Nostalgia for the past is a time-honoured conservative virtue. By putting a check on unbridled, progress-happy optimism about the present and future, it introduces a note of sobriety to our habitually punch-drunk discourse.
However, hindsight has to bear some relation to known facts, the more the better. Glorifying the past for no good reason, and especially supporting that exercise with ignorant or mendacious statements, turns nostalgia into the sort of thing little boys are told not to do for fear of going blind.
Yesterday’s article by Peter Hitchens serves a useful reminder of this medical fact. Displaying his usual propensity for self-aggrandisement, Hitchens portrays “most journalists of my generation” and especially himself as heroic paladins storming the bastions of the government with selfless abandon.
This stands in sharp contrast to the present situation, when “more and more journalists seem happy to be the mouthpieces of government, or of political parties.”
The contrast would be justified only if it satisfied two conditions: showing a) a political bias on the part of today’s hacks and b) the sterling objectivity of the previous generation.
Trying to prove a) is hardly sporting. There’s no glory in rolling the ball into an empty net from a yard out. Yet the second condition is harder to satisfy, especially from the starting point of ignorance.
Thus Hitchens: “…we all remember the great film All The President’s Men for its depiction of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters who exposed the crimes of Richard Nixon after the Watergate break-in.”
Hence Bob, Carl and other American journalists of their generation had the courage of tossing bricks through the windows of the state, at the risk of winning the Pulitzer Prize and earning millions. Those chaps had no ideological agendas and merely pursued objective truth for its own sake.
If Hitchens actually believes that, rather than indulging in his frequent practice of cutting facts to the stencil of his own prejudices, then he really knows nothing about American journalism of that period.
To support his romantic hindsight, he’d have to show that US journalists, especially those working for such ideological flagships of the liberal establishment as The Washington Post and The New York Times, displayed the same selfless vigilance regardless of who, or which party, was in power.
If, on the other hand, they could be shown to have been Rottweilers only towards conservative politicians and lapdogs toward liberal ones, then they’d be no better than today’s hacks. Hitchens would have to hold on to his rosy spectacles with both hands to make sure they don’t fall off his nose.
Alas, the predominantly liberal US press, including Woodward’s and Bernstein’s Washington Post, didn’t display the same commitment to truthful investigative journalism when the Kennedy brothers ruled the roost.
In fact, the Kennedys routinely committed misdemeanours compared to which Nixon’s were child’s play. Let me emphasise that I’m speaking comparatively here. For Nixon was indeed aware of the Watergate break-in and he did have a hand in covering it up. Thus he deserved everything that came his way courtesy of the Pulitzer laureates-to-be.
That’s the position taken by Victor Lasky in his 1977 book It Didn’t Start With Watergate. However, he also documents countless incidents of the press letting the Kennedys get away with murder (in Teddy’s case, possibly literally).
Wiretapping political opponents, using government agencies such as the IRS to harass them, conspiring with Mafia bosses, running a herd of hookers through the White House, blackmailing and threatening both politicians and journalists, underwriting smear campaigns – I do recommend Lasky’s book, especially since the evidence he presents is so voluminous that this format precludes even enumerating it.
Moreover, Lasky shows how that Cerberus of verity, the liberal press, was aware of most of those transgressions and yet chose not to disclose them. Kennedy was their darling, whereas Nixon was their bogeyman.
That hatred of Nixon specifically, and not just of his perceived conservatism, didn’t start with Watergate either. It goes back to 1948, when Congressman Richard Nixon interrogated the Soviet spy Alger Hiss on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Nixon nailed Hiss to the wall, kicking off a campaign to drive communists out of the US government, especially the State Department. That campaign is now known as McCarthyism, even though Tailgunner Joe was a senator, while the H in HUAC stood for the House (incidentally, Robert Kennedy was one of the HUAC investigators, but, unlike Nixon, he went on to redeem himself by establishing impeccable liberal credentials).
The same papers that later hounded Nixon with maniacal persistence were in broad sympathy with the communists, whom they saw as left-of-centre liberals rather than stooges to the Soviet secret services they all were at least potentially. Even now, McCarthy’s name is used in the same breath as Hitler’s, and at the time passions ran much hotter.
Hence, as William F. Buckley wrote presciently in his 1962 book The Committee and Its Critics, from 1948 onwards Nixon was a marked man. Every step he took was scrutinised in the press with the kind of diligence that was never applied to liberal politicians and especially the Kennedys.
It wasn’t just voter fraud but also an unashamedly biased campaign in the media that accounted for Nixon’s defeat in the 1960 election. That contributed to Nixon’s understandable insecurity: knowing he was a hunted man, he came across as visibly awkward before TV cameras, whereas Kennedy acted with the insouciant self-confidence of a teachers’ pet.
Later, in 1964, Barry Goldwater suffered the same treatment. Voters were scared into voting for Johnson by a string of caricatures in those supposedly objective papers, showing Goldwater against the background of mushroom clouds.
The thrust of that hysterical campaign was to play cynically on the fear of a nuclear holocaust to follow immediately after Goldwater’s election – and those knights sans peur et sans reproche did their job admirably, as they continue to do its variants nowadays (notably in this year’s election).
I suppose its hard to expect faithfulness to the facts from a Putin poodle, and I’m sorry for indulging in another canine metaphor.
Yes, today’s media are biased. But no, this isn’t a new or even recent phenomenon. The jokey riddle “What’s black and white and red all over?” didn’t start with Watergate either (ANSWER: a newspaper).