By Paul Slansky
It has, of course, been widely reported that August 9 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation. What has received considerably less attention is that the date also marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of what may well be the stupidest thing ever written about Watergate: an op-ed column for The Washington Post by one Benjamin J. Stein. This was a screed so cretinous that even its author seems to have recognized what an embarrassment it was, if asserting his right as a freelancer to keep the column out of the Post and Nexis archives — thereby disappearing it from the public records so that if one gleefully remembered how moronic it was and wanted to take an almost obscene pleasure in liberating it from the dustbin of self-censorship and sharing it anew on this festive occasion with as many people as possible, one would have to spend several hours on the phone before finally tracking down someone at a college library that had the Post on microfilm who was willing to find and send the article — constitutes an acknowledgment of its idiocy.
Stein, in case he has flown below your radar screen, is variously known as: a) a game show host (Win Ben Stein’s Money); b) a shill for a dozen or so products who gave up his gig as a New York Times business columnist rather than bow to the paper’s stuffy our-writers-don’t-do-commercials policy; c) a Jew — one of the very few — who scoffs at evolution, championing the crackpot theory of “intelligent design” (i.e creationism with a smarter-sounding name); d) a writer who regularly creeps readers out with TMI about his fixation on beautiful young women a fraction of his age (most recently with this shudder-inducing column in The American Spectator); e) an actor best known for the monotonic movie line, “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” (he has reportedly said that he wouldn’t mind having that as his epitaph, and in truth it would be better than “Craven Nixon Apologist”), or f) a craven apologist for Richard Nixon, whom Stein worked for until his abjectly disgraced boss literally — yes, literally — fled the White House in a helicopter.
Stein, to be sure, is no stranger to spouting foolishness. In the midst of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sex scandal, he wrote a column positing that Strauss-Kahn’s education, wealth, and standing in the world community made his guilt unlikely. His alleged expertise on economics failed to keep him from making bullish financial predictions – the foreclosure problem would “blow over” and “we’ll all wonder what the scare was about” — until he was forced to stop because, Crash. He co-wrote a lunatic documentary called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which blamed the Holocaust on evolution. (In promoting the film, Stein actually declared, “Science leads you to killing people.”) All of this — and so, so much more — is decidedly mock-worthy, but how does it stack up against Stein’s magnum opus, his three-decade-old treatise, “Was Watergate Really Such A Big Deal?” You decide.
The column opened, as so many pieces in the Ben Stein oeuvre do, with an introduction to young women of his acquaintance, in this case his two college student assistants, Juliette and Vicki. He reported that when he told them of his plan to write a 10th-anniversary-of-Nixon’s-resignation piece about Watergate, they were all like, Watergate? Whoa, what was that, dude? Stein set about to tell them but found that, “Try as I might, I could not say what it was about.” He proceeded to conduct an investigation “around the city by car and the nation by phone” and discovered that “my problem is not unique. Really, who now knows what Watergate was about? What was all the shouting about?” He recalled the giddy tenor of the time a decade earlier, with “smoking guns and conspiracies and resignations and heroes who broke the news.” But, he simply had to ask, “after all this time, who can say what was going on? … It has only been 10 years since Richard Nixon resigned, and who knows why he had to do it?”
But wait. Wasn’t the whole kerfuffle about Nixon having repeatedly and deliberately — hell, pathologically — lied? No way, says Stein, because presidents lie all the time, about everything, so why would a little less-than-truthiness about criminality be a deal breaker? Okay, not about his lying. What about his spying? Uh uh. Didn’t candidate Reagan’s people steal President Carter’s debate briefing books? Did anyone tell him he couldn’t be president? So, you know, the Watergate burglars? No biggie.
Well, what the hell was it, then? Stein professed cluelessness. “Now, in the light of time, who, who in a hundred million, can say what any one revelation of any Washington Post article was?” Who in a hundred million? “What was one bombshell they exposed? What was one threat to the republic that they caught just in time?”
Stein had particular contempt for the conventional wisdom that “the system worked,” because, “If whatever Nixon did was so obscure that no one can even remember what he did any longer, if it is shrouded in the mists of forgetting after only 10 years, how drastic could it have been? More to the point, if we cannot even remember what Richard Nixon’s crimes were, why did we kick him out? If he didn’t do anything memorably terrible, how could the system have worked by removing him from office? In the retrospect of 10 years, it all looks more as if the system did not work. If the nation chased a president out of office for the only time in 200 years and no one clearly remembers why [yes, italics his], something went drastically wrong, not drastically right.” Of course, those were some very big “ifs,” but never mind that. “Perhaps the only point now,” Stein ludicrously declared, “is that everyone has forgotten.”
Now, today’s abundance of slick, well-funded right-wing revisionism — unchecked by, when not abetted by, ideologues masquerading as journalists — makes an ancient exercise like this one seem quaint in its hamhandedness: two ignorant coeds Stein had the hots for never heard of Watergate, ergo no one alive can remember why the fuss. “No one knows, and no one remembers any longer,” he concluded, to which The Washington Post, still a great newspaper back then, responded in an editorial, “Not to put too fine a point on it, we think we can remember.”
“What Richard Nixon did that was wrong,” the Post explained, “was to surround himself with a group of aides who were unaccountable to anyone but himself, whom he empowered to use the authority of government to break into any place they wished — an opposition party’s headquarters, a political opponent’s psychiatrist’s office — to further Mr. Nixon’s political interests and personal animosities. Then he and they lied about it and further tried to employ the intelligence agencies of government to concoct an alibi for them; they paid people to lie in federal court about their involvement. And for almost two years, with great contempt for the public and also, incidentally, for their own political supporters who went out on a limb for them, they kept lying — using the White House Oval Office to lend majesty to the criminal cover-up.” So, there was that.
Living as we currently do in an America allergic to accountability and addicted to amnesia, where science is dismissed as fiction and the brazen lies of the Dick Cheneys are given a patina of respectability by the pathetic likes of the David Gregorys, one can easily surrender to despair about what passes for temporary truth. The spate of just-published books (The Nixon Tapes, Chasing Shadows, The Invisible Bridge, and The Nixon Defense) that deal with Watergate — Stein’s howls of disinformation notwithstanding — provides some comfort that facts still matter, and that, in the long-term, history can be counted on to sort everything out.
Meanwhile, hey, Ben … nice piece. Happy anniversary.