The Bush Administration Drives Rahm Emanuel Shrill!
Leila Fadel of McClatchy Is a Real Journalist

Jim Fallows Says Mike Gerson Should Imitate William Safire. I'm Not so Sure

Fallows writes:

James Fallows(August 15, 2007) - Michael Gerson, columnist: How could he solve both problems at once? With a column or article that honestly examined the tension between the goals he espouses now and those he worked for over the last eight years. Not hand-wringing. Not tale-telling. But an application of his considerable intelligence and character to say: how could a government have done things I now consider dangerous? Where were we right, but also where were we wrong? Here's proof that it can be done: the book that earned another former speechwriter (and advertising man) his legitimacy, William Safire's excellent analysis of Nixon, Before the Fall.

I have a somewhat different view of Safire and Before the Fall. As a piece of rhetoric, it is magnificent. It almost turned me into a Republican. Its thesis, you see, is that Nixon's fall was the fault of the hippies: if they--and their allies in the press--hadn't broken the bounds of political decency and honor and procedure, Nixon would not have concluded that the republic was in danger, overreacted, and so started on the road to Watergate:

Here's an extended passage from Before the Fall:

...The motorcade rolled into San Jose with the advance car of photographers shooting back at the President's limousine.... I was in the next to last bus, and could hardly believe what I saw.

Obscene signs were nothing new, and the chant of "One, two, three, four, we don't want your fuckin' war" had long since lost its shock value; demonstrators had plagued both parties since the late 1960s.... Ordinarily, they worked their disruptive schtick in groups of 20 or 30, popping up in an otherwise friendly crowd, but that night in San Jose was different.

Slowing down as we approached the civic auditorium, we were teated to the screams, howls, and roars of the representatives of the outer fringes of the counterculture. A screamer would look in our windows, lock onto one person's gaze, yell an oath, and make a gesture with arm or middle finger. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, faces contorted, worked up into a froth of hatred, doing everything a body can do with voice and gesture to express loathing and disgust. This was a lynch mob, no cause or ideology involved, only an orgy of generalized hate....

Their plan was to throw only epithets on our way in; a more serious onslaught was reserved for later. Inside the hall, five thousand tense and worried supporters made up the auditorium "rally"; Senator George Murphy and Governor Ronald Reagan spoke to warm them up, but even before the President came on, the sound of a battering ram was heard. The hall was actually, not figuratively, besieged; the demonstrators outside envisioned it as a drum to beat upon; the staff, after a few nervous self-assurances that this kind of thing only helped our cause, began to worry about getting out safely with the President. The people in that hall, ourselves included, were at once defiant and fearful, a state which is at the least a tribute to the success of the mob's attempted intimidation. The Secret Servicemen, who always had seemed too numerous and too officious before, now seemed to us like a too-small band of too-mortal men.

Let the President [Nixon] describe the scene, from the reading copy of the speech he gave on the subject a few days later....

Thursday night in San Jose, I spoke to a crowd of 5,000 fine Americans. They were exercising their right to assemble peaceably, to listen to political speakers, to weigh the issues in the campaign of 1970.

Outside the hall, a mob of about a thousand haters gathered. We could see the hate in their faces as we drove into the hall, and in the obscene signs they waved. We could hear the hate in their voices as they chanted their obscenities. Inside the hall, we could hear them pounding on the doors as if they could not bear the thought of people listening respectfully to the Governor of the State of California, the Senior Senator from California, and the President of the United States.

Along the campaign trail we have seen and heard demonstrators. But never before in this campaign was there such an atmosphere of hatred. As we came out of the hall and entered the motorcade, the haters surged past the barricades and began throwing rocks. Not small stones--large rocks, heavy enough to smash windows. And not just directed at me, though some hit the Presidential car--most of the rocks hit the buses carrying the Press and my staff, as well as the police vehicles....

Some say that the violent dissent is caused by the war in Vietnam. It is about time we branded this line of thinking--this alibi for violence, for what it is--pure nonsense. There is no greater hypocrisy than a man carrying a banner that says "peace" in one hand while hurling a rock or a bomb with the other hand....

The San Jose police had driven the demonstrators away from the doors of the auditorium and out of the official parking place. The motorcade was parked in a circle, much like that of a wagon train under siege, with the inside of the circle secured by motorcycle cavalry and the outside left to the savages.... The President came out and did his usual thing--climbed atop the car and wiggled the V sign to his cheering supporters and the cameras behind them.

The Nixon people ringing the car... were not the only ones who hollered at his signal. A reaction of fury and spleen was heard from outside the ring of buses in the parking lot. One reporter, Martin Schram of Newsday, said he heard the candidate "in a low, angry voice to a nearby confidant" say, "That's what they hate to see." This murmured remark, overheard by one reporter and by no other reporter or aide there at the time, amid shouts and jeering and cheering, became the basis of a point of view of many of those covering the event: that the President taunted the demonstrators into violence. The reponsibility for the attack, under this theory, was not so much the antiwar militants', but that of the President, who led them into rock-throwing in order to cast himself in a sympathetic role, and to focus public anger on the youthful dissidents.

The motorcade moved out of the parking lot and ran a guantlet of cursing demonstrators. As Time reported: "The eggs began to fly even before the motorcade moved out... Dozens of rocks were thrown, some the size of a potato. They bounced off the President's well-armored car, and they smashed windows in the press and staff buses tailing behind..." I was in the staff bus with Rose Woods, the President's secretary, when the rocks began to hit the steel sides. She said, "Just like Caracas"--she had previous experience along these lines when Nixon, then Vice President, was stoned in Venezuela--and she hit the deck in the aisle, shouting to the rest of us to do the same. I, like a jerk, kept looking out the window. When a rock slammed into the window on the opposite side of the bus, I was showered with glass splinters, but with my face turned away, I was unhurt and hastened to join my colleagues on the floor. In a minute, it was over and the buses were roaring toward the airport...

Notice Safire's claim that "...this murmured remark, overheard by one reporter and by no other reporter or aide there at the time, amid shouts and jeering and cheering, became the basis of a point of view of many of those covering the event: that the President taunted the demonstrators into violence..."? Well, the reporter was right. Here's Nixon's chief H.R. Haldeman, from his diary:

Thursday, October 29, 1970: The rough one [campaign trip]--Chicago, Rockford, Rochester, Omaha, and San Jose, with an added speech at his [President Nixon's] initiative in Chicago for the Junior League at breakfast.

San Jose turned into the real blockbuster. Very tough demonstrators shouting "1-2-3-4-etc." on the way into auditorium. Tried to storm the doors after we were in, and then really hit the motorcade on the way out. We wanted some confrontation and there were no hecklers in the hall, so we stalled departure a little so they could zero in outside, and they sure did. Before getting in car, P[resident Nixon] stood up and gave the V signs, which made them mad. They threw rocks, flags, candles, etc. as we drove out, after a terrifying flying wedge of cops opened up the road. Rock hit my car, driver hit brakes, car stalled, car behind hit us, rather scary as rocks were flying, etc., but we caught up and all got out. Bus windows smashed, etc. Made a huge incident and we worked hard to crank it up, should make really major story and might be effective.

After arrival in San Clemente, P[resident Nixon] went home, then kept calling with ideas about how to push the line...

"We wanted some confrontation and there were no hecklers in the hall, so we stalled departure.... Made a huge incident and we worked hard to crak it up, should make really major story..."

Am I supposed to believe that Safire really as out-of-the-loop as he appears? Was he really feeling "defiant and fearful... the success of the mob's attempted intimidation. The Secret Servicemen... seemed to us... a too-small band of too-mortal men," or was that part of the "cranking it up"? I understand that Safire made his bones as a thoughtful commentator with Before the Fall. But I don't know whether Before the Fall was on the level; I suspect not.