GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — You have to drive all the way to the banks of the Grand River — and travel back four decades — to get the full meaning of the national furor over electronic surveillance.
Within the walls of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum are the artifacts that transformed the lawmaker from Michigan’s 5th Congressional District into the 38th president of the United States — and that provide the evidence from 1972 that explains the importance of the debate in 2013.
The tools that began the gravest constitutional crisis of our history are in a glass display case here. They are a pair of long-nose pliers, a Phillips-head screwdriver, and some crude listening bugs placed in two tubes of Chapstick.
Later, a Sony Servocontrol tape recorder, also on display here, with a red button emblazoned “REC,” helped bring down President Richard Nixon. Watergate was about many specifics, but its spirit was secret surveillance.
Now, the 44th President, Barack Obama, who was 10 years old when the burglars entered the Watergate suite, is engulfed by questions about secret surveillance of an entirely different magnitude. If it is unseemly how his critics on the right are rushing toward impeachment talk, it is equally unseemly for his supporters on the left to brush away the issues this new set of questions have raised.
The questions lay bare the world we inhabit today. It is one in which the electronic and digital capabilities of our age have both promise and peril. Only now is the peril, for decades understood by a few but ignored by the many, clear to all.
My own passage in this area revolves around two men I encountered before I was 28. I did not embrace either man’s views entirely. Only now do I understand that they both were right.
The first was John Kemeny, a Hungarian immigrant, mathematician, protegé of Albert Einstein, and pioneer of the BASIC computer language that is the Book of Genesis for our time. For an entire generation of college students, Mr. Kemeny was a pathfinder, arguing to us freshmen in 1972 that it was essential we understand what he called “the machine.”
Five years later, in the Washington bureau of the New York Times, I sat beside a storied reporter named David Burnham. Mr. Burnham at the time was working on a book, The Rise of the Computer State, that we all thought was a work of madness.
It described the threat computers posed to personal privacy and civil liberties. I worshiped the man. But I thought his theory was nuts. We all did.
But gradually, I came to see that Mr. Burnham understood what was before our eyes but what we could not envision: that the capacity to link information and to share it widely also was the capacity to learn what information individuals possess. It is the capacity to give companies, governments, and individual citizens the tools that J. Edgar Hoover sought — and the megaphone that Joseph McCarthy possessed.
We cannot un-invent the computer or the cell phone, or the capacious abilities we have to communicate — and to be surveilled. But we can be aware that we are living in a perilous age in which our tools are also our minders. And, sad to say, an age in which our leaders see threats to our civil liberties in the narrowest possible way, when they should instead see those threats in our laptop computers and iPhones.
Linger long enough at the Ford Museum and a tape of an entirely different sort will cycle through. You will hear the president say: “There will be no illegal tappings, eavesdropping, buggings, or break-ins in my administration.”
Who dared during his term in the 1970s to think that President Ford might someday be a figure of nostalgia, and wisdom?
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org