t 73, Bob Woodward—the Pulitzer Prize–winning sleuth of Watergate legend and America’s premier nonfiction author, with 17 bestsellers to his name—is nearing the end of one of the most celebrated careers of the media age. His latest book, The Last of the President’s Men, is his fifth about Watergate and in some ways his best. Yet it also underscores the need for him to get cracking on the last Bob Woodward book our times still demand: a candid autobiography.
In such a work, the famously slow-talking Midwesterner could relate, with clarity unattainable from thousands of cagey TV interviews, the inside story of how this former naval intelligence officer achieved his unique stature in journalism and publishing. And it would give him an opportunity to come clean about the less than savory parts of that story, which have attracted growing attention from Woodward’s peers in journalism and the more dispassionate precincts of academia.
The Last of the President’s Men1 attempts, transparently, to cement Woodward’s special status in American journalism and thereby makes for a curious entry in his canon: one of the shortest, yet the most scholarly, of his works, an important contribution to the literature of the Nixon era that is nonetheless fatally flawed by the classic Woodward sins of omission and avoidance.
The book presents a profile of Alexander P. Butterfield, the White House staffer who oversaw the installation and operation of President Nixon’s secret taping system and who, in July 1973, disclosed the system’s existence to Senate Watergate committee investigators. In so doing, Butterfield was the cameo player who dealt the deathblow to the Nixon presidency.
Woodward and his researcher recorded 46 hours of interviews with Butterfield between 2011 and 2015, the year he turned 89. They also mined an unpublished autobiography Butterfield had long tinkered with and a small archive of documents he took with him at the end of Nixon’s first term (when one of Butterfield’s duties was to compel other White House staffers to turn over their papers).
The Butterfield Papers are rich with detail and enable Woodward to make, at this late date, his most substantive contribution to the history of the Nixon presidency. This is evidenced in the fact that the book’s major revelation—the juicy nugget on which the Washington Post and other media, during publication week, lavished The Woodward Treatment—concerns the Vietnam War and not Watergate. Moreover, the book includes 93 pages of source notes and appendices—rarities in Woodwardia!—reproducing three dozen letters and memoranda. Heavily annotated by President Nixon, sometimes missing from official archives, these are important documents. It is refreshing to see Woodward using the written record to advance the story of the policies of the first Nixon term rather than selective snippets from interviews, conducted in garages, to rehash the oddball obstructions of justice that unraveled the second.
Yet here again, as so often since 1972, Woodward omits much about the context of his scoops, and his own motivations in pursuing and publishing them.T
he crown jewel of Alex Butterfield’s archival treasures is a code-worded “TOP SECRET-SENSITIVE” memorandum that national security adviser Henry Kissinger sent to President Nixon on January 3, 1972. The one-page memo updated the commander in chief about the military situation in Laos and a North Vietnamese rocket attack on the U.S. air base at Da Nang, which wounded an American airman and damaged three Air Force planes. What makes the document remarkable—aside from the fact that no copy exists at the Nixon presidential library—is Nixon’s scrawl, sideways up the left-hand side, boldly across Kissinger’s typed font:
K – We have had 10 years of total control of the air
in Laos + V. Nam. The result = Zilch –
There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force
I want a barks off – study – no snow
job – on my desk in 2 weeks as to
what the reason for the failure is.
Otherwise continued air operations
Make no sense in Cambodia, Laos etc. after
we complete withdrawal –
Shake them up!!
This note is extraordinary: It shows a commander in chief who has already dropped 3 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and who was destined within the next 12 months to drop an additional 1.1 million tons, acknowledging that these operations were accomplishing “zilch,” and that they represented “a failure” it made “no sense” to continue. As Woodward notes, just the evening before he wrote these words, Nixon had conducted an hour-long primetime interview on CBS during which Dan Rather had asked the president to assess “the benefits” of extensive bombing of North Vietnam. “The results,” Nixon said, “have been very, very effective.”
Now, reasonable people can stipulate that the exigencies of war might justify a military commander, such as Nixon, lying to a reporter, such as Rather, about the efficacy of a given military campaign, particularly if the commander was convinced the alternative would jeopardize American lives by somehow minimizing the chances for ultimate success in the conflict, undermining the morale of the rank and file, or otherwise vitiating pressing national-security objectives. Nixon may have been motivated by such considerations. As Woodward notes, “The ‘zilch’ conclusion had grown over three years. In what way and when did Nixon realize this? History may never know. Maybe Nixon never knew.” Woodward overstates when he asserts the need for “a fresh examination of the entire Vietnam record” in light of the “zilch” note, but he is correct to ask: “What is to be said about a wartime leader who goes on with war knowing a key part of the strategy is not working?”
What’s missing from Woodward’s account, however—as Woodward surely knows—is the context of Nixon’s relationship with the Pentagon in January 1972. Critical here is Nixon’s underlined suggestion that what was “wrong” with our air operations in Southeast Asia could be found either in the strategy “or the Air Force.” That sentiment of Nixon’s is reinforced by his closing demand, underlined twice, seemingly more important to him than his order for a “no snow job” study, which was in any case never performed: namely, to “shake them up!!”
Even before Nixon was sworn in, Pentagon leaders fearful of continued exclusion from the policymaking process had begun using their small liaison office to the National Security Council to spy on the White House.Why would a hawkish commander in chief harbor such low esteem for the Pentagon’s top brass, such that he expected them to attempt a “snow job,” and why would he order his national security adviser to “shake them up”? Such distrust was not new, either to Nixon or to his predecessors in the Vietnam era. As George Lardner Jr. disclosed in a December 1998 Washington Post article that reported on declassified Nixon tapes, the president had long been wary of the chart-flipping presentations of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Thomas Moorer. “I don’t want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn’t hit this target or that one!” Nixon thundered in April 1971, two months after the taping system had been installed. “Goddamn it, the military, they’re a bunch of greedy bastards! They want more officers’ clubs and more men to shine their shoes. The sons of bitches are not interested in this country.”
In substantive and rhetorical terms, Nixon here sounded a lot like John F. Kennedy, another Navy veteran whose view of the Pentagon deteriorated markedly over his tenure in the Oval Office. “Those sons of bitches, with all the fruit salad, just sat there nodding, saying [the operation] would work,” JFK sneered on his own tapes after the Bay of Pigs. In late 1962, when the Department of Defense slow-walked Kennedy’s request for troops during the integration of the University of Mississippi, the president snapped: “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and split-second timing, but it never works out. No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.”
Under Lyndon Johnson, this schism between the commander in chief and the uniformed leadership of the armed forces only worsened. In Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (1997), H.L. McMaster chronicled in unsparing detail the machinations by which the wily Texan, “distrustful of his military advisers,” patronized and circumvented the chiefs.
“Uninterested in the chiefs’ advice, but unwilling to risk their disaffection,” McMaster wrote, “Johnson preserved a façade of consultation, concealed the finality of his decisions on Vietnam policy and…got the military advice he wanted.” By August 1967, the chiefs teetered on mutiny. After congressional testimony by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on the efficacy of U.S. air operations undercut the chiefs’ own, they met, according to historian Deborah Shapley, “in complete secrecy, late into the night,” and agreed to resign en masse. Only the withdrawal of the chairman, Army General Earle Wheeler, who suffered chest pains overnight, caused the plot to collapse.
Even before Nixon was sworn in, Pentagon leaders fearful of continued exclusion from the policymaking process had begun using their small liaison office to the National Security Council, housed in the Executive Office Building across from the West Wing, to spy on the White House. Nixon’s defense secretary, Melvin Laird, a longtime congressman with appropriations oversight of the Pentagon, told me in a 1997 interview that at the dawn of the Nixon administration, he privately urged that the JSC-NSC liaison office be shut down. “The Johnson administration had had such a problem there, and I knew about it,” Laird told me. “I don’t think [LBJ-era defense secretaries] Clark Clifford or McNamara really realized it, but I knew what they were doing…. So early on, I said, ‘You better watch that very carefully.’”
Laird’s prophecy came true. Nearly three years later, on December 21, 1971—13 days before Nixon scribbled the “zilch” note—his top aides convened for a rare nighttime session in the Oval Office. There the commander in chief was informed of a stunning development: Federal investigators had discovered that the JCS-NSC liaison office had been spying on Nixon and Kissinger for 13 months. Navy Yeoman Charles Radford, a 27-year-old stenographer who traveled extensively with Kissinger overseas, including on the secret flight to Pakistan that paved the way for Nixon’s historic trip to China, had all the while been stealthily rifling Kissinger’s briefcases, “burn bags,” and wastebaskets. He then secretly—and illegally—routed an estimated 5,000 classified documents to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, and other top officers. The uncovering of the Joint Chiefs spy ring was the one legitimate accomplishment of Nixon’s much-reviled Plumbers group, which would eventually execute the Watergate break-ins.
Why would Woodward omit mention of the monumental- and critically timed- rupture between the commander in chief and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.The “Moorer-Radford affair,” as scholars now call it, was ultimately exposed by the press—though not by Woodward and Bernstein—in early 1974. Chiefly due to the wishes of Kissinger, who by that time was secretary of state, only pro forma congressional hearings were held and the affair was allowed to recede amid the larger bombshells of Watergate.2
The importance of the affair is hard to overstate. “This was Seven Days in May,” declared Defense Department investigator Donald Stewart, referring to the 1962 thriller about a military coup d’état in the United States. Nixon called the spying “a federal offense of the highest order” and demanded Moorer be tried for espionage. As the White House tapes make clear, Attorney General John Mitchell calmly took control of the situation, advising against public disclosure in any forum and prevailing upon Nixon to banish Yeoman Radford to a remote outpost and keep Admiral Moorer where he was, perhaps weakened and more pliable.
As Nixon told an aide in May 1973: “Admiral Moorer, I could have screwed him on that and been a big hero, you know. I could have screwed the whole Pentagon about that damn thing…. Why didn’t I do it? Because I thought more of the services.” It was, indeed, to Nixon’s everlasting credit that he never made political hay of the Moorer-Radford affair—to this day a neglected chapter in American history, an unprecedented Cold War constitutional crisis that no one has treated at book length—even when his political life depended on it.W
ith that backdrop, do we not attain a much better understanding of Nixon’s jaundiced view of the efficacy of the Pentagon, and the president’s demand, 13 days later, for a “shake up” of the Air Force? Why would Woodward omit mention of the monumental rupture between the commander in chief and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that erupted on the eve of the “zilch” note? Was the Washington Post ace, when he wrote The Last of the President’s Men, somehow unaware of the Moorer-Radford affair? Assuredly not. For decades now, brave historians have been questioning Woodward’s strange avoidance of the subject matter.
Most notable was the 1991 bestseller Silent Coup: Removal of a President, co-authored by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin and denounced by Woodward and Bernstein as “trash.” Yet Silent Coup marshaled important new archival evidence of its own to advance a number of claims about Woodward. The first was that one of his Watergate-era sources was General Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s NSC deputy. Silent Coup established that Woodward had met Haig during the first Nixon term, when Woodward served as a Navy intelligence briefer to senior White House officials. A former Vietnam commander and Pentagon loyalist, Haig held his own boss, Kissinger, in low regard and was deeply complicit in the JCS spying: It was Haig who handpicked Yeoman Radford to travel with Kissinger. By the time Haig became Nixon’s chief of staff, succeeding Haldeman as the Watergate scandal mushroomed in the spring of 1973, Haig worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bury the Moorer-Radford affair and his own role in it. Silent Coup detailed how Haig had enjoyed the compliance of Woodward and Bernstein, who knew of Moorer-Radford yet passed on it as a news story. The clear implication was that Woodward had protected Haig, a key source.
All these years later, even with the “zilch” note in hand, Bob Woodward is still steering clear of Moorer-Radford. Such sins of omission do not detract from the historical importance of the “zilch” memo and the other archival discoveries in the appendices to The Last of the President’s Men. But they do show that the author’s agenda remains suspect, or at least worthy of closer scrutiny than is typically accorded by the Post and other media so eager to give each new Woodward book The Woodward Treatment.
SUCH SCRUTINY would begin with the simple question: Why did Bob Woodward choose now to seek out Alex Butterfield, who was nearing 90, and write a book about him?
The fact is that Woodward’s journalistic reputation has been under assault for some time, starting with the controversies surrounding his books about John Belushi (1985’s Wired) and Reagan-era CIA director William Casey (1987’s Veil), and most thoroughly in Silent Coup. But the worst hits have come in just the last few years.
The sale of the Woodward-Bernstein papers to the University of Texas in 2003, and the 2005 death of Mark Felt, the former FBI official whom Woodward has identified as Deep Throat, have led researchers to ever larger doubts about the accuracy of Woodward’s reporting on Watergate, and particularly his account of his relationship with his much-heralded, and often inaccurate, Watergate source.
The first domino to fall was Woodward’s contention that Deep Throat was Felt and Felt only, and not a composite character based on numerous sources. The journalist Ed Gray demolished this myth when he completed In Nixon’s Web (2008), the posthumous memoir of his father, L. Patrick Gray III, the acting FBI director during Watergate. In this the Grays benefited from access not only to Woodward’s notes and papers at the University of Texas but also from Pat Gray’s own FBI archive (45 boxes’ worth). In Nixon’s Web exposed how Woodward’s reporting attributed information to Deep Throat that Mark Felt simply could not have known in November 1973, at the time of their last (alleged) meeting in a garage in Rosslyn, Virginia. The book also showed that Woodward’s Deep Throat file included notes from an interview he had conducted not with Mark Felt but with another source at the time, whom the Grays confirmed to be Justice Department official Don Santarelli. Pressed on such matters, Woodward dismissed them as “technical, wiring-diagram issues.”
More recently, we have learned that among those harboring deep skepticism about Woodward’s account of Deep Throat—so critical to the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate, and to the Woodward legacy—was the man to whose memory The Last of the President’s Men is dedicated: Ben Bradlee, the executive editor who oversaw that coverage.
Rummaging through Bradlee’s papers for an authorized biography, Jeff Himmelman—himself a trusted former researcher to Woodward—came across an unpublished 1990 interview in which Bradlee had confided his misgivings about Woodward’s reliability. “Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen?” Bradlee mused about the notion that Woodward moved a flowerpot on his balcony to signal for meetings with Deep Throat. Likewise, about the purported rendezvous in the garage, Bradlee wondered: “One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings [there were] in the garage.” He added: “There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.”
Geoff Shepard laid bare the contortions that were required for Sirica to overlook Woodward and Bernstein’s brazen interference with the grand-jury process.Nor did Himmelman’s archival discoveries stop there. He also found contemporaneous notes showing that contrary to four decades of flat denials on the point by Woodward and Bernstein, the latter had indeed approached and interviewed a Watergate grand juror—a violation of law—and had deliberately misled the readers of All the President’s Men to portray the grand juror as an employee of the Nixon reelection campaign. Indeed, Himmelman exposed half a dozen lies, evasions, deceptions, misrepresentations, and other journalistic sleights of hand on a single page of All of the President’s Men.
The final product was Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee (2012). Were it up to Woodward, the book’s explosive contents would have been suppressed. Writing in New York magazine, Himmelman recorded how Woodward sought to intimidate his former protégé:
I had worked for [Woodward]; he had given an impromptu toast at my wedding. You know me and the world we live in, he said. People who didn’t like him and didn’t like the Post—the “fuckers out there,” as Ben had called them—were going to seize on these comments. “Don’t give fodder to the fuckers,” Bob said, and once he lit on this phrase he repeated it a couple of times. The quotes from [Bradlee’s 1990] interview…were nothing more than outtakes from Ben’s book, he said. Ben hadn’t used them, and so I shouldn’t use them, either.
That argument didn’t make sense, and I said so. Bob told me it was his “strong recommendation” that I not use the quotes, then that it was his “emphatic recommendation.” Then, when that got no truck: “Don’t use the quotes, Jeff.”
Finally, last year, former Nixon White House staff lawyer Geoff Shepard, in his groundbreaking book The Real Watergate Scandal, chronicled the secret and highly improper ex parte meetings between John J. Sirica, the presiding judge in both major Watergate trials, and various relevant parties, most notably the Watergate prosecutors. Drawing on hundreds of pages of previously unpublished documents, Shepard laid bare the contortions that were required for Sirica to overlook Woodward and Bernstein’s brazen interference with the grand-jury process.
These were largely performed in still more ex parte meetings with Edward Bennett Williams, the fixer who just happened to serve simultaneously as the lawyer for the Democratic National Committee (burgled and wiretapped in the Watergate operation), the lawyer for the Washington Post (chief chronicler of Watergate and prime offender in violating the integrity of the Watergate grand jury), and as godfather to Sirica’s daughter. Really, could a cozier situation, more thoroughly marinated in collusion, be dreamed up?
Had a judge of integrity presided over the Watergate trials, or had the actions of Woodward and Bernstein been exposed in real time, or something like it, the two reporters, at a minimum, would have been hauled before the grand jury themselves, and the indictments of several Nixon aides challenged credibly on due-process grounds. At worst, the famous scribes would have found themselves, along with all the president’s men, criminally charged.
To these revelations of the last decade, so damaging to the Woodward-Bernstein legacy, The Last of the President’s Men represents the closest thing to a substantive response from Woodward that we are likely to get: an exercise in misdirection. The author’s power in American media ensures that whenever he publishes, on any subject, Thinking America will sit up and pay attention, and when he publishes on Watergate, the effect is doubly resonant. So who will focus on the slow and steady erosion of Bob Woodward’s Watergate brand when the legend has just produced a handsome new Watergate book, its title echoing his greatest triumph, the text delivering the nuggets we’ve grown accustomed to expect from Official Woodward Product? Nixon doubted the efficacy of U.S. bombing in Vietnam! Nixon clumsily patted a secretary’s leg! Crank up the machine—Woodward’s back on Watergate!
What the author does not do is engage the growing controversy surrounding his conduct and motivations in his Watergate-era reporting. The bright, shining object here, meant to distract, is Butterfield, treated until now as a bit player in Watergate but depicted this time as a major figure of the Nixon presidency. It is true that as Haldeman’s deputy, controlling the flow of men and memoranda into the Oval Office, Butterfield might have seen more of the president than any other staff aide. But was he ever really one of “the president’s men”?
Again Woodward omits much. As Butterfield himself recently told the Post, Woodward is “sort of the master of being vague…. He can be vague more smoothly than anyone!” Presumably those who point such things out, as here, will be dismissed as members of the malevolent tribe of “fuckers” to whom no credence is ever to be accorded.
BORN IN 1926 to a Navy family in Pensacola, Butterfield attended UCLA and there befriended H.R. (“Bob”) Haldeman, later the all-powerful chief of staff in the Nixon White House. While their sorority-sister wives kept in touch, Butterfield and Haldeman lost contact for over 20 years, until November 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected president. Butterfield, an Air Force colonel, was the top U.S. military officer in Australia. Early on in these pages, Woodward covers in detail the unsolicited letter Butterfield sent his old acquaintance after the election, seeking employment in the new administration. But the author relegates to a footnote on the second-to-last page of his main text, and even there leaves unexplored, the strange circumstances surrounding that letter.
When Butterfield appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in July 1974, a year after he had exposed the existence of the taping system to Senate investigators, he testified that it had been Haldeman who had reached out to him with an out-of-the-blue telephone call to Australia. Butterfield also testified that Haldeman had insisted, as a hiring condition, that Butterfield resign from the Air Force. Both claims were false. It was Butterfield’s letter that came out of the blue, and Haldeman told his old acquaintance he could keep his military commission and be “detailed” to the White House, a common practice. It had been Butterfield who insisted on resigning from the Air Force. Butterfield’s lies went unchallenged until 1978, when Haldeman—by then serving a prison sentence for his convictions in the Watergate cover-up case—published his memoir, The Ends of Power. “It didn’t make sense to me,” Haldeman wrote. “Why does he distort the facts now unless he has something to hide?”
Readers imagining Woodward would get to the bottom of this mystery, somewhere in his 46 hours of taped interviews with Butterfield, will be disappointed. In the footnote, Woodward says Butterfield “omitted” from his testimony the fact that he had contacted Haldeman first. But that is false. Butterfield didn’t “omit” his initiation of contact with Haldeman; he lied and claimed Haldeman had been the initiator: “I was surprised to receive the phone call,” Butterfield had testified, with a flourish.
“Butterfield told me that he had asked Haldeman to omit that part of the story,” Woodward writes here. So why, exactly, did Butterfield seek Haldeman’s collusion in a lie? Woodward offers no elaboration. If Butterfield is important enough to focus on at book length, wouldn’t the lies he has told about how he inserted himself at the last minute into the inner orbit of the president warrant the author’s attention?
Haldeman had his own ideas. “Was the White House filled with plants from other agencies, most particularly the CIA?” he asked in Ends of Power. “The overwhelming evidence is that it was. But was Butterfield one of them? It’s hard for me to believe it—but the ‘facts’ in the story he constantly gives the press disconcert me.” Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s longtime secretary, also harbored suspicions about Butterfield, originating with the way he vaulted himself into one of the most sensitive positions around the man she had served for two decades and ending with the betrayal of Nixon’s most explosive secret: that he taped himself.
In installing the taping system in February 1971, Butterfield observed a restriction placed by Nixon himself: Don’t use the military (no surprise there). So Butterfield turned to the Secret Service, whose technical division agents placed all the microphones in the Oval Office and Nixon’s other taping locations; hooked the microphones up to state-of-the-art voice-activated recorders; wired the system to a blinking-light tracker for the president, which notified agents whenever Nixon moved from room to room; changed each reel-to-reel tape as it filled up with recorded material; hastily labeled the tapes; and kept them in a West Wing office. The system operated in this way until Butterfield spilled the beans to the Senate Watergate committee.
In Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA (1984), Jim Hougan reported the previously unpublished account of William McMahon, a CIA technician who was detailed to the Secret Service unit that managed the taping system. According to McMahon, the agency was aggressively “lending” technicians to the unit, which was already fully staffed. “I don’t know what they were up to,” McMahon said, “but the fact of the matter is you had these guys from [the CIA’s] Office of Security working in the White House under Secret Service cover.” As Hougan noted, this situation “amounted to the calculated infiltration of a uniquely sensitive Secret Service unit: the staff responsible for maintaining and servicing the presidential taping system.” Indeed, the CIA’s inspector general reported in 1975, after Nixon had resigned, that CIA agents had been placed in “intimate components of the Office of the President.”
Could Butterfield have been one of them? The years preceding his successful approach to Haldeman hadn’t seen Butterfield toiling exclusively in the obscurity of Australia. In the Air Force, Butterfield spent two years as an intelligence officer in Vietnam, commanding all low- and medium-level reconnaissance flights. “We were really intelligence collectors in every sense of the word,” Butterfield would say of this period, in an hour-long interview with me in October 1994. He added: “I ran another program I can’t talk about. I ran one element, or one facet, of a program…in the Far East, which was a CIA program.” By late 1964, Butterfield was detailed to the policy directorate of war plans in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There his duties included counterinsurgency planning and management of the program that resettled Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion. This latter project Butterfield inherited from his new colleague at the Pentagon: Lt. Col. Alexander Haig.
Butterfield told the authors of Silent Coup, in four hours of taped interviews, that he performed “a lot of undercover stuff” at the Pentagon—during a period when he was spending, by his own account, 20 hours a week “minimum” at the Johnson White House and “was like a fly on the wall in all these meetings up in the president’s bedroom at one a.m.” When he left the Pentagon in 1967, assigned to Canberra as the senior U.S. military officer in Australia, Butterfield again enjoyed frequent dealings with the CIA as the Defense Department liaison to the agency in-country. “I was the point of contact, the principal point of contact, for the CIA,” Butterfield told me.
What did that mean, exactly? “Well, I can’t tell you any more than that…. If someone wanted to get in touch with the CIA, they could come to my office.”
In short, if Butterfield wasn’t a plant in the Nixon White House, his experiences in the Johnson administration make clear the buttoned-down Air Force colonel was well suited—if not trained—for such a mission. Of this history of his subject, his peculiar background and agency connections, Woodward mentions nothing.I
n truth, Bob Woodward was a player, not a chronicler, in Watergate. Never was this clearer than in the crucial role he played in the making of Butterfield’s bombshell testimony about the White House tapes.
In The Last of the President’s Men, Woodward acknowledges that it was his recommendation of his childhood friend Scott Armstrong that landed the latter a plum job as an investigator for the Senate Watergate committee. As Woodward explains it, he himself rebuffed a job offer from the committee’s Democratic majority counsel, Sam Dash. A former federal prosecutor and ardent liberal opponent of the Nixon administration, Dash told the authors of Silent Coup that Woodward had also told “us to talk to certain secretaries” in the Nixon White House and reelection campaign.
Woodward does not address longstanding allegations about his relationship with Armstrong. The late Fred Thompson, who served as the Watergate committee’s minority counsel two decades before he was elected senator from Tennessee, wrote in his Watergate memoir, At That Point in Time (1975), that he “more than once…accused Armstrong of being Woodward’s source” for committee leaks to the Post. In later years, Armstrong acknowledged that he “was designated as Woodward’s point of contact on the committee.” One of Armstrong’s fellow Senate investigators, James Hamilton, later recalled, “Woodward was of the opinion” that the panel needed to call Alexander Butterfield as a witness. Nowhere does the author pause to ponder the ethical considerations that arise when the Washington Post’s leading Watergate reporter is recommending personnel and witnesses to the investigative staff of the Senate Watergate committee.
That Scott Armstrong should subsequently have emerged as one of the two committee investigators who elicited the momentous testimony from Butterfield (in executive session, three days before the televised testimony of July 16, 1973 that stunned the nation) is, presumably, another “wiring-diagram issue” that Woodward sees no need to reckon with. Ditto for the decision by Woodward and Bernstein to take a pass on reporting Armstrong’s astonishing discovery. In All the President’s Men, they admit having learned from “a senior member of the committee’s investigative staff” about the taping system a full two days before Butterfield gave his televised testimony. Their decision not to reveal what they had learned allowed Butterfield’s bombshell to drop on live TV unimpeded—and thereby deprived President Nixon of an opportunity to seek to curtail his aide’s testimony by invoking executive privilege.
Here is still another subject Woodward skirts in The Last of the President’s Men: the decision by Nixon’s counsel and top aides, including the ubiquitous Alexander Haig, to withhold from the president their knowledge that Butterfield was fully cooperating with the Senate committee. One of the most impressive chapters in Silent Coup, entitled “Five Days in July,” examined in minute-by-minute detail the chronology of the deathblow. It was on July 12 that Butterfield was called to testify (summoned on Woodward’s recommendation); it was the next day, a Friday, that Butterfield dropped his bomb, in executive session, to GOP investigator Donald Sanders and Armstrong (hired on Woodward’s recommendation); it was over that weekend that Butterfield notified his superiors in the Nixon White House of what had transpired (and Armstrong tipped off Woodward, who sat on the tip); it was over that same weekend that Nixon’s aides and lawyers met with him repeatedly but never saw fit to mention to him anything about Butterfield and the committee; and it was on that Monday, July 16—shortly before Butterfield was to testify in open session, on live television—that those aides finally, belatedly informed the president of what was to happen, by which time Nixon no longer held any options for averting it.
It requires a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Nixon presidency just to know what’s not in it, and why such omissions are telling.Since the bulk of Woodward’s book focuses on this turning point in the Nixon presidency, shouldn’t the author have exhibited some interest in credible allegations, backed up by archival documentation, that Nixon’s aides conspired to tie his hands, preventing him from moving to block Butterfield’s testimony? Was Nixon unentitled to due process and a chance to press an executive-privilege claim over Butterfield’s testimony and the tapes whose existence he was disclosing?
Or would thorough exploration of such matters lead to uncomfortable questions about Woodward’s seminal role in the events that led to the Butterfield bombshell?T
here is still more that Woodward chooses to ignore in his book about Alexander Butterfield—such as Butterfield’s conclusion that Alexander Haig, while turning over documents to investigators in the summer of 1974, sought to replace a Butterfield memorandum from 1970 with a forged copy that redacted several incriminating references to Haig in the original. (“He was the chief suspect,” Butterfield told the authors of Silent Coup about the forgery.) The substance of the 1970 memo, and the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the forgery, are not important in this context; I mention it simply by way of asking how an author can aspire to a comprehensive portrait of a U.S. official yet show zero interest (zilch!) in an episode in which his protagonist discovered himself to have been the victim of a forgery, with the original and the fake both reproduced in the official volumes of evidence published by the House Judiciary Committee.
In short, The Last of the President’s Men warrants careful handling. It requires a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Nixon presidency just to know what’s not in it, and why such omissions are telling. Suffice to say that whoever undertakes someday to write the definitive biography of Bob Woodward will have much to decipher and unravel, and that the legend’s own books—absent a candid autobiography—will be of only limited value in the enterprise.
2 Not until October 2000 did I become the first researcher to obtain from the National Archives the tapes of the December 21 evening session, as well as the tapes of all of Nixon’s follow-up meetings and telephone calls relating to the Moorer-Radford affair. The contents of these tapes I published in a lengthy article for the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “Nixon and the Chiefs,” in April 2002.
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Bob Woodward’s Sins of Omission
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
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Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages