Field of Dreams

Floyd Norris, the highly regarded finance columnist of The New York Times, took note in a provocative column last week of the widespread suspicion of Germany in Europe (“As Europe’s Currency Union Frays, Conspiracy Theories Fly”).

Just suppose, Norris wrote, that a newly-unified Germany had set out in 1992 to achieve the dominion it had twice before failed to achieve by force It couldn’t have done better than to acquiesce to the creation of the euro.

The logic would have gone like this:  As long as the euro’s value was held down by less competitive economies, a currency union would boost German exports.  That would be better than facing continuing competitive devaluations by its neighbors. And if interest rates remained low, as was customary in Germany, then countries long familiar with high rates might begin debt-financed expansions, ending in busts – at which point Germany could begin to impose its policies.

There was no evidence that this was a strategy, Norris wrote. But if it had been, the results would have been much the same as those that eventuated.  Once Ireland agreed to repay loans that had been made to its banks, assuring the solvency of Germany’s banks,  Berlin was in a position dictate terms of austerity to Europe’s other over-extended countries – Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

As a story of national ambition, however, I prefer the one that Martin Feldstein, of Harvard University, sketched in Project Syndicate last month (“France’s Broken Dream ”).

European unity has been a French project more or less since the beginning – the late 1940s, when two French politicians, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, proposed a United States of Europe. The idea was to diminish the conflicts that had led to two major wars in the twentieth century.  And if, as part of a larger role on the global stage for a European union, France’s sophisticated diplomatic service gradually gained a larger role in European and world affairs, then that would be all right, too.

The little free-trade zone (the European Coal and Steel Community, European Common Market, European Economic Community and European Community) gradually grew to become the European Euion was one thing.   The prospect of a single currency, broached in 1990 by a commission led by former French Finance Minister Jacques Delors, was another.

Germany resisted the euro, Feldstein wrote, arguing that political union should come first.  Since this was unthinkable, German opposition was tantamount to a veto.  Only after French President Francois Mitterand “made it a condition of France’s support of German reunification,” did Germany agree to the creation of the euro, he says; “The pro-euro politicians ignored economists’ warnings that imposing a single currency on a dozen heterogeneous countries was bound to create serious economic problems.  They regarded the economic risks as unimportant relative to their agenda of political unification. “

Feldstein has been a euro-skeptic for a quarter of a century. Now that Europe is once again a powder keg, his views deserve more careful hearing.  ”France’s ambition to dominate European policy has been thwarted,” he says; and with its weaknesses exposed by the crisis, “the euro will remain a source of trouble rather than a path to political power.”

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Today is the fortieth anniversary of the failed burglary that escalated into that great American convulsion known as Watergate. The penultimate battle of the Vietnam War? A political hinge upon which the era of the New Deal swung shut to reveal the beginnings of the Reagan Revolution? The ultimate validation of the paranoid-thriller sensibility that remains pervasive to the present day? The Watergate drama remains a great story in its own terms.  We’ve been arguing about its meaning ever since.

The Washington Post, which played such a central role in the saga, was glorying in it last week, as might be expected. Its coverage included articles by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Nixon Was Far Worse That We Thought; former editor Leonard Downie, Investigative Journalism Is At Risk;  Style reporter Marc Fisher on The Long Shadow of a Scandal;  and a special forum featuring key figures with PBS NewsHour broadcaster Jim Lehrer presiding.

What was striking was how little interested the newspaper was in how the story has been viewed by other journalists. I’m thinking mainly of Leak:Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, by Max Holland,  though there others, including  God and the Editor: My Search for Meaning at The New York Times, by Robert Phelps. As the Times’ news editor in Washington, Phelps was, for a time, a central figure. In two very interesting chapters, he relates how the Post team got ahead on the story, and how the Times then caught up and went beyond. (Neither of the Times big-foot reporters, Seymour Hersh and John Crewdson, have yet written Watergate books, and the feverish competition between the two papers  is ordinarily left out of the story.)

The big development in recent years, of course, was former J. Edgar Hoover deputy Mark Felt’s acknowledgement, first in an article in Vanity Fair, then in a self-serving book, A G-Man’s Life:  The FBI, Being “Deep Throat,” and the Struggle for Honor in Washington, of his role in the affair. Woodward’s own account of the relationship of the important source whose anonymity he protected:  The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s “Deep Throat” appeared as well.

Holland, an independent scholar, adds a good deal of new information to Woodward’s book.  His tendentious subtitle (that “why”) conveys the line of his argument. (He thinks Felt was single-mindedly using the Post to get rid of his outsider boss, L. Patrick Gray.) Even more interesting to my mind, though, is the how:  “Deep Throat” achieving his near-mythic status. Holland makes it clear how much the story changed as its mediators moved from Ben Bradlee, the Post’s top editor,  Howard Simons, the Post’s managing editor, and Barry Sussman, Post city editor,  to Alice Mayhew, of Simon and Schuster, editor of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men; to director Alan Pakula, who made the film version; and ultimately to actor Robert Redford, who played Woodward in the film and who recently announced plans to revisit the story in a documentary for his Sundance studio. It is enough to make you marvel at how wise is the chapter on the film in Mark Feeney’s Nixon at the Movies.

Almost none of this made it into the Post last week – an indication of how resistant even the best newspapers (perhaps especially the best) remain to the new open-architecture being forced on them by the Internet,

with respect to stories that formerly they believed they could control.  As it happens, there was a perfect person to write this reception story for the Post, perhaps in a form no more ambitious than a review of LeakAlicia Shepard, who last year completed a three-year term as ombudsman for National Public Radio, is author of Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, a painstaking examination of the tradecraft of the Watergate story that is similar in some respects to Sanford Unger’s classic The Papers & the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers. Instead, the Post invited her to rehash the role of Alexander Butterfield, the White House aide who revealed the existence of the Nixon tapes.

At least Shepard’s done the work. The reception story will continue, though not, apparently, in the Post.  Meanwhile, I can’t resist sharing one of the very good stories that Shepard dug out. She came across it at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, where Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate papers repose,  where she discovered five drafts of a single paragraph in All the President’s Men in which the two reporters sought to pay appropriate tribute to their rival Sy Hersh.

Whence the difficulty? Shepard writes about what she  learned (a slightly different version appears in Phelps’ book):

Hersh was a close friend of David Obst’s, Woodward and Bernstein’s agent. At one point Obst introduced the three intrepid reporters.

“We finally had this very funny clandestine meeting out in Virginia at a Chinese restaurant,” said Obst. “It was Nixon’s worst nightmare. It was like watching the World Series of Poker; Carl kept saying things, and Woodward gave him these withering looks, like shut up.

The upshot of the whole thing that’s a funny coda of  the piece,” continued Obst, “is that we went back after dinner to Larry Stern’s house., who was a wonderful reporter for the Post.  We were hanging out at Larry’s and having some drinks.  Sy is the most antisocial guy imaginable, and I wondered why he was there. Woodward comes back from calling the desk and he was white. Sy had broken this big story that was going in the Times the next morning about Watergate, and the Post needed to match it, and couldn’t find Woodward or Bernstein because Sy had taken them out that night.  Woodward was pissed.  They just stormed out of there.” (The story was that burglar James McCord had secretly testified that the cash payoffs to the burglars came from the president’s campaign fund.)

Ah, the days before cell phones!  As I say, Watergate remains a good story in journalistic terms.

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