The Time of Illusion

Originating as a series of articles for New Yorker magazine, The Time of Illusion represents an attempt to put Richard Nixon’s years in the White House in perspective. Jonathan Schell claims that the constitutional crisis, which peaked during the Nixon Presidency, began to emerge under President John F. Kennedy. The roots of the crisis can be found in the American involvement in the war in Vietnam. American leaders had defined several war aims. In the end, only one of these aims—the protection of the credibility of the United States—endured. As the human and material costs of the war soared, the bewilderment over and opposition to it grew. Successive administrations perceived the need to resort to surreptitious and covert activities. President Lyndon B. Johnson, having his once-massive coalition of support broken over Vietnam and facing mounting opposition to his war policies, set into motion the spying on and the repression of American citizens that reached such frightful proportions under the Nixon Administration.

Schell recalls how Nixon entered office sounding the theme of unity. However, one of the basic characteristics of the new administration from the beginning was that it would do the exact opposite of what it was saying. As unity was preached, the divisions of the country were deliberately deepened. The strategy of “positive polarization” was put forward. The President had brought the country together on the illusion that the war would come to an end. Once in office, he significantly escalated it and launched major secret operations in Cambodia. As Schell discusses it, these massive secret projects acquired a domestic arm, to deal with the opposition and to close “leaks.” What had begun on a minor scale under earlier administrations, assumed ever-expanding dimensions. As the “Nixon Big Charge” gathered momentum, the federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies were involved in a flurry of clandestine activities, including farflung warrantless wiretapping and domestic spying. Vice President Spiro Agnew’s vituperative and strident speeches served as an outlet for the President’s anger over the antiwar demonstrations.

The myriad different activities and diverse political proposals shared one marked feature, a notable gap between image and substance. The unity between word and deed, essential to make political action intelligible to outsiders, was broken, writes Schell. The White House was far more concerned about appearances than substantive results in its actions. An amazing proportion of energies was devoted to the creation and promotion of images; the entire federal government was utilized for these purposes. The President used his power to frame the issues on which he would do battle with the opposition. The way Schell sees it, Nixon used all of America as a stage. Indeed, the very language of the stage—words such as script, scenario, players—heavily permeated White House memoranda. Schell’s interpretation suggests that the President’s paramount concern was the preservation of presidential authority, which he perceived as being threatened across the board. The information leaks, the student demonstrations, the negative expressions of public opinion, the lack of congressional support, the bureaucratic foot-dragging on presidential directives, and the criticism by the press all added up, in the President’s mind, to an insurrection which had to be put down. Governmental reorganization and concentration of power in the White House was seen as the solution. An ambitious campaign to discredit the press and television networks and an elaborate system of rigged letters and telegrams supporting the President were implemented in addition. In order to deal more effectively with the “internal threats,” the White House sought to reorganize domestic intelligence. The already extensive illegal activities of the CIA and the FBI were to be supplemented by the utilization of the IRS. In Schell’s view, Nixon rejected the idea of fixed constitutional forms; he acted as though it was completely up to him to decide the shape of the United States government. As a result, the fundamental balance of power between the major branches of government was about to be destroyed.

The President liked to pose as a man of peace. Yet, as the war had “come home,” he became increasingly intolerant of the shaping and restraining influence of the law. When the Pentagon Papers were made public by Daniel Ellsberg, the White House set out to “destroy” him. For this purpose top presidential aides recruited E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, and others, who later were part of the Watergate burglary, precipitating the huge scandal that ultimately brought down the Administration. An increasing amount of both domestic and foreign White House business was conducted in secrecy. According to Schell, such widely differing activities as Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China and the scheme to destroy Ellsberg shared a certain elemental affinity, namely, the nearly fanatical concern about “leaks” that would threaten national security. In retrospect, it is truly astounding to note the extent to which major policymakers, including the President, spent their time scheming to discredit or “destroy” opponents, instead of addressing themselves to substantive policy issues. Any person, group, institution, or even country, that crossed the White House in any way, would end up on the enemies list. The degree of vindictiveness and pettiness with which such “enemies” were pursued is astonishing. As Schell recalls it, the “enemies project” permeated the conduct of...

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America. CXXXIV, May 15, 1976, p. 433.

Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, March 9, 1976, p. 30.

Commonweal. CIII, September 10, 1976, p. 598.

New York Review of Books. XXIII, June 24, 1976, p. 21.

New York Times. January 14, 1976, p. 33.

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