Saturday, May 24, 2008

Nixon: Lessons of an Electronic Messiah

Cover for the original
version of this essay
During his five and a half years as president there were many Richard Nixons. Spiro Agnew, his vice-president until a kick-back scandal forced a resignation, was Nixon as ruthless avenger, brimming over with aggression and righteous indignation. The White House was a separate entity, the disembodied voice of the tight-lipped manager. His press secretary was Nixon as offensive fullback, moving into enemy territory with broken-field running, machine-like action without reflection. Values were spread through proxies who seemed – until the Administration became a public conspiracy – like many independent voices.

Nixon understood that propaganda must not look organized, and yet must have a unity in its goals. This idea owes much to advertising. It assumes that people experience only the dissociated surfaces of events. The fragmentation of both commercial TV programming and news reporting tends to atomize thought. Attempts to deal with many distinct messages, each isolated from the others, leads to a robotic abstraction of only the kernels that seem to fit in with prior experience. This classifying, categorizing, selecting out aspects of immediate use, those that perhaps threaten, the familiar, or those presented in a familiar dialect, tends to rigidify assumptions.

Atomizing also prevents a viewer from comprehending "big pictures," the trends and relationships that give a larger meaning to individual actions. The ability to see the whole is gradually lost; most information “consumers” see only the parts in play. Thus, for many years, people failed to recognize that the White House equaled Nixon, or that Spiro Agnew, Ron Zeigler, Melvin Laird, William Kleindeinst, John Mitchell and Richard Nixon actually spoke with one voice. They were a determined team playing the longest Superbowl in TV history.

Better than most, Nixon knew how to use mass media institutions as tools of power. After all, they were already careening down the new information highway. Most reporters lacked both a sense of involvement in the affairs they reported or witnessed, and a commitment to a clear set of values. By the end of the 1960s mainstream media outlets had become impersonal structures whose means determined their movements. 

Dispatched to reform media for the uses of the State, Agnew won considerable support for his attack on the "distortion" of news. He didn't call his targets "advocacy journalists," but in pointing the finger at an "effete corps of impudent snobs" he essentially meant writers who preferred the discussion of ideas over the recitation of facts. The call for more "objectivity" was actually a rejection of ideology.

The Nixon Administration used a grab bag of weapons. Newsmen found themselves jailed for failing or refusing to disclose sources of information to the courts. Private organizations such as the Twentieth Century Fund established themselves as monitors of the news, to the chagrin of professionals. Even more threatening to corporate owners, the President outlined plans to introduce legislation holding local television stations accountable for all their network-originated broadcasts. License renewals would depend, to a great extent, on what Nixon's director of the Office of Telecommunications Clay T. Whitehead called "ideological plugola." Although a bill offering to trade extended licensing periods for "objective" obedience never became law, the goal was clear: editorial responsibility to "correct imbalance or consistent bias in the networks." 

According to Whitehead, "Who else but management can or should correct so-called professionals who confuse sensationalism with sense and who dispense elitist gossip in the guise of news analysis?"

After more than two decades in public life, Nixon knew his audience well. Millions watched him on January 20, 1973 as he delivered a sermon he’d rehearsed for years. In his second inaugural address, Nixon told the viewers (aka public) to push thoughts of "those who find everything wrong with America and very little right with it" out of their minds, to forget dissent and war in Vietnam. He urged, in short, that people forget much of the recent past.

Instead, he recommended a different preoccupation – responsibility. Denying that each man is his brother's keeper, he appealed to individualism: "Let each of us ask not just what government can do for me, but what can I do for myself?" Concern for others was a manifestation of the "condescending policies of paternalism," he argued. The goal was to become elite competitors.  

Years later, in a letter to his wife, Gordon Liddy explained: "The young should be raised in harmony with nature. Nature is elitist. By definition, not everyone can be a member of an elite – but it is of the nature of men to try."

By the time the Senate formed a committee to investigate the Watergate burglary in 1973 democratization of Nixon's ethic was well advanced. "Law and order" was consistent with previous assertions. But democratization of values is usually accompanied by the rejection of the monarch. Thus, this would-be king began to face resistance. Impoundment of federal funds led to work stoppages, government reorganization produced instability, and central leadership through information control threatened anonymity. Such developments conflicted with the fundamental laws of the government and media bureaucracies.

The US looked in some ways as if it was replicating the political degradation of Rome. In 44 BC, having crossed the Rubicon and routed Pompey, Julius Caesar became dictator of the world's most powerful empire. Although the new monarch effected a reorganization of local administration, his "vulgar scheming for the tawdriest mockeries of personal worship", as H.G. Wells put it, became a silly and shameful record of his rule. The air buzzed with talk of the Senate, democracy, and the proletariat. The popular "comitia," the gathering of tribes for public votes, didn’t often reflect the feelings of the masses. Elite clubs were joined by most eligible voters. Politicians depended upon usurers and the clubs. The sham of democracy forced the cheated and suppressed to use other methods of expression: strikes and insurrection.

Caesar's rule lasted only about four years – less even than Nixon’s – and ended in assassination by his “friends” and supporters when his aspirations to power and greatness became intolerable. In Wells’ words, he was finally "beset in the senate....the scene marks the complete demoralization of the old Roman governing body." The fall of this dictator, about 2000 years prior to Nixon's resignation, was essentially a failure of the Roman republic to sustain unity, as well as a failure of Roman citizenship, robbed by its rigidities of inner spirit.

Rome’s prosperous era lasted only about 200 years. The United States had reached the same milestone when Richard Nixon fell. 

Part Seven of Fragile Paradise: A Vermont Memoir.

Next: Bad Vibes in the Peaceful Valley

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