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From The Washington Post Magazine
Wired Eyes
How Tapes and Technology Freeze Our Times – and Sometimes the Blood Itself

By Richard Cohen
Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page W20

Back when I was 16 or so, I read Henry Miller and remembered for a long time afterward an episode in which this most raunchy of American writers got drunk in a Paris bistro and wound up having sex with a woman he had just encountered -- someone, I seem to recall, just as drunk as he. To the 16-year-old me, this was as exciting an experience as one could have, the essence of an erotic life -- available (especially back then) to adults only. I bided my time, and dreamed.

But when the time came, I started to see that episode differently. I removed Miller as the teller of the tale, the director, so to speak, of this one scene. I introduced another person, turned the camera on her and had her come upon two drunks having sex on the soiled floor of a Parisian restaurant. This now became a squalid scene, ugly and not in the least erotic, and I had changed it, utterly and irrevocably, simply by altering the perspective.

This, more or less, is what contemporary technology has done to us all -- although to some of us much more than to others. For most of human history, people had almost no idea of how they appeared to others. They had no photographs, no films, no audio tapes and no videotapes. They had no idea, really, how their voice sounded to others and what they looked like from behind. Everyone has a characteristic walk, but up until the recent ubiquity of the video camera, only movie actors knew theirs. Even now, most of us have never seen ourselves from behind -- and in photos, we smile and hold in our gut. What we think is a good picture is a lie.

I think of these matters because technology -- taping and filming, bugging and tapping -- has destroyed the sense of who we think we are, the image we think we are projecting to the world. This may be especially the case in Washington, where, repeatedly, one political figure or another is confronted with tapes made by some mistress or alleged lover. That produces something more than an indictment, if that is warranted, or the settling of a suit. What happens is closer to mortification, a total loss of control of who the person has been telling the world he is. There, on the tape and under circumstances that now seem radically changed, is yet another image -- and this time it is someone else who is holding the camera, directing the scene.

Technology has turned us all into voyeurs. The chance occurrence, the glance across the courtyard to see something in a lighted window you should not see, is now a commonplace event. But that's not because we have all set up telescopes and stand, night after night, in a darkened room. It is because the photo and the tape, the video and film, have brought us into the most private areas of people's lives. This is how we know that Prince Charles had a smutty, juvenile telephone conversation with his presumed mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles. This is how we know the extent of former housing secretary Henry Cisneros's financial support of his former mistress, Linda Medlar -- she had him on tape.

This is how we know that Frank Gifford had an interlude with Suzen Johnson. For a fee from the Globe, a supermarket tabloid, she allowed their intimate moments to be videotaped. And this, of course, is how we know that Dick Morris, President's Clinton's one-time campaign consultant, had an affair with a hooker named Sherry Rowlands. For money, she lured him onto the balcony of a Jefferson Hotel suite so they could be photographed from across the street. And, of course, it is tapes that have figured so prominently in the travails of Bill Clinton -- the audios of, first, Gennifer Flowers and then of Linda Tripp, the so-called friend of Monica Lewinsky.

Technology enabled some of these women to entrap the men who, in some way, had left them scorned and embittered. Or, to put it the way Marion Barry did under similar circumstances, "Bitch set me up."

With tapes, denial becomes impossible -- although legal exoneration is always feasible. The subject of the taping, the bugging, the video, forever loses the authority to direct his or her version of events. An erotic moment turns immediately squalid, the context shifts instantly from that of the subject to that of the taper. The silly babble of seduction, the prattle of the horny, becomes screamingly hilarious when exposed to sunlight -- grist for the jokes of late-night comedians. I want to be your tampon, the prince of the once-glorious British Empire says to his paramour -- and all over the world, people hold their sides in laughter.

We are all fools in bed, when we talk in our sleep, when we daydream at work. We need, we demand, these private areas. But they are harder and harder to keep. The phone is dangerous. Say nothing that you will not want played back. Leave no messages. Stay off the computer. Your hard disk will always rat on you. Watch it with gifts, or pay cash. Credit cards leave a trail. Don't use electronic zappers to pay bridge or tunnel tolls. Don't order stuff on the Internet, and don't steal a kiss in the elevator -- there's a little TV camera in the ceiling. And overhead, a satellite hovers -- a space-age peeping Tom.

Whenever Richard M. Nixon lifted the receiver on his Oval Office telephone -- extension 500, as it happens -- the voltage dropped from 49 to 12, activating a Sony 800B tape recorder. Two other telephones were also tapped -- extension 504 in Nixon's hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building and one in the Lincoln Sitting Room in the White House's private quarters.

As for Nixon's bugging system, five microphones were installed in the president's White House desk, implanted under the wood trim, and two more were placed on lighting fixtures across the room. The Cabinet Room was also bugged, as was Nixon's office in the EOB. These systems were voice-activated. Sound from the Oval Office was fed to two Sony 800Bs in a small White House room. The two Oval Office recorders were controlled by a timer. Around midnight, one machine took over for the other.

Those, essentially, are the technical details relating to the system that produced the famous White House tapes. Other presidents had recorded their conversations, but their systems were primitive compared with Nixon's -- neither as extensive nor as comprehensive. Nixon clearly had a role in mind for himself: director. He would decide when and how these tapes would be used, if ever, and he planned for himself -- as any powerful director would -- the right of final cut. He would write his history.

The tapes would present him in the best light possible, refresh his recollection when it came time to write his magisterial memoirs. Missing, of course, would be his curses and oaths, his threats and schemes, his petty malevolence, his B-grade criminality and all the stuff that he himself did not think important and that, in truth, was often ignored by his aides. This was the posturing of a flawed individual, the rantings of a man whose hostility was deeply buried. Even his antisemitic statements were of no account -- totally unrelated to policy, they would argue.

But once the tapes were seized by investigators, the tapes could no longer embellish the whole Nixon, but instead came to represent the totality of him, blotting out everything else. They obscured his achievements and overwhelmed other aspects of his personality, his occasional kindnesses, for instance. The editing that he would have done -- mostly omissions, probably, but possibly also explanations ("I had no intention of doing what I had just said." "I was just blowing off steam.") -- was no longer possible. The tapes obliterated the whole Nixon, revealing private moments that, simply because they were private, seemed more true, more candid than his public ones. He was the first American president to be so exposed, but not, as we have seen, the last.

I am looking now at a photograph. It was taken in June 1964 and it is of a group of young civil rights workers at the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee training facility in Oxford, Ohio. The way the photo is cropped, one volunteer stands out. He is wearing a dark T-shirt and stands with his hands on his hips. His name is Andrew Goodman, and within weeks he and two other young men -- James Chaney and Michael Schwerner -- will be murdered in Neshoba County, Miss.

We have all seen such pictures -- photos of people who are about to die and don't know it. In a sense, these, too, are voyeuristic moments, since we are seeing something about the person that they could not themselves see. It is like watching through a window -- a cinematic experience in which we, because we are the audience, know more than the people we are watching, the characters played by actors. We know something about the about-to-die that they themselves do not know -- not that they will die, mind you, because that will happen to us all. Rather it is that their death is imminent. We know it and they do not.

Until the advent of photography, such moments could only be imagined -- or, in a painting, re-created -- and then, of course, they could be scoffed at or ignored. But there is one photo that, for me, begins the 20th century. It is a huge rally in Munich's Odeonsplatz, August 1914. World War I had begun, and there in the vast throng is a little man with a soon-to-be-famous mustache, Adolf Hitler. He would go off to fight that war and then, as the eventual leader of his country, make sure that World War I would resume. Before that, photography showed us how horses galloped and how men danced, but this one showed the Holocaust way before it was envisioned, imagined or thought conceivable. This was not a picture of one man's pre-death, but of his life and the deaths of countless others.

Such photos freeze time and sometimes the blood itself. Others produce reluctant feelings of power: I see you, you don't see me, you die. At least in this world, the living get to lord it over the dead. The dead can't even be libeled.

But the dead have passed beyond our voyeurism. We may listen to the tapes (or read the transcripts) of what pilots exclaim just before their plane crashes or, as with TWA Flight 800, hear what nearby pilots, eyewitnesses to the midair explosion, had to say as they watched the plane go down. But just as in the mad videotaped statement of some self-doomed cultist -- with its almost pornographic fascination -- we nonetheless learn nothing we don't already know and nothing about what we don't: What is the moment like?

For Miller and his fellow randy drunk, there is his perspective and my perspective and, if you insist, your own. For most of us, there is only our own, a self-directed view of the world in which we retain control of our own self-image. That is not the case, though, for technology's victims -- a flash of the strobe, a kind of mortifying nudity once limited to nightmares and then the sickening realization that control of their self-image has slipped from their hands. They thought they were the stars of their own movie, but they are merely walk-ons in one directed by someone else.

Richard Cohen is a Post columnist.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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