Given where things are headed, I’m preparing the way a humanities scholar prepares. I’m reading accounts of the life and presidency of Richard M. Nixon. I’ll place a short bibliography of books worth reading at the bottom of this essay.
The Constitutional crisis we are now descending into is either much less grave than Watergate or much, much more serious. Time will tell. If President Trump is just an ignorant bully who doesn’t really understand obstruction of justice, he’ll probably survive to limp out his term. If people around Trump actually conspired with Russian agents to affect the 2016 election, some of them are going to go to prison, and the President may well have to resign. It’s one thing to bug the Democratic headquarters (June 1972), a very different thing to collude with a foreign power to distort domestic elections in the United States.
Personally, I sense that this story is ultimately going to be about sex (the hookers in the Moscow hotel) or about personal financial skullduggery (Trump’s beholdenness to the kleptocrats in Russia who have financed his global operations), or both. If treason was committed, it was probably done more out of ignorance and arrogance than with seriously malicious intent to subvert American sovereignty. Time will tell.
Why Nixon and Watergate?
As Mark Twain is said to have said, but didn’t, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
Here’s what I have learned from my recent reading of Nixon books.
- It’s not the crime but the coverup. This is now a cliche. But it is nevertheless true.
- Of course the President is involved, not necessarily in the crimes themselves, but in the coverup. Presidents don’t usually know how grave the situation is until it is much too late. In the earlier, more “innocent” phases of the scandal, the President thinks he can manage it to his advantage. As the scandal deepens, the President learns that the crimes did in fact occur, but now it is too late to cut his losses or pretend innocence. Nixon was almost certainly unaware of the Watergate break-in, or the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in Los Angeles. But he had ordered and coordinated the cover-up of whatever it was early on, and by the time he realized how grave things really were, it was too late. In for a penny of cover-up, in for a pound.
- Blaming the media works, but not forever. Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS, and other entities all made serious mistakes in their reporting. Some of what they reported turned out not to be true. Naturally the Nixon administration clutched at each of these “lies” and declared (on their basis) that “nothing the press reports can be trusted.” The media’s mistakes were unfortunate and unfair, but the great news entities got the larger dynamics of the story right, and while diehard Nixon lovers never accepted the truth, a critical mass of American opinion makers and leaders came to realize that the story was essentially true. Any story this complicated is hard to sort out, particularly when the principal actors refuse to cooperate in setting the record straight, and others are leaking material out of malice of to save their sorry skins.
- Invariably, as the scandal deepens, the President argues that his enemies are making it impossible to do good and important things for the American people. This, of course, is true, but it doesn’t mean the administration is innocent, and no matter how much you blame your enemies, in the end the collapse of a Presidential administration is self-inflicted. Presidents almost never admit this. Nixon did, years later, to his credit. The “people’s business” argument is often all the President has left in his rhetorical arsenal, but it never works.
- Another of the predictable “defenses” is that “this is an inside-the-beltway scandal, which the real American people don’t care about.” This is both true and untrue. Compared to the cluster of real issues the American people want addressed–health care, border security, energy policy, education, jobs–these scandals are of negligible importance. But the American people do love a good scandal, especially one leading all the way to the top, and no matter how disproportionate the scandal-mongering gets, there is no stopping it. In the case of Iran-Contra, the American people had finally to decide if they could stomach impeaching President Reagan, who most Americans liked in spite of his failures. Everyone sensed that he was not evil, like Nixon, but just manipulatable and a bit addled. At some point a Presidential scandal reaches the Decision Point: acknowledge the President’s guilt but somehow agree to carry on under his leadership, or force the issue and get rid of him.
- The President probably doesn’t know all the bad things that have been done in his name. He really is relatively innocent. His aides don’t tell him the whole truth. Once the scandal begins to thicken, everyone starts looking for a scapegoat. Nixon didn’t really want to know the truth until too late. When he finally started trying to figure out what had happened and who was responsible, he could no longer cut his losses, fire the culprits, apologize sincerely, and carry on. My point is that when Presidents profess their innocence or their bewilderment about crimes committed in their name, they are often telling the truth or at least a partial truth.
- At some point the President hopes there is a foreign policy crisis that will drive the scandal off the front page. In Nixon’s case, the Yom Kippur War on October 1973 and the oil embargo that followed should have made the Watergate “caper,” as one of his aides called it, go away. This never actually happens. The scandal may very temporarily slip off the front page, but it will not disappear for very long, and meanwhile the best reporters finally have time to do more serious digging. Perverse though it sounds, I’m guessing there are people close to the current President hoping for a big terrorist attack somewhere in America or an American outpost. Think of that.
- Firing the chief investigator always makes matters worse. Nixon tried this in the Saturday Night Massacre (October 1973). President Trump should not have fired FBI director Comey. In doing so, and denouncing Mr. Comey as a “nut job,” President Trump brought on the special counsel. He also offended Comey so deeply that the former FBI director now seems determined to do what he can to bring Trump down.
- John Dean was telling the truth. Beware of challenging the veracity of the Dean/Comey figure. When you pretend that the “facts will show” that the President was telling the truth and the key witness was fabricating and lying, it’s always safe to bet on the John Dean figure rather than the President.
- The President always makes the mistake of viewing his problems as political when they are already legal. By the time he realizes that they are legal (or Constitutional) problems, not primarily political ones, it is too late. Meanwhile, because he chose to see the scandal as a political matter, and reckoned that he could “tough it out,” the President finds himself engaged in the cover-up. See #1.
- Elections are extremely irrational affairs, and people who should know better do crazy, erratic, and illegal things to get their guy elected. Nixon was going to win the 1972 election by a comfortable, perhaps even a gigantic, margin. He had absolutely no rational reason to permit the dirty tricks and break-ins that were undertaken in his name. But elections bring out a kind of insanity in those close to a candidate. This is what we are going to learn about the 2016 Trump campaign. President Trump may turn out to have been essentially unaware of the Machiavellian actions undertaken by his closest aides, but that doesn’t make him innocent. In Trump’s case, his zealots may have felt that he simply could not win without shady maneuvers. And they may have been right.
- There is a great deal of self-pity before it ends. Just wait.
- And, finally, the last weeks of a collapsing administration are truly dangerous. Nixon’s closest aides finally took steps to make sure the President didn’t do anything in the last weeks that might have precipitated Armageddon. The temptation to lob a missile at North Korea may finally overwhelm a discredited and desperate President. In the last weeks of his administration, Nixon told his core advisors that he wanted to die, that he wanted to go to sleep and not wake up. At some point the most responsible members of an administration have to “parent” the collapsing President.
Eventually, even partisan stalwarts realize that for the good of the republic, the President must be removed from office. When Barry Goldwater finally comes over to the White House and says, enough, it’s time to start the helicopter.
None of this gives me any joy. In fact, I hate to see the glee and the high-fiving of the left. Some members of the media and some partisans can barely suppress their mirth. We are witnessing the possible collapse of a duly-elected President of the United States. This can never be good for America. Richard Nixon’s fall was a classical tragedy. Donald Trump’s, should it come to that, will more closely resemble a farce. But his fall would represent a very serious setback for the United States of America. I remember driving up to a farmhouse near Wahpeton, ND, on the day that Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. I was there to take a photograph of an award-winning shelter belt. The farmer opened the front door. When I introduced myself, he said, “I’m sorry. This is no longer the right day for such a photograph. Please come back another time.” He could not have been more polite. He could not have been more serious. In my opinion, he could not have been more right.
Books to read:
Evan Thomas. Being Nixon: A Man Divided.
John Dean. The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.
Bob Woodward. The Last of the President’s Men.
Rick Perlstein. Nixonland.