Composite Wisdom Right
Television was banned from the Lapius ménage. Only twice since I knew him had he relented. The first time was during the senate hearings on Watergate, and this, the second, during the House Judiciary Committee hearings and the subsequent resignation. On each occasion Lapius rented a color video. “They are too tempting to keep on hand,” he told me when I suggested that the ban might somehow be related to his frugal nature.
However, during the dramatic national trauma, Lapius was glued to the set and brooked no interruption save his own, when he took the time to interpret the obvious. “We are privileged to observe the constitutional system functioning in living color,” he said. “Where else could this occur?” he noted again and again in wonderment, then shushed me with a wave of his hand when I tried to answer.
So through the long hours we watched and listened to the legal arguments, the appraisals, the rebuttals, the votes on the various articles of impeachment. We sat silently through Mr. Nixon’s last official televised appearance before the American people, and then his tearful farewell, where he manifested the humility that might have avoided for him this terrible moment had it surfaced at the beginning of Watergate.
We heard Gerry Ford’s first speech, and watched as he grew in stature before our eyes, from ‘Gerry’ to Gerald Ford, President of the United States, sort of a playback in reverse of President Nixon, becoming human again as he doffed the mantle of presidential power to appear before us in the simple raiment of the ordinary citizen.
“The transformations are unbelievable,” Lapius mused, turning off the set when it was all over.
“Could we watch ‘Kojak’ since we have the set?” I asked.
“Absolutely not. The ban is reinstated, Harry. The set is being returned in the morning. What a week. Unbelievable.”
“Why so surprised?” I asked. “There was no doubt in your mind that this would happen, was there?”
“Nonetheless, Harry, it is still a stunning event. After all, one can anticipate an execution, but still be shocked to observe the head falling into the basket. Watching one’s leader deposed in a methodical parliamentary manner, without shouting or turmoil, with proper attention to legal scruples, is a majestic, albeit sad event.”
“How do you feel about it?”
“It had to be done, Harry. The man undermined basic constitutional tenets. He lied to his constituency, and finally troubled the conscience of the nation.”
“I’ll never understand how he allowed himself to get into such a mess. His loyalty to his cronies certainly exceeded his loyalty to his oath of office.”
“True,” said Lapius, “and he brought down Teddy Kennedy with him. Kennedy, after all, was guilty of something quite similar in the Kopechne case. The nation will never vote him into the presidency now. We have had a tremendous lesson in constitutional democracy.”
“Indeed we have. How about letting me watch Kojak?”
Lapius ignored the request. “There is a saying on Wall Street that ‘the little man is always wrong’. Not so, Harry. The so called little man, or should I say the composite wisdom of the little man, is always right. None of this would have happened had not Nixon lost his support among the people….”
“He never admitted that he had made a mistake.” I noted.
“And never will. I suspect that he doesn’t understand quite what it was that he did that was wrong. It is interesting that the Nixon haters blame him for Erlichman and Halderman, but fail to credit him for Kissinger; and the Nixon partisans credit him with Kissinger, and try to divorce him from Erlichman and the others. The problem is that he must be held responsible for the good and the bad of his administration.”
“I suspect,” Lapius continued, “the secret of the paradox is that the ex-president was not able to distinguish right from wrong in a moral sense. There are people like that. Tone deaf to the ethical values of a society. As a result he was able to function effectively and to everybody’s advantage in the international arena but he flunked at home.”
“International relations exist in a vacuum. They are amoral. There is no effective basic morality common to all nations, and if there were, no effective force exists to police them. Nixon could do a lot of free-wheeling in these areas, untroubled, as he seems to be by the ordinary conscience. But the same free-wheeling, expedient tactics at home cut across the national ethic. He got into trouble because he was never tuned in to the fundamental constitutional considerations which, as we have seen, is the glue that holds this nation together. No one really cared about his sharp tax practices, or even the political funds, not as a basis of impeachment, anyway. We forgive human weakness, except when it attacks the basis on which the nation was founded. As a matter of fact, we have just witnessed politics in its finest hour, where the balance of forces between the legislative executive and judicial branches of government really worked. Too bad we won’t be seeing more of that.”
“You want more of that kind of national nightmare?” I asked in astonishment.
“It is invigorating,” Lapius said. “But certainly I don’t want it on that scale. But the bustle of politics it’s healthy. Unfortunately the political arena is being displaced by administrative power inflicted on us by Congress. There is no give and take in administrative law. The only recourse is to the courts. I wager that in the next score years there will be less political than judicial turmoil. Once people realize that they can’t untangle the intricate web of overlapping law that binds us dictatorially they will take to the courts in great debates, and that will be a tragedy.”
“Why that more tragic than this?”
“Because the Supreme Court doesn’t allow its deliberations to be telecast,” Lapius said mournfully. “Where are you going?” Lapius asked, as I started towards the door.
“To the local Pub to watch Kojak.” I said, waving goodbye.