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How to Govern a Divided Country


[A letter to his friend Nathan Glazer]
May 25, 1973

Dear Nat:

… I have been thinking of little but Watergate, and thinking of just the question you put: “… Is Watergate a difference in the quantity of political skulduggery, promoted into the disaster it is by a special relation to press or media, or a difference in real quality, which reflects some basic moral and political failing both of Nixon and those of us who saw him in the mainstream of American politics, rather than as some cunning aberration?” You say you wouldn’t know how to answer that question if anyone asked, and neither would I. Thirty years of reading and forty of going to Catholic churches leave me with almost no preparation even for putting the question; much less answering it. Have I been a fool or a whore or both? Or perhaps something quite different; something perhaps to be forgiven.

… I had looked, with others, for some relaxation after the campaign. None came, but then [Charles] Colson left, and this was cause for something near rejoicing among those in the White House who were and are decent, honorable, competent public men.

I think these men knew little or nothing of Watergate. And yet what cringing animals this makes of us all. “I Knew Nothing.” It makes us not only animals, but liars. Not worse, different. Of course they knew. There is a sense in which we all “knew.” … I wanted no part of that administration, yet I did not break with it. Next, I voted for it—privately, to be sure, but I did vote for it. Finally, I returned to it.

What do you call such a person? A Moynihan, I suppose. A term suggestive of moral and political failing. Yet what is it? Two things, somewhat opposed. First, the moral failing of being more concerned with deviations from one’s own general position than with positions flatly and openly opposed. This is the classic condition of the true believer, and one of which we have been more than a little contemptuous. And yet has it not been our condition also? Have we made a passion of pragmatism? Whatever the case, we spent much of the 1960s appalled at the decline of intellectual and even moral standards on the liberal/left. We saw this as a phenomenon of ideology, when in fact it was increasingly a function of what American government was becoming. When a conservative government came in and seemed sensitive to the fooleries of its predecessors, we were too grateful by half, and altogether too willing to supply arguments. We were willing to be used. … All right. But why did we not have the political sense to see that sooner or later this would happen? We know the world. We surely saw that the men of the Nixon administration who, in Elliot Richardson’s words to the Senate Judiciary Committee, “betrayed” us by their “shoddy standard of morals” are not “normal” men. They are so straight they are deviant. Ehrlichman, for one, always seemed to me a clinical case. Buttoned up to the point of bursting. And if we could have seen this coming, we could have taken the great prudential precaution of being out of the way when it hit. I would not worry myself about your own position. … But still, there is a general truth in your statement that “the people we have been fighting all along now seem to win.” … I feel I myself had a lot to do with this.

Excerpted from Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, edited by Steven R. Weisman (to be published in October 2010 by Public Affairs, a division of Perseus Books).


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