Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
-LAWRENCE WALSH, in Chinatown (1974)
This just doesn't feel as good as I thought it would," one Delaware man said sadly after Nixon's resignation. Like most people, he was relieved that Nixon had finally gone, but the long months of revelation and scandal, of Senate committees and Supreme Court rulings, of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, and Dean, had left him emotionally exhausted. Another man, a forester from New Hampshire who had voted for tickets carrying Nixon's name in eleven elections, thought that the resignation was like an inoculation: "You hate to get it because you know it's going to hurt. But when it's over, you're glad you got it."
In the Houston Astrodome, where twelve thousand people were watching a baseball game, the news of Nixon's departure was announced to a long silence and scattered, desultory applause. In Jacksonville, where thousands of people were watching a game in the new World Football League, cheerleaders burst into tears. And in Lawrence, Kansas, the telephone company put extra long-distance operators on duty to cope with the expected flood of calls, but found that there was nothing for them to do. People seemed numb, even sad.
Watergate, said Time magazine after Nixon's departure, had been "America's most traumatic political experience of this century." For two years the scandal had been a national obsession, and as one revelation followed another, the public recoiled from the petty meanness of their political leaders. Breaking into the Democratic national headquarters, after all, had been only one detail in a wider story of dirty tricks, political espionage, and financial misconduct. If the newspapers were to be believed, President Nixon had spied on his opponents, fiddled his taxes, used public money to improve his homes, abused the intelligence services for political gain, and smeared the reputations of good and honest men. And he had bugged even himself, providing his detractors with all the evidence they needed. When the tape transcripts were finally released, the conservative Chicago Tribune called him "devious," "profane," and "humorless to the point of being inhumane." Walter Cronkite remarked that he wanted to "take Lysol and scrub out the Oval Office."
But what the journalist Theodore White called Nixon's "breach of faith" with the American people went beyond the crimes of one man. For many people, the president's misdemeanors had been part of a wider culture of deceit and corruption. "It is a classic idea that a whole community may be infected by the sickness of its leadership, by a failure of ideals at the top," wrote the columnist Anthony Lewis. "We are infected by corruption at the top, and most of us know it."
Corruption was the story of the year. In April 1973, the most sensational month of the Watergate investigation, Nixon had lost his chief of staff, his chief domestic policy adviser, and his counsel John Dean. But the same month also saw the indictment or sentencing, for quite different reasons, of a whole host of public officials: the mayor of Miami, the former governor of Illinois, the district attorney for Queens, New York, two Dade County judges, two Maryland state legislators, and two Chicago aldermen. Before Nixon's presidency was out, they had been joined by two attorneys general, a congressman from New York, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, the lieutenant governor of California, the former chief judge of the U.S. Customs Court, and the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And as Nixon's fall demonstrated, even those entrusted with enforcing the law were not immune. "Who can trust a cop who don't take money?" asks a character in the hit film Serpico (1973), which tells the true story of a New York cop who went undercover to expose the corruption of his comrades. In Indianapolis, newspapers alleged that the police and county judges were up to their necks in bribery, prostitution, and drug rackets. In Philadelphia, a crime commission found that corruption was "widespread, systematic and occurring at all levels of the police department" and suggested that no fewer than four hundred officers were lining their pockets. Even at West Point, the hallowed military academy famous for its motto, "Duty, Honor, Country," the bacillus was spreading. In August 1976, ninety-four cadets were expelled for cheating on a take-home exam, and another forty-four resigned. By the following summer, more than four hundred students had been implicated in an elaborate cheating ring. "The social incentives to deceit are at present very powerful," wrote the Harvard philosopher Sissela Bok in 1978 in her timely book Lying, blaming the pressures of the modern world for the fact that individuals felt "caught up in practices they cannot change."
"After Watergate, it's crazy to have trust in politicians," one New Yorker told an interviewer after Nixon's fall. "I'm totally cynical, skeptical. Whether it's a question of power or influence, it's who you know at all levels." Indeed, trust in government-and in public life more broadly, too-had never been more fragile. Seven out of ten people, according to a survey in 1975, agreed that "over the last ten years, this country's leaders have consistently lied to the people." A year later, just two out of ten said that they trusted the government, while for the first time an outright majority agreed that public officials did not "care much what people like [us]think." A decade previously, the answers had been very different. But as the pollster Daniel Yankelovich reported, "The changes move in only one direction, from trust to mistrust. They are massive in scale and impressive in their cumulative message."
Yet the steady decline of trust actually predated Watergate, and even though the culture of suspicion reached its peak in the 1970s, it was really a product of the years beforehand. The shock of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the tumult over civil rights and urban unrest, and the corrosive effects of the Vietnam War had all played crucial parts in destroying popular faith in politicians. It was not just trust in the government that was in steep decline; it was trust in authority, in the collective, in public life itself. "The energy shortage is the least important of the shortages in our life," Harold Enarson, president of Ohio State University, remarked in 1974. "American society is now short of those attributes that, mattering the most, undergird all else: integrity, high purpose, confidence in one another, faith in a brighter future."
Across the board, institutions were in retreat. Between 1966 and 1975, confidence in Congress, corporations, colleges, and medicine suffered a severe drop. Of course this was not a uniquely American phenomenon, but in the United States, where individualism and suspicion of the state were so deeply rooted, the turn against public life was more striking than anywhere else in the Western world. Buoyed by affluence and educational opportunities, many people clearly felt that they no longer needed the solace of the institutions-family, church, school- that had supported their parents and grandparents. And as Vietnam and Watergate eroded their faith in the moral superiority of their leaders, an entire generation-the baby boomers-refused to give their generals, doctors, and lawyers the respect once taken for granted. The success of Garry Trudeau's irreverent comic strip, Doonesbury, first syndicated in 1970 and rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize five years later, was only one illustration of this new skepticism. Medical malpractice suits, for example, became so common that in 1975 the major insurance companies tripled their doctors' premiums. "All authority in our society is being challenged," concluded a report by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. "Professional athletes challenge owners, journalists challenge editors, consumers challenge manufacturers."
From skepticism and suspicion it was only a short step to paranoia. Thanks to Vietnam, Watergate, and the assassinations of the 1960s, what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style"-"heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy"-had seeped deep into American popular culture by the time Nixon gave way to Ford. In January 1973, for example, Lyndon Johnson gave a last interview in which he hinted that his predecessor had been murdered by a conspiracy. In March, reviewers scratched their heads over Thomas Pynchon's conspiracy-theory masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow, a bewildering journey through the twentieth century that ends with the mysterious 00000 rocket heading for a Los Angeles cinema managed by one "Richard M. Zhlubb." In May, The New York Review of Books printed an essay by the radical activist Kirkpatrick Sale arguing that the country was run by a hidden "nexus of power" and that Watergate was really a secret struggle for power between the old eastern interests and the new money of the South. And in November, the Burt Lancaster movie Executive Action told how an unholy alliance of Texas oilmen, industrial magnates, and CIA-trained professionals had plotted to kill President Kennedy. At the end of the film, the screen shows a collage of eighteen witnesses to the murder, sixteen of whom had allegedly died of unnatural causes by 1965. The odds of them all doing so, a voice-over grimly intones, were 1,000 trillion to one.
At the center of the whirlwind of suspicion was an institution once synonymous with the struggle against Communism, but now a byword for conspiracy and corruption. On December 22, 1974, The New York Times ran a front-page article by the muckraking reporter Seymour Hersh charging that "the Central Intelligence Agency, directly violating its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups." Some of Hersh's details were wrong, but the shocking thing was that his story merely scratched the surface. Just a year before, the CIA had commissioned an internal report which revealed that the agency had wiretapped and followed a number of reporters and columnists, broken into the apartments of former employees, kidnapped and locked up Russian defectors, opened ordinary citizens' letters, and collected thousands of files on members of the antiwar movement. On top of all that, the CIA had conducted mind- control experiments on unwitting members of the public, using LSD, heroin, mescaline, and marijuana, and had also organized unsuccessful assassination plots against Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, Rafael Trujillo, and the Chilean general René Schneider. That the Castro plot had been devised in collaboration with the Mafia boss Sam Giancana, using Kennedy's mistress Judith Campbell Exner as a go-between, only added to the impression of lurid fantasy.
Hersh's revelations set the scene for what was later called the "Year of Intelligence." A presidential commission under Nelson Rockefeller failed to mollify the agency's critics; instead, attention focused on Senator Frank Church of Idaho, who called the CIA a "rogue elephant" and began holding public hearings in September 1975. It was a disaster for the administration and, above all, for the CIA. Day after day, under the gaze of the television cameras, agency chiefs admitted spending millions on poisons and biological weapons. With an eye firmly on the coming presidential race, Church even posed for the cameras holding a silent electric gun that fired poisoned darts, hilariously described by the CIA as a "Nondiscernible Microbioinoculator." Wiretaps, assassinations, exploding seashells, Mafia bosses, poisoned darts: it was the stuff of a James Bond film, yet even the most daring Hollywood screenwriter would have struggled to make it up.
As it happened, just ten days after the Church hearings began, Hollywood gave it its best shot. Few films capture the mood of the Ford years better than Sydney Pollack's thriller Three Days of the Condor, the story of a junior CIA officer (played by Robert Redford) who spends his days studying books and newspapers from around the world, but who returns after lunch one day to find that a hit man has killed everyone in his office. After going on the run, the Redford character soon realizes that he cannot trust anyone, not even his own colleagues: even the postman turns out to be a hired killer. In the end, he tracks down the conspirators, a CIA cabal with a plan to invade the Middle East in the event of another oil crisis. "As a serious exposé of misdeeds within the CIA," remarked the critic Vincent Canby, "the film is no match for stories that have appeared in your local newspaper."
In many ways, though, the impact of films like Three Days of the Condor was to make the small-print revelations of the newspapers seem terrifyingly real. The very intensity of the moviegoing experience-the enveloping darkness of the auditorium, the enormity of the images, the sheer power of the sound-seemed perfectly suited to the new populist nightmares. Even before Nixon resigned, a black vein of paranoia ran through the most successful films of the era, from the police brutality in Dirty Harry and The French Connection (both 1971) to the corporate irresponsibility in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the demonic possession in The Exorcist (1973), and even the negligent skyscraper construction in The Towering Inferno (1974). Of course there was more optimistic fare, too. But not for nothing were the two most critically lauded films of 1974, Roman Polanski's Chinatown and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II, both unrelentingly cynical revisions of the American Dream. At once a commentary on contemporary political corruption and a revisionist interpretation of the nation's recent past, Chinatown is set in 1937 and tells the story of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a Los Angeles private eye who uncovers a conspiracy to steal water from the city supply, creating a drought that will enable the corrupt developer Noah Cross to buy up the San Fernando Valley. Unlike the classic private eyes of the 1930s and 1940s, Gittes is powerless to stop him: he even spends much of the film with his wounded nose wrapped in a bandage, like a badge of impotence. And The Godfather Part II, too, rewrites recent history to show the villains as the winners. In the previous Godfather film, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) had been a fresh-faced war hero; now he broods in the shadows like Nixon in his final days, his vampiric face glimmering in the darkness. But Michael's crimes do not place him outside the American mainstream; instead, they put him at its very heart, blackmailing senators, infiltrating the FBI, running casinos in Havana and Las Vegas. As he tells the senator who dares to challenge him: "We're both part of the same hypocrisy."
But the most paranoid film of all-its effect all the greater because it was set in the present-was Alan J. Pakula's thriller The Parallax View (1974), inspired by the Kennedy assassinations as well as the disillusionment of the Nixon years. Reluctantly drawn into investigating a senator's murder, the film's endearingly scruffy hero, Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty), discovers that the mysterious Parallax Corporation is recruiting assassins to eliminate troublesome presidential candidates. Slowly, he, too, is sucked into the conspiracy, and in the film's shocking denouement he is framed for the murder of another senator and gunned down by the real assassin. In this supremely suspicious vision of contemporary life, conspiracy is everywhere. Even modern architecture is implicated: as Frady penetrates deeper into the conspiracy, he wanders through an alienated, unconventionally framed landscape of clean lines, wide spaces, and white surfaces, from a gleaming West Coast office complex to a new Atlanta hotel and a cavernous conference center. But in the very last scene we return to the shadows: just as at the beginning, an investigating panel, barely visible in the darkness, announces that the "assassin" acted alone. "Although I'm certain that this will do nothing to discourage the conspiracy peddlers," says the chairman flatly, his face imperceptible in the gloom, "there is no evidence of a conspiracy . . . There will be no questions."