Richard Nixon’s resignation under threat of impeachment, 42 years ago this week, can teach us enduring lessons about ethics, politics, and the presidency, as I reflected in a TV news interview the other day.
Its relevance echoes in 2016 as Donald Trump seeks to mobilize the silent majority that elected Nixon in 1968 and as Hillary Clinton replays yet again the lying ways that got her fired from the House Judiciary Committee staff investigating Nixon in 1974.
My struggles of conscience as a young Nixon speechwriter during the Watergate scandal are related in several chapters of my 2011 book Responsibility Reborn. They also set up an essay from my 2015 book Backbone Colorado USA, posted below.
The takeaway: Our self-government as a free people is not a simplistic morality play. It requires civic toughness, hard choices, distasteful tradeoffs, acceptance of ambiguity – and brave trust in a merciful sovereign God.
Nixon the Flawed
Sunday Denver Post 6/19/05
“Government is not eloquence, it is force,” cautioned George Washington. “Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” The downfall of Richard Nixon, an episode I lived through as a young presidential assistant, has to be seen in the light of Washington’s warning if we are to learn its real lesson. Ordinary Americans get this, but to judge from the Deep Throat uproar, intellectuals still don’t.
Bad guys out, good guys in, whatever it takes. That’s been the liberal lesson plan, dramatic but wrong, since we learned that FBI turncoat Mark Felt was the secret source for Washington Post stories that helped force the 1974 resignation of President Nixon following his cover-up of the Watergate campaign burglary. It’s a morality play aimed at casting the same roles today for President Bush (darkness) and his enemies (light).
So we’ve had Bob Woodward saying Felt’s “technically illegal” actions were justified since “the Nixon team were Nazis,” Diane Carman calling the lawless lawman “a genuine patriot, a hero,” who stood against the Constitution-shredding White House; and David Broder lauding Felt as a man of “conscience” by whom “the Republic was saved.”
Lest you miss the contemporary relevance, a Chip Bok cartoon explains that Bush now, just like Nixon then, is a divisive warmonger impatient with civil liberties and afraid of the truth. But nowadays, laments Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, the new media give our nation’s Silent Majority too much awareness and influence to allow for a president being driven from office by groupthink inside the Beltway. So sad.
Even so, we should wish for another Deep Throat to uncover this administration’s misdeeds, instructs George McGovern, Nixon’s Democratic opponent in 1972. And we should beware those resentful Republicans, adds columnist E. J. Dionne, for they are “still so tethered to the wars of Watergate.”
Really now. If anyone is Watergate-obsessed and at the end of their tether, it’s these nostalgic paranoids—not us conservatives. We never could give more than two cheers for Nixon anyway. Republicans of iron integrity in Congress during the scandal, senators like Barry Goldwater and Howard Baker, did right by the Constitution. Some of us inside the White House, this 29-year-old speechwriter for one, resigned on principle and then approached Bob Woodward—the option Mark Felt didn’t take.
We on the right have long since moved on, but the left can’t seem to. Whether in relation to Vietnam and the plumbers in 1972, or to Iraq and Guantanamo today, their Manichean view of human nature decrees “bad guys out,” in disregard of all gray areas in conduct. Their utopian political faith chants “good guys in,” as if the anointed can magically save us. Their relativist ethics endorse “whatever it takes,” as if the end neatly justifies the means.
These are the superstitions of children. Self-government in a free society is a business for grownups. Conservatives agree with President Washington that the essence of political power is force, which to handle recklessly is to play with fire. We cherish, as he did, such constitutional principles as equality and natural rights, consent of the governed, rule of law, separation of powers
It’s pretty dull stuff. But we’ve seen other societies burn the house down with that easier formula of bad guys out, good guys in, whatever it takes. We don’t want America to risk that, not even to unseat a Tricky Dick (or a Dumb W).
Did Nixon have to go? Yes, he did, and I said so myself at the time—at some personal cost—after quitting his staff. But did his misdeeds permanently discredit the right and vindicate the left, as the left loves to imply? Heck no—and the best evidence is the way Americans in their wisdom have continued electing mostly Republicans and conservatives to the presidency ever since.
The same Silent Majority that stood with my old boss against the surrender demonstrations in 1969 and gave him 49 states against McGovern in 1972 rallied after Watergate to send “B actor” Ronald Reagan to the White House twice, then to back Bush 41 in bringing down the Wall and liberating Kuwait, then to entrust Bush 43 with free world leadership twice as well. The voters must know something that Bob Woodward doesn’t.