I could tell just from my parents’ facial expressions this was bad. The gallery of people (mostly older men) in similar-looking attire reeked of authority. For me, all of 9- and 10-years-old, the joy of our first color TV set in this newly-built suburban Dallas home dampened with the drone of voices in that crowd on the screen. Coupled with my parents’ own head-shaking, I got the sense something was very wrong. I had no idea. This was my first exposure to the American political system. They were the Watergate hearings.
This week marks 50 years since the notorious break-in at the Watergate Office Complex in Washington, D.C., by a gang of misfits operating under the orders of the president of the United States. Richard Nixon had become so emboldened by his 1968 win that he dared to envision a world where he either had no enemies or enemies that were easily squashed. He had narrowly lost the 1960 presidential race to John F. Kennedy and then lost a 1962 bid for the California governorship. Thus, winning the presidency created an authoritarian desire in him to hold onto power at any cost. He would do anything to ensure he won a second term – which he did, in one of the biggest election landslides in U.S. history.
As recollections of those events abound, the nation is currently encased in more political intrigue. The January 6 hearings have been underway for a week now, and there’s no telling how long they will last.
In some ways, the events of January 6, 2021 are similar to Watergate. Both were set off by presidents who wanted desperately to hold onto power and ended up disgracing themselves. History is still building Donald Trump’s legacy, but at least Nixon legitimately won both of his terms in office.
Trump’s 2016 “win”, on the other hand, was a fluke – a blatant act of fraud in a profession where character often doesn’t really matter. And, like Nixon, he would do anything to ensure he would serve a second term as U.S. president; the leader of a nation that has long held itself as a beacon of true democracy and freedom. When the results of the 2020 presidential election began arriving, it became clear Trump was not the winner. But, as now know, he and his equally maniacal supporters would not accept the results. Trump had stated months earlier that he would only acknowledged the outcome if he won. That was the egoist in him talking. It was also the oligarch in him; a reality TV star who gleefully terminated people in front of cameras, just as he’d surely done during his own professional life.
For decades, many have said we need a businessman in the White House. Well…we got on with Trump – although we’re now aware he’s not as successful as he claimed to be. But, with his extreme wealth, he could afford to be brutally honest – a virtue that appealed to the angry (mostly White) masses; a group that had tired of diversity and inclusion and suddenly wanted to claim the victim mantel in the 21st century.
The businessman model failed with the Trump presidency. In at least one other manner, Nixon resembles Trump. He never truly admitted wrongdoing. Just a few years after he left office, Nixon gave a series of carefully-crafted interviews with journalist David Frost, in which he defended his actions; reiterating that, “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”.
Trump sees nothing wrong with the events of January 6, 2021. From his pathetic vantage point, he did nothing wrong. Even as the hearings proceed, he still insists he’s a victim of a rigged election system. I’m sure Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would love to have a word with him about rigged elections.
Facing certain impeachment in the U.S. House of Representatives, Nixon resigned the presidency in August of 1974 – the first and (to date) only American president ever to achieve that ignominious feat. After an impassioned speech to his staff, he boarded the Marine 1 helicopter and left the White House grounds. There was no gunfire; no bombings; no bloodshed. The Nixons were dragged from their home and strung up in public, like Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu. It wasn’t a Castro-type coup we’ve often seen in developing nations.
The events of January 6, 2021 were calamitous – and bloody. Never has the U.S. Capitol been invaded and overrun by angry citizens. That’s something that shouldn’t happen here; again, that’s a developing nation type of fiasco. I’ve seen it on television and read about it in print – an oppressed people storming their national capitol to demand regime change. We’ve seen it occur in Central America and the Philippines. It happened across Eastern Europe, as the Soviet Union collapsed.
As the Watergate hearings proceeded throughout 1973 and ’74, more and more information came to light pointing to Nixon as the instigator of the entire mess. The break-in wasn’t – as one individual dubbed it – a “third-rate burglary”. The scandal was larger and deeper than anyone had imagined. When the nefarious arrows finally began pointing back to Nixon, he resigned. His reputation, along with that of many of his henchmen, disintegrated. Their political careers were permanently ruined.
The January 6 hearings are almost theatrical. There is no secret about what happened and who was responsible. We know Trump urged his followers to “take back” the country and undermine the democratic process. We know he demanded election officials in a number of states to find votes that would push him into a win. We know he expected his Vice-President, Mike Pence, not to certify the 2020 election, as was his official duty. And, to ingratiate the true horror of that day into our minds, video surveillance has been presented to the January 6 Committee showing the moment Pence had to be evacuated from the Capitol floor, as the rioters encroached. Nixon demanded some people be silenced. But, as far as we know, he never actually insisted they be murdered.
Everyone who runs for public office has to be somewhat egotistical; at the very least super-confident in themselves and what they have to offer. They put themselves into the public arena and risk everything. But egotism reaches dangerous proportions when the individual comes to believe they are better than everyone else and can do no wrong. It’s nowhere more alarming than in politics where people who win elections are empowered to make decisions that impact the lives of millions.
In looking at Watergate and January 6, it’s amazing how fragile the democratic process remains. It’s stunning how little seems to have changed. It’s even more upsetting to think some people still see nothing wrong with any of it.
Image: Robert Pryor