On the imagining of conspiracy

Christopher Hitchens

  • Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer
    Joseph, 1122 pp, £15.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7181 2934 2
  • A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs by Theodore Draper
    Hill and Wang, 690 pp, $27.95, June 1991, ISBN 0 8090 9613 7

Fine phrases about the freedom of the individual and the inviolability of the home were exchanged between the Minister of State and the Prefect, to whom M. de Sérisy pointed out that the major interests of the country sometimes required secret illegalities, crime beginning only when State means were applied to private interests.

If ever a man feels the sweetness, the utility of friendship, must it not be that moral leper called by the crowd a spy, by the common people a nark, by the administration an agent?

Honoré de Balzac: A Harlot High and Low

Those who complain of the banality of American political life seem at first review to have every sort of justification. Political parties are vestigial; the ideological temperature is kept as nearly as is bearable to ‘room’; there is no Parliamentary dialectic in Congressional ‘debates’; elections are a drawn-out catchpenny charade invariably won, as Gore Vidal points out, by the abstainers; the political idiom is a consensual form (‘healing process’, ‘bipartisan’, ‘dialogue’) of langue de bois and the pundits are of a greyness and mediocrity better passed over than described. Periodic inquests are convened, usually by means of the stupid aggregate of the opinion poll, to express concern about apathy and depoliticisation, but it’s more consoling to assume that people’s immense indifference is itself a wholesome symptom of disdain.

Yet now and then, there are thumps and crashes behind this great, grey safety-curtain, and unsightly bulges appear in it, and sometimes great rips and tears. Politics here a bit trite, you say? Perhaps. But the following things really happened. President Kennedy was shot down in the light of broad day. His assassin was murdered on camera while in maximum security. Richard Nixon’s intimates fed high-denomination dollar bills into a shredder in order to disguise their provenance in the empire of – Howard Hughes? Marilyn Monroe fucked both Kennedy brothers before taking her own life, if she did indeed take it. Frank Sinatra raised money for the Reagans and acted as at least a confidante to the First Lady. Norman Podhoretz’s son-in-law Elliott Abrams, while working as Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State, dunned the Sultan of Brunei for a $10 million backhander to the Contras and then lost the money in a Swiss computer error. Ronald Reagan sent three envoys with a cake and a Bible to Tehran to discuss an arms-for-hostages trade with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Robert Macnamara went to a briefing on Cuba believing that it was more than likely that he would not live through the weekend. The Central Intelligence Agency was caught, in collusion with the Mafia, plotting to poison Fidel Castro’s cigars. Ronald Reagan’s White House was run to astrological time, and its chief spent his evenings discussing Armageddon theology with strangers. Oliver North recruited convicted narcotics smugglers to run the secret war against Nicaragua. George Bush recruited Manuel Noriega to the CIA. As the Watergate hounds closed in, Henry Kissinger was implored to sink to his Jewish knees and join Richard Nixon in prayer on the Oval Office carpet, and complied. Klaus Barbie was plucked from the SS ‘Most Wanted’ list and, with many of his confrères, given a second career in American Intelligence. J. Edgar Hoover amassed tapes of sexual indiscretion in Washington, partly for his own prurient needs and partly for the ends of power. He caused blackmail letters to be sent from the FBI to Dr Martin Luther King, urging him to commit suicide.

Historians and journalists have never quite known what to do about these sorts of disclosure. They have never known whether to treat such episodes as normal or exceptional. It is, for example, perfectly true to say that the whole Vietnam intervention began with a consciously contrived military provocation in the Gulf of Tonkin, followed by a carefully-told lie to the Senate. But can we tell the schoolchildren that? Then again, it now looks very much like being established that the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 went behind President Carter’s back and made a private understanding with the Iranians about the American diplomatic hostages. But those hostages were the original cause of the yellow ribbon movement! Can a piece of fraud and treason really have been the foundation of the storied ‘Reagan revolution’?

Contemporary historians like Theodore Draper, Arthur Schlesinger and Garry Wills, or political journalists like Seymour Hersh, Lou Cannon and Robert Woodward, deal with this difficulty in various ways, but seldom succeed for long in firing the general consciousness. This is because they are either apologists for power (Schlesinger, Woodward) or its intimates (Schlesinger, Woodward) or politically conditioned to disbelieve the worst (Schlesinger, Woodward). Men like Wills and Draper, on the other hand, are almost too bloody rational. They are careful to speak truth to power and to weigh evidence with scruple, but they are wedded to the respectable and predictable rhythms of academe, of research, of high and serious mentation. They find and pronounce on corruption and malfeasance, and gravely too, but it’s always as if the horror is somehow an invasion or interruption. This is why the permanent underworld of American public life has only ever been captured and distilled by novelists.

Mass culture in America, contrary to report, has no great resistance to believing in official evil. The citizenry stoically watches movies in which the cop is the criminal, the President is the crook, the CIA is a double-cross and the dope is dealt by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The great cult film of all time in this respect is George Axelrod’s and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, withdrawn from circulation after the Kennedy assassination but now available again in cassette form. And the great artistic and emblematic coincidence of the movie is the playing of the good guy by Frank Sinatra – the only man to have had a real-life role in both the Kennedy and Reagan regimes, as well as a real-world position in the milieu of organised crime and disordered ‘Intelligence’. The Manchurian Candidate began as a novel by Richard Condon, who with Don DeLillo has done more to anatomise and dramatise the world of covert action than any ‘authorised’ chronicler. Before discussing Norman Mailer’s magisterial bid for dominance in this field, I want to use Richard Condon to anticipate a common liberal objection – the objection that all this is ‘conspiracy theory’.

One has become used to this stolid, complacent return serve: so apparently grounded in reason and scepticism but so often naive and one-dimensional. In one way, the so-called ‘conspiracy theory’ need be no more than the mind’s needful search for an explanation, or for an alternative to credulity. If one exempts things like anti-semitism or fear of Freemasons, which belong more properly to the world of post-Salem paranoia and have been ably dealt with by Professor Richard Hofstadter in his study The Paranoid Style in American Politics, then modern American conspiracy theory begins with the Warren Commission. There had been toxic political speculation at high level before, as when certain people thought that there was something too convenient about the Lusitania for President Woodrow Wilson, and too easy about Pearl Harbour for President Franklin Roosevelt – both of these, incidentally, hypotheses which later Churchill historians are finding harder to dismiss – but such arguments had been subsumed in the long withdrawing roar of American isolationism. The events in Dealey Plaza and the Dallas Police Department in November 1963 were at once impressed on every American. And the Warren Commission of Inquiry came up with an explanation which, it is pretty safe to say, nobody really believes. Conspiracy theory thus becomes an ailment of democracy. It is the white noise which moves in to fill the vacuity of the official version. To blame the theorists is therefore to look at only half the story, and sometimes even less.

To take an obvious example, nobody refers to Keith Kyle as a ‘collusion theorist’ because he explodes the claim that Britain, France and Israel were not acting in concert in 1956. The term ‘organised crime’, which suggests permanent conspiracy, is necessary both to understand and to prosecute a certain culture of wrongdoing. And you may have noticed that those who are too quick to shout ‘conspiracy theorist’ are equally swift, when consequences for authority and consensus impend, to look serious and say: ‘It’s more complicated than that.’ These have become standard damage-control reflexes.

In his Kennedy assassination novel Winter Kills, Condon’s protagonist is Nick, the brother of the slain President. He has a grown-up adviser and protector named Keifetz: ‘Nick used to think that there was the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. It had taken Keifetz a long time to explain why this wasn’t so, but after that, after Nick had been able to comprehend that there was only one political party, formed by the two pretend parties wearing their labels like party hats and joining their hands in a circle around their prey, all the rest of it came much easier.’

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