Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Rick Shenkman's "Political Animals"

Rick Shenkman is the founder and publisher the History News Network (HNN), the only website on the Internet wholly devoted to the task of putting events in the news into historical perspective every day. He is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including Just How Stupid Are We?, and is an elected fellow of the Society of American Historians.

Shenkman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book, it so happens, marks the beginning of a chapter: Number 7, “Do We Really Want the Truth?”

In the chapter I try to explain why it took Americans 11 months after the Watergate break-in for the news to finally sink in and convince a majority to rethink their support of Richard Nixon.

Here’s the opening:
Think about the way we remember Watergate. The story begins with the break- in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex overlooking the Potomac River. Ace Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigate, and explosive headlines follow. The Senate Watergate Committee—headed by the avuncular Sam Ervin, the soft-spoken, white-haired senator from North Carolina who speaks in a folksy Southern drawl—grills officials. John Dean, the White House counsel, testifies about the cover-up. Then a low-level bureaucrat reveals that Nixon had installed a taping system to record everything that was said in his presence. Nixon initially refuses to release the tapes, citing executive privilege. The special prosecutor demands the tapes, and the Supreme Court orders Nixon to turn them over. The decision of the Court is unanimous. Sixteen days later, after the “smoking gun” tape is released—this is the tape showing that Nixon ordered the CIA to block the FBI investigation of Watergate on national security grounds—Nixon resigns. Two thousand and twenty-six days after he assumed office Richard Milhous Nixon walks up the steps of a waiting helicopter on the White House lawn, turns and delivers his signature V-for-victory salute, and flies off into history. At noon Gerald Ford becomes president, declaring “our long national nightmare is over.”

On the day Nixon left office, August 9, 1974, 80 percent of the American people believed that it was time for him to go. That is an extraordinary number. Americans don’t even agree by that margin what the national sport is (34 percent say it’s football, 16 percent baseball). So to have 80 percent of us agree on anything, let alone something as controversial as Watergate, was truly remarkable.

You hear a statistic like that and you think that public opinion must be rational. Voters followed the evidence where it led and made the appropriate judgment, even though it was painful. This seems to be one of the plainest lessons of Watergate. You can trust public opinion. And because of that you can trust American democracy.

But how did voters react to Watergate as events unfolded?…
In my case I’d have to say that Ford Madox Ford’s injunction to judge a book by page 99 doesn’t really work. I built the book around stories and it takes more than one page for me to reach the denouement where I explain the significance of the story. But on the other hand, a reader can glean from page 99 my style.
Visit Rick Shenkman's website.

The Page 99 Test: Just How Stupid Are We?.

--Marshal Zeringue