Do You Remember?
Do you remember when the America people were capable of being shocked, disappointed, disgusted, righteously indignant and downright angry at official misconduct? It seems like a lifetime ago.
I was reminded recently of the Watergate scandal when my wife and I watched a rerun of the move “Frost Nixon” about the famous David Frost interview of Richard Nixon. As pointed out by the movie, the scandal totally absorbed the public’s attention for at least two years. Nixon’s presidency was destroyed. Nixon’s reputation was forever destroyed. For my generation, the nickname “Tricky Dick” will always carry special meaning. It is shorthand for deceit and betrayal by a public official and for lying to the country to the very bitter end in spite of insurmountable evidence against him. The thing I didn’t recall accurately was that Nixon had his defenders then and he has some even today.
The most basic facts of the case against Nixon and his co-conspirators are that they conspired to commit a burglary of Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office building/hotel complex in Washington D.C. The burglary was botched. Nixon and others then concocted an elaborate cover-up in an unsuccessful attempt to distance Nixon and his administration from their crimes. Nixon’s ultimate fall was spectacular. He disgraced himself, his legacy, the Presidency and his country forever.
The only saving grace, if there is one, is that Congress, on a bi-partisan basis, did investigate, did impeach him, and was prepared to remove him from office when he resigned. Vice President Gerald Ford then became President and pardoned Nixon. This was very controversial, but absolutely nobody ever said publicly that Nixon should have remained in office. The only controversy was whether Nixon should have been prosecuted like a common criminal. A line had been crossed in our national sense of right and wrong.
Like all horrendous events in history, the Watergate scandal and the fall of Nixon was followed by a “never again” public sentiment. But, like all such resolutions to do better and be better, it has faded away over time. Maybe that has to do with the fact that the younger generations don’t know anything about Nixon and Watergate. A more cynical point of view is that some believe in a “whatever it takes to stay in power” political philosophy. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s even money that Nixon wouldn’t be removed from office by the Senate in today’s world.
In today’s world, Trump tells lie after lie without any fear whatsoever that his party will turn against him. Trump fires 4 Inspectors General (federal agency watchdogs) in a month without fear of repercussions. Trump fires anyone and everyone whom he sees as an enemy or a critic or even a person who contradicts him as if they were part of his household staff. Trump pardons convicted criminals on a whim to curry favor with cronies and celebrities without fear of rebuke or a public outcry. Trump has “his” Attorney General, William Barr, dismiss charges against a Trump appointee, Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty to two crimes. Trump, through Barr, intervened in the case against his convicted ally, Roger Stone, to try to reduce his sentence. Trump, through Barr, made sure his campaign chairman, the convicted and imprisoned Paul Manafort, will be spending Christmas at home rather than the penitentiary. It just goes on and on, a steady barrage of assaults upon the law, the Constitution, democratic norms, the dignity of his office and the truth, and he now does it all in the open with the certain knowledge that his party will never say he has finally gone too far.
Nixon’s impeachment in the House was his signal that the show was finally over, it was time to leave and bring the national agony to an end.
On the other hand, Trump’s impeachment by the House and acquittal by the Senate has done nothing but prove to Trump he can do whatever, and I do mean whatever, he wants. He has been emboldened rather than chastised.
I think a good argument can be made that Nixon was more a man of conscience than Trump. That’s a very low bar, but Trump can’t clear it. The only real question remaining is whether we, the American people, will say that the incredibly low standard set by Trump is enough to satisfy us. If it is, we are truly in trouble.