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A Nixon Biographer on What Democrats Can Learn from Watergate

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Last week, we learned that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, had declined to “draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct.” Democrats in the House now must decide how they want to respond to a President who, as Mueller’s report made clear, has little respect for the rule of law. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, has said that she wants to continue investigating the President without necessarily pursuing impeachment. Other Democrats, including the Presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, have called for immediately beginning impeachment proceedings.

The last time a Democratic House tried to impeach a Republican President was during the Nixon years; Richard Nixon, of course, resigned before the process finished. To discuss that process, and what it can teach us about today’s debate, I recently spoke by phone with John A. Farrell, the author of “Richard Nixon: The Life,” as well as biographies of the famed criminal-defense lawyer Clarence Darrow and the longtime Democratic House leader Tip O’Neill, who was the House Majority Leader during the Watergate scandal and went on to serve as the House Speaker for a decade. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the parallels between the Nixon years and today, why Pelosi may consciously be following Democrats’ Watergate strategy, and whether Trump’s advisers saved him from Nixon’s biggest mistake.

Was there ever a moment in the Watergate scandal akin to this one, in terms of where Democrats were substantively and politically?

Yeah, I would say probably in the fall of 1973, before the Saturday Night Massacre set everything aflame. The Democrat-led Watergate Committee had spent all summer calling all of Nixon’s henchmen up to the Hill, and had unearthed and dug up a lot of stuff, particularly John Dean’s testimony, which said, “Yes, the President obstructed justice.” But the country was waiting for a smoking gun, and they had just reëlected Nixon by a huge landslide, a historic landslide, and they were suspicious, probably rightly so, that Democrats were seeking to settle old grievances, to settle in Congress what they couldn’t settle at the ballot box. And so you had this period in September and October of 1973 when lots of stuff was happening. Spiro Agnew was resigning. The Arabs and Israelis went to war. But the public-opinion polls showed there was still great hesitancy about Watergate and that a vast majority of people were much more concerned about the economy.

Did events then change, or did the Democrats do something that changed things?

No, I think primarily events changed things, primarily the Saturday Night Massacre. People knew there were tapes in 1973, because that had come out during the Watergate Committee hearings. And they were sort of widely saying, “Well, the tapes are going to show who is telling the truth, John Dean or Nixon, and we will wait for them to come out. And when it went to the courts, it was seen as the process working. And then, all of a sudden, Nixon took this radical step of firing [the special prosecutor Archibald] Cox, and forcing [Attorney General] Elliot Richardson and [Deputy Attorney General] William Ruckelshaus to resign, and all of a sudden people said, “Wait a minute, he is not waiting for the courts to act and for the tapes to come out so we know what the truth is; he is covering up.”

That pretty much solidified mainstream liberal Democrats behind impeachment. You had Tip O’Neill going on the House floor and introducing a resolution for impeachment. You had Peter Rodino heading up the Judiciary Committee. There had always been some liberal crazies like Father [Robert] Drinan and Bella Abzug who were pushing for impeachment before this. But now you had mainstream liberal Democrats like O’Neill saying, “O.K., there is something here. We have a constitutional obligation, and the people back home are screaming for it.” So they very tentatively began, and this was November, and I don’t think the Judiciary Committee was up and operating with a full [impeachment-inquiry] staff until early spring, and even then they went very slow, and barely got three articles of impeachment passed. Southern Democrats, conservative Democrats, were listening to their base, and their base was telling them that they didn’t believe in this and it sounded like Washington hijinks that wasn’t affecting their lives.

The big thing that then happened was that Nixon really bungled the issue of the tapes. He announced that some of the tapes were missing, and there was this famous gap, and then he released transcripts of the tapes, and the transcripts were compared to what the Judiciary Committee had already gotten their hands on, and the interpretations were very, very generous to the President. That did not come across very well.

The American people were almost naïve in those days when it came to their faith in the Presidency. The idea that you had Nixon using all these obscenities really ruined his standing.

Two things occur to me as you are talking, and the first is that Don McGahn may have saved Trump’s Presidency by refusing to fire Mueller.

Yeah, one of the problems that Nixon had was that, by this point in time, he had pretty much flushed his staff of the kind of people who would talk back to him. Even those with long-standing ties to him had been sort of exiled out to Siberia. And the people he gathered around him were really the yes-men, [the White House chief of staff, H. R.] Haldeman and [Nixon’s special counsel, Charles] Colson in particular. Nixon would just rant and rant, and there was no one who would stop it from happening. Haldeman tried many times during his Presidency, and [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger tried. In the end, there was just too much malice coming out of the Oval Office.

In this case, it seemed like maybe there was a hesitancy by President Trump because he is in a field that he doesn’t know as well as Richard Nixon knew politics. There was nobody on Nixon’s staff telling him no.

So was Haldeman a yes-man, or did he try to rein Nixon in?

He was both. Nixon recognized that he had this propensity to do this, and there is actually a memo he wrote at the beginning of his term in office where he said, “Look, I am going to spout and order you to do things; just come back later and tell me whether it got done.” Haldeman did try to steer him away from some of his more outrageous rants. But the steady pressure of Nixon was “Bob, we have to have wiretapping. We have to tail the Democratic candidates.” And in the end it just wore Haldeman down.

The other thing that occurred to me, when you said the tapes changed opinions of Nixon, was that everyone already knows what Trump is like, and everyone is so cynical about politics that it’s hard for people to grasp how corrupt, even in a somewhat corrupt system, this Administration is.

I agree. I think, going back, that when Bill Clinton stuck it out over Gennifer Flowers and the draft and stayed in the New Hampshire primary and came in second, and became the comeback kid, it sent a lesson to American politicians that you don’t have to be stampeded by the editorial page of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the law faculty of Harvard. I think there has been a steady deterioration. We also don’t have a Cold War, and we have the luxury that we can indulge in this stuff. A lot of these norms were based on the idea that there is a greater danger out there, and so we’d better watch ourselves. And we don’t have that governing ourselves anymore.

Were there any things that Democrats did really intelligently or poorly during Watergate?

I think Tip’s plan all along was to go slow, very much like Pelosi or even Bernie [Sanders] today. Tip O’Neill could do the math, and the math in the Senate is rough. There is a reason why the Founding Fathers put that math in the Constitution. They wanted three independent branches, and they didn’t want one branch to be able to throw another out at its convenience. Tip saw that from the beginning, and saw that consensus was going to have to form, and, unlike [Newt] Gingrich in the Clinton years, he was very patient and he waited for that consensus to form. He was hearing from his liberal base, and centrist Democrats were even coming up to him on the floor saying, “We have to move a little bit faster.” But he put it in Rodino’s hands, and they dragged it out, and you will still find criticism from the left of how slowly they moved in the spring of 1974. And then, lo and behold, the smoking gun brings it all to an end quite quickly.

But at that time, there were three resolutions of impeachment moving to the House floor and they were going to get passed. And then you were going to have a hell of a trial in the Senate, which may well have been a clear trial with at least a majority of the Senate saying he had to go. So I think that Pelosi is very wisely looking at the O’Neill rather than the Gingrich example.

The other thing is that Bernie was very wise. He said that timing is everything and if we start doing this now, when you know you are going to lose in the end anyway because Republicans control the trial court, that is all people are going to hear. They are not going to hear people talking about health care or disparity in wealth in the country. You have to make a choice.

Fair enough, but it does feel like we are so far beyond the pale that in any normal era—

You have to remember, though, that they really left impeachment as an elastic concept in the Constitution. I thought it was really stretched in the case of Andrew Johnson, and really stretched for Clinton as well, and now you have a case where the argument was eloquently made by Mueller that it looks like there was obstruction of justice but we don’t indict, and we leave it to Congress, and Congress has to make a political decision about whether this is something they need to do to set a precedent for the future. Even if we know we are going to lose in the Senate, this is something we need to do just to put down a marker. And I am not so sure if it was six or eight or ten months earlier that they wouldn’t have gone ahead and done it for just that reason. But you have your candidates in the field right now running against an incumbent President. Running two ways to dump him does divide the effort.



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