I asked John Dean a few questions about his new book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, during the FDL Book Salon.

1) After listening to hundreds of hours of all conversations did President “Sock it to me” Nixon tell any good jokes? Were they dirty? Racist or sexist? His answer was, “Bottom line: Richard Nixon had almost no sense of humor whatsoever.” My suspicion, confirmed!

2) What did he think Cheney and Rumsfeld learned from the Watergate Scandal? His reply:

Rumsfeld and Cheney volunteered to help Nixon when he was sinking, but Nixon did not trust Rumsfeld (he didn’t know Cheney). Needless to say, it is pure speculation as to what Rummy and Dick ‘learned’ from Watergate. I gave my views on the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld presidency in ‘Worse Than Watergate,’ explaining how they imposed secrecy way beyond Nixon. This was how they got away with blatant violations of law that make Watergate look like little league. I am not sure that Richard Nixon in one of his darkest moods would have authorized torture! 

That last sentence surprised me. So I asked for more insight.

What would Nixon’s reasons have been for not torturing people? Was he close enough to WWII and the Nuremberg trials to remember war crimes? Was it about American ideals? Religious ideals? Did he not have a John Yoo writing legal memos for him?

John Dean August 30th, 2014 at 4:58 pm
In response to spocko @ 114 (show text)

Nixon served in the South Pacific during WWII, and was familiar with the horrors of Japanese torture, so I cannot believe he would have lowered the USA to tolerate such horrific behavior. With foreign policy, Nixon seemed to understand what today we call “blow-back” and that by our engaging in torture he would expose Americans soldiers (if not all Americans) to torture, just as we are seeing with Americans being captured by ISIL. Bush/Cheney have subjected any and every American kidnapped or captured to torture by the likes of ISIL. It is a decision that is going to haunt us and the world for untold decades.

Had the Book Salon not ended, my next question to Dean would have been, “How did we go from Nixon’s views torture and why he understood it was wrong, to Cheney being proud of ‘enhanced interrogation‘ techniques? Also, why won’t Obama’s admission, ‘We tortured some folks’ lead to prosecution?” Maybe another interviewer will ask Dean this or Digby’s friend Rick Perlstein can take a crack at answering the question.

The answer to this question could probably fill several books, luckily I just happened to read a great one that helps explain part of it. Rebecca Gordon has a new book out called Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post – 9/11 United States. Gordon walks the reader through the problem, how we think and talk about torture and how institutionalized state torture is carried out by the United States.

I tend to get very worked up when talking about torture, so much so that it gets in the way of my conversation at parties. “Look out, Spocko wants to talk about torture accountability and the Taguba report again, hide!” Fortunately for me, Mrs. Spocko knows I have this interest, and she bought me Gordon’s book for my birthday. She also knows that understanding isn’t enough for me, I want to do something about the problem.

Fortunately, unlike a number of books that are great at describing the problem, this book has some suggestions on what to do about it in the short, medium and long term. She also emphasizes the personal importance of individuals doing something about torture. In my case I started pushing back at the torture supporters on right wing radio.

If we look at why Nixon, one of our nastier Presidents, didn’t authorize overt torture, but other Presidents did, we might see how it was made acceptable and then develop and reestablish the ethical, intellectual, legal and practical reasons to stop it.

I have often thought that the entire content of this book could be expressed in five words: Torture is wrong. Stop it. –Rebecca Gordon, Mainstreaming Torture

But can we really stop it? Isn’t the water out of the water-boarding bucket forever?

See no Torture, Say no Torture

This weekend was the 10th anniversary of the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. The New York Times thinks we should release the other photos. Remember when they first came out? The RW media went on the air to defend the torture. Rush Limbaugh, “… I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?”

Besides redefining torture for their base, they influenced the mainstream media, who react to their extremist views. Since the RW media did not categorically denounce torture, it opened up the discussion to the answer the MSM loves to give. “The truth” is “somewhere in the middle.”

Gordon calls this obfuscating technique used by the pro-torture people “rhetorical denial,” I call it lying BS. When RW media stars say it’s not torture but “enhanced interrogation” listeners believe them. After all, they both hate the same people. But when a journalistic entity like The New York Times won’t call it torture either, that’s a huge linguistic win for Bush/Cheney. As Rush might say, “Even the drive-by media won’t call it torture!”

I think declassifying the other Abu Ghraib photos and correcting the deceitful linguistic phrase “enhanced interrogation” are important steps on the path to accountability. But the intellectual authors of torture have still avoided accountability. They have convinced millions of Americans that preventing terrorist attacks sometimes requires torture.

  • How pathetic is it that our best legal minds can’t deconstruct and invalidate Bybee’s and Yoo’s arguments? (Or at least figure out a way to cut into their post-WH speaking fees?)
  • How sad is it that our fiction writers lazily continue to use torture as a tension-creating plot device?
  • How disgusting is it that the RW media infected not only their base, but mainstream thinking that torture is necessary and to not torture is “recklessness clothed in righteousness.”

Many people see Nixon’s resignation as a branching point in history. However, perhaps it’s Ford’s pardon, rather than Nixon’s resignation, that is the branching point. The decision to not prosecute means justice has not been served. How often in the Obama administration has prosecution been taken off the table? What would it take to put it back on?

John Dean’s refusal to go along with the cover up was very courageous. In the book Gordon talks about courageous people in El Salvador and Chile who stood up to torturers. It doesn’t require that level of bravery here in the US, but it will require pushing against some newly accepted notions of what “must be done” to stay safe.

How are we currently standing up to the people who created, participated in and are currently defending our state institutionalized torture? Do we challenge the creators in the CIA? The intellectual authors? The torturers in the field? The people engaging in BS lying and building consensus that torture is necessary for safety?  Our current President?

Last week I wrote about a CEO who kicked a dog which generated international outrage. We can learn a lot from that event including the need to be creative when challenging powerful people. The next time a reason is given why we can’t close Gitmo or we can’t prosecute the intellectual authors of torture, I’d like people to think, “Is there some creative route to justice I can make happen?”  Can that cop TV drama I am writing include a scene that doesn’t involve torture? Might I challenge some “rhetorical denial” in my own backyard?

I know it’s not a lot of fun to read about torture. I’d much rather read the funniest jokes that came out of the Nixon White House, but it looks like there aren’t any.  Plus, I’m tired of living in fear.  I don’t want to look to Nixon (!) to see and remember what an American President’s attitude toward torture should be. There are steps we can take, so let’s take them so we will not be, “worse than Nixon.”

Crossed posted at Hullabaloo and Spocko’s Brain

I just heard from Gordon, who happens to be on book tour. Here’s a list of locations.  And if your spouse didn’t get you a book on torture for your birthday you can pick one up online or at an independent book store.