This week marked almost 50 years since Richard Nixon tersely gave up the presidency after he was charged with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and other offenses likely familiar to a mouthy, crooked real estate developer who later wrote the disgraced leader he was nonetheless “a great man.” When Nixon was pardoned for his crimes, many say the action paved the way for the deplorable fan and wannabe tyrant now deemed somehow both far lesser yet more pernicious than Tricky Dick ever was.
“Forty-nine years ago, on August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon wrote one line to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: ‘I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States,'” notes historian Heather Cox Richardson in her Letters From An American. In late July, the House Judiciary Committee had voted to recommend Nixon be impeached for crimes connected to his attempt to cover up his involvement in the 1972 burglary of the DNC headquarters at D.C.’s Watergate Hotel, part of a “dirty tricks” effort to rig the 1972 election.
When a “smoking-gun” tape revealed Nixon was part of both the cover-up and even the plot to bug Democratic strategists, his then-relatively-law-biding allies abandoned the guy who kept insisting, “I’m not a crook,” though he clearly was. On the night of Aug. 7, Richardson writes, “a group of Republican lawmakers led by Arizona senator Barry Goldwater met with Nixon and told him the House would vote to impeach him and the Senate would vote to convict…Nixon decided to step down.” Although Nixon did not admit guilt, his replacement Gerald Ford soon granted him “a full, free, and absolute pardon,” arguing the trial of a former president would “cause prolonged and divisive debate.” Yeah maybe, but it could always be worse.
And it soon was. Just 15 years later, Richardson notes, more crooks were committing more crimes when Reagan’s National Security Council ignored a Congressional ban on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras fighting Daniel Ortega’s Socialist government and sold arms to Iran, which funneled the profits to the Contras. Even after the story broke, GOP officials kept criming, shredding and funneling; 14 were indicted and most were convicted, but George H. W. Bush still pardoned them “on the advice of his attorney general William Barr. (Yes, that William Barr).” At the time, Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor in the case, warned that the pardons (again) “undermine (the) principle that no man is above the law,” demonstrating “that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences.” And so it went.
Today, an entirely lawless GOP now shamelessly supports a colossally unqualified tinpot-mobster and one-man crime wave facing his fourth indictment for a harrowing list of offenses that would make Nixon blush, including stealing classified documents and hatching “an astonishing” scheme—fake electors!—to overturn an election through a “bold,” violent and wildly illegal strategy.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out the new crook thought the old crook—the last president to face anything like his current legal jeopardy—was way cool. A 2020 exhibit of letters between presidents featured a decade-long correspondence in the 1980s—”Dear Donald,” “Dear Mr. President”—that today somehow summons the daft “Hi Barbie!”, “Hi Barbie!” of Gerwig’s movie in its gonzo inanity. Pat Nixon thought Trump looked like “a winner” on TV; Trump, ever the pathetic sycophant, framed and hung the compliment in his office in Trump Tower, where he hoped (in vain) the Nixons would come live because he admired the slimy guy obsessed with “ratfucking” his “enemies” as “one of this country’s great men.” (Pot/Kettle/redux).
The two men, many have noted, did share many qualities. They were two pathologically insecure “authoritarian personalities (who) craved the same thing: validation.” They both distrusted and were despised by the media, the left and political elites; both “played off the haters for political gain”; both adopted a them-and-us playbook, touting the need for a “silent majority” of “real Americans” to defeat radicals, feminists and vocal “others” seeking to destroy (their white male rich vision of) America, even if it took shredding the law and democratic traditions to do it.
Then again, for all their shared vengeful urges to “screw” their enemies, Trump is not Nixon, in part because “Nixon was a winner.” Trump is, “at best, a smaller, weaker, more vacuous version” of Nixon, writes one pundit; another argues he’s “a shadow of what Nixon was as a president and a politician”; notes one headline, “Both Lied, One Had Accomplishments.” Nixon had an actual (albeit rabidly anti-communist) world view, and did things: He opened up relations with China, negotiated the first nuclear arms limitation treaty, created the EPA, ultimately, belatedly, bloodily ended the Vietnam War, and resigned to save the country (and himself) further calamity.
Trump is a loser who only cares about and believes in himself, kills everything he touches—see COVID—is fixated on clinging to power no matter the cost to the “hellhole” country he’s helped shape, and en route has caused damage “exponentially greater than anything Nixon did.” In last year’s new foreword to their seminal, Watergate-era All the Presidents’ Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein cite the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to call Trump “the first seditious president in our history.” Pursuing his “diabolical instincts” in his manic effort to retain power, they argue, his deceptions have “exceeded even Nixon’s imagination.”
Still, Nixon’s corrupt legacy is ongoing. Trump’s latest charges are two counts of obstruction of justice for trying to erase security footage—aka destroy evidence—at Mar-A-Hell-Go; he ignored a key Nixon lesson: It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup. He also seems to have missed the memo about conspiracies: “You have to make sure everyone keeps their mouth shut.” See Michael Cohen, and likely more.
As he doggedly thrashes through a now-ravaged democracy, he keeps a demented base but loses others. Judge Michael Luttig, a “conservative’s conservative” heralded for his right-wing rulings, now predicts Trump’s crimes will become “singular infamous events in American history” that have “corrupted American democracy” and its elections. Last year, he told the House Jan. 6 Committee Trump was “a clear and present danger“; today, he’s even more so. As a result, he says, “there is no Republican Party”—a vital, second, sparring assemblage—and “American democracy is in grave peril.”
In 1969, Nixon famously proclaimed, “A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.” Yes, well. During his impeachment and the inevitable summoning of Nixon’s ghost, Trump furiously insisted, “He left. I don’t leave. A big difference.” Not that big: just worse. John Dean on the chicanery of aspiring despots: “It’s a story we shouldn’t forget.”
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