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The White House warp

In this White House handout, U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris (on screen) hold a video conference with the national security team to discuss the evacuation in Afghanistan on August 16, 2021, at Camp David in Frederick County, Maryland.
In this White House handout, U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris (on screen) hold a video conference with the national security team to discuss the evacuation in Afghanistan on August 16, 2021, at Camp David in Frederick County, Maryland. | White House via Getty Images

Recent initiatives taken by President Biden, from the creation of a “disinformation office,” to the belief that the United States could exit Afghanistan and keep its dignity, to getting revenue from the confiscation of the properties of Russian oligarchs, indicate (among others) that the “warp effect” is intensifying in the Biden White House.

In 1974, after working as a junior aide in the Nixon White House for three years, I wrote, and Fleming H. Revell published, a little memoir, The White House Mystique.

A reviewer wrote that “for those who want to understand the essence of the Nixon White House, this book is a must.”

Charles Colson wrote the foreword for the book where he stressed the importance of looking at the White House from the lower staff level rather than merely the perspective of people at the top.

From that “underside” perspective — especially after a period away from the White House and its “mystique” — I could see the vulnerability to distortions within the tight walls of the palace itself. I tried to reflect on my own observations of the “White House warp,” its beguilements, and its effect especially on junior staffers who pushed the buttons, hacked out strategies, and carried out instructions too often with wide-eyed naivete handed down by their overlords — who themselves seemed to be blinded to the warp effects.

For example, after the Watergate events that would ultimately bring down the Nixon presidency, several junior staffers wrote the president, urging him to tell the American people that he personally would take responsibility, lead an investigation on how the political travesty occurred, fire those in his campaign organization who had conceived and ordered the effort to bug a phone at Democrat Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate building.

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The memoranda never got to the Oval Office, let alone Mr. Nixon’s desk, because the letters had to pass through and be approved by people who themselves had helped perpetrate and cover up the Watergate break-in.

Mr. Nixon therefore did not know there were individuals on his staff who were advocating that he takes the high road in dealing with the scandal.

The warp effect means that the perspective from inside the Oval Office is that it is impenetrable, incapable of delusion and distortion.

That perspective often does not come until one is far enough away in time especially to see things as they are instead of the fantasy in which one is immersed inside the White House. Even an intellect like Arthur Schlesinger would not write The Imperial Presidency until he was well clear of mystical “Camelot” and the Kennedy White House and its warp.

The distance in time and space, like the famous “blue marble” photo of earth from space taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972 shows things as they really are.

The “White House warp” means that reality filters into the place through a prism. It is colored, disordered, bent as it flows from the day-to-day universe into a cosmos where every vulnerable person feels invulnerable and the mediocre superior. One seeking to deal with real-world problems doesn’t always have a fix on things as they are, but as they appear.

Perhaps this was the reason Nixon press spokesman Ron Zeigler initially characterized the Watergate break-in as a “third rate burglary.”  It also may explain why Nixon was shoving the mass of crisis farther and farther back until it shoved him out of the White House.

Before Nixon, the White House warp distorted the on-the-ground reality when President John F. Kennedy gave the green light to kill the first president of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, under the false assumption that Ngo’s removal would prevent civil war there.

The continuation and enlargement of that war continued under the distorted policies of Lyndon Johnson until the United States lost thousands of its soldiers and ultimately the war, and the Johnson presidency.

And that brings us to more recent times, and the warped strategies that in Afghanistan brought disaster for the United States and its allies in that region.

What shall we say about the COVID scare in more recent times? How many decisions were made by the Trump White House through the distortions of the warp? How many more have emerged from the Biden Oval Office?

Lyndon Johnson aide George Reedy wrote, in The Twilight of the Presidency: “The fact remains that the (White House) provides camouflage for all that is petty and nasty in human beings and enables a clown or a knave to pose as Galahad and be treated with deference.”

The warp means the lousiest of scoundrels, the ablest liars, through the warp, develop self-images of grandeur and honor, which they foist off on whoever will be gullible enough to fall for them.

The warp sometimes develops around the charismatic candidates for the Oval Office, and campaigns aimed at broadening this image. Barack Obama, for example, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before his presidency had even gotten underway.

The electorate, celebrities, and legitimizing institutions share culpability in blowing the smoke and creating the warp.

What can be done to overcome the distortions and delusions of the warp in the White House and all other centers of power? We look at this in the next part.

Wallace Henley is a former White House and Congressional aide. He is now a teaching pastor at Grace Church, The Woodlands, Texas. Wallace is author of more than 20 books, including God and Churchill, and his newest, Who Will Rule the Coming 'gods: The Looming Spiritual Crisis of Artificial Intelligence

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