Half Lesson

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BOOKS APRIL 12, 1975

Half Lesson

Watchmen in the Night

by Theodore C. Sorensen

MIT Press; $8.95

"Watergate is like a Rorschach," Aaron Wildavsky observed at a Washington seminar last year. "If you want to know what anyone thinks is wrong with the country, ask him what Watergate has to teach us."

Theodore Sorensen bears out that thesis: it was not that Richard Nixon was too strong a President that led to the Watergate abuses, argues John Kennedy's White House special counsel; on the contrary it was that he was too weak, i.e., "he was not in the mold of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and others."

That he was not. Nor was he in the mold of Millard Fillmore and Calvin Coolidge. But Sorensen has a point to make, and he does it in the way Ben Sonnenberg once described the art of successful public relations: "First, throw your dart. Next, draw a circle around it. That was the target."

Sorensen is not without strategic purpose in this treatise, the outgrowth of lectures given last fall at MIT. He came to political maturity in the school that holds that there has never been anything wrong with the country that a good strong President couldn't set right. The accession of a not-so-good 'President- but one nevertheless capable of using the sinews of his powerful office for ends inimical to the democratic process—has clearly confronted the author and other members of the school for strong presidencies with a doctrinal dilemma.

Sorensen acknowledges that problem, at a personal level, in his preface:

I helped write John Kennedy's speeches on a strong Presidency and helped him forge the legal tools of a stronger Presidency in the mistaken belief that what was good for the Presidency would inevitably be good for the country.

The style is reminiscent: New Frontier, playing off the simplism of Engine Charlie Wilson. Or, again: "Nixon kept saying that the charges against him raised fundamental questions about our whole concept of the Presidency; and in my heart I know he's right." This is vintage Sorensen, of the turning phrase, familiar to all who recall his contribution to those dazzling exercises in presidential persuasion of the early 1960s.

Central to this exercise is Sorensen's laundry list of suggested institutional reforms to make the presidency more "accountable" without diminishing its power. He believes Congress must show more "guts" in carrying out its constitutional role; that the press must remain vigilant (his defense of leaks-in-government is the liveliest section of the book); and that the judiciary must assert itself more vigorously as a check against executive authority.

Yet, too often, the author's stylistic whorls and semantic inversions posed problems for this reviewer—not unlike those I sometimes encountered on reexamining the presidential speeches he helped craft, after their initial dazzle had faded.

"No doubt," Sorensen confesses at one point, "my view of the Nixon Presidency is distorted by bias." He does admit he was "mistaken" in his simplistic faith regarding the absolute virtue of presidential power. Given that fresh insight, a pre-Nixon White House aide of his ability and experience might provide instruction far more valuable than anything a Dean or Magruder could impart at this advanced stage of the public's post-Watergate education.

The Nixon presidency has been anatomized as has no presidency gone before. But if we know the Nixon White House better than any other, what of its predecessors? If a lawyer (as distinguished from a journalist like George Reedy) of Sorensen's unique back ground were now to apply his critical faculties to the subject of presidential power-before-Nixon, what might we learn about the institutional genesis of Watergate?

That question, of course, presupposes recognition of a link between the criminal excesses of Nixon's White House and the growth of presidential power during the previous half-century of war and domestic emergency. It suggests that whatever Nixon's failings as a national leader, he was not a mere aberration but an inevitability; that if there had been no Nixon in 1972, there would have been some future "strong" President to cross the line between bugging a foreign embassy (for "national security" reasons) and bugging his domestic political opposition (for "national security" reasons).

Sorensen, however, remains stylistic but contradictory on this question. In a chapter titled "Was Nixon an Aberrant?" he first tempts the reader:

I cannot deny: based on my own heady atmosphere in the White House, that the same conditions and motivations that led to Watergate could well recur. The dangers it symbolized did not begin and will not end with Richard Nixon.

But after only that brief reference to his "own experience," he again shifts into high imagery:

An overreaction to [Nixon's] singular deeds in the form of drastic institutional or structural alterations [in the presidency] would be equally dangerous. But as ]ohn Dean said in his famous warning to Nixon, there is a 'cancer growing in the White House.' Cancers being hard to curb completely, this one was not wholly terminated in 1974. I now realize I saw traces of it in 1964. Unless we act, it could reach Orwellian proportions by 1984.

Well, then, does the author consider Nixon an aberrant? It would appear from this passage that he does not. Yet, at a later point, Sorensen goes to some lengths to establish that our 37th President was not only an institutional mutant, but even a political accident! (He would never have been elected in 1968, you see, if only. . . .)

Indeed this passage encapsulates both the recurrent theme and pervasive flaw contained in this book. Why, pray tell, "1964''—rather than, say 1962 or 1963, the halcyon years of the author's "own experience" in "that heady atmosphere"? There are two possibilities. First, that Sorensen chose to sacrifice substance for digital symmetry. Second, that despite his profession of "mistake," the author is unable to overcome his bias, not simply as an old Nixon adversary but as a polemicist for the Kennedy presidency and its legacy.

"Emotions (re Watergate) may still run too high to permit a careful and objective evaluation of long standing institutional arrangements," Sorensen says. "But we cannot ignore the problem."

No, we cannot. But neither do we "learn" from Watergate through texts that face up only to that part of the lesson that gives comfort to an author's partisan predispositions.

Victor Gold is a syndicated columnist whose columns appear in many newspapers in this country.

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posted in: books, books and arts, lincoln, washington, theodore c. sorensen mit press, aaron wildavsky, ben sonnenberg, calvin coolidge, john kennedy, millard fillmore, richard nixon, mit, white house

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