Then every thing includes itself in power,—William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, a universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And at last eat up himself.
Recently, I was reading The Ends of Power, a memoir penned by President Richard Nixon’s bulldog chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, when I stumbled across a profound truth about conscience. To provide a bit of background to those not well-versed in Nixon and the players in the Watergate scandal, H.R. Haldeman was Nixon’s rock-jawed, buzzcutted right-hand man. Having a successful background in advertising, Haldeman rose in prominence, first serving as advance man for President Eisenhower’s 1956 reelection campaign and then for Senator Nixon’s failed (respective) 1960 and 1962 presidential and California governor campaigns. Notwithstanding these dispiriting defeats, Haldeman, like his boss, was tenacious. When Nixon, at last, won the presidency in 1968, Haldeman was tapped as his chief of staff.
Nixon’s presidency would be turbulent, marked by many victories and defeats. Opening to China, negotiating treaties with the Soviet Union (e.g., the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty), and ending the Vietnam War were signal achievements marred by the secret bombing of Cambodia, the leak of the Pentagon Papers, and violent protests, one of which ended with several dead on the campus of Kent State.
Though the Nixon presidency would prove to be successful enough to win in a crushing landslide against George McGovern in 1972, it was the Watergate break-in that proved to be the unraveling of the administration. Happening in June 1972—just five months before what appeared to be certain electoral victory for Nixon—White House–directed operatives broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex to wiretap leaders and gather information advantageous to the Nixon administration. It was dogged shoe-leather journalism from the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that ultimately traced the burglars and their money to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Ultimately, the trail revealed a network of dirty tricks and cover-ups that involved the highest members of Nixon’s presidency, including Haldeman and Nixon himself. Haldeman would serve eighteen months in prison for obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and perjury. Nixon would resign in disgrace.
The Ends of Power (released just as Haldeman was finishing his prison term) describes more than just Haldeman’s life as a chief of staff to the president of the United States. It is a treatise on human nature. Haldeman, by sheer time and proximity, had come to know Richard Nixon better than almost anyone in Nixon’s life. Nixon’s joys and concerns, pleasures and peeves, patterns and idiosyncrasies were all part of the human clay with which Haldeman daily worked. In spite of this intimacy, Haldeman defied the proverb, “No man is a hero to his valet.” This valet still revered his man as a hero, but he wanted to protect him from his hero’s own shortcomings.
Haldeman claimed he, like many chiefs of staff, had to build a wall around the president. First, to limit access so the president could get his day’s work done and breathe. Second, and most importantly in the eyes of Haldeman, “This President had to be protected from himself.”
Time and again I would receive petty vindictive orders. “Hugh Sidey is to be kept off Air Force One” (Sidey was Time’s man.) Or even, once or twice, “All the press is barred from Air Force One.” (Pool representatives of the press accompanied the President on every trip.) Or, after a Senator made an anti-Vietnam War speech: “Put a 24-hour surveillance on that bastard.” And on and on and on. If I took no action I would pay for it. The President never let up. He’d be on the intercom buzzing me ten minutes after such an order. “What have you done about Sidey?” I’d say, “I’m working on it,” and delay and delay until Nixon would one day comment, with a sort of half-smile on his face, “I guess you never took action on that, did you?”
“Well, I guess it was the best thing.”
In these moments, Haldeman (in spite of his other acts of criminality and imperfections) served as a form of conscience to the president. The president’s temptation to lash out and do imprudent (or simply bad) things was curbed by a regulator who said (through his inaction), “No. This is a bad idea which will be destructive to you and others.”
But then along came Chuck Colson. Colson served as special counsel to the president, and Haldeman soon recognized the extreme fealty Colson felt for the president and the dangers therein.
Colson encouraged the dark impulses in Nixon’s mind, and acted on those impulses instead of ignoring them and letting them die. . . . As a White House aide once put it, “Haldeman built a wall, but Colson was jumping over the wall.” . . . In between his official projects, he was inside the Oval Office listening enthusiastically to Nixon’s outraged pleas for action against various persons or organizations and promising, “Yes sir, I’ll do that for you by tomorrow morning.” . . . As far as the President was concerned, Colson was Mr. Can-Do.
In these moments, Colson was serving as a failed conscience, allowing Nixon’s appetite its untrammeled way. The consequences, as we now know, were dire. Haldeman and Colson were imprisoned. Nixon was impeached and ultimately resigned.
This is where we come to the topic of conscience. Of course, no man can be another’s conscience, but you understand the parallel. We need something to protect us against ourselves—our dark desires, our selfish appetites, our inner totalitarian. That thing is conscience. “Conscience” as Gaudium et Spes tells us, “is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” St. John Henry Newman called conscience “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” Our conscience guides us with its eyes always on God’s truth. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of “synderesis,” that is a knowledge of the first principles of morality. But Aquinas also discusses “conscientia” where we apply this knowledge to our particular circumstances. Conscientia nods when we tend toward the right and shakes its head when we gravitate toward the wrong. Our conscience (as “conscientia”), however, is forever being formed or deformed. With prayer, study, healthy discipline, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, our conscience can help us live upright lives. But with a tendency to adore the worldly, neglect the interior life, and sate our sinful appetites, our conscience can spin like a compass that has lost its magnetic north. To offer another metaphor, the captain of the ship (our conscience) will surely run aground if he follows the shooting stars of our appetites and not the fixed North Star of God’s truth. Conscience serves us best when it recognizes the twin realities of God’s infinite truth and our intractable fallibility.
H.R. Haldeman was a broken man. But at times (and quite imperfectly), he recognized there are some things you cannot do, you ought not do. He put restraints on the dark impulses of his hero. He acknowledged that in assenting to Nixon’s worst inclinations, being Mr. Can-Do (like Chuck Colson) is the worst thing he could have been.
In an odd way, Haldeman reminds us that our conscience is pesky because it is supposed to be. It impatiently refuses to allow us to settle for ephemeral, empty pleasures at the cost of supreme, enduring joy. “The world offers you comfort,” Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, “but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” We should thank God for the prick of conscience, for, in recognizing it for what it really is, we will arrive at the place we are called to be—not necessarily comfort, but true spiritual greatness.