Lewis Lapham March 9 1987


Lewis Lapham March 9 1987



Lewis Lapham

Like many Americans, Lewis Lapham, Editor of Harper’s magazine, reacted strongly to last week's revelations of the Tower commission on the Iranian arms scandal. His analysis:

As expected, the Tower commission’s report depicted the President of the United States as an amiable dotard held captive by his retinue of zealous and remarkably stupid subalterns. Although muffled in the language of bureaucratic euphemism, the report made it plain enough that Ronald Reagan knew as much about the Iranian arms transfers (or about any other aspect of American foreign policy) as he knew about the dark side of the moon. The National Security Council (NSC) did as it pleased, trading weapons for hostages, ignoring whatever laws it did not care to understand, supplying Reagan with fraudulent scripts that he obligingly and

uncomprehend ingly read into the television cameras.

Nor did anybody else at the higher elevations of the Reagan administration—not the Vice-President, not the secretaries of state or defence, not the attorney general or the director of the Central Intelligence Agency—take the trouble to offer more than a whisper of objection. As ignorant and as fatuous as Reagan, the prosperous gentlemen in charge of the American theme park apparently believed that the world was a movie set and diplomacy an advanced form of screenwriting.

With regard to the incompetence and habitual somnambulism of the Reagan administration, the Tower commission’s report confirms what has been obvious for some years, but it raises further and more embarrassing questions about the workings of any American presidency. How does it happen that so many presidents entangle themselves in the coils of scandal, folly and crime? How does it come to pass that President John F. Kennedy approves the doomed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, or that President

Lyndon B. Johnson sponsors the Vietnam War with the rigged incident in the Tonkin Gulf, or that President Richard Nixon orders the secret bombing of Cambodia and comes to grief on the testimony of the second-rate thugs sent to rifle a desk at the Watergate? Why do so many seemingly strong people keep making such feeble mistakes?

A preliminary answer to at least some of those questions turns on the distinction between the permanent and provisional governments of the United States. The permanent government—that is, Congress, the civil and military services, the legion of Washington lawyers and expensive lobbyists—consists of the largely invincible hierarchies that remain safely in place no matter what political truths are voted in and out of office like the season’s trendy restaurants. It is this government, sly and patient and slow, that writes the briefing papers, presides over the administrative routine, remembers who bribed whom in the election of 1968, or what happened when Henry Kissinger imagined that he was Talleyrand in the winter of 1973, or why President Jimmy Carter thought it prudent to talk privately to God about the B-l bomber.

Except in the rare moments of joint and opportune interest, the permanent government wages a ceaseless war of bureaucratic attrition against the provisional government that once every four or eight years accompanies a newly elected president to Washington. The provisional government—the motley band of ideologues, cronies and sentimental plutocrats miraculously transformed into cabinet ministers and White House officials—can be compared with reasonable accuracy either to a troupe of actors or a swarm of thieves. Endowed with the virtues of freebooting adventurers, and having climbed the rock face of a presidential election, the arrivist statesmen possess the talents and energies necessary to the crassest forms of American success. Unfortunately, these are not the talents and energies useful to the conduct of international diplomacy.

The president’s companions (whether Robert Kennedy or John Mitchell or Hamilton Jordan or Donald Regan) inevitably prove to be the sort of people who know how to set up advance publicity for a campaign speech, how to counterfeit a political image or bribe a congressman, how to bully a waiter or a dog. As ambitious as they are illiterate, they seldom know anything of history, of languages, of literature or economics. They lack the imaginative intelligence that might allow them to understand any system of value other than the one that can be learned in a brokerage firm or a massage parlor.

The media like to pretend that the White House is a stately institution, the still centre of the turning universe, the point at which all the lines of power converge. The people who occupy the place know that it bears a more plausible resemblance to a bare stage or an abandoned cruise ship. The departing troupe of actors removes everything of value—the files, the correspondence, the telephone numbers, the memorabilia. The new repertory company begins at the beginning, setting up its props and lights, arranging its own system of communications and theory of command, hoping to sustain, at least long enough for ev-

erybody to profit from the effect, the illusion of coherent government.

All other American institutions of any consequence (the Chase Manhattan Bank, say, or Mobil Oil, or the department of the navy) rely on the presence of senior officials who remember what happened 20 years ago when somebody else—equally new, equally ambitious—suggested something equally foolish. But the White House is barren of institutional memory. Maybe an old servant remembers that President Dwight D. Eisenhower liked sugar in his tea, or that President Johnson hated the rain, but nobody remembers the Bay of Pigs, or Watergate, or the travel arrangements for the last American expedition to Iran.

Because everybody in the White House arrived at the same time (all of them contemporaries in power, all of them in it for more or less the same reasons) nobody, not even Donald Regan, can impose a procedural tradition.

The ancient Romans at least had the wit to provide triumphant generals with a word of doubt. If a general rode through the streets at the head of a procession of captured slaves, the Senate assigned a magistrate to stand behind him in the chariot, holding the wreath over his head and murmuring a reminder of mortality in his ear. But in the White House, who can teach the lessons of humility? The applause of the media and the temptation of technical possibility-all those wonderful weapons, back channels, map overlays, surveillance techniques—make it easy for people to succumb to the dream of omnipotence.

But within two weeks of their arrival in Washington they find themselves checked by the sluggishness of the permanent government, by the congressional oversight and appropriations committees (contemptible politicians who can’t be trusted with classified information), by the maze of prior agreements, by the people who always bring up the niggling reasons why a thing cannot be done.

Sooner or later, usually sooner, the feeling of frustration prompts the president’s men to take it inside, as people in Washington like to say—that is, make the NSC or the White House basement the seat of an active government blessed with the will to dare and do. The decision inevitably entails the subversion of the law and excites the passion for secrecy. People start speaking in code, and before too long American infantrymen are dying in the jungles of Vietnam or the streets of Lebanon.

The reliance on covert operations also allows the president to maintain the pretense of innocence demanded of all politicians who wish to preserve the mythology of American grace. No president can admit to the practice of realpolitik or say, with Montaigne, that “public weal requires that men should betray, and lie, and massacre.” Every administration has no choice but to confront the world’s violence and disorder, but it must do so under the banners of righteousness and in the name of one of the public lies (democracy, civilization, humanity, the people) that muster the belief of a crowd.

After having been in office for two years, the provisional government no longer knows when it is telling the truth. The need to preserve the fiction of innocence gets confused with the dream of power, and the would-be Metternichs identify their own desires and ambitions with the moral imperatives of the state. They come to believe the press notices for their own invented reality (the one they made out of smoke and colored lights when they first came to Washington), and it is only a matter of time before their congenital vanity achieves the luxuriant bloom of megalomania. President Kennedy went to Dallas in November, 1963, because he believed that he could not be killed. President Reagan invited the Tower commission to examine his nonexistent policy and his confused improvisations on the theme' of America the Beautiful because he believed that the world would accept his ignorance as proof of his virtue.