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Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media

Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media

by Renata Adler

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Renata Adler is one of the most original, incisive and witty writers active in American letters today. Whether it be fiction, reportage or essay, her work is marked by a truly extraordinary intellect and a luminous prose that is penetrating, precise, deft and, often, very funny. In this new collection-which includes the early and definitive profile of the National


Renata Adler is one of the most original, incisive and witty writers active in American letters today. Whether it be fiction, reportage or essay, her work is marked by a truly extraordinary intellect and a luminous prose that is penetrating, precise, deft and, often, very funny. In this new collection-which includes the early and definitive profile of the National Guard; the widely discussed and still controversial review of Pauline Kael; and the first major piece about foreign contributions to American political campaigns-Adler's wide-ranging reflections become focused on two increasingly fused interests: the politics which govern our public world and the media, which now actively distort and misrepresent information about that world.

For anyone seriously interested in politics and the media Canaries in the Mineshaft is yet another proof that Renata Adler is one of the most delightful and brilliant writers of our day.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Former New Yorker writer Adler offers a provocative collection of essays spanning three decades (two pieces are not previously published) that begins by taking the New York Times to task for its handling of the Wen Ho Lee story and ends with a serious, meticulous, and utterly entertaining exegesis of her feud with the Times last year over the propriety of statements she made about Watergate Judge John J. Sirica in her book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker. The essays in between include pieces on Watergate, the Starr report, Monica, the horrors of Biafra, Sesame Street, quiz shows, soap operas, G. Gordon Liddy (whom, unaccountably, she appears to like), and a ferocious attack on former New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael. Adler's Watergate theory is certainly unique. She argues that the Watergate trial was itself a cover-up of more monstrous acts of treason, keeping U.S. troops in Vietnam in exchange for money from the South Vietnamese government. And while her theory was surely shocking when first published in 1976, it now reads like a shot in the dark. In the Kael piece, Adler says, for starters, that Kael's work is "jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless." In combination, these essays leave a mixed impression. Adler is serious and smart. She apparently honors the sacred duty of a journalist to report accurately. But her criticisms of the Times, at least, some of which may be well taken, flounder on her own self-righteousness. (Sept.) Forecast: Adler is respected and always controversial, so this is bound to receive lively review coverage that should lead to good sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Renata Adler is an amazing writer of fiction . . . as honest and direct as she is ingenious and thoughtful."—John Updike

"An observer of acute intelligence and discriminating sensibility."—Encounter

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.13(d)

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Chapter One


On the weekend of Memorial Day 1976, at John Doar's farm near Millerton, New York, there was a reunion of what had been, in i974, the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry staff. John Doar, who was Special Counsel for the inquiry, had since become a partner in a New York law firm, where he was in charge of a major antitrust case. Other members of the staff had returned for the occasion from their various jobs. Some had brought tents and sleeping bags. Others had rooms in the nearby motels and inns. A few were sleeping in the house. More than a hundred people in all showed up, also several dogs, including a small terrier called Credence and a huge English sheepdog, who had attended the original staff picnic, on August 15, 1974, in Washington. Thirty-nine former staff members had chartered a plane from Washington to Pittsburgh, where they were picked up by other former members of the staff. Supper, the first evening, was catered by the local Grange. People took motorcycle rides into the hills. Small bonfires were lit around the farm itself. Some of the youngest bounced on a trampoline or played basketball. From soon after supper until well after midnight, there was square dancing. A band and a caller had been brought in from Hartford. Nearly everyone took part in the square sets and in a virtually endless Virginia reel. In the wildest fantasies of San Clemente, no one could dream that such an event was taking place. And even in Millerton, one had the fleeting impression of dancing on a grave.

    It was not a grave, of course. President Nixon had only resigned. After nearly two years, it was no longer clear what that resignation had meant, or even what the inquiry had had to do with it. Meanwhile, with every document published by the Senate Select Committee on Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee), it was becoming more clear that the case for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, in 1974, had fallen apart.

    It all seemed, anyway, long ago, and difficult to remember in detail. In late July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee, under Chairman Peter W. Rodino, had voted to recommend three Articles of Impeachment to the House. Article I was essentially an obstruction of justice charge. Article II charged misuse of the agencies of government. Article III, in effect, charged contempt of Congress, in doctoring and in refusing to produce subpoenaed evidence. In view of the Church Committee's account of the conduct of previous administrations, including violations of law and abuses of power since at least 1936, the first two Articles seemed to dissolve. As for Article III, there had been disagreement about it from the start. Doar himself ultimately did not support it—on the grounds that requiring the President to produce this evidence, and thereby implicate himself in what would obviously become a highly serious criminal case, was reminiscent of the Star Chamber. Others argued that such a view implicitly endorsed claims of executive privilege, the national security, whatever, as camouflaged euphemisms for the Fifth Amendment; that if the President needed, in effect, to take the Fifth, he ought to be obliged, like any other citizen, to come right out and take it; and that a failure to pass Article III would add to all the other powers of the President a new power, to withhold evidence from the only process the Framers had established specifically to override such claims of secrecy: the impeachment process, the "Grand Inquest of the Nation," by which the President could be held, constitutionally, to account.

   In any case, it didn't matter. Article III would never have passed, or even existed, without Articles I and II. The problem with all three Articles, and with their accompanying Summary of Information and Final Report, and with the thirty-odd volumes of Statements of Information, which were also published by the House Judiciary Committee, is that, in spite of a valid perception the whole country shared of the integrity of the process at the time, all those volumes never quite made their case, or any case. And one result, which nobody on the staff could possibly have foreseen, was that, in light of the Church Committee report and other documents, what remains of the records of the impeachment inquiry would support not only a claim that Richard Nixon was hounded from office after all, but also, more strangely, the reverse: that the impeachment inquiry itself was just another phase in the continuation of the cover-up.

    Neither of these claims, obviously, is right; yet they are not easy to dismiss. As there continue to be revelations of abuses of and by the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, the military, and officials at every level of government and corporate enterprise, in the remote as well as the immediate past, it becomes less and less clear why the Nixon presidency in particular had to end. This summer, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to establish a permanent Office of Special Prosecutor, as though what had seemed, in 1973, an extraordinary crisis, requiring extraordinary measures, was now perceived as a more or less permanent state of affairs in government—and as though such a permanently critical situation could be remedied by the addition of yet another watchman to the constitutionally established existing watchmen in the night. Another indication of the degree to which the specific Nixon case remains still unresolved is implicit in those theories that Nixon was driven from office by a conspiracy within government itself—more specifically, within the CIA. It is as though history already required, in explanation of Nixon's having left the presidency at all, an elaborate plot, in the form of a reconstruction from scraps of inconsistent evidence of an Agency cabal.

    It seems certain, though, that the Nixon presidency, far from being continuous with those before, was in fact unprecedented; that, without the supposition of cabals of any sort, Nixon himself did something not only more than any of his predecessors but altogether else. And the reason why no investigation, by Congress, or the press, or in the courts, has so far managed to establish precisely what he did has to do, I think, both with the way the investigations were conducted and with what I now believe to be the very nature of the case. Putting together some of the circumstances of the impeachment inquiry with a few facts in those Church Committee documents—and trying to reconcile these with several, at the time apparently unaccountable, discrepancies and lapses in the conduct of President Nixon, his lawyers, and his aides—I think one does arrive at a bottom line, a plausible, even obvious explanation of why it was that the Nixon presidency had to end. It may have been for a time unthinkable; or we may have known it all along.

    I. What Kind of Case?

    The inquiry. On the morning of March 27, 1974, Barbara Fletcher, who was in charge of most calls to the impeachment inquiry staff from congressmen and members of the press, received a long-distance call from a young man who claimed that in 1973, as he was walking down Wisconsin Avenue, President Nixon shot at him. For various reasons, few of the logs and records kept by the staff (and now sealed, for the foreseeable future, in the archives of the House Judiciary Committee) are altogether dependable or complete. The files of congressional committees are, in any case, notoriously inaccurate. But because of her diligence and the delicacy of her assignment in dealing with these calls, Miss Fletcher kept scrupulous and exhaustive logs. The young man said he had been wearing a shield. He asked to be given a lie detector test. He left two Milwaukee phone numbers, his mother's and his own. Miss Fletcher noted all this and said she would pass the information on. It was evident from the whole tone of the entry that the young man, like a lot of other callers—like the lady who brought in her garbage as evidence that she was being poisoned; like the many hundreds of people who sent in rocks, with the message that only he who is without sin should cast them—was not well.

    But among the innumerable what-ifs of the inquiry, and of Watergate itself, the problem might not have been a minor one. What if the young man had been completely sane and right? The staff would have been unable to investigate his claim. There were no investigators on the staff. And it is far from clear that shooting at a man in the street is contemplated in the phrase "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors"—the only grounds on which a President can be impeached. Shooting at a political opponent, certainly, would fall within the constitutional standard, as a "political" crime, that is, a crime against the system and the Constitution itself. But an ordinary violation of the criminal statutes, no matter how serious, is probably not contemplated in the phrase. The astonishingly foolish, poorly reasoned, and poorly documented brief submitted by the White House argued that it is: that "other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" simply meant a literal, ordinary (though in deference to that "high," a serious) crime, committed in the President's "public, or official capacity." It was hard to think of any unlawful acts, apart perhaps from adultery or purse-snatching, which a President might commit in his private, or unofficial capacity. The White House brief was intended, of course, to limit to the narrowest criminal terms any definition of the grounds on which a President might be impeached. It went on to say that "high Crimes and Misdemeanors," as a term of art, had a unitary meaning, like "bread and butter issues"—a comparison which, in its peculiar vulgarity, exemplified something both slipshod and condescending in the work of the White House lawyers, under James St. Clair, by whom the President was at the time so oddly, badly served. It was true of the whole brief what one of the youngest members of the inquiry said of subsequent documents submitted for the White House: that sooner or later, at their characteristic level of effectiveness, in general and in detail, these lawyers seemed bound to produce a brief on behalf of their client, President Philip N. Nixon.

    One effect of the White House brief on grounds for impeachment, however, was to draw attention from the quality of the brief produced by the impeachment inquiry staff. That brief, our brief, which was published on February 20, 1974, was the first indication of what kind of work would be done by a staff of nearly forty lawyers who came from both political parties and from all parts of the country and who had, or claimed to have, by 1974, when they were hired, no view one way or another about whether President Nixon ought to be impeached. "I will say that every staff member was questioned whether or not they had taken a position on impeachment," Special Counsel Doar told the Judiciary Committee on January 31, 1974, "and if they had, other than that there should be an inquiry, then they were not considered for the job." For seven months, both Doar and Chairman Rodino insisted that no member of the staff take any side whatever on the question. As late as July 23, 1974, when Minority Counsel Sam Garrison suggested that Democrats on the staff might all along have been inclined to favor impeachment, while Republicans might have tended to oppose it, Rodino said that if he had known Garrison took such a view he would have fired him.

    While there were strong reasons for maintaining a bipartisan staff with this apparent viewlessness, in the first serious attempt to impeach a President in more than a century, the criterion is not one for putting together a firm of lawyers. It is more suited to selecting jurors—who are meant unprofessionally to weigh, but never to investigate or to assemble a case. Lawyers are advocates. The lawyers Doar hired were bright, loyal, discreet, and highly recommended. They represented as broad a cross section of the country as the congressmen on the committee. They worked under two ironclad admonitions: to maintain absolute confidentiality and to be "fair." At the same time, Doar had to proceed on the assumption that almost no one could be trusted. On January 2, 1974, I asked him how, in that case, he was going to keep perfect confidentiality in so large a staff of lawyers. "You work them very hard," he said, "and you don't tell them anything." The brief produced by such a staff was, predictably, deficient.

    So were most of the other inquiry documents. It turned out to be unimportant. What was important was that, through months of tension, crises of morale, and professional frustration, the staff did manage to work hard and to keep silent. What they were working on, or thought they were working on, is another matter. Few of them, at the time or even two years later, seemed to have more than an intimation that, while what they were doing was essential, the only thing essential about it was that they be seen to be doing something in secret, day and night, for months. "Some of it was the worst time of my life," one of the junior lawyers said, more than a year after it was over. "What you had for the first few months, you see, was thirty lawyers, treading water." That "treading water" was his insight. That "for the first few months" was an understatement. The fact that underlay the ordeal was that most of the work, almost all the time by almost all the staff, was a charade. A valuable charade, in that a machine was seen to churn, while no circus took place, and the courts, and a smaller group of Doar's, and ultimately the congressmen themselves could do their work. But the machine itself, firmly required to be directionless, produced, naturally enough, no investigation and, in the end, no case. It is commonly said that "the case" is in those thirty-odd staff volumes. Only by people who have not read them; hardly anyone has read them.

    Doar himself was working mainly with a smaller group of about seven people, five of whom were old friends who had worked with him before and who were not on the regular staff. Much of what could be salvaged from or written into the lamentable brief on grounds, for instance, was the work at the last minute of these ad hoc irregulars—as was, for good or ill, the conduct of the inquiry, from the ordering of facts and strategies, through compiling the endless Statements of Information, Summary of Information, and Final Report, to the drafting of letters to the White House, of the actual Articles of Impeachment, and even of the statements of Chairman Rodino, from the opening of the inquiry, through the hearings, to the remarks with which he responded, in his living room, to the television broadcast of Richard Nixon's resignation speech.

    There was never any doubt among Doar and this small group that, unless there was overwhelming evidence of Nixon's innocence (and the only conceivable circumstance in which, by 1974, there could be such evidence would have been a conspiracy among his aides to frame him, in which case, under a superintendency theory, he might have been impeached for that), the object of the process was that the President must be impeached. Doar had, in fact, been the second nonradical person I knew, and the first Republican, to advocate impeachment—months before he became Special Counsel, long before the inquiry began. There had to be such complete discretion on this point, and such constant, rote repetition of the words "fair," "fairness," "fairly," that there arose a temperamental hazard of inventing pieties and believing in them, against the evidence of your own purposes and your own sense—a hazard to which Nixon had obviously succumbed. Doar customarily spoke, however, in terms of "war" and "the Cause." It had to be so. To exactly the degree that impeachment is warranted, it is no less than urgent. Given the immense, lawful and (since in an impeachment a refusal to observe the restraints of law is precisely the point at issue) unlawful powers of an American President, it would have been unthinkable for Doar to have taken the job as less than an advocate. As late as this summer, 1976, however, most members of the staff and of the Judiciary Committee were still divided in their view of when it was that Doar reached his decision—whether it was in March 1974, as a result of the grand jury presentment, or on the morning of July 19, when, in one of the many completely imaginary stories generated by the inquiry's lore-manufacturing apparatus, Chairman Rodino was supposed to have shouted at Doar to force him to make up his mind.

    All this by way of outlining the circumstances in which the inquiry was conducted. Doar, certain from the start that the President must be, under conditions of exemplary fairness, removed from office, could not, he thought, disclose that determination to the congressmen or to his staff. The situation created its own peculiar stresses. Secrecy and loyalty had been the Watergate virtues, after all. Apart from exercising these virtues, staff lawyers were occupied, for instance, in filling out, on the basis of documents already public, those endless and in terms of impeachment entirely useless "chron cards"—the minute-by-minute chronologies, which had been important in the Neshoba County Case of 1967 (in Doar's successful prosecution, as chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, of the murderers of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerher, and James Chaney), but which had no relevance at all to the case at hand. The congressmen, of necessity, became impatient. When the chron cards were replaced by flat, uninflected, numbered Statements of Fact, which Doar proposed that the staff read to the Judiciary Committee for a period of six weeks, beginning in May, the congressmen argued at length whether the statements could properly be designated fact at all—whether what was fact was not the sole prerogative of the committee members to determine. In the end what were read to them were called Statements of Information. And in the end, having understandably failed to see the point of all these statements (there was hardly any point, except to gain time and to present the committee with a tidy and impressive format), the congressmen's conduct was exemplary—leading to a President's departure from office, without any of the bitterly partisan recriminations which might have divided Congress and the country for many years.

    A single episode, however, illustrates the virtual impossibility, at the time, of conducting almost any impeachment research project. It has to do with the 1976 report of the Church Committee. In the context of the 1974 inquiry, there arises the obvious question: If the conduct of past administrations bears, as it so evidently does, on the Nixon case, why did the inquiry not look into these matters and produce some such report? It tried. Doar, aware that such a report would be among the soundest and most obvious defenses for any President against impeachment, knew he had to commission, from outside the staff, a historical account of abuses of presidential power, in anticipation of any report the White House lawyers would produce. As it happens, the White House lawyers never undertook anything of the kind—an error, perhaps of overconfidence, so profound that it still seems hardly credible.

    Doar's own report, by scholars under the direction of the distinguished Yale historian C. Vann Woodward, was supposed, like all other inquiry work, to be kept secret. When Congressman Charles Wiggins, for example, insisted that the inquiry's failure to make such a study was unforgivable, he was never told, nor were any other congressmen, that the project was already under way. Committee members, all of whom are lawyers, had already made it clear that they did not want any professors, Yale or other, to advise them on matters of law. In any case, whether secrecy caused the assignment to be phrased unclearly, or for whatever reason, the study was not what would have been required if the White House had produced such a study, which of course it didn't. Professor Woodward ultimately published the work (which does not appear among the inquiry volumes) elsewhere, in paperback.

    A footnote to the story of that project concerns Minority Counsel Albert Jenner. As counsel for those Republicans who concurred in the majority vote of the committee, Jenner was a pivotal and historic figure, the pivot of the pivot, in a sense. Had he construed his job differently, had he seriously disagreed with Doar at any point, Jenner could have obstructed the process at every turn. It is by no means clear what the outcome, under those circumstances, would have been. But the fact is, he did not. Another fact is that he was absent a lot of the time, traveling and lecturing. Jenner still remarks, as he did frequently in the course of the inquiry, that Doar is an "administrator," while he, Jenner, is a "litigator." He says he was persuaded of the case against the President in March of 1974, with the grand jury presentment—at the same time, he adds, as Doar. Then, very amiably, he walks over to the shelves of his law office in Chicago, where his inquiry documents are kept. "This will interest you," he says, "although we've kept it top secret. It's something we relied on very heavily." And he removes from the shelf a bound copy of Professor C. Vann Woodward's study. The title is correct. The authorship is attributed to Vance Packard.

    That's how things were, broadly, at the inquiry. And in spite of whatever it did accomplish, what it could not accomplish, or even really attempt, was an investigation of the case. What I am concerned with here is establishing a context for a set of initial assumptions, followed by a few facts from various sources, which led me to what I thought were going to be some wild speculations—about why our side, like their side, could not be doing what it appeared to be doing; about what happened and why, although it is all over, it still seems unsettled now; about what a real investigation, if circumstances had permitted one, would have found. It was evidently not a story of the inexorable processes of simple justice; or of their forces of darkness vanquished by our forces of light. Nixon's chosen successor has, after all, for two years held his office. He has retained the former President's unindicted accomplices and aides, and appointed some of the closest of them to positions—the command of NATO, for example—that ought to be unthinkable for men so utterly compromised. Nixon himself carries on as though the investigation never really reached him. And no revelation about him or, these days, any other holder of a public trust has any sense of finality to it. There never seems to be a truth with which it ends. Unless Nixon did something beyond what is known about him, or his men, or any of his predecessors, his departure from office seems random, arbitrary, and even incomplete. What I was left with finally was a set of questions and, I believe, a single inescapable inference—which would account, not so much in the detail of investigative reporting as in the very logic of events, for what I think must be the last fact, the bottom line.


Excerpted from Canaries in the Mineshaft by Renata Adler. Copyright © 2001 by Renata Adler. Excerpted by permission.

Meet the Author

Renata Adler is the author of two novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, and four books of nonfiction: A Year in the Dark, Toward a Radical Middle, Reckless Disregard and Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker.

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