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Watergate and After: The Good, the Bad and the Good as Gold

  • Lee Horsley

Abstract

Michael Polanyi’s argument is that an essential element in a free society is a belief in the reality of facts in public life, with the rivalry of opinions in an open society maintaining ‘a universe of true facts so long as people can mutually trust each other to observe a proper level of factuality in drawing their conclusions from contradictory arguments’.1 In his use of the expression ‘factuality’ he follows Hannah Arendt, who observes both the vulnerability of facts to organised lies and the debilitating effects of destroying people’s capacity for distinguishing between reality and fiction. Even if it is part myth as well as part reality, the possibility of rational, fact-based political and judicial action is unquestionably important to the stability of a democratic system, confirming a belief in public access to and influence on the exercise of power.2 Much of what Hannah Arendt wrote was, of course, directed against the methods used by a revolutionary elite in breaking down this sort of confidence — for example, by dissolving all statements of fact into declarations of purpose. In American politics during the 1970s (and obviously also during the 1980s), what destroyed the ‘network of mutual trust’ was not, however, the organised lying and sophisticated relativistic arguments of skilled propagandists.

Keywords

Political World Contemporary History Willed Ignorance Historical Imagination Political Understanding 
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Notes

  1. 2.
    See for example the analysis of the ritual nature of such occasions in J. M. Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964) pp. 16–17.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    H. S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt (London: Picador, 1980) p. 265. Most of the pieces discussed in what follows were originally published in 1973–4: Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1973); Tear and Loathing in the Bunker’, New York Times, 1 Jan 1974; ‘Fear and Loathing at the Watergate: Mr Nixon Has Cashed His Cheque’, Rolling Stone, 27 Sep 1973; ‘Fear and Loathing in Washington: the Boys in the Bag’, Rolling Stone, 4 July 1974; and ‘Fear and Loathing in Limbo: The Scum also Rises’, Rolling Stone, 10 Oct 1974.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    J. Dean, Blind Ambition (1976; London: W. H. Allen, 1977) pp. 40–1 and 33; L. Heren, The Power of the Press? (London: Orbis, 1985) pp. 143–5; and see, for example, D. Abrahamsen, Nixon vs. Nixon: An Emotional Tragedy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976; 1977) p. x.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Heren, The Power of the Press? p. 152; R. Paulson, Representations of Revolution (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983) pp. 27–8; and see, for example, Stanford, The Nature of Historical Knowledge, pp. 144–5, on the persuasive power of ‘evasive’ history.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    C. Berryman, ‘Heller’s Gold’, Chicago Review, xxxii (1980–1) 114.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    C. Bernstein and B. Woodward, All the President’s Men (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) p. 280.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    Compare for example Heren, The Power of the Press?, ch. 10, with Victor Lasky, It Didn’t Start with Watergate (New York: Dial Press, 1977) pp. 347–86.Google Scholar
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    F. Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605), Second Book, xxiii, para. 47.Google Scholar
  9. 22.
    M. McCarthy, The Mask of State (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973; 1974) p. 5.Google Scholar
  10. 24.
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    Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, pp. 278–9; and G. E. and K. Lang, The Battle for Public Opinion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983) pp. 255–64.Google Scholar
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    Kingman Brewster, quoted in H. Brucher, Communication is Power: Unchanging Values in a Changing Journalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) pp. 75–6. See also Bok, Secrets, ch. 16, for a cogent discussion of the traditional political defence of a free and objective press.Google Scholar
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    T. Wolfe (ed.), Preface to The New Journalism (New York: Harper and Row, 1973) pp. 16–21. One of the better discussions of the New Journalism, but one which nevertheless oversimplifies the relationship between its techniques and those of ‘old-fashioned realists’, is that of J. Hellmann, Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981); see for example p. 89.Google Scholar
  15. 33.
    E. E. Dennis, ‘Journalistic Primitivism’, M. L. Johnson, ‘Wherein Lies the Value?’, and R. J. Van Dellen, ‘We’ve been Had by the New Journalism’, Journal of Popular Culture, ix (Summer 1975) 124–5, 136 and 231.Google Scholar
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    Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, p. 115; and see G. Highet, The Anatomy of Satire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962; 1972) pp. 219–21, on this form in traditional satire.Google Scholar
  17. 41.
    P. Gay, Freud for Historians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985; 1986) pp. 17–18.Google Scholar
  18. 44.
    The relationship between ‘the actual Hunter Thompson’ and his persona are discussed in Hellman, Fables of Fact, p. 72. On circular plotting in satire see for example A. B. Kernan, The Plot of Satire (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965; 1974) ch. 10.Google Scholar
  19. 46.
    W. Dilthey, ‘Plan for the Continuation of the Construction of the Historical World in the Human Studies’ (1907–10), in H. P. Rickman (ed.), Meaning in History: W. Dilthey’s Thoughts on History and Society (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961) p. 111; and Lang, The Battle for Public Opinion, p. 261.Google Scholar
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    For a sceptical assessment of the role played by Woodward and Bernstein, see Lasky, pp. 364–5; see also J. Calder, Heroes: From Byron to Guevara (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1977) pp. 151–67 on ‘The Hero as a Professional’.Google Scholar
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    Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, pp. 197 and 17; Paulson, Fictions of Satire, pp. 80–6; and see S. Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978; London: Quartet Books, 1980) p. 134, on the way in which the use of extreme epithets is an implicit appeal to universal principles. Hellmann, Fables of Fact, pp. 82–3 and 93–5, discusses the way in which Thompson parodies the quest for the American Dream and his strong sense of the ‘original promise’ betrayed.Google Scholar
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    A. Schlesinger, Jr, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1949) pp. vii–ix.Google Scholar
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    H. Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964; 1968), pp. 87–90.Google Scholar

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© Lee Horsley 1990

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  • Lee Horsley

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