Echoes of Agnew

Has anyone seen Spiro Agnew lately? I keep hearing echoes of him, and it's begun to worry me. I think it ought to worry you, too.

It's time to look with some concern to the First Amendment again . . . to the process and quality of public information. And in that regard, there are two quotes I'd like you to think about.

''A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but the prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.'' That was James Monroe, some 200 years ago.

''Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.'' That was General William Westmoreland, earlier this year.

The two quotes represent fundamentally conflicting attitudes toward public information, toward the idea that an informed people can intelligently govern itself, toward, I think, the idea of democracy itself. The one vigorously embraces that idea - advocates it. The other shows a deep mistrust of it. Actually, it's a dichotomy as old as American democracy itself. At times, one seems to dominate, and other times, the other is on top. Right now, I'm afraid, we're in the Westmoreland mode.

The General was talking to a college audience in Colorado, telling it that the news media will have to be censored in any future war involving the United States. We generally think of wartime censorship as an effort to keep useful information from the enemy. But, of course, it has other purposes, as Westmoreland pointed out. He said the military must have the support of the American people in any future war, and that isn't possible, he said, unless news is controlled. He said uncensored news media were responsible for the erosion of public support in Vietnam. He singled out television, saying ''television is an instrument that can paralyze this country.'' Now isn't that an interesting point of view? So far as I can make out, the General wasn't talking about World War III -- not exclusively, anyway. He seemed to be talking about future Vietnams -- that is, El Salvador or other such conflicts which might one day involve American forces in limited conflicts.

Now, William Westmoreland is retired from the Army. He is not part of the present administration and it cannot be held responsible for his remarks or views. But those views hardly are unique with our former Vietnam commander. They are all too common in today's Washington.

Several actions of this administration should give us concern. For instance, the desires to alter the Freedom of Information Act. It has revoked the Carter administration's guidelines that limited bureaucratic challenges to block public access to the government's business and it is pushing for legislation to restrict the application of the act particularly in the areas where it is most needed -- about law enforcement agencies and their activities. It also wishes to limit the act regarding a wide range of business information. Under its changes dangerous foods and drugs, unsafe consumer goods, pollution and environmental threats, deceptive advertising - all might be shielded from the public.

In another instance the administration issued an executive order ending the automatic declassification after varying periods of time of government documents concerning foreign affairs that had been instituted by the Eisenhower administration. This is a blow to historians and their access to archival information on our past -- perhaps condemning us to repeat previous mistakes.

The administration has asked universities to restrict access to certain scientific courses that it might consider useful to the enemy and has suggested that scientists clear any such projects with the administration in advance.

None of these proposals and initiatives may seem all that serious a matter in itself; but, taken together, they form a pattern which we should be worrying about. It is a pattern of restriction. It is the solution of those who feel America has become too open a society and needs to be closed-off some.

It was against just such tortured wishful thinking, manipulation of figures and other distortions that reporting by American journalists in Vietnam began to collide. The assertion that Lyndon Johnson might have been better informed if he had relied on the New York Times instead of his cables from MACV had more than a grain of truth to it.

It was at such points as these that the so-called credibility gap first appeared and began to widen. It was there that the great fissures began which were to rend American society as it had not been rent since the Civil War. It was not bad news from the front that tore public support from that war. It was bad news clashing with official happy lies. The mistrust of the public and its reactions, of democracy itself, by the twisters and kiters and doublespeakers, was answered in kind. It shook the confidence of millions in their institutions, in the process of democracy itself. It had a devastating impact on American society from which we still are trying to recover.

Today I very much fear we may be in for more of the same. I do not intend to liken El Salvador to Vietnam in any way . . . except in this: that official reports and explanations often are woefully unconvincing, transparently wrong, and often in conflict with reports from experienced and reliable American reporters on the scene.

And we already are hearing echoes of that earlier battle between press and officialdom. The reporters are ''naive,'' ''romantic,'' ''leftist,'' ''subversive,'' ''anti-American.'' Yes, we've been down this road before.

There seems to me to be an implicit question posed in all of this -- whether we really have faith in the kind of democracy we've evolved in the last 200 years. Are we beginning to suspect it is outmoded in this increasingly complex and dangerous world? Do we need another form -- more efficient, decisive, authoritarian?

Well, if the answer is no, then we had better look to the health of what we have. If the people are to govern, then they must have the power which knowledge gives. For, to quote another authority, ''when information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them and -- eventually -- incapable of determining their own destiny.''

Spoken by one who should know. Richard Nixon, before the fall.

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