Thursday, February 19, 2015

Looking for a Way to Make the Story Hold Together

On page 831 of RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, the story of the former president’s life has reached March 1973, the point where “the Watergate affair” (as Nixon often referred to it) had suddenly bloomed into an all-consuming crisis for the administration. By the way, when you reach page 831 of RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon and you are reading an old, used paperback version of the 1100-plus page book, the book starts to fall apart like the one pictured at left.

It’s really quite symbolic, given what is discussed during the last few hundred pages.

It’s at the bottom of that page Nixon begins a new section with the interesting line “It was already clear there was not one truth about Watergate.” From there he identifies no less than four “truths,” sounding a bit like a philosopher for a moment stepping back from the increasingly unpleasant situation he’s been describing to reflect more broadly on epistemological questions.

“There was the factual truth,” he begins, “which involved the literal description of what had occurred. But the factual truth could probably never be completely reconstructed, because each of us had become involved in different ways and no one’s knowledge at any given time exactly duplicated anyone else’s.”

Indeed, whether one reads Nixon’s own blinkered account or that of others who have tried to chronicle the labyrinthine story of Watergate, it’s a bewildering drama filled with players contradicting one another regarding practically every detail of the break-in, the subsequent cover-up, and everything else even tangentially related to the “affair.” This New York Times article from a decade ago states that 69 different government officials were charged with crimes, with 48 of them ultimately serving time.

Nixon’s account unsurprisingly focuses on the most prominent among those group, and as he notes everyone involved had a particular perspective that necessarily excluded the possibility of full awareness of the complicated “factual truth.”

“There was the legal truth,” Nixon continues, “which, as we now understood, would involve judgments about motive. There was the moral truth, which would involve opinions about whether what had been done represented an indictment of the ethics of the White House. And there was the political truth, which would be the sum of the impact that all the other truths would have on the American people and their opinion of me and of my administration.”

It’s kind of a stop-and-make-you-think passage, although soon after it concludes we jump back into the minutiae of meetings and the ever-growing web of entanglements in which Nixon and so many others were to become ensnared. The descriptions of those meetings illustrate that in fact each of these three latter “truths” (as Nixon fashions them) could more accurately be considered strategies for obscuring the factual one.

The “legal” truth omitted or reduced the relevance of facts to their potential status as evidence to support accusations of criminal behavior. The “moral” truth viewed those facts through still another lens, one guided by judgments of right and wrong (or, as Nixon and his men often would overlay on top of such a distinction, what was “good” or “bad” for the country). And the “political truth” -- by far the most important one for the administration through the 1972 election and even into the first part of 1973 -- only considered facts insofar as they could potentially affect Nixon’s ability to govern.

In other words, all of these latter “truths” were themselves particularly motivated interpretations of the factual truth which was itself only partially known and understood by each.

I’ve been preoccupied lately pursuing poker analogies to help explain and understand not just Watergate, but other events in Nixon’s fascinating life. The Watergate affair, it seems to me, existed as a complicated collection of “partial information” heads-up matches being played by Nixon with others and between others all around him. As in poker, there’s the factual truth that no one can possibly know comprehensively, then there are the other “truths” each player imposes on what he or she knows (or thinks he or she knows). And of course, with Watergate, the stakes started small and then got bigger and bigger.

It’s one method of trying to make the story hold together, anyway.

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