Don't Worry, Be Happy
IN RESEARCHING this period, I've been surprised to discover the extent to which Ronald Reagan explicitly built his appeal around the notion that it was time to stop challenging the powerful. A new sort of lie took over: that the villains were not those deceiving the nation, but those exposing the deceit—those, as Reagan put it in his 1980 acceptance speech, who "say that the United States has had its day in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith." They were just so, so negative. According to the argument Reagan consistently made, Watergate revealed nothing essential about American politicians and institutions—the conspirators "were not criminals at heart." In 1975, upon the humiliating fall of Saigon, he paraphrased Pope Pius XII to make the point that Vietnam had in fact been a noble cause: "America has a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into the hands of America, God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind."
The Gipper's inauguration ushered in the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" era of political lying. But it took a deeper trend to accelerate the cultural shift away from truth-telling-as-patriotism to a full-scale epistemological implosion.
Reagan rode into office accompanied by a generation of conservative professional janissaries convinced they were defending civilization against the forces of barbarism. And like many revolutionaries, they possessed an instrumental relationship to the truth: Lies could be necessary and proper, so long as they served the right side of history.
"We ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means," wrote evangelist C. Peter Wagner in 1981. "If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method."
This virulent strain of political utilitarianism was already well apparent by the time the Plumbers were breaking into the Democratic National Committee: "Although I was aware they were illegal," White House staffer Jeb Stuart Magruder told the Watergate investigating committee, "we had become somewhat inured to using some activities that would help us in accomplishing what we thought was a legitimate cause."
Even conservatives who were not allied with the White House had learned to think like Watergate conspirators. To them, the takeaway from the scandal was that Nixon had been willing to bend the rules for the cause. The New Right pioneer M. Stanton Evans once told me, "I didn't like Nixon until Watergate."
Though many in the New Right proclaimed their contempt for Richard Nixon, a number of its key operatives and spokesmen in fact came directly from the Watergate milieu. Two minor Watergate figures, bagman Kenneth Rietz (who ran Fred Thompson's 2008 presidential campaign) and saboteur Roger Stone (last seen promoting a gubernatorial bid by the woman who claimed to have been Eliot Spitzer's madam) were rehabilitated into politics through staff positions in Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign. G. Gordon Liddy became a right-wing radio superstar.
"We ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means," wrote evangelist C. Peter Wagner in 1981. "If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method." Jerry Falwell once said his goal was to destroy the public schools. In 1998, confronted with the quote, he denied making it by claiming he'd had nothing to do with the book in which it appeared. The author of the book was Jerry Falwell.
Direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie made a fortune bombarding grassroots activists with letters shrieking things like "Babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood." As Richard Nixon told his chief of staff on Easter Sunday, 1973, "Remember, you're doing the right thing. That's what I used to think when I killed some innocent children in Hanoi."
CONSERVATIVES hardly have a monopoly on dissembling, of course—consider "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Progressives' response has always been that right-wing mendacity—cover-ups of constitutional violations like Iran-Contra; institutionalized truth-corroding tactics like when the Republican National Committee circulates fliers claiming that Democrats seek to outlaw the Bible—is more systematic. But the deeper problem is a fundamental redefinition of the morality involved: Rather than being celebrated, calling out a lie is now classified as "uncivil." How did that happen?
Back in the days when network news was the only game in town, grave-faced, gravelly voiced commentators like David Brinkley and Eric Sevareid—and on extraordinary occasions anchors like Walter Cronkite—told people what to think about the passing events of the day. Much of the time, these privileged men unquestioningly passed on the government's distortions. At their best, however, they used their moral authority to call out lies with a kind of Old Testament authority—think Cronkite reporting from Saigon. It drove Johnson out of office, and it drove the right berserk.
On November 3, 1969, Richard Nixon gave a speech claiming he had a plan to wind down the war. The commentators went on the air immediately afterward and told the truth as they saw it: that he had said nothing new. Ten days later, the White House announced that Vice President Spiro Agnew was about to give a speech that it expected all three networks to cover—live.