By Peggy Noonan
Forty-one years ago, during a small and largely ignored government scandal, a great mystery occurred. A group of determined congressional investigators, who had learned the president of the United States was running a voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office, pressed to get their hands on the tapes. The courts ruled in their favor. The White House had to hand over a number of tapes. But it turned out one of them, which was understood by the timeline to potentially be the key one, the one that might reveal exactly how the scandal began, turned out to have an 18½-minute gap.
It came to pass that the longtime personal secretary of the president, Rose Mary Woods, who had been transcribing the tapes in preparation for turning them over, said she had made “a terrible mistake.” She had been listening to the tape when the phone rang; she turned, picked it up, meant to hit the stop button on the tape recorder but hit the record button instead, spoke on the phone for five minutes and when the conversation was over found that five minutes of the tape had been recorded over. Later, and doubly mysterious, it turned out that a total of 18½ minutes of the tape had been erased. No one knows to this day how that happened. The president’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, once mused it might have been the work of some “sinister force."
A few members of Congress went mad with fury, but nobody else really noticed or cared. It was a time of such drama—Vietnam, student demonstrations, a cascade of other scandals to distract the attention of the press. So everyone ignored what happened with the tape, and the Watergate scandal, as it was called, did not end in the impeachment of a president. It just went away, in time became “old news.” Well, the president had said there was “not even a smidgen” of corruption in the story, so there you are.
* * *
Ha, wait, that’s not what happened.
The 18½ minutes of destroyed evidence had a galvanizing effect on an already galvanized national scandal. Rose Mary Woods was hauled before a grand jury, questioned, derided, called a pawn in a criminal coverup. She endured for the rest of her life what the New York Times in its obituary called a “hideous, disfiguring fame.”
And Richard Nixon’s government of course came crashing down, as did he.
Why is this pertinent?
Because the Obama administration is experiencing what appears to be its own Eighteen-and-a-Half Minute moment. In a truly stunning development in the Internal Revenue Service scandal, the agency last week informed Congress that more than two years’ of Lois Lerner's email communications with those outside that agency—from 2009 to 2011, meaning the key years at the heart of the targeting-of-conservatives scandal—have gone missing. Quite strangely. The IRS says it cannot locate them. The reason is that Lerner’s computer crashed.
What are the implications of this claim? It means no one can see any emails Lerner sent to or received from other agencies and individuals, including the White House and members of Congress.
And what is amazing—not surprising, but amazing—is that if my experience of normal human conversation the past few days is any guide, very few people are talking about it and almost no one cares.
The IRS scandal as a news story carries a stigma, and the stigma is in part due to the fact that when it broke, when Lois Lerner last year made her admission, with a planted question at an American Bar Association gathering, that the IRS had made some mistakes with conservative groups, and disingenuously suggested the blame lay with incompetents in a field office far from the Beltway, conservatives and partisans jumped. The mainstream press was inclined to believe Lerner, or believe at least that a series of mistakes had produced a small if embarrassing so-called scandal. Some conservatives, activists and partisans, not all of them sincere and not all of them serious, viewed the story primarily as another cudgel to use against the president and his party. Some no doubt viewed it as a fundraising opportunity.
The press viewed it not as a story but as a partisan political drama. And in partisan political dramas they are very rarely on the Republican side.
I haven’t ever met a reporter or producer who wasn’t a conservative who didn’t believe the IRS scandal was the result of the bureaucratic confusion and incompetence of some office workers in Cincinnati who made a mistake.
But the IRS scandal is a scandal, and if you can’t see the relation between a strangely destroyed key piece of evidence in an ongoing scandal and what happened 41 years ago with a strangely destroyed key piece of evidence in an ongoing scandal, something is wrong not with the story but with your news judgment. (We won’t even go into the second story last week, that the IRS sent a big database full of confidential taxpayer information to the FBI.)
It would be very good to see the mainstream press call for a special prosecutor, fully armed with the powers to get to the bottom of the case.
Democrats don’t want this for the obvious reasons, and Republicans on the Hill haven’t wanted it because they want all the attention while they hold hearings. Why share the lights with a boring old independent investigator who’ll take his time? But the very number of hearings and their lack of effect makes Republicans look worse than incompetent workers in a field office. They have proved themselves no match for the administration, which runs circles around them delaying documentation and testifying in incomprehensible gobbledygook.
Moreover, Republicans are probably wrong that they help themselves with the base by showily going after the administration. Eric Cantor long supported Congressional prerogatives here before changing his mind just a month ago, and look where he is.
* * *
The mischief of the Nixon administration was specific to it, to its personnel. When Chuck Colson left, he left. All the figures in that drama failed to permanently disfigure the edifice of government. They got caught, and their particular brand of mischief ended.
But the IRS scandal is different, because if it isn’t stopped—if it isn’t fully uncovered, exposed, and its instigators held accountable—it will suggest an acceptance of the politicization of the IRS, and an expected and assumed partisanship within its future actions. That will be terrible not only for citizens but for the government itself.
And the IRS scandal will also have disfigured government in a new and killing way. IRS scandals in the past were about the powerful (Richard Nixon) abusing the powerful (Edward Bennett Williams). This scandal is about the powerful (Lois Lerner, et a.) abusing the not-powerful (normal, on-the-ground Americans such as rural tea-party groups). If it comes to be understood that this kind of thing is how the government now does business, it will be terrible for the spirit and reality of the country.
So many of those who decide what is news cannot, on this issue, see the good faith and honest concern of the many who make this warning. And really, that is tragic.
* * *
We end with an idea and a bonus memory.
It might be fun and instructive if a great wit did a fictional diary of Lois Lerner’s computer. Assuming that apart from being a U.S. government agency administrator she’s also a grim political operative; assuming that some part of her imagination told her that sooner or later the jig will be up, that internal investigators are coming; assuming it occurred to her that a number of unfortunately incriminating emails might be found on her computer; and assuming she is not technologically clever. What might it have been like that sultry summer of ’11, when Lois Lerner decided her computer had to go? Maybe she put it in the microwave, on high, for 13½ minutes. Maybe she tried to drown the computer in a pool. Maybe she took a hammer to it, like Kathy Bates in “Misery.” Maybe she had a merlot and cooked it over a little Sterno can on the buffet table outside. Maybe she ordered it to answer questions and it took the Fifth. (Maybe it turns out the National Security Agency has the emails. Maybe Edward Snowden can get them!)
I once met Rose Mary Woods at a gathering of old Nixon hands in the Reagan White House. I think it was a small party for Pat Buchanan, the communications director. It would have been the mid-1980s, more than a decade after Watergate. I turned and there was a fit, diminutive woman of perhaps 70, in a bright-patterned knee-length dress and matching jacket. Her reddish hair was in a bouffant. Her heels were light-colored, beige or white. She looked like a handsome lady of the Nixon era. She was cordial, friendly, but with the warmly guarded look of the accidentally infamous.
I remember it because about that time I was writing a book and pondering a certain magical aspect of the White House: At any given moment you might turn and see a human ghost, someone who’d been powerful or celebrated who had left, returned to life, and suddenly was back where he’d been a generation or two or three before.
They live in your imagination, they’re of another era, and suddenly they’re there, smiling over a glass of white wine.
Woods’s friends always believed her about the tapes, that she’d made an honest five-minute mistake. (They weren’t sure about the rest of it, the other 13½ minutes.) She was hardy and tough but had integrity and judgment—she wasn’t some grubby political operative who’d do or say anything. She probably turned down millions to write things like “The Dark Nixon I Knew,” for which in those days there was quite an appetite.
She died in her native Ohio in January 2005. At the end of that year, in a beautifully written (meaning beautifully thought and integrated) Christmas Day remembrance in the New York Times, Francis Wilkinson captured her high spirits when she was working for Richard Nixon in the 1950s and would end the day with officemates dancing at a local hotel. “In high-heeled shoes with ankle straps . . . Woods was a joyful sight, cutting loose after a 12-hour grind at the vice president’s side.”
She was one of those usually unknown people who populate government, who come from throughout the country drawn to Washington and wanting to help, wanting the sense of consequence and drama and meaning it can impart, who do their jobs well for many decades, who know what they know and then, eventually, go home. Those were good days, when everybody went home.