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The Empire Corrupted: From Nixon to North

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

I came to the United States in, June of 1972, the month Nixon’s burglars broke into the Watergate, and I am writing these lines fifteen years later while Colonel North lectures Congress about the role of executive power in the Iran-Contra scandal. Looking at North’s cocksure, edgy ingratiating profile I am reminded of his avatar: the ‘can do’ guy in Nixon’s White House, Gordon Liddy. The contrast is a good measure of the political and social distance the country has traveled between the two scandals.

Liddy, endlessly testing his ‘will’ and firing himself up with Nietzschean vitamins, had the beleaguered paranoia of a sworn foe of the sixties counter-culture. Bad fellow though Liddy was, there was always an element of Inspector Clouseau about him. He held his hand over a candle to prove his fortitude against pain, and when the time came, he stood by the can do’ guys code of omerta and served his time in Danbury federal penitentiary without a whimper.

Back in the Watergate hearings you could look at the burglars, at their sponsors in the White House, at Nixon himself and see that despite noises of defiance and protestations of innocence they knew they had been caught on the wrong side of the law and, though they would do their utmost to keep clear of the slammer, it would not come as a shock to them if the slammer was where they finally ended up.

North is as true a memento of the Reagan era as Liddy was of that earlier time. North has Reagan’s own capacity for the vibrant lie, uttered with such conviction that it is evident how formidable psychic mechanisms of self-validation, in the very instant of the lie’s utterance, convince the liar – Reagan, North – that what he is saying is true. But if Liddy embodied the spirit of fascism at the level of grand guignol, North has the aroma of the real thing, eighties all-American style: absolute moral assurance that his lawlessness was lawful; that though he was there to ‘get things done’, he was following orders; that all impediments in his path, legal or moral, were, obstructions erected by a hostile conspiracy.

North proclaimed that he had been ready to take the fall, just as Liddy had been ready fifteen years before. But North, unlike Liddy, lost his taste for martyrdom as soon as he saw it might involve criminal indictment, and forthrightly confessed as much to Congress. Arrogant to the largely deferential senators and representatives on the Congressional committee, North and his associates entertained thoughts of the slammer only in the outrage they genuinely felt at the thought that anyone might think the slammer an appropriate place for them to be. Liddy bore marks of a losing fight with the counter-culture. North had the jaunty physical and spiritual mien of a man to whom the culture had, for the preceding decade, been a friend.

Alex in the garden. Photo by: Deryle Perryman.

The texture of the political and journalistic culture and how that culture has changed between the two scandals is one of the prime themes in this collection which, so far as America is concerned, takes as its point of departure the intimations of the Reagan era in the mid-1970s. Here was a moment rich in opportunity for a journalist to get everything wrong. A president had been driven from office and the mainstream press was preening itself on its resourceful vigilance and investigative powers. The covert activities of the CIA were under congressional scrutiny. Liberals and even radicals in the United States could gesture towards avenues of social progress beckoning the incoming Carter administration.

This, after all, was a period when a bill to break up the oil companies was only narrowly defeated in the US Senate, when it seemed that legislation guaranteeing full employment would pass, along with laws making the Federal Reserve accountable to Congress, introducing progressive tax reform and a national health service and ratifying arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. It took about a year to scuttle these notions and by 1979 the spirit of liberal reform was dead in mainstream American politics. The mainstream press was Reagan’s election agent and held true to that supportive role until over-extended lines of communication caused Reaganism, expressed in this instance as constitutional and bureaucratic coup d’etat, to falter in November 1986.

This role of the press in articulating and hence validating the concepts and imagery of the Reagan era is the story of the second part of this book – an informal archive of those years. In the section called ‘Terms of the Trade’ I deal in more discursive essays with the operating assumptions of the journalism business, the psychopathology of its practitioners and such totemic fixtures as the pundit, the foreign correspondent and the search for ‘balance’.

Reaganism is shorthand for a particular culture of consumption, a reverie of militarism, of violence redeemed; of a manic, corrupted and malevolent idealism. The priorities of this culture at the directly political level have been simple enough: the transfer of income from poor to rich, the expansion of war production and an ‘activist’ foreign policy, traditional in many ways but as Noam Chomsky has said, ‘at an extreme end of the spectrum intervention, subversion, aggression, international terrorism and general gangsterism and lawlessness, the essential content of the “Reagan doctrine”‘. Beneath the political, at the level of everyday life, there have been the trends and shifts that every journalist or historian tries to identify; the section called ‘Tastes of the Times’ contains work addressing itself to this theme.

I arrived in America in 1972, having spent the preceding 30 years of my life amid the relics of an empire corrupted far beyond the reach of the popular indignation that discomfited Nixon and then Reagan. I came from a family whose earliest connection with America had been the brusque torching of the White House and Capitol by Admiral Sir George Cockburn in the War of 1812, and I spent some of my earliest years in a house’, Myrtle Grove in Youghal, shadowed by souvenirs of the birth of that earlier empire and its engendering of the later one: four Irish yews under which by tradition, Sir Walter Raleigh had sat and smoked his first pipe of the tobacco he brought back from Virginia. — 1987.

This is adapted from the introduction to Corruptions of Empire.

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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