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Authors: William F. Buckley

A Very Private Plot

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A Very Private Plot

A Blackford Oakes Mystery

William F. Buckley, Jr.




APRIL 1995

Senator Hugh Blanton addressed the problem as an Old Testament prophet might have done. It was a few minutes after ten when the chairman tapped his index finger on the wooden desk. Tapped it ever so lightly. That was all that Senator Blanton needed to do, in the spring of 1995, to make his wishes known. His wishes at this moment were, one, to stop the chatter and, two, to get on with the business of the day. The business of the week, of the month,
the business of the legislative session
, as far as Hugh Blanton was concerned. Covert activity was the screen for indefensible, inexcusable government activity. Lying, cheating, seduction, poison, threats, violence, war-risking—
. He did not use the word “sin.” In the first place, he didn't want to get mixed up with the evangelical right. In the second place, he never could understand how anybody over twelve years old, not counting old ladies, could countenance the very idea of God. And sin was a God word. If ever you use it, he told his wife, Alice, one night at dinner—just the two of them, in the candlelight, he wearing black tie, she a long, sleeveless dress—it must be made clear that you are using a metaphor. He did not mind classifying the covert activity of the CIA, when speaking to Alice or to close friends, as “sinful.” To make up for using such a biblical word and to remind the listener that Hugh Blanton was a man of the world, he would as often as not denounce covert activity as “sinful
tout court
.” There! A simple use of the French intensifier as a substitute for “sinful—pure and simple” had the effect of reminding Alice and his friends that they were dealing with a cosmopolitan man.

So his objective now was to frame a bill that would forbid the exercise of covert activity by the Central Intelligence Agency or by any other government agency except when there was a state of national emergency, declared by the President, confirmed by Congress.

Dr. Blanton had given the Godkin Lecture at Harvard the year before and later in the spring had accepted a half-dozen honorary degrees from universities, some of them distinguished. His citations were much alike. They spoke of “the scholar,” of the scion of old New England virtue, of a sometime Rhodes scholar, a Ph.D. in political science, an adjunct professor at Berkeley, the author of
The Evolution of the Protestant Ethic
The Maladministration of Justice
. And it was in an address to the American Association of University Professors that he revealed, on the tenth anniversary of his appointment to the Senate by Governor Little of Illinois, that he would sponsor a resolution in Congress to bare all the records of the Cold War. “That war is over. Why should we not know what we did in pursuit of our objectives?”

“Did he then say, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free'?” Anthony Trust had asked Blackford Oakes when told, the day before, about Blanton's speech, the whole of which Oakes had watched on C-SPAN.

“No, no, Anthony. It's important to size this guy up. He can quote Saint John, but he does not use clichés. He is not in the least the demagogue. He would rather lose the next election than split an infinitive. But he knows his own mind and what he wants to do better than anybody in the history of certitudes. Compared to Blanton, Hitler was an ambiguist. He's glad to get the honorary degrees not so much because he covets them but because he calculates that they add to his authority. And they do. Look, he was appointed to the Senate only nine or ten years ago and already he's chairman of the one committee he wanted to be chairman of, parlayed himself into that position with the help of Al Gore—the Honorable Vice President is terrified of Blanton. And Blanton has this fastidious distaste for covert action.”

“Does he fuck in public?”

Blackford smiled, stood up in the roomy study of his house in rural Virginia, and leaned back on the bookshelves. “Anthony, you'll never change.”

“Is there any particular reason why I should? I mean, Black, how long have we known each other? We went to boarding school together in England—an experience you're happy to forget. I was one year ahead of you at Yale—an experience you correctly cherish, if only because that's where you met Sally. I recruited you into the Agency in which we have engaged together in what … a dozen enterprises over the years? You never
me to change.”

The expression on the face of the lean six-footer who would be seventy on his next birthday and might well celebrate it by running in the Boston marathon was one of mock surprise, disappointment, desolation.

Blackford didn't pursue the charade. He returned to the subject. “Obviously Blanton is, on this matter, on this one matter, a fanatic. But some fanatics get their way. There is this about him, though. He is willing to debate his position. On C-SPAN yesterday there was a pretty bright dissenter, a girl. I didn't get what college she's associated with. Hillsdale, I think. Maybe Grove City … is there a third right-wing college in America? She really lit into him, but she's the exception.”

“You're right, Black, Blanton has solid support from the academic class.

—Oh my God, Blackford!” Anthony suddenly looked up at the ceiling, his mouth wide open.

“What's the matter?” Blackford asked him sharply.

“Can you
what Blanton would say if ever he found out some of the things we actually did do—for our country?”

Blackford smiled. “Yes, there is that. I'm not sure I could tell a priest everything I've done—for God and country. Though in most cases—not every case—I'd probably do it again.”

“I can think of at least one thing I know you wouldn't hesitate to do again.”

Blackford paused. “Anthony, did you ever read
Stalky and Co

“By who?”


“I forget. What's your point?”

“There's a line there, the headmaster I think it was, addressing a couple of sixth-formers. He wonders at their ‘precocious flow of fetid imagery.' Wonders whether they will ever grow up.”

“In my case, the answer is clearly No. Though I wonder that at my age anything about me can be said to be precocious.… But to get to the business at hand, are you going to try the same thing on Blanton that you did on Rockefeller?”

“I haven't decided.”

“You may as well think about it, Black, since tomorrow is pretty soon. Ten a.m., I suppose. The usual hour. You have tonight and the early morning to perform your ablutions. In this case, your
toilette des condamnés
.” Anthony sat up and went to the bar, carefully measuring the bourbon he poured into his glass. Without looking up he asked, “The usual?” Blackford grunted Yes. Anthony prepared a second glass and said solemnly, “You know I'm here to help you, buddy. Any way I can. You know and I know what Blanton really wants, which is to put you in jail. And maybe me too, when he gets around to the second echelon.”

“Yes,” Blackford said, twirling the ice in his drink with his index finger.

“And who could we get to rescue you, if that law against covert operations is passed?”

“Gentlemen, Roberta, did you have an opportunity to read the minutes I sent over to you of the Rockefeller Commission's session with Mr. Blackford Oakes back in 1975?”

The honorable senators buckled down to the business at hand. No one spoke up.

Until: “To tell the truth, Hugh, I just simply didn't have time.” Senator Roberta Albright, alert, composed, mildly defiant, confessed her delinquency, something she would not have done in an open hearing, not if the press had been present.

“It would not have taken much time.” Senator Blanton's voice was that of the headmaster.

His fellow panelists looked up at the chairman, waiting for an explanation.

“Because the passage I called to your attention, the exchange between Mr. Oakes and Chairman Rockefeller, consumed all of three paragraphs of printed matter.”

“Took the Fifth?”—the senior senator from Florida contributed the likely explanation for so brief a section on the testimony of Blackford Oakes.

“No. He refused to take the oath. He refused to be sworn in.” There was consternation, curiosity. “Here exactly,” Senator Blanton opened his folder to the page, “is what the record reads:

Why do you decline to swear to tell the truth
?' Rockefeller asked.

“‘Because, Mr. Vice President, I am involved in a conflict of interest.'

“‘Will you elaborate on this, Mr. Oakes?' the Vice President asked him.

“Oakes answered: ‘To the extent I can, sir. If I swear to tell the truth, I am bound to answer truthfully questions you might put to me which, if I answered them truthfully, would jeopardize those interests of the United States which I have been trained to concern myself with as primary.'”

“Sounds like a prefect at Culver Academy,” the senator from South Carolina interrupted.

Blanton continued: “Rockefeller came back with this:

“‘I appreciate very much your devotion to duty, Mr. Oakes. But the fact of the matter is that this panel was appointed by the President of the United States precisely to inquire into questions raised publicly about the Central Intelligence Agency. For instance, Is it always engaged in matters that enhance the national interest, and, if so, by the use of methods that are compatible with American ethics? Now, it ought to be clear to you that the authority of the President of the United States exceeds the authority of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, let alone any of his subordinates. So that by telling us the truth you are in fact upholding the integrity of the democratic chain of command.'”

“Good old Rocky”—Florida was heard from again. “
certainly should have taken care of the little p … prefect.”

“Here was Oakes's answer,” Blanton went on. “Something we may have to cope with this morning.

“‘Mr. Vice President, I understand your theoretical arguments. I reach different conclusions on concrete questions. I would most willingly give you the reasons why I reach these conclusions if you desire me to do so. But if you feel that merely to listen to me give my reasoning is somehow a waste of your valuable time, and that of your distinguished colleagues, then it would save time—all the way around—for me to say nothing at all, beyond what I have already said. I am of course aware of the penalties you are in a position to impose on me for failing to cooperate, by your definition of cooperation.'”

Blanton stopped, and the ensuing silence was general. Finally Roberta Albright asked, “What happened?”

“Minutes were not taken of the discussion of the panel—whose members, you may remember, included a future President of the United States, Mr. Reagan; a sometime Cabinet officer, Douglas Dillon; and Solicitor General Mr. Erwin Griswold. The record shows only that forty-five minutes later, the clerk was sent out to tell the witness he was dismissed.”

BOOK: A Very Private Plot
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