When reading last week’s “How the Deep State Took Down Nixon” in Compact, a new self-identified “radical” post-liberal journal, Oliver Stone came to mind.
In Stone’s 1995 “Nixon” biopic, Anthony Hopkins as Nixon realizes he’s not really the most powerful man in the country but is instead beholden to the “beast.” At one point Nixon is driven down a long dusty Texas rural driveway to meet who is apparently really in charge, an oil billionaire named Jack Jones and played by Larry Hagman (better known as “J.R.” in “Dallas”) But the “beast” is more expansive as a conglomeration of big business and intelligence agencies manipulating events for their own power and profit across decades.
In the film, the “beast” is also represented by CIA director Richard Helms, villainously portrayed by Sam Watterson (better known as the indefatigable “Law & Order” prosecutor “Jack McCoy”), who vaguely threatens Nixon with what happened to JFK, i.e., assassination. The “beast” won’t tolerate Nixon’s peacemaking because it profits from war. “Nixon” is a follow-up to Stone’s 1991 biopic “JFK,” which portrays the “beast” killing JFK for the same reason, his aversion to war.
The Compact article essentially agrees with Oliver Stone that Nixon was taken down by the “national security state.” Nixon wanted détente with the Soviets, U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, rapprochement with China. The “deep state” wasn’t going to tolerate that. The Watergate break-in was actually set up by the CIA to destroy Nixon. According to the article, the FBI, Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA weren’t “fighting to limit ‘the imperial presidency’” but guarding their own “institutional autonomy” and “interagency consensus.” Nixon challenged and defeated that “consensus,” precipitating his downfall. And now, “mindful of Nixon’s fate, most presidents—but not all—prefer to avoid defying that consensus.”
Such narratives claiming that an ongoing all powerful secret cabal really controls the levers of power are always appealing. They seem to comprehensively explain why so much is wrong. It turns politics into a simple morality play pitting noble outsiders against the sinister “system.” We the people, however we choose to self-identify, are innocent victims to a more powerful elite who cannot be dislodged. “We” deserve so much better. But who will deliver us? We need a political “savior!” Compact editor Sohrab Ahmari tweeted: “Long live Nixon.”
Nixon was not a savior, or even outside the post-WWII consensus, of which he was a chief champion. He was a very talented, intelligent politician who believed in America but also was insecure, paranoid, and conniving. His paranoia, insecurity and obsessions directly fueled his administration’s ridiculous felonies like the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate. He perhaps could have survived the revelation had he not launched an even more absurd cover-up that prolonged the crisis over a grueling two years, domestically and internationally weakening America, guaranteeing the collapse of Southeast Asia, and subjecting the country to the horror of a presidential self-implosion.
The conspiracy theory by Compact asserts or implies the deep state tricked the Nixon Administration into an illegal and bungled burglary, orchestrated the D.C. police arrest of the burglars, and inveigled Nixon and staffers into a prolonged and hapless cover-up attempt accompanied by the president’s personal melt-down, and recorded by the president’s own taping devices, with nearly all his staffers turning state’s witness. The “smoking gun” that doomed Nixon recorded him instructing the CIA to claim responsibility for the Watergate break-in so the FBI would not investigate. It was a ridiculous proposal. Hardly a conspiracy, the Watergate fiasco was tragic clown show.
Despite his supposed vast powers as portrayed by Compact and Oliver Stone, CIA Director Helms was fired by Nixon and sent to Iran as ambassador. Compact also cites J. Edgar Hoover, who of course had already died before the Watergate break-in. Nixon’s appointed successor FBI Acting Director Patrick Gray quickly imploded thanks to his own mishandling of Watergate. Compact faults FBI Deputy Director and Hoover acolyte Mark Felt, later revealed to be the Washington Post’s “Deep Throat” source.
Hoover, Helms and Felt all had long government careers, like Nixon, with equally complex records and motives. That they connived together to destroy a presidency is ridiculous. Hoover, a long-time Nixon friend, was probably the one senior figure, had he lived, who could have counseled Nixon away from the Watergate disaster.
Conspiracy narratives try to synthesize complicated and contradictory motives and actors into a single cohesive purpose, which is rarely plausible. Human nature is such that most people, even at their most devious, are typically responding day by day to events according to their best lights, not plotting intrigues with large numbers of people that require years to unfold.
All persons and institutions are self-interested and self-protective, competing against each other for advantage. Hoover, Felt, Helms and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not opposed to détente with the Soviet Union or negotiations with the North Vietnamese. They jealously guarded their own institutional prerogatives. Nixon even more so guarded his, and obsessed over enemies, real and imagined. He kept secrets and distrusted them, as he distrusted nearly everyone, and they responded in kind. The White House “plumbers” were created to plug leaks in the administration and ended up committing burglaries and plotting other felonies.
Nixon often had nutty ideas, sometimes fueled by drink, like firebombing the Brookings Institution, which his more experienced aides knew to ignore. Less experienced aides sometimes took him seriously. Figures like Hoover and Helms often rightfully protected their agencies from egregious administration politicization or criminal proposals. Hoover, for example, shrewdly blocked the infamous “Huston Plan,” crafted by a very young Nixon staffer, for mass illegal wiretaps and break-ins to combat domestic terrorism.
Interestingly, Nixon seems to have had not much interest in conspiracy claims about Watergate. He refused to meet the authors of Silent Coup, one book Compact sites. Perhaps he was too much of a realist to believe such fantasies, however appealing. Claims of conspiracy are typically escapes from reality. They also feed our own egos and self-righteousness by imagining that our preferences are noble but defeated by undefined vast sinister forces with almost supernatural power. Real life, especially as seen through the prism of Christianity, in which God is sovereign and fallible humans have agency but limited power, is more complicated and interesting.
Human nature can sink to fathomless depravity but thankfully is restricted by divine grace. People with sinister plots may imagine they can orchestrate large events in their favor with precision but are almost always disappointed. The good news is that the wicked, no less than the righteous, are highly fallible.
Claims about a dark “deep state” 50 years ago or now distract from addressing an always more challenging reality. Bureaucracies of all sorts, especially government, are inert, wasteful, self-serving, and resistant to external direction. Yet they also bring some continuity and wider consciousness of public service beyond passing partisan desires. No person or entity, neither a Nixon nor an agency like the FBI, can be completely entrusted with power. They must be balanced against each other.
For Oliver Stone in “Nixon,” and seemingly for Compact, the explanation for the world’s evils lies at the end of a long Texas driveway with a deviously smiling oilman portrayed by Larry Hagman. But in God’s real world, there’s a bit of Larry Hagman in each of us, all the time, trying to completely control, but, thankfully, denied that power. We might recall Nebuchadnezzar’s prayer to the “King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down,” as “among the inhabitants of the earth, no one can restrain his hand.”