Roving thoughts and provocations

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Why Obama Is Not Nixon

Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

References to Watergate, impeachment, even Richard Nixon, are being tossed around these days as if they were analogous to the current so-called scandals. But the furors over the IRS, Benghazi, and the Justice Department’s sweeping investigation of the Associated Press, don’t begin to rise—or sink—to that level. The wise and pithy Matt Dowd, a former Republican operative, said recently, “We rush to scandal before we settle on stupidity.” Washington just loves scandals; they’re ever so much more exciting than the daily grind of legislation—if there is any—and the tit-for-tat between the president and the congressional Republicans over the budget was becoming tedious. Faux outrage is a specialty here.

Obama, anxious not to be seen defending everybody’s punching bag, the IRS, quickly ceded ground on what could be perfectly defensible actions. He may come to regret taking what seemed a trigger-happy decision to order a criminal investigation of the Internal Revenue Service, a sure way to drag people who may have—may have—simply made errors of judgment through a long and expensive legal process that is likely also to keep the agency from examining the validity of the application for tax-free status of any group with powerful allies. If, following the Citizens United decision, there is a sudden doubling of the number of new organizations with similar names and missions, and these organizations apply for tax exempt status—and also the right to hide the names of their donors—might it not make sense to use a search engine to find them? This what the just-fired sacrificial acting IRS commissioner, testifying before a congressional committee on Friday, termed a “grouping” of the cases that had already been almost universally condemned as “targeting,” which he insisted it wasn’t. But this simple explanation wouldn’t do, didn’t warrant the term “outrage” routinely conferred on the IRS case. Could it just possibly be that the Tea Party and their allies see a great benefit in making a stink over this? How better to freeze the IRS examinations of these groups?

According to press reports none of the Tea Party groups have as yet been denied 501(c)(4) status, though this has happened to some liberal organizations. The real problem is that the process takes a long time and the questions are excessive, some even ridiculous. Pinning the whole thing on Obama—pinning all that they can of these “scandals” on him—gladdens most Republicans’ hearts. I say “most,” because such prominent conservative commentators as Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol have urged the Republicans to proceed with more caution, fearing that as often happens they will overdo it. And Republican congressional leaders have begun to worry that the troops may go too far, inviting the sort of backlash that smacked Newt Gingrich and his fellow revolutionaries in 1998, following their reckless impeachment of Bill Clinton, losing them seats and costing Gingrich his Speakership. It’s quite possible that some lower-rank government employees did some stupid things, and it’s clear that the agency had poor leadership (under a Bush-appointed director) but there is no evidence that any of this was directly or indirectly on the president’s orders.

Meanwhile, new information about what happened in Benghazi keeps coming in, changing that story. The Talmudic scholarship that’s been applied to the administration’s talking points—what the various agencies urged that a representative of the administration should say on the Sunday talk shows—has led to the conclusion that that mushy and somewhat misleading statement was the typical product of a typical inter-agency struggle over blame-shifting. The omission of some material from an original draft—on the not unreasonable ground that the terrorist groups that perpetrated the attack shouldn’t be put on notice that the US knew who they were—hardly ranks as a cover-up. Was the administration confused or was it anxious to avoid the acknowledgement that the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked by terrorists from the start, by saying that they came in later? The administration later released all of the emails among the agencies to Congress but few members bothered to go to the briefing or read the material. And as it turned out, the White House didn’t play a hand in doctoring what the talking points would say.

In order to stoke the conspiracy theories, Republican congressional aides leaked false versions of the interagency emails and ABC ran with them without checking. Republicans focused the controversy on Hillary Clinton rather than David Petraeus, the CIA director at the time, though Petraeus also agreed to the talking points and was responsible for hiring the local defenders who melted away at the first shot, and the misinformed intelligence on what happened that night was a failure by the CIA. (But Petraeus was most unlikely to run for president in 2016.) That the US presence in Benghazi was essentially a CIA operation was kept quiet. The inability to adequately protect our foreign missions has been a bipartisan failure and Congress’s stinginess with funds for the protection of our assets in foreign countries also bears some responsibility. In any case, the Republicans might be well advised to tread carefully on the matter of ignored warnings. So far, the George W. Bush administration has got by amazingly with their obvious failure to act on indications months before September 11, 2001, that a major terrorist plot was in the works .

The Justice Department clearly overreached—even its own guidelines were ignored—in its effort to gather information about a leak to the Associated Press about the CIA foiling a terrorist plot in Yemen—a leak which the AP delayed publishing at the request of the White House and the CIA, and only ran when it heard that the White House was going to release information. But this doesn’t reflect a crusade against the press—though the news media make a lot of noise about such actions, and perhaps rightly so. It is true that Obama has been especially fierce (if selectively) about national security leaks, but there’s a long history of administrations going too far to stop leaks and intimidate potential leakers. Even if the president urged Attorney General Eric Holder, a close friend, to go after the AP, does anyone seriously believe that he spelled out how it was to do so?

Thus far, not one of these so-called scandals has reached the Oval Office. Even in the event, which seems unlikely now, that one of them does, it still wouldn’t come close to the pattern of actions taken by Nixon and his aides that nearly undid our democratic system of government four decades ago. Barack Obama couldn’t be Richard Nixon if he tried. No one could. Nixon was, fortunately, sui generis. So, what was Watergate about, and how does it differ from what is going on now?

Richard Nixon et al.; drawing by David Levine

Compared to Watergate, on the basis of everything we know about what are the current “scandals” amount to a piffle. Watergate was a Constitutional crisis. It was about a pattern of behavior on the part of the president of the United States abusing power to carry out his personal vendettas. It was about whether the president was accountable to the other branches of the government; it was about whether the Congress could summon the courage to hold accountable a president who held himself above the law. It was about a president and his aides who were out of control in their efforts to punish the president’s “enemies.”

It was also about, though this has still gone largely unrecognized, an attempt by a sitting president to determine the nomination of the opposition party’s presidential candidate. Potentially strong challengers were spied upon, their offices broken into and files disappeared, their campaign events disrupted by what were diminished by their categorization as laughable “dirty tricks.” It was about black bag jobs and paying criminals to carry out ideas that sprang from the fevered brain of a president who saw opponents, political and otherwise, as enemies, and then trying to hush the whole thing up. The attempt, not unsuccessful though not exclusively their doing, to try to get the opposition party to nominate its weakest candidate was a step along the road to fascism. It was a putsch by a head of state.

Nixon’s extraordinary abuse of his new power started almost as soon as he had put away his Inaugural finery. In February 1969 he told his staff that he wanted private funds raised to establish an intelligence unit within the White House to carry out around-the-clock surveillance of political opponents. This led to the hiring of a group of fanatics, bums, fools, and losers—most of them paid for with private funds but run by White House aides and right out of the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. Some were of Cuban origin and had participated in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba; to motivate them Nixon instructed that they be told that their mission was to root out Communists in the Democratic Party. (He even ordered that they be required to read the chapter of his memoir Six Crisis that recounts his exposure of Alger Hiss as a spy for the Soviet Union. But Nixon was always telling people, even Mao, to read Six Crises. The shrewd Mao had beat him to it.).

The following year Nixon signed off on a plan (the “Huston plan”) that included not just wiretaps also but break-ins and intercepting mail; the plan was so extreme that even the powerful FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, no civil libertarian, objected; though Nixon said that the plan had been rescinded parts of it were implemented. The list of “enemies” he ordered John Dean to draw up, was considered by many who were on it funny and even a point of pride, but it was a chilling exercise of power: the president used the levers of government, including the IRS, to audit and harass his opponents, a wide swath of people in public and private lives. Nixon was often heard on the tapes telling his aides he wanted them to “get the goods” on this or that perceived enemy. Edward Kennedy, presumably Nixon’s most powerful opponent for reelection, was put under twenty-four hour surveillance for a time by one of the clowns hired by the White House to carry out Nixon’s plan.

Nixon’s most serious problems arose out of his obsession about the leak of the Pentagon Papers, in 1971. This led—shortly after the Papers were first published in The New York Times—to the establishing, four days later, the White House “plumbers” office in the EOB. A sign saying PLUMBERS was on the door. But even before the plumbers office was fully set up Nixon’s aides implemented “Special Operation No. 1”: in a first step toward punishing the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, the White House sanctioned the gravest offense—a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to get the files of this particular patient. A raid of the office of the psychiatrist of a private citizen on the orders of the president of the United States. This clear flouting of the Fourth Amendment protection of private property from searches and seizures was the most disturbing act during this extraordinary period and it shook even conservative senators; Nixon knew that its discovery was the single greatest danger to him, and this was what he was so frantically trying to cover up. As it happened, even though one of the plumbers had cased the place, the psychiatrist’s office contained no files at all.

The obsession over the leak of the Pentagon Papers also led to the mad suggestion by the president of the United States that the offices of the Brookings Institution be firebombed in order to get to the safes in the offices of former Kissinger aides, Leslie Gelb and Morton Halperin, who were suspected of keeping the drafts of some unpublished chapters of the Pentagon Papers. The president could be heard on the tapes instructing his aides: “Godammit. Get in there and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.” You see, Kissinger had ordered up the study. Ellsberg had been assigned by Kissinger to do a super-secret study on the papers and had been given access to them, which were stored at Rand. Though one of the burglars had searched Brookings and reported that the files existed, there were none. In any event, some White House aides thwarted that plan before it was fully carried out.

In this context the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building on June 17, 1972 was almost routine. This one, when the burglars were caught, which started the unraveling of Nixon’s secret plots against his enemies, was actually the burglars’ fourth attempt: in the first attempt they faked a banquet to get into the building but ended up locked in a closet; the second time they couldn’t break the lock on the DNC office door; the third time, on Memorial Day, they got into the DNC office but put a bug on the wrong phone, so on they went back to fix it. Perhaps because breaking in had become so habitual they got sloppy and left the immortal piece of tape on a door. That the plumbers were stumblebums doesn’t negate the sinister nature of what they were told to do.

In October 1973, Nixon rattled through a series of beheadings of those who got in the way of his desperate attempts to prevent the tapes into which he had sealed his own fate—as he was oddly aware—from being turned over to the prosecutors. He first ordered the attorney general, Elliott Richardson, to fire Archibald Cox, the Independent Prosecutor who had subpoenaed the tapes and got a court order that they must be released. Richardson, a Boston Brahmin, also refused and was fired by the president; the next in line, Bill Ruckelshaus, a popular environmentalist, also refused and was fired. Finally, the next in line, Robert Bork, agreed to fire Cox. The prosecutors’ staff was barricaded in their offices trying to protect their files from the FBI, who had surrounded them and told them they could not remove their papers. As the bulletins rolled in, one after another on that dark Saturday night, it felt as if we were living in a banana republic and now there were grounds for fearing a President who was irrational and out of control. There was a run on the bookstores to buy legal scholar Raoul Berger’s Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems (1969). No one knew how to impeach a president.

When the House Judiciary Committee took up its work at the beginning of 1974, trying to impeach a sitting president who still had a fairly strong political base was a daunting prospect. Impeachment had not yet been cheapened by the zealots who conducted a trivial pursuit of President Clinton. The triumphalism came later, spurred on by the myth that Watergate was a victory of the good guys over the bad guys. It was about something far deeper: whether our constitutional system would survive. If the Committee did vote for articles of impeachment by a bipartisan and definite majority it was probable that the House would agree and vote to impeach—indict—the president. Next would come a trial in the Senate. And the president remained defiant. The committee had to get it right.

Almost forgotten is the part played by an obscure New Jersey congressman, Peter Rodino, who had been chairman of the committee for only a year. (Inevitably once the spotlight fell on him, rumors circulated, without any evidence, that he must have ties to the mob.) Rodino was not the most articulate member by far but the miracle of the Judiciary Committee’s adopting on a bipartisan basis three articles of impeachment was due to the fact that ordinary people rose to the task and did extraordinary things; Rodino’s choices made a critical difference.

Showboat attorneys or flashy advisers were turned away. As it was, Rodino had to struggle against some committee members who wanted to conduct a prosecution of the president. The two people who along with Rodino shaped not just the committee’s action but the history of the downfall of Richard Nixon were a twenty-seven-year-old Francis O’Brien, who had no prior experience in such matters but was recommended to Rodino for his uncommon judgment, and John Doar, the counsel whom O’Brien had found. Doar had served in the Eisenhower Justice Department and then was a civil rights hero in Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department. He was methodical and low-key and built the case against Nixon brick by brick, slowly earning the trust of committee members, the press, and the public.

These three men had concluded that if there were to be articles of impeachment that would be accepted by a still-divided country they had to be seen as arising from a fair process, be bipartisan and come from the center of the committee members: those on the right who defended Nixon to the end and the most partisan Democrats on the committee had to be contained, and moderate Republicans and southern Democrats had to be convinced that voting for articles of impeachment was necessary and urgent. James Madison’s writings and the Federalist Papers became as familiar in the discussions as morning newspapers.

The atmosphere in Washington was unlike anything that had gone before or has happened since. We lived in fear. Knowing that the telephones of some of the presidents’ “enemies” were being tapped, we joked in our telephone conversations about our phones being bugged. (No Internet then, but just think of the Nixon people’s probable temptation to trace emails.) One Sunday morning when the newspaper delivery was late, a perfectly sane woman I knew said, “They’ve stopped the papers.” It got to the point where, near the end, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger felt compelled to send a memo to military commanders to obey no command that came from the White House to dispatch the troops to restore order.

This brings us to the strange character of Richard Nixon, probably the most peculiar person to serve as president of the United States. He was also an unlikely successful political figure. He didn’t particularly like people and few people liked him. He had very few friends, trusted almost no one. He was awkward in many ways, from his odd motions at times to his virtual inability to make small talk. Nixon’s confusion of opponents with enemies and his indulging his long nurtured grievances gave us a president who came to office filled with hatreds and was willing to use the instruments of government to “get” them. The president was a dangerous man.

But even then, we didn’t know just how dangerous were Nixon’s personality traits. Not until I was doing research for a book about him for the American Presidents series did it become clear that he was often drunk, barking out orders in after-midnight calls to his aides, his words slurred, and they would have to decide whether to carry them out. Worse still, on the advice of a wealthy backer who kept him stocked, Nixon began to take Dilantin, an anti-convulsive drug, on the grounds that it would lessen depression, though it had never been approved for that. Dilantin served to enhance the effects of too much alcohol: mental confusion, slurring of words, physical clumsiness. Often Nixon was holed up with his best and only close pal, Bebe Rebozo, outside the White House, in Key Biscayne or at Camp David. On the eve of the “incursion” into Cambodia, a disastrous spreading of the Vietnam War, the two men were at Camp David and one or the other would call Kissinger to make sure that the incursion went forward. “It’s your ass, Henry,” said one of them, their drunken voices hard to distinguish.

So contrary to the myths that have been built around it, or the use that later politicians want to make of it, Watergate wasn’t about the mistakes of a bureaucracy, it wasn’t a cops and robbers story, or about courageous journalism. It was about a pattern of acts by a president that threatened the constitution, the law, and the Bill of Rights.

Nothing happening now comes close to that.

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