Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Troubling Parallels Between Today and the Watergate Era: The media was determined to "reverse the verdict of the election by non-constitutional means"; Trump 2016? No, Nixon 1972

What if, in the 1970s, Richard Nixon had had access to a Twitter account?

I'm askin', because your eyes are likely to open wide in disbelief as you read the description of the Watergate "scandal" in Paul Johnson's History of the American People.

You probably have always thought that no matter how good a president Richard Milhous Nixon may have been in certain areas, nobody can deny (nobody, that is, but a zealous — and untrustworthy — Republican hard-liner) that he was a shady (or a "flawed") character who, in no uncertain way, failed in one area that truly mattered, as Tricky Dick obviously did something very wrong (and illegal) and he was therefore some kind of conflicted Shakespearean soul who brought the scandal upon himself.

All I can say is: Prepare to be disillusioned.
(Update: thanks for the Instapundit link, Ed.)

Indeed, as you read about a Republican president's travails in the 1970s, you are going to think you are reading about the valiant fight to bring down the equivalent of Adolf Hitler by the likes of… Jim Acosta, Nancy Pelosi, and — yes — Robert Mueller.

In fact, as you read below, you are likely to think that so many coincidences can't be accidental, that the author can only have been writing with Donald Trump's White House in mind. As it happens, Paul Johnson's History of the American People was first published in 1997, the year after Bill Clinton's reelection.

Plus ça change…

(When you're done reading the (lengthy) excerpt in the post below, don't forget to check out Nixon and Watergate: What Do the MSM and History Books Fail to Tell Us About the 1970s Scandal? Money shot Money quote: "The truest description of what occurred in 1974 is not that the independent media brought down a president of the United States. What occurred was that the left-leaning MSM brought down a Republican.")

Without further ado, let us return to what Paul Johnson calls

"Watergate and the Putsch Against the Executive"
 … In parts of the media, there was an inclination to deny the legitimacy of Nixon's presidency and to seek to reverse the verdict by non-constitutional means.  …  'Remember,' Nixon told his staff, 'the press is the enemy.  When news is concerned, nobody in the press is a friend.  They are all enemies.'  That was increasingly true. …

 … at the time it was the triumphant Nixon who seemed to be in control, and his success not only humiliated the media liberals but actually frightened them.    …    The aim was to use the power of the press and TV to reverse the electoral verdict of 1972 which was felt to be, in some metaphorical sense, illegitimate — rather as conservative Germans, in the 1920s, had regarded the entire Weimar regime as illegitimate, or Latin American army generals, in the 1960s and 1970s, regarded elected but radical governments as illegitimate.  The media in the 1970s, rather like the Hispanic generals, felt that they were in some deep but intuitive sense the repository of the honor and conscience of the nation and had a quasi-constitutional duty to assert it in times of crises, whatever the means or the consequences.

This view was given some spurious justification by what was coming to be called the 'Imperial presidency,'  That the power of the executive had been growing since Woodrow Wilson's times, with dips in the Twenties and again in the late Forties and Fifties, was undeniable.

 … Nixon's reciprocal hostility to the media and his unwillingness to trust them, even more pronounced than under LBJ, persuaded some editors that 'something was going on,' which fitted into their other critical assumptions on what they termed the 'Nixon regime.'  And of course something was going on.  The White House was a power center engaged in all kinds of activities which would not always bear scrutiny.  It necessarily engaged, in a wicked, actual world, in the realpolitik which was theoretically banned by an idealistic Constitution.

 … Bad habits had set in under FDR

 … Though Truman and Eisenhower, who hated underhand dealings, kept clear of clandestine activities by their staff and the CIA, as a rule, they were generally aware of them and considered that in dealing with Soviet Russia and other totalitarian terror regimes, they were unavoidable

 … Kennedy's chief regret was that he had not made his brother Bobby head of the CIA, to bring it under family control

 … Under Kennedy and Johnson, phone-tapping increased markedly.  So did 'bugging' and 'taping.'
 … Until the Nixon era, the media was extremely selective in the publicity it gave to presidential wrongdoing

 … The anti-Nixon campaign, especially in the Washington Post and the New York Times, was continual, venomous, unscrupulous, inventive, and sometimes unlawful.  This was to be expected, and though it lowered the standard of US journalism, it was something Nixon was prepared to put up with.  What was more serious, and a matter which could not be ignored, was the theft, purchase, or leaking of secret material to these two papers (and others) and its subsequent appearance in print.  Under the First Amendment, legislation designed to protect military security, such as the British Official Secrets Act, was generally thought to be unconstitutional.

 … The appearance of secret material in newspapers shot up in spectacular fashion after Nixon assumed the presidency.     …     It is not known how many US lives were lost as a result of these leaks, but the damage to US interests was in some cases considerable

'Pentagon papers'

 … The administration discovered that publication of the source notes of the Pentagon papers, if analyzed by KGB experts, could jeopardize a whole range of CIA codes and operations.  So serious were the security breaches that at one point it was thought Ellsberg was a Soviet agent.

 … The Plumbers were engaged in a variety of activities of an entirely justifiable nature. … This break-in was the point at which the Nixon administration, albeit quite unknown to the President, overstepped the bounds of legality.  But at least it could be claimed that the infraction was dictated by national security

 … election-year dirty tricks were common.  Johnson had certainly 'bugged' Republican Party headquarters during the Goldwater campaign

 … However, in the paranoid atmosphere generated by the media's anti-Nixon vendetta, anything served as ammunition to hurl against the 'enemy.'  The Washington Post's editor, Ben Bradlee, was particularly angry, not to say hysterical

 … a series of 'investigative' articles seeking to make the Watergate burglary a major moral issue.

 … The campaign might have had no impact but the Post was lucky.  A publicity-hungry judge, John Sirica, known as 'Maximum John' from the severity of his sentences — and not a judge under any other circumstances likely to enjoy the approval of the liberal media — gave the burglars, when they came before him, provisional life-sentences to force them to provide evidence against members of the administration.

 … sadly typical of the judicial vendetta by means of which members of the Nixon administration were hounded and convicted of various offenses, chiefly obstructing justice — a notoriously easy charge to press home, granted a prejudiced judge.  In some cases the accused had no alternative but to plea-bargain, pleading guilty to lesser offenses, in order to avoid the financial ruin of an expensive defense.  Some of the sentences bore no conceivable relation to the gravity, or non-gravity, of the original offenses.

Thus the Watergate scandal 'broke,' and allowed the machinery of Congressional investigation, where of course the Democrats enjoyed majority control, to make a frontal assault on the 'Imperial Presidency.'

 … the witch hunters

 … These transcribed tapes, which the courts and Congressional investigators insisted Nixon hand over, were used to mount a putative impeachment of the President.  The witchhunt in the Senate was led by Sam Ervin, the man who had successfully covered up LBJ's crimes in the Bobby Baker affair, a shrewd and resourceful operator who concealed his acuteness and partisanship under a cloud of Southern wisecracking

(Haldeman had been driven into resignation by the witchhunters)

 … feeding all the damaging material they could muster to an eager anti-Nixon mediaIt became difficult for the President to handle an international crisis.  On October 6, 1973 a treacherous attack was launched on Israel, without warning, by Egypt and Syria, which had picked Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, for this Pearl-Harbor-type strike.  Both the CIA and Israel's secret intelligence service, Mossad, were caught napping, and the results were devastating.  The Israelis lost a fifth of their air force and a third of their tanks in four days, and it became necessary to resupply them.  The American media did not let up in its hunt for Nixon's scalp, but he actually had to deal with the crisis and save Israel from annihilation.  Nixon acted with great courage and decisiveness, cutting through red-tape, military and diplomatic obstructiveness and insisting that Israel be resupplied.

Without the resupply, which transformed Israel's sagging morale, it is likely that the Israeli army would have been destroyed and the entire Israeli nation exterminated.  Indeed it is probable that this is precisely what would have happened, had Nixon already been driven from his post at this stage.  As it was, he was still around to save Israel.  In many ways, October 1973, his last major international achievement, was his finest hour.

 … With darker times coming, the pressures on Nixon increased, and he strove desperately to combine two objects:  to preserve his presidency and to do what was in the national interest.

 … while Nixon was struggling to save Israel, he had been fanged by the man he called 'the viper we planted in our bosom,' Archibald Cox, special prosecutor charged with the Watergate inquiry

 …  It was at this point that hysteria usually associated with American witchhunts took over, and all reason, balance, and consideration for the national interest was abandoned.  It was an ugly moment in America's story and on which future historians      …    are likely to judge a dark hour in the history of a republic which prides itself in its love of order and its patient submissions to the rule of law
Incidentally, note that this blog has previously used Paul Johnson's monumental History of the American People to point out parallels between modern-day politics and elections in the 1960s and the 1970s:
Let us end with a five-year-old post: in I knew Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon was a friend of mine, and you, Barack are no Richard Nixon (thanks to Instapundit), Bill Kristol hits, deliberately or otherwise, on the reasons why America's 37th president was so hated:
Will no one stand up for Richard Nixon? Richard Nixon was a combat veteran, a staunch and brave anti-Communist, a man who took on the liberal establishment and at times his own party's as well, a leader who often thought for himself and had the courage of his convictions, a president who assembled a first-rate Cabinet and one who—while flawed both in character and in policy judgment—usually tried to confront the real problems and deal with challenges of his times.
(As it happens, the former Weekly Standard [RIP] editor's NeverTrump attitude is all the more startling when you realize that Bill Kristol obviously seems to know all about the demonization and the hounding of a Republican president.)