When he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1968, Richard M. Nixon said, “Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth — to see it as it is, and tell it like it is — to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth.”
We’ve now learned, thanks to Vanity Fair, that a former top FBI official, W. Mark Felt, was the legendary confidential source Deep Throat. I can’t think of a better time to resurrect the Watergate saga.
The trauma of Watergate, which brought down a president who seemed pathologically compelled to deceive, came toward the end of that extended exercise in governmental folly and deceit, Vietnam. Taken together, these two disasters, both of which shook the nation, provided a case study in how citizens should view their government: with extreme skepticism.
Trust, said Ronald Reagan, but verify.
Now, with George W. Bush in charge, the nation is mired in yet another tragic period marked by incompetence, duplicity, bad faith and outright lies coming once again from the very top of the government. Just last month we had the disclosure of a previously secret British government memorandum that offered further confirmation that the American public and the world were spoon-fed bogus information by the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
President Bush, as we know, wanted to remove Saddam Hussein through military action. With that in mind, the memo damningly explained, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
That’s the kind of deceit that was in play as American men and women were suiting up and marching off to combat at the president’s command. Bush wanted war, and he got it. Many thousands have died as a result.
Even in Afghanistan, where the United States had legitimate reasons for going to war, the lies have been legion. Pat Tillman, for example, was a popular NFL player who, in a burst of patriotism after September 11, gave up a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army Rangers. He was sent first to Iraq, and then to Afghanistan, where he was shot to death by members of his own unit who mistook him for the enemy.
Instead of disclosing that Tillman had died tragically in a friendly fire incident, the Army spun a phony tale of heroism for his family and the nation. According to the Army, Tillman had been killed by enemy fire as he stormed a hill. Soldiers who knew the truth were ordered to keep quiet about the matter. Tillman’s family was not told how he really died until after a nationally televised memorial service that recruiters viewed as a public relations bonanza.
Mary Tillman, Tillman’s mother, told The Washington Post: “The military let him down. The administration let him down. It was a sign of disrespect. The fact that he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic. The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, Bush, speaking about detainees who had complained of being abused, said they were “people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble — that means not tell the truth.” Bush meant, of course, to say dissemble, which really means to deliberately mislead or conceal. Nevertheless, he knew what he was talking about. The president may have stumbled over the pronunciation, but he’s proved time and again that he’s a skillful practitioner of the art.
The lessons of Watergate and Vietnam are that the checks and balances embedded in the national government by the founding fathers (and which the Bush administration is trying mightily to destroy) are absolutely crucial if American-style democracy is to survive, and that a truly free and unfettered press (which the Bush administration is trying mightily to intimidate) is as important now as it’s ever been.
There you have it in a nutshell. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, drunk with power and insufficiently restrained, took the nation on hair-raising journeys that were as unnecessary as they were destructive. Now, in the first years of the 21st century, George W. Bush is doing the same.
Congress and an aggressive press ultimately played crucial roles in bringing the truth about Vietnam and Watergate to light.A similar challenge exists today. We’ll see how it plays out.