Tag Archives: Richard M. Nixon

The Worst Legacy

broken_promise_by_don_paolo

This past April marked twenty years since the death of President Richard M. Nixon, which came nearly two decades after he became the first Chief Executive in U.S. history to resign from office. That ignominious fortieth anniversary is coming up next month. It’s not something to be celebrated. The Watergate affair that brought him down has left an indelible stain on both American politics and the soul of the American people. Those of us in the 50 and under crowd have pretty much grown up in a world suspicious and even hostile towards all levels of government. The over 50 crowd helped build and fuel that distrust after a brutal sense of betrayal for a nation that set itself up more than two centuries ago as a beacon of democracy and freedom.

I’ve always said Watergate burned whatever bridges of faith and trust the American public had in their elected officials. But, the wicked uncertainty actually began the moment President John F. Kennedy had his head blown apart by an assassin’s bullets and Jacqueline Kennedy clambered onto the trunk of the presidential limousine in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The ensuing Warren Commission Report hoped to quell doubts that the murder was anything but the act of one deranged ex-Marine with delusions of grandeur. Yet, people saw it for what it really was: a rush to judgment. Americans weren’t so gullible anymore. The quagmire in Vietnam; the various energy crises of the 1970s; and the absolute failures of the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter Administrations (the latter burdened by the ineptness of the Iran hostage ordeal) only sealed the fate of Americans’ general distrust of their government.

Ronald Reagan fed off that fear like a lion gorging on a sick zebra and metamorphosed it into two successful political campaigns. One of his most popular statements, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’,” resonated strongly with the frustrated masses. Indeed, he had a point. But, Reagan’s own professional disconnect and ineffectiveness – Iran-contra, covert U.S. involvement in Central American conflicts, ignoring the AIDS epidemic, a pathetic war on pornography – placed him in the same pantheon of “Them.”

Almost from the moment Bill Clinton announced his candidacy for president, Republicans took retribution against their Democratic counterparts over Watergate by targeting Clinton every chance they could. They dissected the Whitewater deal and found – nothing. So, they turned to First Lady Hillary Clinton and manufactured something called “Travelgate.” When that didn’t work, they pounced on the events surrounding the suicide of Vince Foster; dragging the memory of a man who may have had severe emotional problems into their cesspool of arrogance and striving fruitlessly to twist it into an evil political plot. Alas, in 1998, they zeroed in on something totally unrelated to politics: the Monica Lewinsky affair and tried to impeach Clinton over a tawdry sexual indiscretion. The final report by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr read like a soft-core porn novel. I remember looking at that mess and thinking, “They want to impeach a U.S. president over that?! A blowjob?!”

We see that stubbornness now with the likes of House Speaker John Boehner and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. They complain that President Obama has no viable plans to help the U.S. economy, for example, but stand in their buckets of ideological cement and won’t budge. Thus, Obama (slowly growing some semblance of a backbone) has been forced to invoke executive privileges to get the work done. Now, Boehner is threatening to sue him because of it! I remember Boehner repeatedly asking, “Where are the jobs?” But, when Obama wanted the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of Americans to expire at the end of 2010, Republicans balked and threatened to block extension of unemployment benefits, which were also set to expire at the end of that year; thus holding struggling Americans hostage. Obama relented, and the wealthiest citizens continued to see their after-tax incomes grow, while average Americans continued to lose their jobs and their homes.

The administration of George W. Bush solidified, in my mind, the corruptness and intransigence of the U.S. government. The 09/11 horror compelled many Americans to question what our government officials know and what they’re doing about it. That the Bush Administration then tied the 09/11 affair to Iraq’s alleged development of nuclear and / or chemical weapons convinced so many of us that our government is willing to go to extreme lengths to obfuscate and mislead just to embolden its own agenda. They tap-danced on the dead bodies of the innocent people who hurtled themselves from the World Trade Center’s burning Twin Towers and merely wiped the blood of soldiers from the millions of dollars they earned from oil revenue.

Bush was a puppet president; a doll adorned in designer business suits and propped up with ersatz ‘Mission Accomplished’ bravado. I almost feel sorry for him. Even he said, after leaving the White House, that he felt “liberated.”

Obama hasn’t done much better. At least he’s more verbally adept than Bush. But, I wish he’d make the time to rummage through his wife’s cache of designer handbags for his gonads before telling John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, “Fuck you. I’m president of the United States. I run this shit here – not you guys.”

It bothers me, for example, that we’re still entrenched in Afghanistan. I feel we should have bombed the crap out of them twelve years ago – damn their civilians, including the children and women, because they didn’t care about ours – and then leave. Maybe airdrop a few high-protein biscuits and bottled water into the mountainside, just to show we’re not complete assholes and go about our own business.

But, it bothers me even more that Obama hasn’t empowered Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the causes of the near-total economic collapse in 2008. The worst financial downturn since the 1930s didn’t happen because someone on the Dow Jones trading floor accidentally unplugged a computer before the end of the business day because they needed to do a software upgrade. It resulted from a multitude of events; such as hefty tax cuts for that “job-creating” 1%; extreme deregulation of the housing and banking industries; and the billions of dollars on the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Except for a handful of notable exceptions – Bernie Madoff, Mark Dreier – no one has been held accountable for the “Great Recession.” But, if I walk into a local convenience store with a toy gun and rob the Pakistani clerk of fifty bucks, I could spend thirty years in prison. I believe there were other more diabolical machinations in play, beginning in 2001, that caused the economic downturn. Yes, economies endure cycles of bull and bear markets. But, this fiasco wasn’t just cyclical, like rainfall. Somebody did something, and it wasn’t by accident.

In February 2012, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe stunned her constituents by announcing that she wouldn’t seek reelection that year. She didn’t hesitate to explain why: the level of hostility and unwillingness to compromise in the U.S. Congress had become unbearable. To her, I guess, it wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. It was a shame. Snowe was one of the most level-headed politicians in Washington, regardless of party affiliation. She was willing to listen to and work with all of her colleagues. But, many of them just didn’t seem to share the same ethic.

I still say it all goes back to Watergate. Nixon and his band of henchmen were determined to keep the president in power, as the 1972 elections neared. Nixon had a modest tenure as Vice-President under Dwight Eisenhower, but suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the upstart Kennedy in 1960. When he lost the California governor’s race in 1962, he vowed to exit public life altogether, loudly proclaiming, “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.” But, he just couldn’t stay away. He loved the political game and desperately wanted the presidency. His dogged ambition put him in the White House six years after the California debacle – and forced him back out six years later.

Things have never been the same since. And, we still can’t bring ourselves to trust anyone in government.

1 Comment

Filed under Essays

Class of ‘73

torn

This past Friday, May 17, marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Watergate hearings.  The Watergate scandal was a cataclysmic event in American politics; an imbroglio that brought down a sitting president and exposed the seedy underside of government.  It also made the American public realize their worst fears about elected officials were true.

Watergate actually refers to the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., a luxurious complex overlooking the Potomac River.  Here in the pre-dawn hours of June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a night security guard happened to stumble upon a group of men breaking into the Democratic National Party’s headquarters.  Ronald Zigler, then President Richard Nixon’s press secretary, denounced it as a “third rate burglary.”  It was enough to stave off any connection to Nixon who coasted to a landslide victory over South Dakota Senator George McGovern that November.  Nixon wasn’t that popular.  His constant delays in failing to end the Vietnam War looked to be a portent to his reelection, especially considering that 1972 was the first year 18 – 20 year olds could vote.  But, McGovern – despite his staunch anti-war views – wasn’t that effective or ambitious.  He only took one state: Massachusetts.  He tried to make Watergate an issue, but no information had surfaced yet tying Nixon to the burglary.  After the scandal broke, Bay State residents started driving around with bumper stickers proclaiming, “Don’t blame me.  I’m from Massachusetts.”

Jim Lehrer, who turns 79 today, was an early player in the media obsession over the Watergate Hearings.  He and fellow journalist Robert MacNeil commenced a then-innovative programming venture by covering the hearings live during the day and then discussing them in the evening.  In the days before cable TV and the Internet, Americans received most of their news from TV and print sources.  Critics condemned the move; insisting that PBS should focus more on its original intent: cultural and educational subjects.  But, the public was hooked.  Besides, the hearings quickly proved educational, in that people learned the minutia of daily government; plus, it was definitely a cultural milestone in American history.

I was only 9 when those hearings started.  My parents would rush home after work that summer to eat dinner and drop down on the couch to watch PBS.  I was more obsessed with my new German shepherd puppy.  But, I have vague recollections of those hearings and I quickly realized how significant the entire mess was.

Watergate was a critical juncture in American history; a cumbersome and frightening crossroad on the political and legal front.  It bridged the nation’s faux gold-plated past of high-minded constitutionalists fighting for democracy and liberty with the brutal reality of government corruption and deceit.  The country had almost self-destructed under the commotion of the 1960s: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy; the battles of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and the decade’s various civil rights movements.  Its brightest point – the only event that truly united us – seemed to be the 1969 moon landing.

Then, came Watergate, and everything in America changed.  Political figures never had much of an angelic reputation, here in the U.S. or anywhere.  But, not many in the American populace ever suspected their own president would stoop to overseeing a burglary.  Nixon apparently was so determined to win reelection he would break the law to find anything nefarious about his opponent.  Nixon’s tapes, recorded in what he thought was the sanctity and privacy of the Oval Office, sealed his fate.  Americans were shocked to learn how foul-mouthed and hateful he was.  Reading the excerpts in the local newspaper – with the word ‘expletive’ carefully juxtapositioned amidst the rest of the text – my parents couldn’t believe it.

By the summer of 1974 – as more details of the Watergate affair became clear, due in part to the dogged efforts of “The Washington Post’s” Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – the hearings metamorphosed into impeachment proceedings.  For only the second time in our nation’s history, a sitting American president faced the possibility of forced removal from office.  In August of that year, with the jaws of the scandal enveloping him, Nixon became the first president in American history to resign.  His Vice-President, Gerald R. Ford, ascended to the Oval Office.  Ford was almost a product of chance.  Spiro Agnew had been Nixon’s vice-president.  But, as the Watergate mess unfolded, Agnew faced his own quandary; he was indicted for tax fraud while governor of Maryland.  Under threat of impeachment, Agnew resigned in October 1973; only the second time that has happened in U.S. history.  When Ford assumed the presidency, he appointed Nelson Rockefeller as his vice-president.  Another dubious first: Americans found themselves with both a president and vice-president for whom they did not vote.

Ford exacerbated the problem by pardoning Nixon a month after taking office, and – along with the burgeoning energy crises, the Vietnam disaster and Jimmy Carter’s own disastrous presidency – the entire 1970s seemed like an unmitigated failure.  The only high point was the 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

That was the death knell for American politics as the nation knew it.  Whatever shred of dignity remained in the concept of public service splattered against the fan of volatility.  Nixon’s tactics established an unsettling trend: political candidates now focus more on what’s wrong with their opponent than on their own achievements.  It reached an apex during the 2000 presidential elections when George W. Bush’s inner circle used every filthy machination they could pull out of their rectal sewers to assail the other side.  It was the only way they could get an otherwise inept and unenviable candidate into the presidency.  They had done it six years earlier, when Bush first ran for governor of Texas.  His cronies began planting rumors that incumbent Governor Ann Richards had – gasp! – homosexuals serving openly in her administration.  That was enough to send the God-fearing rednecks to the voting booth – as if that had anything to do with governing.  But, people fell for it.

And, that’s just it.  Some people keep buying into the validity of such nonsense.  They believe, for example, that the Bill Clinton sex scandal really was a threat to national security, or that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya.  I watch every presidential debate, along with other political discourses, and wonder, ‘What do you plan to do for me?’  Texas’ newest senator, Ted Cruz, gave an impassioned defense on why Chuck Hagel shouldn’t be Secretary of Defense, but has said virtually nothing about working with the president on the economy.  If anything, Cruz seems determined not to work with President Obama on anything!

Thus, is the spawn of Watergate.  Politics has become filthy, putrid and unmerciful.  Countless numbers of qualified individuals – well-educated, well-intentioned, articulate and compassionate – won’t sacrifice their souls and the souls of their families to the evil deity known as the American political machine.  After all, who wants to jump into that mess?

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays