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Political Animal

Soiled Hero

By Brian Morton | Posted 6/8/2005

In August of 1974, I was returning with my family to the U.S. embassy in Bolivia from a week-long sojourn to Peru. We were greeted at the Peruvian-Bolivian border by a young boy who saw our embajada de los estados unidos license plates and started yelling about a coup.

My father, used to hearing about these reports—after all, Bolivia had something on the order of 13 different constitutions and a raft of military takeovers since its independence—asked the boy the name of the new president.

“Ford,” the kid said.

“That’s a funny name for a Bolivian president,” my father answered back, having been totally incommunicado for the week.

“Not our president!” the kid crowed. “Your president!”

This was how much of the world viewed the irregular changeover of the U.S. presidency back then, and it says something about how we are viewed now, as well as how we view ourselves and our own government. For the past week political junkies have discussed the actions and the legacy of W. Mark Felt, the former No. 2 man at the FBI now known to be Bob Woodward’s legendary Watergate source Deep Throat.

Among many of the liberal persuasion, Felt is seen as a somewhat soiled hero, whose actions and guidance of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped get a criminal out of office. Richard Nixon was a man who would use all the machinery of government to crush his enemies, exploiting claims toward national security and appeals to patriotism to spy, burgle, blackmail, bribe, and coerce to get what he wanted, the Constitution be damned. The presidency, despite the views of the Nixonian loyalists, is not a branch of government above and apart from the legislative and judicial branches, but a coequal one, and this is something many conservatives of that era, and this one, fail to see.

This past week Watergate criminal Chuck Colson claimed, self-servingly, that Felt was no hero. True to form, Colson’s first allegiance is not to the nation, but to his president: “When any president has to worry whether the deputy director of the FBI is sneaking around in dark corridors peddling information in the middle of the night, he’s in trouble,” Colson said. And Nixon loyalist Pat Buchanan even went so far as to call Felt a “traitor,” a word we’ve heard bandied about a lot in the last few years.

Many on the Right are already attempting to spin established history, despite the thousands of hours of tapes recorded by Nixon confirming what an odious creature he became in the White House. Ronald Reagan speechwriter and loyalist Peggy Noonan tried not only to whitewash Nixon’s crimes but also rehabilitate Colson’s reputation in her June 2 Wall Street Journal column. And in the bargain, she tried to lay one of the era’s great tragedies at Felt’s doorstep.

“What Mr. Felt helped produce was a weakened president who was a serious president at a serious time,” Noonan writes. “Nixon’s ruin led to a cascade of catastrophic events—the crude and humiliating abandonment of Vietnam and the Vietnamese, the rise of a monster named Pol Pot, and millions—millions—killed in his genocide.”

This is breathtaking in its audacity, but to be expected from the royalist right, who pledge their allegiance solely to the presidency—and only so far as it is held by their party. Nixon had his G. Gordon Liddy and his Chuck Colson, Reagan his Ollie North, Elliott Abrams, and John Poindexter—all faithful soldiers who think they are serving their country solely by serving their master. “IOKIYAR,” as the taunt goes on liberal blogs: It’s OK if You Are a Republican.

And now history’s long knives are out for a 91-year-old man who did the right thing for the wrong reason—after once doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason. Even the Right is now taking pains to point out that Felt used to spy and break into the homes of political dissidents in the early ’70s, the same way they like to bring up how Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was a Klansman in his youth. And the reasoning given by Felt for his actions in the FBI campaign against the Weather Underground—for which he was convicted of a felony—rings too familiar: that it was important for “national security.”

In a chat on Washingtonpost.com last week, the paper’s former executive editor Ben Bradlee’s bullshit detector was pitch-perfect when it came to this defense: “It is my experience that most claims of national security are part of a campaign to avoid telling the truth. Remember that Nixon’s first comment about Watergate claimed that he was going to be unable to answer questions about Watergate because Watergate involved ‘matters of national security.’”

Once again, we are led by an imperial executive branch cloaked in secrecy, surrounded by a cadre of loyalists beholden only to the executive, citing claims of “national security” as justification for their actions. If only we had a few more soiled heroes now.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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