Watergate as a Case Study in Management
Seldom if ever has a U.S. Administration fallen so far so fast as Nixon’s did in a single year. Last November, worldwide opinion applauded its diplomacy toward Moscow and Peking and its withdrawal of the U.S. from the Vietnam war. At home the more raucous and violent expressions of dissent had abated. The economy was on a steep upgrade. The voters were ready to give Nixon one of the most resounding victories in the U.S. electoral record. Now, Nixon’s Administration has lost diplomatic momentum, and its initiatives in domestic affairs have become fitful and feeble. Many key men of the 1972 Nixon ascendancy have departed, some in disgrace and some in disgust. So low has the Nixon political estate sunk that Spiro Agnew’s resignation may be viewed by the White House either as one more affliction of a Job-like President or as a respite that distracts attention from pressures nearer home.
The errant thread that, when pulled, unraveled Nixon’s skein of triumph was, of course, Watergate, the weird sequence beginning in the summer of 1971 before the break-in at the psychiatrist’s office and running on and on through the slow disintegration of the cover-up in 1973. Watergate will not become, as some of those hurt by it have suggested, a mere footnote to history. For generations ahead, political scientists, lawyers, and moralists will be sorting out this jumble of facts, quasi-facts, confessions, lies, and accusations. Since it involves organized activity, Watergate can also be approached as a study in management.
The prime measure of management is effectiveness—often expressed as a relation of benefit to cost. Although neither benefits nor costs need be monetary, effectiveness is a frankly pragmatic test, separated from larger considerations of legality and morality. Speaking managerially, one gang of assassins may be judged “better” than a rival gang. One monastery may be judged “better” than another although both pursue high ends with equal ardor. A well-run gang of assassins may even be “better”—managerially—than a sloppy monastery.
That kind of statement does not imply that management in real life has nothing to do with morality. Like any other specialized approach, a managerial analysis is incapable of expressing the whole truth about a messy mass of phenomena from which the material under study has been selected. A look at Watergate as management, then, is not meant to evade or supersede judgments made from political or legal or moral viewpoints. On the contrary, a management analysis may throw some peripheral light on larger issues, and vice versa.
An executive’s nightmare
Managerially, Watergate is an obvious disaster area. Its participants—whoever they may be assumed to be—incurred “costs” so much larger than “benefits” that it would be hard to think of an organized peacetime operation with an effectiveness rating farther on the wrong side of zero. Bad luck will not begin to explain the Watergate calamity. No matter which of many possible assumptions is adopted about how much Nixon knew at what “points in time,” Watergate from its start to the present reeks of mismanagement.
Especially conspicuous are defects in the lifeblood of organizations: accurate communication. The illustration opposite, drawn on the assumption that Nixon knew as little as he says he did, represents a manager’s nightmare: the wishes (or presumed wishes) of the chief executive are magnified and distorted as they move down through his hierarchy to the plane of action; on the other hand, information about what is actually going on is diminished as it moves toward the chief executive. The well-known management malady called constipated feedback seems to have been especially severe in the White House during the period of the cover-up when the President, on his own version of events, was isolated from both the activities of his aides and from rising public concern.
No doubt the universal managerial problem of communication is particularly difficult in the White House, where awe of presidential power can foster both overkill in efforts to serve and undue reticence in reporting unpleasant information. Such tendencies must be countered by presidential vigilance. After all, the essence of any President’s job is to stay in touch with the people. The main function of his staff is to help him do that. When the staff became more of a barrier than a conduit, failure in a central responsibility occurred.
An overcapitalized enterprise
But this is only one of a hundred managerial flaws that can be identified in the Watergate record. Organizational objectives were ill selected and ill defined. Choice of people, that key management function, was poor, not so much in terms of their over-all quality but rather in the casting for the particular roles they played; somewhere a personnel manual must exist that warns against slotting the likes of Liddy, Hunt, and Dean in the operational spots they came to occupy. Coordination was weak. Cooperators, who needed to communicate, didn’t. The enterprise was so overcapitalized that money was recklessly sloshed around in a way that facilitated detection. The burglaries were overmanned; nobody can argue with the judgment of the former New York cop, Anthony Ulasewicz, that professionals “would not have walked in with an army.” Indeed, analysis of Watergate can be discouraged or misled by the very richness of its pathology. So many people at so many levels in and around the White House made so many different kinds of mistakes that the observer is first tempted to say that this was the stupidest lot of managers ever assembled.
That lazy hypothesis is demolished by the plain fact that neither Richard Nixon nor the men around him are stupid—managerially or otherwise. Nixon is believed by some shrewd observers of government to be the most management-minded of recent Presidents. Those who viewed the parade of witnesses before the Ervin committee knew they were listening to intelligent men. Management analysis of Watergate, then, must turn upon the question of why officials, whose ability ranged from average to very high, made so many mistakes.
Much of the answer must lie in the ambience of the group, the cognitive and emotional patterns that permeated and shaped its organizational style. Such a collective atmosphere is not necessarily the exact sum of the attitudes, ideas, suppositions, desires, and values of the individuals who make up the group. Every organization has its own character, its own way of acting and reacting, and this quality powerfully colors what its members feel, think, say, and do within the organization. We will dig around in some Watergate material, starting at the bottom with the burglaries themselves, in an attempt to find the poisoned spring from which so much error flowed.
Hindsight makes it perfectly clear that nobody in or around the White House should have dabbled in burglary. But one of the attributes of management is supposed to be foresight. The quality of the decision to embark upon burglary must be appraised on the basis of what the deciders knew—or could have known—at the time of decision. The question may be cast in a strictly managerial form, leaving aside consideration of legality and morality: should an organization, not usually in the burglary business, diversify its activities in that direction?
The basic economy of burglary
Superficially, the prospect may seem inviting, just as people who pay restaurant checks are often seduced into believing that the restaurateur has an automatic and infallible surplus of benefits over costs. (A little research would show that more than half of new restaurants fail within a year.) White House staffers (no career burglars among them) were, like most of us, victims or potential victims of burglary. From that viewpoint, the burglar’s profit seems easy and assured. Again, a little research into the burglary industry would have disclosed a repellent picture.
Though the number of burglaries in the U.S. is high and rising (2,345,000 in 1972), the curve of growth has been flattening out—and no wonder. Total cost to the victims was an impressive $722 million (or $308 per job). But burglars, because of the severe markdown traditional in thieves’ markets, do not gain nearly as much as their victims lose. The actual take is probably closer to $200 per job, and this often has to be split among two or more perpetrators.
In the vast majority of burglaries, operating costs are so low as to be negligible. But risks, which are costs in posse, are formidable. While an individual netting $150 per job would have to commit fifty burglaries a year to achieve a modest income of $7,500 (tax-free, to be sure), the basic risk statistics of the industry indicate that one burglary in every five ends up with an arrest. Among adults arrested, half of those charged with burglary are convicted. Consequent unemployment and other costs reinforce the conclusion that burglary is not an activity that commends itself to mature and prudent people. No doubt that explains why half of all those arrested for burglary are under eighteen years old; the other half includes a high proportion of drug addicts, school dropouts, and persons otherwise disadvantaged and/or disturbed.
Target selection: poor
As every manager knows, attractive “special situations” sometimes appear in even those industries that are statistically most bleak. In the case of the Watergate sequence of burglaries, we have to ask whether the specific rewards that could reasonably be expected were so great or the specific risks so low as to overbalance the general probability that shows burglary to be a game for losers.
The sad truth is that the Watergate burglaries were “special situations” only in a negative sense: their prospective rewards were lower and their operating costs and contingent costs (risks) were both very much higher than in the modal U.S. burglary. The highest expectable benefit that could have been gained from the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist would have been a file containing otherwise unobtainable personal information about him, information that might have been used (although it isn’t clear how) to discredit him or to stop leaks. None of the White House deciders paused to note: (1) that the Pentagon papers case turned on legal and political issues to which Ellsberg’s personality and motives were largely irrelevant; (2) that knowledge of Ellsberg’s emotional make-up would not have contributed to solving the general problem of Washington leaks, which derive from many different kinds of people, few of whom bear a psychological resemblance to Ellsberg; (3) that since Ellsberg is not a notably secretive man, lots of personal information about him, for what it was worth, could have been gathered, free of risk, around Harvard Yard, around the Pentagon, and around the Rand Corp. From the burglary at the psychiatrist’s office that promised such meager rewards, the burglars got, in fact, precisely nothing.
Nevertheless, the same team with some unhelpful additions was retooled to break into the Democratic National Committee. Once again, target selection was deplorable. Here the main mission was to bug the phone of Lawrence O’Brien, a man of probity and circumspection, two qualities often found together—although some barefoot moralizers insist virtue has no need of prudence. Public officials and politicians have been wary of telephones ever since 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell, demonstrating his gadget in Philadelphia, unwittingly startled the visiting Emperor of Brazil. An O’Brien friend says: “If you had a verbatim transcript of every telephone conversation Larry has engaged in since he was nineteen years old, you wouldn’t have enough to embarrass him.” In short, the break-in at the Watergate office building had an expectable reward very close to zero.
The prevalence of ogres
These footless ventures would remain forever incomprehensible unless we turned to the beliefs and emotional patterns of the participants. Their attitudes were shaped in part by the general ambience that enveloped the White House and the Committee to Re-elect the President, and that ambience included a lot of fear, suspicion, and hostility. Although the word “paranoia,” used by many people, is too strong, it is correct to say that a high level of self-pity influenced the style of the Nixon White House.
The seeds of this attitude were sown long before Watergate. Self-pity was evident, though excusable, in many of Nixon’s periods of adversity, and it had not melted away in the warm sun of ambition fulfilled. The public utterances of President Nixon, and those he encouraged Vice President Agnew to make in the early years of their first terms, often contained a strong theme of complaint against the unfairness of adversaries. The internal atmosphere of the White House was even more marked by this air of hostility and suspicion toward such outside bodies as Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and the press. All Presidents have had adversaries, but no other White House institutionalized its hostility by keeping, as Nixon’s did, an “enemies list.”
The U.S. organizes its political life, as well as its business life, through competition. Not only do we have competing parties, but government has many separate elements that are simultaneously in cooperation and competition with one another. Among the people themselves we don’t expect—and don’t want—a placid homogeneity of outlook and aims. In our kind of pluralist politics, a degree of combativeness, an awareness of adversaries,. is inevitable and constructive. But there’s a line, blurred but real, beyond which a normal self-assertion in the face of opposition can move over into either arrogance or self-pity.
Many business managers have seen in their own sphere examples of the damage that can be done when this blurred line is crossed. It is desirable, for instance, that a sales force be on its toes, alert to spot and to counter moves by its opposition. A given sales force can become too proud of its competitive ability and be made vulnerable by overconfidence. Or it can become demoralized by the pressure of competition. A sensitive executive would worry if his salesmen were constantly telling him and one another about the perfidy of their competitors, dwelling on their dirty tricks, exaggerating their unfairness. In that ambience his own salesmen would have a built-in excuse for poor performance, or they might goad themselves into foolish and imprudent acts.
The nearest business equivalent of the Watergate folly was the great electrical price-fixing conspiracy uncovered in 1962. The question that then ran through the business world was: how could experienced executives in well-run companies do anything so stupid? Much of the answer lay in the ambience of the conspirators. They felt overpressured—by their bosses, by rising costs, by government regulations they considered unfair. One executive in the industry, trying to explain his colleagues’ gross misjudgment, told a FORTUNE reporter at the time that the conspirators did what they did because they were “distressed men.”
The distress, of course, was not visible in their objective condition of opulence and success. The distress was in their minds. So, too, powerful men in the White House came to think of themselves as inhabitants of a beleaguered and distressed city, surrounded by enemies whose strength and malice they exaggerated. An intense will to win, coupled with the belief that the situation is desperate, can release a lot of energizing adrenalin. If it goes too far, such a state of mind can also trigger reckless misjudgments. Whom the gods would destroy they first make unduly sorry for themselves.
A surplus of sincerity
Nixon’s White House, of course, was not the first to over-stress the power and menace of its adversaries. Franklin Roosevelt had depicted himself as standing, along with the weak, against the “economic royalists” who, he implied, were really in charge of the country. This tactic was so brilliantly successful that all subsequent Presidents have flirted with it. But in Roosevelt’s underdog posture there was always a saving measure of insincerity. He never really believed his histrionic pretense that the dragons he opposed were all that monstrous. Nor did the men around him, cheerfully manipulating the reins of power, lose themselves in the dramatic myth he had created. Nixon’s aides, unfortunately, seem to have let the role of victim capture their hearts and minds.
In a culture that prizes justice, fears power, and roots for underdogs, the temptation to cast oneself as a victim is ever present. The average American, when looking privately at his own situation, resists this temptation rather effectively; he knows—most of the time—that he is not doing too badly. But in any public discourse or in any capacity where he represents others, the contemporary American tends toward donning the victim’s robe.
Listening to the speeches of businessmen, with their frequent emphasis on the abuse of government and labor-union power, an observer may worry lest their self-pity blind them to the ever expanding scope of action that beckons to business. Spokesmen for blacks or women can express real grievances in terms so extravagant that their followers will not perceive actual opportunities; the result can be stagnation or angry, self-destructive action. This unhappy pattern even extends to sports. One September night this year in Baltimore the managers of both baseball teams were thrown out of the same game for protesting too raucously against the injustice of the umpires. Passionate complaint is the almost unvarying tone of those man-in-the-street interviews cherished by producers of TV news programs. If Americans ever became, in fact, as sorry for themselves as they sound in public discourse, the country as a whole might begin to act as foolishly as the “distressed” men who blindly stumbled into Watergate.
Nixon early recognized the danger in protest run wild. It was he who laudably set out to “bring us together” and admonished us to “lower our voices.” One of the deepest ironies of Watergate is the public demoralization that has occurred because the Nixon White House got carried away by its own agonized indignation toward the “unfairness” of its adversaries. The public in 1973 would never have had occasion to “wallow’ in Watergate” (as the President expressed it) had not the White House, years before, wallowed in self-pity.
Aristotle would understand
Watergate is often referred to as a “tragedy,” as indeed it is in the sense that it blasted lives and caused suffering. But Watergate imitates in many other ways the structure of classic tragedy as Aristotle described it. The action of the plot, he said, proceeds from a “flaw” (hamartia). This may be either a defect of knowledge (e.g., Oedipus didn’t know that his wife, Jocasta, was his mother) or an emotional imbalance (e.g., Medea, filled with woe-is-me, overreacted to Jason’s infidelity by killing their children). Sometimes the tragic flaw is a mingling of cognitive and emotional imperfections.
From the flaw emerges hubris, which has long been translated as pride or arrogance. But recent scholarship pushes toward a different understanding of hubris. Walter Kaufmann in Tragedy and Philosophy argues persuasively that hubris refers to the quality of the action that proceeds from the flaw; it is not the internal flaw itself. Greek writers used the word hubris in referring to rivers that overflow their banks. They applied hubris to armies that run riot, indulging in wanton behavior, or to anything—human, animal, vegetable, or inanimate—that rankly transgresses the usual order of its nature.
In the Watergate case, the flaw obviously was not pride, which scorns to slink about by night in other people’s offices. If we think of self-pity as the tragic flaw in Watergate, then all the wild imprudence of the consequent actions, the hubris, becomes less baffling. The literary analogy may illuminate details of a problem in management analysis.
Act I, Scene I occurs in the summer of 1971, in the ruler’s room of state. He is giving urgent orders to members of his staff. The precise content of his instruction is not known to us, but its tone and general import are clear. His government is bedeviled by leaks of information to a press deemed hostile. He invokes his highest responsibility, that in respect to the national security, as he tells them he wants his government sealed against leaks.
So far, there is nothing irrational about the ruler’s attitude or the gist of his instruction. Leaks are no trivial matter. They can impair national security—and some have done so. More often they are devices employed by a government official to support a policy he favors, to hurt a rival, or advance his own career. Such leaks sow distrust among officials, inhibit frank discussion, and demoralize government, Now, publication of the Pentagon Papers, a veritable Niagara of a leak, requires drastic and immediate remedy.
At first the plumbers’ unit interprets its responsibility in a normal and harmless way. Its members start to carry out a staff assignment to needle the chiefs of line departments and the regular investigatory agencies into greater vigilance against leaks. But progress, if any, is too slow. At this point, the tragic flaw in the spiritual ambience of the White House group begins to manifest itself.
In and around the plumbers’ unit, deviation from organizational normality takes two forms. The atmosphere of a besieged city overmotivates the staffers involved. They wish so intensely to succeed in their assigned task that restraints of ordinary prudence drop away. The second manifestation of the flaw is more specifically managerial: they transform a staff function into a line operation. They decide that they themselves will gather the evidence that will retard leaks.
Their master, the President, deploys under his hand the largest, most expensive, and most professional array of investigatory agencies this side of the Soviet border. Yet these agencies are bypassed when the plumbers’ unit decides to go into clandestine operations—which is no woods for babes. Neither Egil Krogh nor David Young, who headed the plumbers, had relevant experience in this line of work. Their immediate superior, John Ehrlichman, had no investigatory experience. Liddy, who had worked for the FBI, and Hunt, who had worked for the CIA, did have relevant experience. But many instances are known where individuals can render valuable service within a large professionalized organization and yet be helpless or harmful when working without professional supervision and organized support. In the plumbers’ unit, Liddy and Hunt plainly lacked the competence, restraint, and judgment to be found (one hopes) in the organizations that had previously girdled their exuberance.
A former aide to a different President believes that all White House staffs, becoming impatient with the regular line agencies of government, are from time to time tempted to get into operations themselves. They hardly ever do so, however, partly because of what he called “the danger of involving the President.” He was talking about possible interventions far less dangerous to the presidential reputation than burglary. Why, then, was the Nixon White House so incautiously willing to bypass the regular agencies and place its honor in the hands of people who knew so little about what they were doing?
Should bureaucrats obey?
The decision was almost certainly influenced by an attitude of distrust toward the whole federal bureaucracy. This was one of the areas where members of the Nixon circle felt most sorry for themselves. One expert on government structure remembers a long meeting of Nixon staff men at San Clemente devoted to the question of how to make the bureaucracy more obedient.
A familiar management problem is involved here, as anybody knows who has taken over the top spot in a corporation, or a division, or even a small office. He is likely to have found there men and women who took their own responsibilities seriously and who are entrenched by their specialized competence. A wise executive does not try to command the servile obedience of such people. His responsibility for coordinating their efforts and changing the over-all direction of the organization can only be achieved through the patient arts of leadership. He has to talk, to listen, to persuade and be persuaded.
But from the first the Nixon inner circle seems to have misunderstood the nature of the difficulty. It saw bureaucratic resistance as arising from political philosophy. No doubt, most civil servants are Democrats and maybe even “liberals.” But this is not as important a truth as the Nixon people thought it. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson also had trouble with the bureaucracy. A Nixon official who has been most effective in his leadership of civil servants is Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz, whose own political philosophy happens to be most remote from the presumed liberalism of the bureaucrats. Shultz talks and listens to his experts. Shultz does not withdraw into injured and persecuted silence because they won’t obey him. In short, Shultz follows a pattern widespread among managers of corporations who anticipate resistance from their experts. They do not perceive it as disloyalty or hostility. They know that dealing with such resistance is just what they are hired to do.
When the big scene was bungled
But the Nixon Administration, with some distinguished exceptions, had never been notable for strong, independent personalities, secure enough to listen to the experts below and speak candidly to the chief above. The White House staff, the citadel of the beleaguered city, seems to have been chosen more for its zeal to protect the boss than for ability to serve him with information and argument. This criterion owed part of its origin to the tragic flaw, and it resulted in disaster at a crucial decision time.
Classic tragedy moves toward a point of “recognition,” the scene where the flaw in all its horror is revealed to the audience and the dramatis personae. In the Watergate sequence, that point was reached in the summer of 1972 after the arrests, after the disclosure that large sums of money had been “laundered” in Mexico. Clearly, these were no ordinary burglars. They had backing at high levels.
If at that point the President or his former Attorney General had publicly recognized that a serious error had occurred, Watergate would never have grown to anything approaching its ultimate proportions. Such a public recognition would have been painful, but it almost certainly would not have cost Nixon either the election or the respect of several millions of Americans who lost confidence in him this year.
Nixon and the men around him bungled the recognition scene. Or to put the same thought in business terms, they failed to face the hard decision to cut their losses. Exactly what went on in the White House in the year following June, 1972, is still far from clear. But on any assumption about those months, there was serious managerial trouble in two big areas: personnel and communications.
In the most unlikely case, that Nixon knew exactly what was going on at every step, he was picking the wrong people to do the wrong things. On the much more likely assumption that Nixon didn’t know much about the cover-up efforts, then those who were involved in it badly needed some coordinator—and they needed one with more authority, prudence, experience, and fiber than John Dean.
As a group, the White House staff contained too few men of the caliber and courage to make Nixon face the situation that the public, Nixon’s audience, had long since recognized. On one version of events, it was not until April 15, 1973, that anybody told Nixon just how bad the situation was and what immediate steps he had to take. That messenger was Henry Petersen, not a member of Nixon’s staff but one of the despised careerists, who had never spoken to the President until he stood before him in tennis shoes and old clothes on a Sunday afternoon and finally got the bad news across.
Nixon understands organizational information systems better, perhaps, than any previous President. But he showed in the Watergate sequence no sign that he grasped the most important fact about such systems: they are all far short of perfect. A prudent executive keeps testing his organization’s ability to tell him what he needs to know about its own activities. A classic management story on this point goes back to 1924 and its hero is Alfred P. Sloan. In the spring of that year General Motors plants were turning out cars much faster than salesmen were getting rid of them. The established channels of information failed to bring this bad news to corporate headquarters. Corporate calamity was averted only because Sloan visited dealers in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Los Angeles, and himself counted the cars that had piled up in their lots. Nixon, on his version of what happened during the cover-up, never got down to personal investigation of widely published reports of what was being done in his name.
The press is unfair
It is quite possible that Nixon simply did not believe what the media were reporting concerning the cover-up because he had grown so accustomed to considering himself the victim of a press hostile to him.
The press is unfair to Nixon in a sense more fundamental than he knows. It has been unfair to all recent Presidents. It is unfair to businessmen, labor leaders, and everybody else responsible for carrying out action in a world whose complexity makes for dull writing. The inadequacy of the press in explaining to the public the actual working of government processes may be one of the most serious defects in contemporary democracy. Compared to this problem, the additional fact that many influential journalists don’t much like Richard Nixon pales toward insignificance.
The Nixon White House diminishes its chances of constructive coverage by its attitude of pained withdrawal from the media. The exceptions demonstrate this general point. Henry Kissinger, who talks frequently and (relatively) frankly with reporters, manages to get through the media to the public. Nixon himself, on the rare occasions when he endures face-to-face contact with the media, handles press conferences with verve. His San Clemente press conference of August 22 was one of the few effective White House moves in the long Watergate sequence.
Nixon’s relations with Congress also have that hurt and withdrawn look. Before he came to office, Congress was already becoming restless under what many of its members considered the undue power of the executive branch. Nixon was bound to have trouble with Congress, no matter what its political coloration might have been. But Nixon seems to have taken congressional opposition as a personal affront. In its day-to-day contact with individual Congressmen, the Nixon White House has been less active, less persuasively communicative than previous Administrations, including Eisenhower’s. In public Nixon has, as a President must, often summarized what was wrong about the record of Congress and what was right about his own record. But in his relations with Congress he has not, as they say in Seville, worked close to the bull.
Why we remember Hannibal
Deplorable tendencies in Congress, in the bureaucracy, and in the media are easier to denounce than to overcome. A President, nevertheless, will be appraised by how much headway he makes against such objective difficulties. Hannibal is remembered for actually crossing the Alps, not for whatever Carthaginian maledictions that he, frustrated in Gaul, might have hurled at the “unfair” gradients confronting him.
The flaw that mars Nixon’s style in domestic affairs becomes the more glaring when it is limned against his foreign-policy successes. In dealing with Red China and the Soviet Union he has brilliantly demonstrated that he can rise above self-pity. He has studied these offshore adversaries so long and so intently that he can handle the problems they represent much more coolly, objectively, and effectively than he handles the onshore problems represented by Daniel Ellsberg or Larry O’Brien or the federal bureaucracy or the Washington Post. Nixon isn’t thrown off stride by Peking’s or Moscow’s “dirty tricks.” It never seems to occur to him that Brezhnev or Mao is “unfair.” He manages his relations with them like a manager, not with the mien of a wounded deer.
Excessive self-pity is, of course, an emotional and moral flaw. It is often found entwined with an inaccurate cognitive picture of reality. Individuals or groups marked by such a flaw may be handicapped in practical affairs, even in those activities that are put in such specialized pigeonholes as politics or economics or management.
Machiavelli taught the world that politics, for instance, has rules of success that are independent of moral strictures. But he never taught that men who act in politics are to be considered unbound by moral law. Twenty years ago Professor Charles Singleton in a memorable lecture called “The Perspective of Art” pointed to a passage in Machiavelli’s Discourses as a corrective to the popular view of what the Florentine believed. Machiavelli, in one of those typical passages about what a ruler must do to grasp and hold power, gives an example of some morally horrible but politically effective policies carried out by Philip of Macedon. Then Machiavelli says: “Doubtless these means are cruel and destructive of all civilized life, and neither Christian nor human, and should be avoided by everyone.”
Now that politics is clearly recognized as an independent art, any practitioner faces a double hurdle. What he does must be good as politics, but must not be bad as morals. The point is even clearer in the relation of morals to economics. When Alfred Sloan, in the example given above, learned that unsold cars were piling up, he shut down the production lines. As a compassionate man, he regretted the consequent unemployment and suffering. But in the economic circumstances his decision was not immoral. On the contrary, once he knew the facts any other decision would have been economically, managerially, and morally irresponsible.
Allen Dulles, when he was head of the CIA, once told a group of journalists that anyone entering upon his job must leave all moral considerations outside the door. This dangerous proposition is an example of the vulgar misreading of the Machiavellian view. The head of the CIA works in circumstances that ordinary citizens do not encounter. Circumstances change cases, and the head of the CIA may morally do things which an ordinary citizen would have no compelling occasion and no moral right to do. But the head of the CIA must nevertheless weigh the morality of any such act by whatever standards are appropriate to the circumstances.
John Ehrlichman in his testimony indicated that he could think of circumstances involving, say, the threat of nuclear attack, in which a President could justifiably order a burglary. But does this mean that a President, by invoking the name of national security, can order any burglary? A weighing of circumstances becomes critical in government morality, as indeed it is in private morality. It is not only managerially shocking but morally shocking that so serious an offense as the Beverly Hills break-in was undertaken in circumstances that did not come within miles of requiring it.
The moral standards of political life are, indeed, often more strict than those of private life. “Dirty tricks” that may be merely tasteless in undergraduate elections are seriously offensive when plotted by people on a White House staff. All that useless Dick-Tuckery revealed by the Ervin committee is one of the most appalling aspects of the Watergate disclosures. Another, and more melancholy, example is brought to mind by Spiro Agnew’s resignation. Many people may not regard an ordinary citizen’s failure to report taxable income as one of the graver moral offenses. But when a Vice President of the United States is exposed as having done that, we are all—quite logically—horrified.
In the Watergate sequence, self-pity blinded the participants to dangers that were political, managerial, legal, and moral. As their retribution unfolds, the rest of us may from time to time ask whether our own legitimate resentment against our share of the injustices that all men experience might not be making us so sorry for ourselves that we mismanage our practical affairs.
Research associate: Alice Siegel Arvan