Friday, February 1, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 6: The Watergate Syndrome

Picktures and Pieces 6: The Watergate Syndrome
Randall Auxier

Some of you will recognize this picture. It’s famous in some circles. But for those who don’t, please think along with me for a few hundred words. I am reading through a book on virtue by Crispin Sartwell. He wanted to talk about five virtues that are not often discussed: commitment, self-reflection, integrity, connectedness, and what might broadly be called truth as related to leadership.

Part of the reason Sartwell wrote this particular book has to do with the general absence of these virtues in our recent past in American politics. We might think of it as the “Watergate Syndrome.” Being roughly the same age as I am (and the same as Barack Obama), Sartwell grew up in a world in which one of the lessons of our youth was that politicians lie. To folks born later, that may provoke a guffaw and a “duh.” But you do not realize, ’twas not ever so. Oh sure, maybe politicians have always lied, but the generation who raised us, the same generation that fought the Second World War, did not tell us that. They painted a picture in which we (the Americans) were always the good guys, and our leaders, in both parties, were charitable and decent and honest, and our mission in God’s world was justice for all. We believed them, for the formative years at least.

But I suppose the truth will out. After Watergate it was just as hard to know what to believe as it was to give up the mythology we were taught –that is, this must be Nixon’s fault, personally, a failure of his personal . . . well, commitment, self-reflection, integrity, connectedness, and truthfulness. Taken together, these virtues might be called the elements of the moral failure that has given us Watergate Syndrome, which is an inability to believe that our leaders possess any of these virtues. For the next 15 weeks I am going to blog about these elements, about twice a week. Following the pattern of my blog, I will begin each installment with the same picture with which I ended the previous entry. I believe a good picture is worth more than a thousand words, but I’ll stop with a thousand anyway.

Some will that Viet Nam was the real cause of the decline in those five virtues, but I don’t think so. Lyndon Johnson believed that the war Viet Nam was absolutely necessary to our security and to the world’s future. He was wrong, probably, but no one can credibly claim he didn’t believe it. We were not lied to about the reasons for that war. Yes, we were lied to later, by Nixon, about the expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, but that was Nixon. I am one of those who believes the old saw that Nixon did the same thing as everyone else, but he got caught –and actually, when it came to issues that haunted many presidents, such as sexual morality, Nixon seems to have done a bit better than most. The point, however, is that Watergate left us with nowhere to hide, while Viet Nam remains at least slightly debatable.

The effect of Watergate on the Baby Boomers seems to have destroyed the realistic expectation that the public virtues Sartwell specified genuinely could be a ground floor requirement for serving in public office. Looking around in the present for people who exemplify these virtues absolutely forces one to look beyond the holders of public office. Interestingly, if we were to categorize the strategies employed by political attack ads, we really might divide them in to ads attacking commitment, self-reflection, integrity, connectedness, and truthfulness. Almost no one attacks another person’s drinking problem, or sexual fidelity, or intelligence in a sponsored political ad. That sort of grime is left mainly for the rumor mills and low-brow press. No, the politicians themselves know Watergate Syndrome well, but as the Baby Boom ages and begins to disappear, these ads attacking public virtues become ever less effective. I suppose this is because such ads prey upon the expectations of those who once believed that leaders were required to exemplify these virtues.

These virtues are well known to people born after 1965, but not as public virtues. One finds plenty of commitment, and integrity, etc., among these latter generations. But these are now private virtues –one is committed one’s family, one’s friends, perhaps one’s job. There is a sense of calling to serve these things, but it seems not just difficult but impossible to take that kind of virtue into a political career, or even into a career that leads to CEO or CFO of a corporation. Nay, it seems absurd, since the political and corporate arenas are so intent upon knocking over any such pretension to sincerity. A person who feels called to serve others had best stay away from elected offices and corporate ladders, and if he or she does not, well, naïve is too gentle a word to describe the poor fool. We have so configured our society, and our expectations, as to preclude from these public walks of life any features of character apart from the vices of self-serving ambition.

I think something has to be done to change this, and it isn’t a public relations campaign we need. Whatever changes our expectations will not be spoon fed to us by some media outlet, including this one, but I doubt that an effective change can come without our finding a way to influence one another on a wide scale. A part of that process is surely to look at times in the past when collective expectations were different –perhaps not better, but different. Much that we live on a daily basis was unimaginable fifty years ago, but much of what animated the lives of people in the past is difficult for us to imagine as well. We have the advantage that we can know it was real at some time.

Right now, the world in which these virtues were public virtues is still within reach of living memory. This inquiry is not wholly reconstructed from documents. I want to look at these people next. Consider some questions about commitment as you take in the image. The main question is: could this possibly be a picture of a conspiracy? If so, to what end?

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