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. For here, within the walls of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, are the artifacts that transformed the lawmaker from Michigan's fifth 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.
Presidential museums often are palaces of the pretend, but the Ford Museum is a metaphor for the understated nature of the Grand Rapids congressman who was catapulted into the presidency during the gravest constitutional crisis of our history.
The implements that began that crisis, its raw materials, 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 Chap Stick. Later, a Sony four-speed Servo Control tape recorder, also on display here, with a red button emblazoned "REC," helped bring down Richard M. Nixon. Watergate was about many specifics, but its spirit was secret surveillance.
Now, the 44th president, Barack Obama, 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 politics will take its own course, and given the nature of contemporary Washington, we can bet that the big issues will be ignored and the little issues will be pressed for mean partisan advantage. It would be the same if a Republican were in the White House. The atmosphere is that bad and the instincts of the principals are that puerile.
At their heart, the importance of the latest revelations don't involve the president, his predecessor, Congress, the Central Intelligence Agency, Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, Iraq or where Edward R. Snowden is, or was.
What these disclosures reveal isn't the venality of Barack Obama or the imminence of the threat of terrorism. They 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, and 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. They never met, but I fell under their sway, so brilliant were their insights, so intoxicating were their perspectives. I did not embrace either man's views entirely. In fact, those views seemed incompatible. Only now do I understand that they both were right.
The first was John G. Kemeny, Hungarian immigrant, mathematician, protege of Albert Einstein, pioneer of the BASIC computer language that is the Book of Genesis for our time. For an entire generation of college students, Kemeny was a pathfinder, arguing to us freshmen in 1972 that it was essential we understand what he called "the machine," insisting that to accept a college diploma without hands-on knowledge of the machine was educational malpractice -- and base stupidity. So we did, every one of us, play around a bit with the machine, rudimentary as it was, and we left campus with an understanding of what this remarkable device could accomplish.
Only five years later, in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, I sat beside a storied reporter named David Burnham, famous for the Serpico revelations about New York City police corruption. David was different from every reporter in the bureau in that he didn't care a whit about the White House and had scarcely veiled contempt for all of us who did.
Politics wasn't his preoccupation; it was a mere distraction. How I wish I had his instinct -- and his intelligence. David 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.
The computer, after all, seemed terrifying only in its complexity, not in its capacity. In those days, you couldn't look anything up on the computer, nor send a message. You could only type on it, and to all of us accustomed to tearing up sheaves of copy paper when we wanted to rewrite our newspaper leads, it was a godsend. Easier typing: What a concept!
But gradually I came to see that David 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, what links individuals have, what communications individuals conduct. It is the capacity, in the language of a long-ago age, to look at people's library cards, to ransack their garbage and to make guilt-by-association a federal crime. It is the capacity to give companies, governments and individual citizens the tools that J. Edgar Hoover sought -- and the megaphone that Joseph R. McCarthy possessed.
There is no going back, of course. We cannot un-invent the computer, nor the cellphone, nor the capacious abilities we have to communicate -- and to be surveilled. But we can be aware that we are living in a perilous age where our tools are also our minders and, sad to say, where our leaders see threats to our civil liberties in the narrowest possible way, when they should instead see those threats in our laptops, thumb drives and iPhones.
Linger long enough at the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids and a tape of an entirely different sort will cycle through, and if you listen carefully you will hear the president say: "There will be no illegal tappings, eavesdropping, buggings or break-ins by my administration."
Who dared during his term in the 1970s to think that President Ford might someday be a figure of nostalgia, and wisdom?
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