11 September 2004

From Watergate to Rathergate: 1972 vs. 2004

I've been asking myself lately how a widely reviled incumbent like Richard Nixon could have won in a landslide of such monumental proportions over a well-known U.S. senator--and a courageous war veteran--like George McGovern in the 1972 U.S. presidential election.

Full disclosure: I reviled Nixon, and I voted for McGovern in 1972. In fact, I've never voted for a Republican presidential candidate unless you count John Anderson's third-party bid in 1980, when I helped collect signatures to put him on the ballot. In 1968, I was too young to vote, but did campaign a bit for Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, I was fresh out of the Army, old enough to vote, and newly arrived in Hawai‘i to finish college. But even staunchly Democratic Hawai‘i went for Nixon that year, as did McGovern's home state of South Dakota.

So, what happened? When I did a web search on "1972 Nixon McGovern" Google's top-ranked page was a synopsis for a political science course at Kennesaw State College, GA, which provides decent fodder for a compare-and-contrast essay. (I've corrected a few minor errors therein.)
1972's election outcome was decided early on in the Democratic primary. The Democrats were trying to oust a sitting president who, although not very popular, was an effective president. What made their task even harder was that the Democrats lost their front runner candidate, Edmund Muskie, early because the media portrayed him as an emotionally unstable person because he appeared to be "crying" while he was denouncing a news paper editorial that attacked his wife. The incident left the Democratic party without a candidate capable of unsetting the President.

Since the outcome of the election was not in doubt, the only thing that was memorable about the 1972 election was the Watergate scandal that started out small and eventually forced the President to resign for the first time in the history of the U.S.A. The Democratic Party was in disarray as they were in the 1968 election. They nominated McGovern who was known as a very left wing liberal and an ineffective campaigner. In addition, the candidate's first choice for a running mate was forced to resign because the media found out that he had received shock therapy. The candidate was forced to look for another Vice President nominee at the time he should have been focusing on getting his message across to the voters. The person he picked for the Vice President was President Kennedy's brother in law, Sergeant Shriver, who had never run for elected office and his only experience in the government was being the first Peace Corps director under the Kennedy administration.
This sounds familiar. The Democratic Party is once again now in disarray, with weak leadership unable to decide whether it's a war party, a peace party, or a party of irrelevant anachronism.

The role of the major media in the 2004 election, however, seems almost exactly the opposite of what it was back in 1972.
The press constantly criticized the Democratic candidate for everything from his stand on the issues to his strategy. President Nixon's campaign was portrayed as an efficient and superior model of how to run a successful campaign. The press took the Nixon campaign portrayal of the McGovern policies as out of the main stream and ran with it without investigating it and finding out for themselves. The McGovern campaign was no match for the Nixon campaign organization and their constant distortion of his ideas to the media. The media took as a fact most of the distortion without trying to ascertain the fact....

The media hated Nixon until he became President.... Once he became President, he mostly eliminated the reporters he did not like by not granting privileges to the White House and by not granting access to the administration officials. The action forced the media to be exceedingly fair to the Nixon administration until the Watergate scandal erupted. Many reporters did not want to report negative stories about the administration because they feared losing sources and access to the White House. The media also did not like the Democratic candidate and many newspapers endorsed President Nixon. That is one reason why many newspapers, except the Washington Post, did not bother to dig deep when the Watergate scandal broke out....

With the help of the media, Nixon won a second term in one of the biggest landslide elections in the U.S. history.
Despite the various scandals their respective enemies attempted to uncover or create, however, Nixon was re-elected, Clinton was re-elected, and G.W. Bush is likely to be re-elected. A party that relies on scandal to win elections is intellectually bankrupt, especially when it has to dig down 30 years to find them. I heartily agree with the following conclusion of the synopsis cited above.
The lasting legacy of the Watergate scandal is that the media now thinks every mistake a President makes is another Watergate that needs to be investigated and reported as a scandal without any evidence. Not only do reporters portray small mistakes as a scandal, they also go out of their way to investigate and dig for "dirt" to see if the person is clean and worthy of being a President. The unintended cost of the media's obsession with scandal and investigation is that it turns people off from seeking elected office because they do not want their privacy to be violated. It also makes it harder for the candidates to convey their messages to the voters because what the media reports give priority to the scandal, not for the candidate's ideas.
The saddest omission from this political science synopsis of the 1972 presidential race is the failure to mention any of the real issues of the day. The sole focus is on who controls the discourse, as if the voters are mere "sheeple" who would be lost without the press to let them know what they should think. Well, those days are long over, if they ever existed. And ever since this very date three years ago, the major parties and the major media have both been rapidly losing what control they once had over public discourse.

Speaking for myself, I've been subjecting my whole epistemology to a deliberate but thorough reassessment over the past three years, and have severely downgraded the reliability of most of my traditional sources. Fortunately there is a greater variety of sources available now than ever before.

As far as I'm concerned, the partisan hacks of both major parties have now thoroughly disgraced themselves. Throughout the Clinton presidency, the Republicans discredited themselves by focusing too much of their energy on obstructionism and scandal-mongering. During the current Bush presidency, the Democrats have discredited themselves by doing precisely the same.

All the while, for the duration of both administrations, the major media have disgraced themselves twice over, by devoting far, far more coverage to anti-incumbent scandal-mongering than to constructive analysis of issues. And now, as Dan Rather just demonstrated on 60 Minutes II, they've gone beyond looking for and vetting incriminating evidence. Now they're accepting whatever meets their agenda, regardless of its merits; and dismissing whatever doesn't, again regardless of its merits.

I served as a company clerk in the Army in 1970-71, producing official documents on a sturdy old manual typewriter with a Courier typeface. Every document I produced had to conform to a uniform template. Never did I see any officer type his own document. In fact, one of my company commanders was taking extension classes at a local college and he had me type his papers for him. In graduate school during the mid 1970s, I did most of my work on an IBM Selectric, using mostly the Prestige Elite and Letter Gothic type balls, which were standard in many military and civilian offices in those days. In 1979, I used the clunky IBM Composer in a publications office to produce justified text in a proportional typeface that was a relatively crude (and unkerned) version of Times.

I have enough experience in typefaces to be able to distinguish easily among a manual typewriter's Courier, an IBM Selectric's Prestige Elite, an IBM Composer's crude Times, and MS Word's Times New Roman typefaces. The last was used in the CBS forgeries, which don't even pass the laugh test to anyone who knows much at all about both military documents from the Vietnam era and the evolution of typefaces on standard office equipment over the past three decades. 60 Minutes apparently doesn't even have that level of talent in their research department.

Fortunately, a huge army of bloggers of all ages has reported for duty over the past three years, while the smug patricians in the media have either slacked off or gone AWOL. The bloggers are much more evenly divided along partisan lines than the major media, and there seems to be more indirect cross-dialog in the blogosphere, thanks to a small cadre of fair-minded partisans and a few resolute centrists.

Blogger networks provide a level of distributed intelligence that no newsroom can match. Perhaps the most comprehensive round-up of the many blogger contributions to Rathergate can be found at Hugh Hewitt and Powerline. The latter has also added a dismal (and somewhat over the top) postmortem on the willingness of mainstream "news" organizations to trade their most valuable asset, credibility, for political goals.

Although the major media continue to be far more influential than bloggers, parts of the blogosphere are gaining credibility while some major news media are throwing theirs away. Moreover, many bloggers on the right feel that Rathergate is the 2004 equivalent of the old media's Watergate in 1972, even though the former are in this case defending the White House, rather than attacking it. And their enemy of the moment, Dan Rather, is responding much the way the Richard Nixon did. Third-rate forgeries, compounded by stonewalling and cover-up, are destroying his pretense of professional detachment. Other media bigwigs, like the Boston Globe, are responding similarly. Watergate may have marked the zenith of the press as honest broker. Rathergate marks the nadir of a long decline.

This has of course led to a certain degree of overwrought blogger triumphalism on the right. Some bloggers had already begun to compare blogging to the Protestant Reformation, during which the printing press helped a broader audience bypass the religious monopoly of a corrupt priestly class. Belmont Club, who reads the media the way Kremlinologists used to read the Soviet press, calls Rathergate the Shot Heard Round the World, and quotes a bit of King Henry V's rousing St. Crispin's Day speech at the battle of Agincourt, where his scruffy band of brothers defeated the flower of French chivalry.

The world has changed much over the past three years. For September 11th people, many pillars of conventional wisdom began falling with the twin towers--and they're still falling. For September 10th people, who appear to predominate in the media, every development since that day has just confirmed their earlier conventional views of the world. The saddest people of all are those who now, in 2004, are still refighting the election of 1972.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen's PressThink has further analysis of the implications for Big Media, including the following Big Picture quote from Belmont Club.
The traditional news model is collapsing. It suffers from two defects. The "news object" can no longer be given sealed attributes in newspaper backrooms. The days when the press was the news object foundry are dying. Second, the news industry is suffering from its lack of analytic cells, which are standard equipment in intellgence shops. Editors do some analysis but their focus is diluted by their attention to style and the craft of writing. The blogosphere and other actors, now connected over the Internet, are filling in for the missing analytic function. And although the news networks still generate, via their reporters, the bulk of primary news, they generate a pitiful amount of competent analysis.
QandO offers a compendium of the typographical, stylistic, and personal evidence. A Carnegie-Mellon computer scientist who was a pioneer in electronic typesetting presents a detailed technical analysis of the typography. His verdict:
The probability that any technology in existence in 1972 would be capable of producing a document that is nearly pixel-compatible with Microsoft's Times New Roman font and the formatting of Microsoft Word, and that such technology was in casual use at the Texas Air National Guard, is so vanishingly small as to be indistinguishable from zero.

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