Hitchens on “the permanent underworld of American public life”

Eli Lake’s excellent Flynn piece—”In normal times, the idea that U.S. officials entrusted with our most sensitive secrets would selectively disclose them to undermine the White House would alarm those worried about creeping authoritarianism”—brings to mind three excellent paragraphs from Christopher Hitchens’s review of Norman Mailer’s excellent, perverse, and oneiric epic of the deep state. Might as well excerpt them on this blog:

Politics here a bit trite, you say? Perhaps. But the following things really happened. President Kennedy was shot down in the light of broad day. His assassin was murdered on camera while in maximum security. Richard Nixon’s intimates fed high-denomination dollar bills into a shredder in order to disguise their provenance in the empire of—Howard Hughes? Marilyn Monroe fucked both Kennedy brothers before taking her own life, if she did indeed take it. Frank Sinatra raised money for the Reagans and acted as at least a confidante to the First Lady. Norman Podhoretz’s son-in-law Elliott Abrams, while working as Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State, dunned the Sultan of Brunei for a $10 million backhander to the Contras and then lost the money in a Swiss computer error. Ronald Reagan sent three envoys with a cake and a Bible to Tehran to discuss an arms-for-hostages trade with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Robert Macnamara went to a briefing on Cuba believing that it was more than likely that he would not live through the weekend. The Central Intelligence Agency was caught, in collusion with the Mafia, plotting to poison Fidel Castro’s cigars. Ronald Reagan’s White House was run to astrological time, and its chief spent his evenings discussing Armageddon theology with strangers. Oliver North recruited convicted narcotics smugglers to run the secret war against Nicaragua. George Bush recruited Manuel Noriega to the CIA. As the Watergate hounds closed in, Henry Kissinger was implored to sink to his Jewish knees and join Richard Nixon in prayer on the Oval Office carpet, and complied. Klaus Barbie was plucked from the SS ‘Most Wanted’ list and, with many of his confrères, given a second career in American Intelligence. J. Edgar Hoover amassed tapes of sexual indiscretion in Washington, partly for his own prurient needs and partly for the ends of power. He caused blackmail letters to be sent from the FBI to Dr Martin Luther King, urging him to commit suicide.

Historians and journalists have never quite known what to do about these sorts of disclosure. They have never known whether to treat such episodes as normal or exceptional. It is, for example, perfectly true to say that the whole Vietnam intervention began with a consciously contrived military provocation in the Gulf of Tonkin, followed by a carefully-told lie to the Senate. But can we tell the school children that? Then again, it now looks very much like being established that the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 went behind President Carter’s back and made a private understanding with the Iranians about the American diplomatic hostages. But those hostages were the original cause of the yellow ribbon movement! Can a piece of fraud and treason really have been the foundation of the storied ‘Reagan revolution’?

Contemporary historians like Theodore Draper, Arthur Schlesinger and Garry Wills, or political journalists like Seymour Hersh, Lou Cannon and Robert Woodward, deal with this difficulty in various ways, but seldom succeed for long in firing the general consciousness. This is because they are either apologists for power (Schlesinger, Woodward) or its intimates (Schlesinger, Woodward) or politically conditioned to disbelieve the worst (Schlesinger, Woodward). Men like Wills and Draper, on the other hand, are almost too bloody rational. They are careful to speak truth to power and to weigh evidence with scruple, but they are wedded to the respectable and predictable rhythms of academe, of research, of high and serious mentation. They find and pronounce on corruption and malfeasance, and gravely too, but it’s always as if the horror is somehow an invasion or interruption. This is why the permanent underworld of American public life has only ever been captured and distilled by novelists. [My emphasis.]

Now that time has polished Mailer’s mirror, Harlot’s Ghost is more than due for a reread.