As long as I’ve lived in America I’ve enjoyed the comic ritual known as the “hunt for the smoking gun,” a process by which our official press tries to inoculate itself and its readers against political and economic realities.
The big smoking-gun question back in 1973 and 1974 concerned Richard Nixon. Back and forth the ponderous debate raged in editorial columns and news stories: Was this or that disclosure a “smoking gun”? Fairly early in the game, it was clear to about 95 percent of the population that Nixon was a liar, a crook and guilty as charged. But the committee rooms on Capitol Hill and the Sunday talk shows were still filled with people holding up guns with smoke pouring from the barrel telling one another solemnly that no, the appearance of smoke and stench of recently detonated cordite notwithstanding, this was not yet the absolute, definitive smoking gun.
So it became clear that the great smoking-gun hunt was really about timing, about gauging the correct temperature of the political waters. Then suddenly, in the late summer of 1974, that impalpable entity known as elite sentiment sensed that the scandal was becoming subversive of public order, that it was time to throw Nixon overboard and move on. A “new” tape–though hundreds of others had already made Nixon’s guilt plain–was swiftly identified as “the smoking gun” and presto! Nixon was on the next plane to California.
In the mid-1970s post-Watergate euphoria, smoking guns were in fashion. In the Church Intelligence Committee hearings they actually held up a gun to demonstrate the profuse, well-documented efforts of the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro. In other hearing rooms witnesses testified that multinational corporations offered bribes to win business.
Appropriately enough, it was a newspaper publisher who stepped forward in the late fall of 1974 to announce that the smoking-gun show was now officially closed. At the annual meeting of the Magazine Publishers Association, Katharine Graham, boss of the Washington Post Company, sternly cautioned her fellow czars of the communication industry (many of them bribed to endorse Nixon in 1972 by his gift of the monopoly license to print money, known as Joint Operating Agreements).
“The press these days,” Mrs. Graham declared, “should…be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next [sic] war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist.”
By 1975 smoking guns were a thing of the past. The coup de grâce was PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which started in October 1975, dedicated to the proposition that there are two sides to every question, and reality is not an exciting affair of smoking guns, crooked businessmen and lying politicians but a dull continuum in which all involved are struggling disinterestedly for the public weal. In this new, prudent post-Watergate era, which has stretched through to the present day, there were no smoking guns. It wasn’t long before those documented attempts to assassinate Castro became “alleged attempts” or, the final fate of many a smoking gun, “an old story.”