Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Hyman's Late Hit

Mark Hyman often uses ad hominem attacks as a means to an end. In his commentary about Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, however, personal attack is an end in itself.

More than a month after Vanity Fair revealed the identity of Bob Woodward’s clandestine source, Hyman delivers a late hit as he piles on the 91-year-old man, adding his own weight to that of former Nixon White House staff (e.g., Chuck Colson) and other Nixon apologists who have gone after Felt.

Hyman claims metaphysical certainty about what motivated Felt, saying that “the facts now before us” show that Felt acted out of anger and vindictiveness, not out of patriotism or a sense of conscience. This leads Hyman to pronounce that “Felt was just as bad as those he had sought to destroy” and “is a smaller than life man.”

You don’t need to think Felt is Norma Rae, Karen Silkwood, and Sinclair Lewis rolled into one uber whistleblower to see how twisted Hyman’s thinking is. I don’t think Felt is a particularly heroic man, but he did the right thing. Felt might not be larger than life, but to call him smaller than life and equate him with those who sought to pervert justice is logically and ethically indefensible.

For starters, Felt’s motives are not nearly as clear cut as Hyman would have them. True, Felt was angry at Nixon for naming L. Patrick Gray as interim head of the FBI after J. Edgar Hoover’s death, but to write off Felt’s frustration as merely personal doesn’t do justice to either Felt or history. The unprecedented appointment of a non-FBI man to head the agency was part of a larger effort by Nixon to get the agency to do his bidding. Chief among his goals was to get the FBI off of the Watergate investigation. Felt, along with other members of the FBI, were understandably upset and concerned about Nixon’s manipulation of a federal agency to which they had devoted their lives. Even if Felt was motivated by nothing other than internal FBI politics, the fact remains that he had more than his own personal advancement to motivate him.

But a larger point is to what extent should someone’s motivation color our judgment of their actions. The implication of Hyman’s argument is that it’s not simply enough to do the right thing—our motives for doing it must also be pure as the driven snow. If self interest plays a role in our decision, then we are (according to Hyman’s reckoning) “smaller than life.”

I wonder how many of us could defend even our noblest actions against this standard. Is the soldier who enlisted not because of a burning desire to serve his country but because he wanted to earn money for college “smaller than life” despite the fact that he’s on the ground in Iraq? What about the college student who volunteers at the burn unit of the local hospital, at least in part because she thinks the experience will help make her a more desirable applicant to medical school?

I don’t think we want to live in a world in which admirable actions are completely discounted if they aren’t purely altruistic. If Felt is tarred and feathered today because he lacked the proper saintliness, who will be willing to come forward tomorrow to testify to abuse of power in the highest places?

And if Felt was motivated by nothing other than self-interest, what are we to make of his long silence? Wouldn’t a man motivated by vengeance have lorded it over those he helped bring down? Wouldn’t he have cashed in long ago? Whatever evidence their might be that self-interest played a role in Felt’s decision, there’s also ample evidence that motivations beyond this were also involved.

True, Felt did some less than ethical things in the FBI (although Hyman fails to mention that the charges against Felt had to do with activities against leftist groups and that these actions were directed by the Nixon White House). And his motivations were probably a combination of personal, professional, and patriotic (unlike Hyman, I don’t claim to be able to judge Felt’s heart from afar to the extent that I can state his reasons for acting with certainty).

But the fact that Felt did the right thing (and that Nixon and his cohort of felons did the wrong thing) shouldn’t be any less clear for all that. Felt isn’t larger or smaller than life. He, like the rest of us, is a life-sized man, with everything that entails. And like the rest of us, he tried to judge the right thing to do from his limited perspective clouded by emotions and ego. Fortunately for us, he did the right thing 30 years ago. If we assume that good can only be done by plaster saints and give up on the idea that a sinner can be touched by grace (sometimes even in spite of himself), we will live in a bleak and gray world.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice! i think you'll have fun with the next one on euphimisms. i'm thinking about nominating it for hyman's tuxedoed end of the year (i.e. on vacation) "best of" retrospective. it's an instant classic.


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