Louis Brandeis was, of course, correct when he observed that, just as “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” so “publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases.”
And no one knew more about shedding sunlight on the shadowy recesses of American public life than Stanley Kutler.
The University of Wisconsin professor of history, Guggenheim fellow and Fulbright lecturer, who has died too soon at age 80, recognized that the history that mattered was the history that political and economic elites preferred to keep concealed. That is why he fought, sometimes for decades, to open the closed doors of the past and reveal the dark doings of the powerful.
Much of what Americans know about Richard Nixon and Watergate is in their possession because of Kutler’s dogged pursuit of the thirty-seventh president. Former President Jerry Ford may have pardoned his predecessor, but Stanley Kutler did not.
“History very much mattered to Nixon,” the scholar recalled. “No different from other leaders who realized that when their power faded, they had only their history, which they desperately tried to control.”
But Kutler knew it was wrong to let Nixon, or any president, or any powerful or wealthy man, own history. He had an encyclopedic memory of presidential power grabs and wrongdoing—especially when it involved warmaking abroad and assaults of rights of citizens at home. He made it his mission to call out a Democrat (Lyndon Johnson) and a Republican (Richard Nixon) with regard to the Vietnam War. He confronted a Republican (George W. Bush) and a Democrat (Barack Obama) on Iraq. He called out obfuscation, lies and secrecy.
Others might forgive and forget, but this historian remembered and remonstrated.
Kutler authored a pair of groundbreaking books on Nixon’s wrongdoing: The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (Knopf, 1990) and Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Free Press, 1997). These were the books that Nixon and his allies hoped would never be published. The former president, who was obsessed with rebuilding his reputation after being forced from office in 1974, prevented the release of the vast majority of the secretly taped material from his years in the Oval Office.