Pearl and Harry Cohen, a.k.a. my parents, did not believe in transparency. When a big decision had to be made regarding my sister and me, my parents retreated to their bedroom and issued their pronouncement the next morning. They spoke as one. There was no way to divide them. As a child, I could have used WikiLeaks.
Now WikiLeaks is all over the place, a veritable downpour of the once secret, both consequential and trivial — more the latter than the former, it seems. Taking a lateral from Moscow, the organization has gutted the Democratic National Committee, revealing that it had taken sides in the primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It later opened a digital vein into the most secret thoughts of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager and a former White House chief of staff. Like the DNC, he, too, favors Clinton. We are constantly finding gambling at Rick’s.
When in 2006, WikiLeaks leaked its first leaks, it was hard to know what to make of it. Not much has changed. The organization seems both invaluable and a damned nuisance — leaking a video showing what certainly seemed like a U.S. war crime in Iraq as well as transcripts of Clinton’s speeches to various Wall Street groups in which she did not call for breaking up the banks or for socializing the economy. These non-revelatory revelations, however, were just a piece of the Clinton oeuvre, which also included some personal emails. They, too, are shocking in their banality.
WikiLeaks has been accused of recklessness and of publishing information that has risked the lives of U.S. government employees and contractors. Maybe so, but no hard evidence has been provided. Still, the compunction to throw open every window — to insist that all secrets are bad and that transparency is always good — has an obvious cost. In fact, it was the long-ago closing of windows that illustrates what I mean. In 1787, in Philadelphia, the Founding Fathers not only shut and barred them, but drew the blinds, enduring stifling heat and swarms of mean flies so that their deliberations would remain secret. They feared the damage that leaks would do before the final document, the Constitution with all its controversial compromises, could be published. Lobbyists lurked.
Nowadays, of course, such secrecy would be impossible. Nowadays, in fact, it is a careless or inebriated soul indeed who sends candid emails or keeps a diary. Dick Cheney, for all his faults, was ahead of his time when he said, “I learned early on that if you don’t want your memos to get you in trouble someday, just don’t write any.” As far as I can tell, he hasn’t.
And neither do many others. The result of this new transparency is less transparency. Where once every high government official devoted part of every day to his or her private diary, now only a fool would do so. Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, “His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt,” details the end of FDR’s life, much of it in diary entries made by others. The president himself kept no diary, but just about everyone who had access to him did, and while some of them were willing to lie in public at the time about Roosevelt’s health — FDR was clearly failing — they were usually truthful in their diaries. They wrote of his cadaverous appearance, his lack of focus, his flagging energy — portraits they would never, out of either charity or political caution, have made at the time if they knew it could be leaked. They were compiling a historical record. They lied to the present, but not to the future.
Now, though, that record may come down to anodyne emails with smileys at the end. Nothing honest will be put down on what used to be paper. I know one former White House aide who went home after his first day of work and wrote 12 pages of journal entries. The next day he had second thoughts — harrowing visions of subpoenas and the like — and that night he destroyed what he had written. No more diary.
No one I know writes candid emails anymore. No one I know is unaware that he or she shares a computer with the Chinese and the Russians. “The Chinese are in your business,” Google’s Eric Schmidt told a group of businessmen not too long ago. The more prudent among us have deleted emails from way back. Now the record is what we say it is. The only thing truly transparent will be our lack of candor.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.
Read more on this topic: