Salon’s Walter Shapiro (a veteran of the Carter administration and hardly a hard-right hack) has praised Thompson’s memoir for having an honest uncertainty in dealing with the Watergate investigation and its implications for presidential power. In this memoir, Thompson chronicles–sometimes with surprising immediacy–the increasingly carnival-like atmosphere of Watergate: the public spectacle of the committee hearings (complete with a scornful laugh track and applause lines), the frenzy of reporters, the peddling and publishing of various half-truths and sly innuendos, the fervor behind the scenes. Finding himself in this civic hothouse, Thompson often returns to consider his own partisan tendencies, sometimes turning to this partisanship in a mood of aporia, sometimes turning to procedure as a way of anchoring himself in this flurry of partisan controversies, sometimes wondering how much his own political loyalties may have interfered with his pursuit of truth.
Even though Shapiro finds in Thompson’s narrative an “unflappable self-confidence,” I think that we can also see in this narrative a concern with the limitations of power and the implicit assumption of the potential for corruption in even the noblest political enterprise–that is, we can also see in this work limits on the confidence in power. This theme of limitation can be particularly seen in the final chapter, “The End of the Affair.”
In the wake of Watergate and the resignation of Nixon, Thompson does not assert a radical end to evil but instead reflects on the seeming persistence of evil:
It occurred to me that after such a national ordeal tribute would be paid to the boundless spirit of man and to the triumph of good over evil. But these were not my thoughts. More than anything else, I concluded, the experience taught me not that we had eradicated evil from the face of the earth, but that some things never seem to change. Lord Acton’s admonition about the corrupting nature of power is as valid today as it was when he said it, and as it has been for centuries before. The admonition does not apply to presidents alone; when the most powerful elements of the news media, the Congress, the intellectual community, and the judiciary unite in a holy crusade, some individual rights are inevitably sacrificed. Concern for fairness too often depends on whose ox is being gored.It is often said that Vice-President Cheney gained a mission after Watergate: to restore further power and authority to the executive branch. Whatever the truth of this claim about Cheney, it seems that Watergate brought a very different principle to light for Thompson: the value of a diffusion of power.* For Thompson (and, no doubt, for many others), Watergate was a crisis of checks-and-balances for the country, but where Thompson may differ from some is in his insistence on how deeply and widely Watergate evidenced a breakdown in checks-and-balances–that not only the presidency could overthrow a diffusing balance but also Congress and the media. Moreover, he asserts the potential dangers to individual rights that might accrue in this unitary “crusade.” The dangers of unitary power may not be concentrated, then, in only the executive branch for Thompson; power, whether in the hands of a president or a legislative majority, can present its own corrupting temptation.
There is partly a tragic theme to Thompson’s memoir, studded as it is with the falls of various men–from White House staffers to Nixon to a member of the Watergate Committee itself (Senator Edward J. Gurney of Florida, who, within months of Nixon’s resignation, resigned from office due to a criminal indictment; Gurney was later found not guilty but was unable to revive his political career). This sense of the tragic informs Thompson’s skepticism about the value of unitary power: the seeming pervasiveness of the capacity for corruption can mean that any human power, even the strongest, could turn awry. As Thompson writes later:
There was little to rejoice about, I thought as I flew home, at least not without a quiet realization that human frailties seem to manifest themselves as much when men attempt to eradicate evil as when that evil itself is being inflicted.Our right aims may not absolve us of our mortal frailties; even our strenuous efforts to undo wrongs, to right injustices, and to fight for the good might reveal some of our own limitations.
Thompson proposes a system of checks and balances as a way of coping with the temptation of vice. Though politicians often decry partisanship (even as they themselves make use of it for their own ends), Thompson now figures partisanship itself as playing a role for balance in government:
...it seemed to me that the partisanship was itself part of the system of checks and balances–a system that will work, no matter how hard the fight, as long as certain rules are followed.Rather than encouraging a unitary system that allows for an unlimited use of power (hopefully in the “right” way), Thompson seems more sympathetic here to a system that allows for diversity of the rancors of partisanship, that can incorporate various tensions and conflicts without itself collapsing. He does want “certain rules”–some scale or set of measures to balance these various competing parties–but he allows for play within these rules. Thompson does not propose ending partisanship or creating a politics based on the dissolution of parties; he is in favor of productively channeling this partisanship, of setting grounds for these debates between parties that will allow these debates to be most helpful to the nation as a whole. Put another way, we might see Thompson proposing a system not to eliminate conflicts–but to organize these conflicts. He asserts that “[c]oncern for fairness too often depends on whose ox is being gored,” but this political partiality need not nullify the concern for fairness, and this partiality need not render this concern for fairness without utility for the public good: each side can try its best, and some of the interests of the nation as a whole may be served by this jousting conglomeration of individual interests.
This belief in the persistence and utility of some political divisions can facilitate principles of politeness. In the condition of divided politics, you hope you can get along with your political opponents–because they’ll always be there! Perhaps shockingly for some activists out there, compromise and negotiation can also be effective tools to get what you want. Thompson’s mentor, Senator Howard Baker, seems to have understood the value of negotiation, and Thompson, at certain points in his memoir (see, for example, page 49), praises Baker for his attempts to conciliate in the committee, and the effectiveness of his “diplomatic negotiation that avoided confrontation.” Those who see the value in divided power might also be more inclined to be respectful of some of their civic opponents because these opponents play a crucial role of opposition; you can’t, after all, have a conflict without at least two sides. Instead of seeing their opponents monochromatically as opponents of “progress,” believers in a heterogeneous body politic can see their opponents as playing a necessary procedural role.
As is commonly acknowledged, this process of checks and balances in the US government does not play out only between the various branches of the federal government but also between the federal government and state governments (and between state and local governments and federal and local governments). Thompson has recently defended his “federalism” as offering these fifty states as laboratories for policy and statecraft. This diversity of states can help us find better ways of doing things and avoid being locked into “bad” ways through forced federal order. (Though, of course, the states could do some pretty bad things themselves, so there’s a role for federal action and justice as well.) Thompson’s interest in channeling rather than dissolving conflicting interests itself has a long intellectual American heritage. Of the Founders, Madison is perhaps the best-known proponent of the liberal utility of the role of conflicting interests; his Federalist No. 51 asserts the value of conflicting interests both within the federal government and between the federal and state governments.
The closing reflections of At That Point in Time suggest that Thompson’s interest in divided power–and federalism–may not be mere opportunism or cheap sloganeering but an abiding theme of his approach toward politics. A lot can change in 30 years, and political ambition can cause men and women to embrace policies in one moment that they abjure in another, but, at that point in time, Thompson seemed sympathetic to limited and fractured power. Whatever value this analysis of this older book has (and I at least think that this work may be at least as revealing as Richard Nixon’s opinion of Thompson in 1973), this memoir perhaps suggests something of Thompson’s temper and reveals something of the intellectual pedigree of his “federalism.”
*A pedantic aside: Yes, strengthening the executive branch could be part of an attempt to strengthen the effectiveness of our Constitutional checks and balances; an absurdly weak executive branch (vis-a-vis the legislative and judicial branches) would not be able to check properly the other two branches. But still, Thompson’s memoir does not end on the note of the need to strengthen the presidency to restore a system of checks and balances but in considering the value of this system and the potential threats to it demonstrated in Watergate.