Monday, February 23, 2009

The Canon According To David Greenberg

Jeremy Young gently disputes the idea, proffered by historian David Greenberg, that those who take issue with certain Watergate verities are akin to global warming deniers. Here's how New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt put it on Sunday as he repudiated the work of his colleague Patricia Cohen:
David Greenberg, a Rutgers historian and the author of “Nixon’s Shadow,” argued that the tale did not involve a significant dispute and was more like the Watergate version of global warming, with most historians long ago coming to a consensus and only a few outliers arguing against it. “Professional scholarly consensus is not sacrosanct, but it should count for a lot,” he said.
Hoyt's article may need a review of its own. The positioning of the Greenberg quotation suggests the historian was saying that there's a nearly sacrosanct scholarly consensus about Stanley Kutler's Watergate transcripts as published in his book Abuse Of Power. There's obviously no such thing. Kutler freely admits that he prepared his transcripts quickly and that they contain errors. Several scholars have pointed some of them out, and another is evidently poised to do so. What was at issue in the original Times story was whether Kutler edited the transcripts deceptively, with an eye to telling the story he wanted to tell. If there's a consensus about anything in this controversy, it's that having careful, authoritative transcripts of Watergate conversations would be a boon to historians and history.

My guess is that Greenberg was talking to Hoyt not about the transcripts controversy but about writers such as Len Colodny, James Hougan, Russ Baker, Joan Hoff, Jonathan Aitken, and James Rosen, all of whom look at Watergate differently than most. Several claim that White House counsel John Dean was not only more involved in the cover-up than commonly thought but also an originator of the Watergate break-ins themselves. Are these the writers whom Hoyt, and by implication Greenberg, call outliers, the moral equivalent of global warning deniers? If so, Hoyt should have made that more clear, especially since the upshot of his critique is that his colleague Cohen was careless about such nuances in her original article.

As for Greenberg and others in the Hoyt article who evidently are now to be understood as defenders of the one true faith of Watergate, few are entirely blameless themselves. Without evidence, Greenberg accused the authors of the now-removed Watergate gallery at the private Nixon Library of being liars, either for saying the 18.5-minute gap might have been accidental or for pointing out that some Democratic members of the House hoped to maneuver Speaker Carl Albert into the Presidency. In his book Nixonland, Rick Perlstein, whom Hoyt also quotes as denouncing Kutler's critics, misconstrued a secondary source to make it appear as though President Nixon had authorized the September 1971 Lewis Fielding burglary in advance. And Kutler has yet to explain why he edited his transcript of a July 1972 conversation to obscure its true subject matter and later incorrectly claimed to an Orange County Register reporter that the tape proved that Nixon had known about the Fielding job earlier than he'd always claimed.

That's two historians trying to pin a crime on the late President that he didn't commit and another unfairly attacking the former administrators of his library because they had the gall to present inconvenient nuances to museumgoers. With these supposedly dispassionate professionals trying so hard to prove their points even when the record says otherwise, perhaps we may conclude that the Watergate canon isn't quite as fixed as Hoyt and others would have us believe.

Hat tip to Maarja Krusten

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