The Time of Illusion

One of my favorite books to emerge from the Watergate era, and there are many, is Jonathan Schell’s The Time of Illusion.  In it, Schell discusses the myriad ways that the Nixon Administration created a world where truth didn’t matter; wars were fought, laws were made and lives were either exalted or destroyed based on the political needs of the moment.  It should come as no surprise that Karl Rove arose from the muck of this climate; what’s disturbing is that the politics of theatre and  contrived “battles” with one enemy or the other has lived on, and still confronts us to this day.

The first chapter, ironically entitled “Unity,” is eerily prescient of the airy dismissal of the “reality-based community” that we heard about so recently:

The Nixon Administration’s apparent ability in the summer of 1969 to establish an image of itself, and even of national life as a whole, that was sharply at odds with the facts marked a new stage in the public-relations revolution that had been underway in American politics for many years.

Bush’s “ranch” and “just folks” demeanor, along with a numbing series of photo ops, one during a terrorist attack, showed that early on Bush had adopted more than just Nixon’s Southern Strategy.  Schell adds:

They all soon realized that the resources for image-making available to a President were incomparably greater than those available to a candidate….  By using the resources of government to compose scenes rather than to solve real problems could build up an illusory world that not even the most determined reporters could tear down.

Fortunately for Bush, you could drop a bomb on Washington and not harm a “determined reporter” these days, but nonetheless we were continuously bombarded with Mt. Rushmore, Lady Liberty, the codpiece, and Jackson Square, to name only the most infamous, all of which were nothing but spectacles hoping to make Americans believe the opposite of the truth.  The lawlessness of Nixon and his successors, to Schell’s mind, came down to this same curious approach to reality.

The law is concerned with facts and substance.  But the Nixon Administration was concerned with appearances-with images.  The spirit of the law is impartial.  But the Nixon men were partisans to their bones.

Here one sees the seeds of the notion that brought forth the US Attorney scandal; it was just inconceivable to these men that their hirelings owed any authority to anything other than to the Decider, law or no law.  Continuing in this vein, Schell points out how Nixon’s men, like Bushes, had in their minds inverted the definition of rights, which are granted to the people, and powers, which are granted, in specifically limited terms, to the government.

… the officers of the Nixon Administration had fallen into the habit of defending their “right” to take this or that governmental action, as though they were put-upon citizens, not powerful figures in the government.

No wonder the same minds have now conceived of the “right” of torturers not to be prosecuted, in the same breath as they extoll the wisdom of wiretapping and preventatively detaining ordinary citizens.  Later, Schell writes something that had me tearing out my hair all during the Bush years, that is the formidable power that comes from lying.

The public had grown accustomed to deception and evasion in high places, but not yet to repeated, consistent, barefaced lying at all levels.  The very boldness of the lies raised the cost of contradicting them, for to do so would be to call high officials outright liars.  Another effective White House technique was to induce semi-informed or wholly uninformed spokesmen to deny charges.

This tactic was still working well into Bush’s second term, and it was telling that a good part of the “You Lie” controversy was not about the substance of the claims and counterclaims, but about the propriety of calling someone a liar.  Nixon must have been doing a little jig in Hell.

But finally, what Schell has to say about the use of war for political purposes, really the heart of the book, is the part I find most riveting and timely today, when the military brass is now in open rebellion against its own commander in chief.  According to this mentality, now so many decades old:

….a disastrous war effort was better than no war effort, because even a disastrous war effort would demonstrate a crucial “willingness” to use force in a nuclear age, and would advance American credibility.  ”We must have kept promises, been tough, taken risks, gotten bloodied, and hurt the enemy very badly.”

Those who fail to learn from history, and all that….  This book was written in 1975.


  1. Kitt says:

    At a time when there are those continuing to claim that Hussein was responsible for 9/11, and at a time when we’re “debating” how many lives and how much more money and years to spend on military in Afghanistan, not to mention that old handy standby of “we can’t leave until we’ve trained them to take over”, I’d say that jury is in on only one point: 35 years just ain’t enough to have learned a gawdanged thing.

  2. rmp says:

    We have a lot of illusion, but maybe even more delusion, “the state of being deluded.” Or to put it another way, too many Americans are being deluded through illusion. Kitt makes an excellent point about how little we have learned in the last 35 years or more. It’s almost unfathomable to me that we learned so little from Iraq or the Russians ten years in Afghanistan. But here we are. Killing more brave military pawns so men can play war games and make corporation leaders wealthier and keep politicians employed.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Just like in Vietnam, each subsequent lie is necessary to support the previous lies. The people telling the lies and the people who believed them are committed to making themselves not look like fools; they’re not interested in the truth. Schell called this “The Doctrine of Credibilty,” and it was meant, basically, to put off admitting error until someone else could be blamed.
      I believe the military bosses are setting up Obama for that duty right now.

  3. cocktailhag says:

    No, but boy, oh boy have we shown ourselves to be good at forgetting.

  4. dirigo says:

    Another way to look at the last thirty or so years of what passes for public dialogue in this country is to say the era represents, quite simply, a rout of mainstream intellectual thought.

    Take the spectacle of “Morning Joe” Scarborough chiding – rather gently it looks like (“Six Pack” Joe covets his base too) – the perceived excesses of Glenn Beck, a man-boy who has gotten so much attention for himself, especially by inflaming his kind of people – radio “zoo” listeners and their fellow travelers – that he is now getting air time on CBS News, sitting across from its principal anchor.

    I can’t watch or listen to Beck. I will not. He is an uneducated provocateur, a product of the ratings-obsessed morning radio game. Nothing more. President Obama may be turning into a wimp before our eyes; but he is intelligent and nuanced. He looks like he’s trying to work out some thorny issues (and my oh my, don’t we have them!); and all Beck can do is treat the president like a clown character from one of his old morning “zoo” shows, while inciting riot in the process.


    The only time lately when morning radio had anything remotely resembling intelligent talk for the masses was when the Don Imus show was on the air. But old Don blew himself up one day when he went a bridge too far about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. And that was the end of that. Now Don’s signal is coming out of RFD mailboxes and XM, if you can get it.

    Today, there is no place on the American radio spectrum, except for some public radio, where you can hear anything intelligent going on.

    To me, as a former broadcaster, with real experience in radio news and a love for the medium, Beck represents everything that has gone wrong in the business since the turn of the 1980s. And I’m long past believing anything can be done about it.

    All you have to do is read the multi-part series, now running at, to get the picture.

    While you’re reading – if you can stomach it – recall the famous, sepia-toned story of Ronald Reagan who, as a young radio lad in the 1930s, sat many times in front of the WHO/Des Moines studio microphone and made up narratives for various sports match-ups, as he scanned wire service reports, while recorded cheering played in the background.

    We’ve come a long way from the benign fakery of young Ronnie.

    Uhh … where are we exactly?

    • cocktailhag says:

      Well, I have to say that I find Thom Harmann, Ed Schultz, et al to be both informative and honest, so at least out on the left coast, there are some honest people on the radio. The Salon series on Beck has been excellent, and a nice counterpoint to the BS that Time just rolled out. I’m beginning to think that the smaller the medium, the more it can be trusted.

      • dirigo says:

        Right, so how would Beck fare here if he had to write and keep his yap shut?

        • cocktailhag says:

          Ther is no evidence thus far that he can write, and some evidence to the contrary…

          • dirigo says:

            Problee so!

            I just think it would be interesting, especially with the Internet (and with sterling blogs such to see how professional blabbermouths like Beck would handle things if he couldn’t talk and had to write instead.

            And only write.

            Or, failing that, type.

  5. cocktailhag says:

    Writing would never do fo those of Beck’s ilk; they’re not built for it. Sadly for them, they’re also not built for the days of youtube and media matters; they still think yesterday’s lies will vanish into the ether, making room for today’s lies. Good luck with that.

  6. dirigo says:

    I hope so, and there’s reason to think the worm is turning.

    I found the Scarborough segment very interesting, not because a former Florida Republican congressman is interesting (any more than a former Texas Republican congressman dancing on network television is interesting), but because he appeared to signal that the party’s got to get its act together.

    And none too soon either.

    Mike Barnicle, the former Boston-based newspaper columnist (he was fired by the Boston Globe some years ago for, as Wikpedia puts it, an “alleged fabrication” in a column), used a sports metaphor to serve as notice to Beck. Mike says Beck should be given a “walk” and then see how it goes.

    But the tepid Republican leadership is letting Limbaugh, Beck and the other “talkers” across the country inflame everybody.

    At the moment, they too are open to the charge of inciting riot.

    It’s not just entertainment, Glenn!

  7. This guy is desperate for attention and will be getting a lot of it in the years to come

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