Machiavellian Morality

One reason teenagers, among others, are jammed in our prisons.

When Ronald Reagan said the only thing on earth enjoying eternal life is a government program, he forgot about Deep Throat. The late-spring exposure of former FBI deputy director Mark Felt as the long-secret Watergate source revived this unending political drama: movies were being produced, books published, and Watergate revisited on talk shows.

As one of the few Watergate survivors, I appeared on dozens of programs. "Is Mark Felt a hero?" I was repeatedly asked. My answer was emphatically No. He broke the law to pursue his (presumably) noble objective of bringing down a corrupt administration. But he didn't need to: Instead of sneaking around at night giving highly classified FBI information to reporters, he could have confronted the President, or, if the President refused, gone to Congress or held a press conference.

Following the interviews, I received an avalanche of angry mail. Of course Felt was a hero, my correspondents insisted, as did all but one of the television interviewers. In the rush to canonize Felt, no one asked if he did the right thing. Did the end justify the means?

I understand why Felt wanted to stop Watergate. In The Good Life, I confess I should have acted to stop the spreading scandal. One night, when, in my presence, Nixon ordered Haldeman to get a team in place for break-ins, I should have spoken up: "No, Mr. President, you can't do that." But I rationalized: We were at war, Marine classmates of mine were in combat, and the Cold War hung in the balance. Maybe the President had to take extreme steps.

I now realize that we humans have an infinite capacity for self-justification: "The heart is deceitful above all things." So knowing what was right, I did what was wrong, and justified myself in the process. ...

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