The Watergate myth

August 09, 1994|By Lewis H. Lapham

OVER THE past 20 years, the otherwise harmless noun "Watergate" has accumulated so many uses as a synonym for the various forms of political corruption.

It now brings to mind not only the complex of that name on the Potomac but also a fortress of evil intent constructed along the lines of Darth Vader's death star.

Pressed into service as both symbol and metaphor for almost everything that went wrong in the United States from 1968 to 1974, the word connotes not only the treachery and near-impeachment of President Richard Nixon but also the failure of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the general loss of belief in the decency of government.

Ask anybody over the age of 40 to deconstruct the text and the respondent is likely to mention false testimony, foreign bribes, White House bagmen, shredded documents -- among them the Bill of Rights.

Once upon a time, in the good old days before Watergate, well-meaning politicians went about their work in a land of cherry blossoms and sweet-running streams. Maybe not all of them resembled Jimmy Stewart in the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but they were presumed trustworthy until discovered with an exotic dancer in a Baltimore hotel.

After Watergate, the realm of politics turns into a desert inhabited by foul and crawling things.

The Watergate fable derives both its simplicity and its force from the Camelot fable and the juxtaposition of the two images: Just as President John F. Kennedy embodies the persona of the state as luminous romance, President Nixon embodies the persona of the state as grotesque melodrama. Both fictions distort the annals of history as well as the texts of human nature.

The same cinematographer's dialectic still sets up the market in the two kinds of rhetoric that crowd the bookstores and the Sunday morning talk shows -- the low-grade cynicism with which the news media decorate every season's falls from political grace and the equally low-grade moralism out of which the succession of would-be philosopher kings (professors, social theorists, talk show hosts) shape not the succession shape the promise of political redemption.

Jimmy Carter campaigned for the presidency in the robes of Christian piety, barefoot and without guile, wandering around the country in search of a government as good as its people.

In place of a vision of the future, Carter offered the memory of a nonexistent past, assuring voters that the business of governing the Republic mattered less than the mending of its soul.

The prime-time audience soon tired of his sermons and embraced their new savior, in the person of Ronald Reagan, who also promised a triumphant return to a nonexistent past but did so with actor's easy smile and the substitution of happy problems for sad problems.

But when Mr. Reagan blundered through another gate separating the castle of hope from the desert of despair -- this one named for the Iran-contra arms deal -- the best-selling journalists of the day went banging and clattering through the halls of government in search of the worst possible news about the serpent who had once again tempted the innocent Americans eastward out of Eden.

Now we have President Clinton, who hadn't been in office more than a few months before he stumbled through the Whitewatergate into the morass of the world, the flesh and the devil. Probably the time has come to concede that most presidents are mortal. To a greater or lesser extent, all governments commit crimes against the common people. It is what they know how to do and why they delight in the collection of taxes and the conduct of wars.

In the private as well as the public sectors of experience, the gate into the desert stands always and everywhere open -- through a bedroom door or the wall of a conference room, at the end of a suburban street or between planes in an airport bar -- and at one time or another most of us have wandered into the sand. On this 20th anniversary of Nixon's resignation from the presidency, maybe we can put aside the book of American fairy tales and find a new story for another century.

Lewis H. Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, is author, most recently, of "The Wish for Kings.")

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