Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Smoking Gun

Originally, I suppose, the phrase "smoking gun" was primarily a literary device — a reference to something in a mystery novel that proved someone was guilty of a crime.

The earliest mention of it that I have been able to find was in a Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle more than a century ago.

As I gather, the phrase fell out of popular use for quite awhile. When I was growing up, my parents were devout mystery readers. They loved the works of Agatha Christie and other, lesser known mystery writers. I remember, as a child, watching reruns of the black–and–white TV series "Perry Mason" with my father, and my parents were devotees of the Angela Lansbury series, "Murder, She Wrote."

And, while I am certain they were familiar with the concept of the "smoking gun," I never heard them discuss it with each other or any of their friends who also enjoyed murder mysteries.

Then, as evidence of his complicity in the Watergate scandal began to accumulate, Richard Nixon's defenders in Congress began to speak of the need to find a "smoking gun" in the president's hand before they could be persuaded to support his removal from office.

On Aug. 5, 1974, the "smoking gun" was revealed. Earlier, Nixon had released the transcript of a conversation with chief of staff H.R. Haldeman from June 23, 1972 — six days after the break–in at the Watergate. In that conversation, the men discussed having the CIA block the FBI's investigation into the matter. The transcript showed that the president had sought to obstruct justice, an impeachable offense.

Nixon's support in Congress evaporated and, convinced that he no longer had enough support to survive impeachment in the House or a trial in the Senate, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

It is ironic, therefore, that the National Archives is releasing more than 100 hours of tapes and about 30,000 pages of documents from the Nixon administration today — exactly 37 years since the "smoking gun" conversations.

"Most of the tapes related to the Watergate scandal ... have already been released," observes Charlie Savage in the New York Times, "but scholars say some new materials on that topic are expected."

It is also ironic, I think, that Barack Obama signed into law yesterday the bill that puts tobacco products under federal control via the FDA.

The bill was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers of Congress earlier this month.

I find it ironic because, although Obama pledged to give up his own smoking habit in a deal he made with his wife in exchange for her endorsement of his decision to run for the presidency, there were indications yesterday that he has not been completely successful in the effort.

"I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it's been with you for a long time," he said. Observers pointed out that there were subtle clues in his word selection — "I know how difficult it can be" rather than "I know how difficult it was" — and in his refusal to answer direct questions about his smoking habit.

In the absence of photographs or video footage of Obama sneaking a smoke on the sly, that will have to serve as today's "smoking gun."

Obama can't lose his job over it, but, if he wants to be a persuasive role model who can encourage young people to avoid the habit or give it up, he needs to be able to assure his listeners that he truly is a reformed smoker.

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