October Surprise” of the 1968 election—by which Nixon had supposedly attempted to sabotage the Paris Peace talks with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong in order to boost his own presidential campaign—had been factual. So said Mr. Baker anyway, doubtless in the spirit of the “truth” which the Times has lately been claiming as its exclusive property.
And what did Mr. Baker and the Times suppose this fuliginous firearm to be? Why, the word “monkey wrench,” used as a transitive verb, though with only the pronoun “it” as its object. Pay close attention now. The tell-tale verb appeared in handwritten notes taken by Nixon’s aide H. R. Haldeman (later Nixon’s chief-of-staff and one of the chief fall-guys of Watergate) of a telephone conversation he had with candidate Nixon about then-President Johnson’s bombing halt in Vietnam. (Forgive me for all this ancient history, but I’ll soon come to the point.) Nixon, not implausibly, saw Johnson’s stopping of the air campaign as a gimmick—an October Surprise of his own, if you will—to boost the campaign of his, Johnson’s, vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s electoral rival that autumn.
Well, that’s politics, you might think. Not when it came to Nixon it wasn’t. In its context, the note and its reference to “monkey wrenching” appear to me to refer to the bombing halt, which Nixon was instructing his trusted aide to do whatever he could to expose and discredit, since it would have signaled to the enemy America’s willingness to give up the fight. But a reference in the same memorandum to Anna Chennault, who provided Nixon’s back-door access to South Vietnamese President Thieu (hang on, I’m getting there; just give me another minute or two) could be interpreted as naming her as the monkey wrencher, and the act of monkey wrenching as the exertion of her influence on Thieu to resist any pressure from Johnson to come to terms with the enemy in time to give him (and, vicariously, Vice President Humphrey) a diplomatic triumph before the election.
Phew! Never mind the irrelevance of all this convoluted reasoning to the fact that there was never the slightest prospect of a sudden peace agreement when they were still arguing over the shape of the conference table. In fact, negotiations dragged on throughout Nixon’s first four-year term. Nor did Thieu need any pressure from Anna Chennault (or anybody else) to resist what he and Nixon both would have seen as a de facto surrender to the communist enemy. And yet, to Mr. Baker and John A. Farrell, the Nixon biographer who discovered the Haldeman memo, here was proof positive that Nixon was guilty of what Johnson was said privately to have described as “treason.” It just goes to show you, not only that Nixon-hatred never dies at The New York Times, or on the Left generally, but also that, for the media, there can be no statute of limitations on scandal—not, at least, so long as the scandals of the past can have their political usefulness in the present.
We had to wait a few weeks to discover the usefulness that the Times had found in this particular scandal. Of course there was what must have seemed to Times editors the obvious headline to a review of Mr. Farrell’s book: “‘Richard Nixon,’ Portrait of a Thin-Skinned, Media-Hating President.” Remind you of anyone? But it took a piece by the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to convey the full, feculent flavor of the scandal banquet being prepared for us by the Farrell revelation: “There’s a smell of treason in the air” was the headline to Mr. Kristof ’s op-ed column:
The greatest political scandal in American history was not Aaron Burr’s shooting of Alexander Hamilton, and perhaps wasn’t even Watergate. Rather it may have been Richard Nixon’s secret efforts in 1968 to sabotage a U.S. diplomatic effort to end the Vietnam War.
Doesn’t that smooth transition from “was” in the first sentence to “may have been” in the second just epitomize the sweetest thing there is about scandal? Nothing needs to be proven, no criminal act to have been committed, for even a charge as serious as “treason” to be wheeled out and fired off like a cannon, preferably at the already shot-to-pieces reputation of someone who cannot defend himself. Mr. Kristof was able, then, to make the equally smooth transition from Nixon to—guess whom?
READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE