The anniversaries are coming thick and fast. They are products of the calendar, and so they are mainly a device for historical reflection. Nevertheless, 2014 has given us many significant anniversaries: the 150th anniversary of many Civil War events, the 50th anniversary of great moments of the civil rights movement, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.
Anniversaries allow us to see linkages — between the Civil War’s unfinished business and the civil rights movement 100 years later, for example, or the rivalries in Ukraine today and the prelude to World War I.
Friday is also an anniversary: 40 years since the resignation of Richard Nixon.
History proceeds at a galloping pace. Many of today’s adults were children at the time of Sept. 11, which to many others seems like yesterday. For some, the upheaval of Watergate also seems like yesterday, a historic breakdown of constitutional democracy that the nation was eager to leave in the past.
President Gerald Ford encapsulated the moment in his famous statement: “Our long national nightmare is over.” It was an important statement for two reasons: He was correct to describe Watergate as a nightmare. And in saying it was over, he was expressing a longing that it would be over rather than describing the fact that it truly was.
It is important to recall what we learned through Watergate. It became apparent over time that the White House had been captured by a criminal gang that held itself above the law. The law-breaking that occurred in pursuit of Nixon’s re-election was blatant, undisputed and felonious. It was not a question of parsing constitutional law to determine if the president had interpreted the Constitution correctly. Rather, to read of the actions of Nixon and his henchmen was like reading the police blotter — a record of break-ins, dirty tricks, hush money, subversion of government agencies and obstruction of justice that one would expect of a Mafia don.
These events were traumatic not just for those many people who despised Nixon, but also for the many who supported him. After all, he was re-elected by a landslide in 1972. The people may not have loved him, but they were on his side. Thus, there was significant resistance to the revelations coming first from The Washington Post and then from other media. Eventually, the truth was so plain that the Republicans had to abandon him, and his fate was sealed.
But as much as we may have wished it, the nightmare did not end. Rather, it released into the political culture a virus of demagoguery that persists. Politics has always been dirty, but the crew around Nixon had assumed a sense of entitlement and practiced a pattern of vindictiveness and arrogance that turned all opponents into enemies to be crushed. It was Nixon who brought into the lexicon the phrase “enemies list.”
How does this virus persist? Two staff members in the Nixon White House were Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The crudeness of Nixon persisted when Cheney, as vice president, cussed out Sen. Patrick Leahy in a famous incident on the floor of the Senate. The viciousness and arrogance that reared their heads during the Nixon years poisoned the administration of George W. Bush, with its record of deception and torture.
Politics may not be a game for gentlemen and ladies, except that when we think of the higher possibilities of politics, we think of some of the gentlemen and ladies of the past who knew they had no right to put themselves above the law, that democracy, in fact, requires leaders to accept limits on their power. In that connection, one recognizes the Obama administration as remarkably scandal-free, especially given Republican eagerness to dig up scandal.
It is the shadow of Nixon that hovers over the gutter politics that dismays so many voters today. It may have been 40 years ago, but it seems like yesterday.
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