John ehrlichman 1

Undermining decency, institutions

Nixon aide John D. Erhlichman.

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Chief Domestic Affairs Advisor John D. Erhlichman were known as the “Berlin Wall” around President Nixon. They were two of most powerful people in the United States for the 51 months through April 1973, at which point the Watergate scandal brought them down. They both ultimately went to prison.

Today, after 1,000 days in office, the best Trump can do is in terms of longevity as key aides are Kellyanne Conway (whose husband George Conway reportedly tells friends she’s in a “cult”) and Stephen Miller (who’d be long gone from any normal administration, one with some sort of moral compass; AOC is right to call for his resignation following the revelation that he sent 900 emails in a 15-month period in 2015-16 pressing white-nationalist material on journalists at Breitbart).

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So, it’s left to people like Rep. Jim Jordan to play the Berlin Wall role for Trump. It’s not quite how it worked before back in the 1970s. But never mind. Already, sides are taken up — in which Democrats and Republicans act as prosecutors and defense lawyers in the impeachment drama in Washington.

On last Friday, Jordan suggested to former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch what she believes was an underhanded scheme to oust her didn’t work out very well given that the Democrats’ star witness on last Wednesday, Bill Taylor, replaced her in Kiev. No? Actually, it worked out well enough for people who wanted her out of the way; for just as there was the famous 18-and-a-half-minute gap in the Nixon tapes, there was a four-week delay between her departure and Taylor temporarily taking up the post he had previously held. And these were the first four weeks of the reign of the inexperienced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had previously been an actor, comedian and writer.

Jordan is apparently happy to play this role for the Trumpified GOP and a cruel, corrupt and incompetent president. He’s not trying to get to the bottom of things on behalf of the people; he’s attempting to deceive and confuse those watching on Fox News.

The idea for a conservative TV network has its roots back in the Watergate era. Haldeman discussed the idea with Nixon media advisor Roger Ailes. Eventually, in the 1990s, a couple of years after the passing of the former president and his ex-chief of staff, Ailes launched Fox.

Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

Nixon, a brilliant communicator, always felt that journalists had a liberal bias and were working against him. The media landscape was dominated by the networks – NBC, CBS and ABC – weekly magazines like Time and Newsweek, as well as Life, major newspapers such as the New York Times, scores of dailies in the big cities, hundreds of dailies in smaller cities and towns, and agencies like the Associated Press. The last-named is a not-for-profit agency, but all of the rest had a capitalist ethos, and many were owned by Republicans. Still as America went through societal change, some GOP operatives felt, following Nixon and others’ lead, that the media’s value system came to adhere too closely to liberalism.

And that has brought us to this point, where Fox News represents reality for many and the rest are “mainstream media,” aka “lamestream media” or “fake news.”

Some have reasonably speculated that if Richard Nixon had that type of factor working directly on his behalf, he might have survived to serve out two full terms as president.

The Watergate scandal was touched off by the “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic Party office of a son of Irish immigrants, Larry O’Brien, in June 1972, and ended with the resignation of the president just slightly over two years later. One factor dragging out the whole affair was that lawmakers kept an eye on the Republican voting base, about half of which stayed loyal. They had to balance that with the national mood (as seen in part through the lens of the national media), and notions of doing the right thing. Some were clearly worried about how history would judge them.

Ambassador Bill Taylor.

These days, the machine of disinformation led by Fox, which has evolved into a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, keeps many GOP politicians in line. They can easily remember what happened to Rep. Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader and one of the nation’s most senior conservative politicians until he suggested that perhaps there was a path to citizenship for the undocumented. At that juncture, Laura Ingraham promoted Dave Brat into a new conservative star; he defeated Cantor in a primary and won the seat in the general election.

We saw the Ingraham effect at its most demented and twisted after Friday’s testimony by Ambassador Yovanovitch, in which she spoke of the smear campaign waged against her (greatly amplified by certain conservative pundits). The 33-year career diplomat, who served in unglamorous posts such as Somalia, outlined who “we are,” i.e. the foreign service working for America on the front lines. On that roll of honor were those, for instance, who endured the 444-day Iran hostage crisis, which began 40 years ago this month, and the men who died in Benghazi in 2012.

One of the four victims was Sean Smith, whose confused and visibly upset mother, Patricia Smith, was rolled out by Ingraham. She wanted to know why her son’s name was being “used” by Yovanovitch, why Benghazi was being dragged into this? The implication was clear for loyal viewers: the ambassador isn’t the accomplished and patriotic civil servant the rest of us see; rather she’s just another hack out to get Trump. Maybe she even knows Hillary Clinton personally?

This sort of extreme partisanship, alas, has undermined our shared institutions and, increasingly, our basic notions of decency.

“The complicity of the Republicans is depressing,” said the 88-year-old Dan Rather last week.

Rather has seen quite a bit of our past working for “mainstream media” or “fake news.” He was in Dallas in his native state on Nov. 22, 1963 and has reported on all of the national traumas and triumphs since.

The veteran newsman said about the current impeachment proceedings: “Fundamentally it’s about our history as a country and destiny as a country, because history is watching and is going to be a very tough chronicler of these events and the people involved in the events of today.”

This was published in the Nov. 20, 2019, issue of the Irish Echo.