It Didn't Start with Watergate, by Victor Lasky, New York: Dial Press, 1977, 416 pp., $10
In 1963, Victor Lasky intruded upon the waning idylls of the Kennedy Administration with his caustic bestseller, JFK: The Man and the Myth. Now Lasky is back with another blockbuster.
If its tone weren't a bit too apologetic for Republican misdeeds, It Didn't Start with Watergate would be more palatable and, indeed, more credible. Even so, it makes revealing, intriguing and—for those who retched at the craven hypocrisy of the Nixon witch-hunt days—very satisfying reading.
Much of what Lasky has to say in his unabashedly strident fashion will be familiar to most. He strives to construct from many sources a single, encyclopedic account of all the political deceit, corruption, and skullduggery of the last 40 years. It is this, and not any claim to reportorial originality, that is the book's main virtue.
The more one reads, the more one comes to the author's conclusion that the sins of Nixon were greatly overshadowed by those of his predecessors. There is no lack of examples. For instance, Lasky tells of how Kennedy used the Internal Revenue Service against Nixon and his campaign manager, Robert Finch, after his 1960 election victory. More vicious was the Kennedy use of the Federal Communications Commission, as well as the IRS, to silence right-wing organizations and spokesmen in preparation for the 1964 election—all in a surreptitious manner that would have made latter-day "plumbers" and money launderers proud. "The irony," Lasky writes, "is that the IRS witch-hunt, particularly as it was concentrated against right-wing dissenters, was applauded by the very same people who later were to raise unshirted hell when the Nixon administration sought to use the same techniques to 'contain'…the Black Panthers, the Weathermen and other violence prone New Left groups."
And Kennedy did not limit himself to abusing only right-wing radio commentators. Anyone who dared criticize Camelot found himself on the White House "enemies list" of that day. Even Washington Post Editor and sometime-Kennedy confidant Benjamin Bradlee was wiretapped, according to Lasky, who was himself a victim of Kennedy harassment.
For cover-ups it is hard to beat the Johnson-era whitewashing of the Bobby Baker scandal, when some of the same Democrats who later sat on the Senate Watergate Committee blocked attempts to make Johnson aide Walter Jenkins testify.
Campaign espionage? How about "Landslide Lyndon's" electronic surveillance of Barry Goldwater in 1964? Of course, Johnson didn't limit himself to spying on his Republican opponents, having earlier used the FBI against Democratic rivals.
Then there were even more unsavory FBI exploits against Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, under the specific direction and approval of "liberal" saints like Attorneys General Robert Kennedy, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Ramsay Clark.
Right up until the break of the Watergate scandal, the bitterest critics of Republican mischief engaged in equally culpable activity. While denouncing the school-boy antics of Donald Segretti, George McGovern was using legendary dirty trickster Dick Tuck to undermine the hopes of his intraparty foes. And where was illicit campaign financing more rife than in the milk-fund largesse of big-name Democrats?
The list goes on and on, but alas, Lasky grows more and more partisan. And when he attempts to show that Nixon was innocent of real involvement and was merely betrayed by subordinates, he falters. When he goes so far as to defend the Huston Plan for the use of mail covers, electronic surveillance, and illegal break-ins against "the left," then the book degenerates into pure right-wing dogma at its worst, which puts the author in the same class as many of the White House lackeys he claims to disdain. Nevertheless, surely one pro-Nixon book can be tolerated among the raft of less-than-honest diatribes that has glutted the market in the aftermath of Watergate.
Moreover, despite its shortcomings, the Lasky book is more than mere sour grapes offered up by a vengeful Republican of the right. In fact, it can be read as a relevant commentary on contemporary events. For after Nixon was driven from office, after all the putrefying gore of governmental abuse of power had been unearthed, too many people naively relaxed and gave in to the hope that, as Gerald Ford put it, "our long national nightmare is over."
What this particular Watergate account does, at its best, is to use historical perspective to show that for some time—since it abandoned the Constitution and adopted imperial hubris—America has been living in one continual nightmare. Even today, so soon after the devil had supposedly been exorcised from Washington, that nightmare continues:
• The old atmosphere of fawning, uncritical acceptance, which fostered so much presidential hoodwinking of the public in the past—has returned to White House press conferences.
• Congress engages in wrist slapping against Budget Director Bert Lance, whose flagrant financial misdealings should have disqualified him immediately from his crucial position of public trust. And it has been revealed that the Comptroller of the Currency knew about Lance's underhanded use of correspondent bank connections but curtailed its investigation after Jimmy Carter was elected.
• The Korean influence scandal "investigation"—dominated by the same Democrats who sanctioned the bribes-taking for years—meanders lethargically with scarcely a hint of the hue and cry that greeted GOP transgressions.
• And the trampling of civil liberties proceeds in earnest, the latest example being the massive raids (since declared unconstitutional in part) on the Church of Scientology. The raids were done openly and publicly, but that doesn't make them any less scary. In fact, former Washington ACLU Director Charles Morgan recently told a group of libertarians in the nation's capital that, "post-Watergate morality" or not, "people who stand against the government—left or right—can expect the government to fight back." Because of its libertarian stands, particularly on the international intelligence agency Interpol, Morgan said that "there are people in the IRS and FBI who would like nothing better than to get the Church of Scientology."
By documenting all the disgusting debauchery of authority emanating from Washington over the past 40 years, Lasky should have laid to rest the notion that Watergate was some kind of isolated, freak incident attributable to the vague, vicious personality of one man. While probably not intending to do so, Lasky shows that corruption, assaults on personal liberties, political sabotage, and so on are constant, inevitable phenomena in a society that is proceeding down the road to government omnipotence. The activities described in It Didn't Start with Watergate are nothing more than the acting out of Garret Garet's thesis in The People's Pottage. Writing some 30 years ago, Garet feared that, having sold out their own heritage of freedom and independence for the beguiling security and largesse of the "warfare-welfare state," Americans would soon have to pay the price of this Faustian bargain in terms of ubiquitous governmental dishonesty.
Lasky leaves us little hope. Indeed, he implies that the American people have not seen the last, that Nixon will prove to have been one of our milder "nightmares." And Nixon, as Lasky points out, faced a hostile Congress, press, and international establishment. Which leaves us with the haunting question: What havoc might future, more popular presidents—unshackled by journalistic or legislative vigilance—wreak upon an unsuspecting public?
Mr. Beckner has a background in history and economics and is the editor of Deaknews, a financial newsletter.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "It Didn’t Start with Watergate".