WASHINGTON — A brilliant article by Jonathan Aitken in London’s Sunday Times, of August 1 prepared me for the torrent that was surely going to hit America a week later with the 30th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation, August 9. Aitken, a distinguished writer and biographer of the 37th president, reminded readers of the incomparable drama fevering the last days of the Watergate president. “End career as a fighter.” Nixon had scrawled on one of his yellow legal pads hours before he planned to bow out on August 1, 1974. His valiant daughter, Julie, however intervened with a scrawled note of her own: “Dear Daddy, I love you. Please wait a week or even ten days before you make this decision. Go through the fire for just a little bit longer. You are so strong! I love you.” And so he waited until August 9.
Aitken seems to have expected a 30th anniversary distinguished by intelligent reflection or, as he wrote, “an objective assessment of the man and his record,” for “the hate-filled passions that he exacerbated because of Vietnam and Watergate have diminished with time.” I expected more vituperation. Those who consider the name of the 37th president a hyphenate, as in the “disgraced-Richard-Nixon,” have with the passage of time gained so many additional complaints, for instance, his coarse language on the White House tapes, his intrigues in Chile, his dilatoriness about the plight of the whooping cranes. As it turned out, both Aitken and I were wrong. The 30th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation passed with hardly a siren going off.
How does one explain it? Think of all the luridities of Watergate that could be repeated, the Constitutional Crisis, the Paranoid Loner staying up all night in the White House, his trigger finger so close to the nuclear bomb — Kissinger, just down the hall! Next the Nixon maniacs would repeat all the lessons we are supposed to have learned from Watergate: no president above the law, the need for an Independent Counsel, and, my favorite, “a president does not lie to the American people.” That supposedly is what did Nixon in. He lied to the American people. What precisely he lied about is difficult to recall, but whatever he lied about brought him to the precipice of impeachment. Nixon was reluctant to bring the country into that hellish ordeal, and so he resigned on August 9, 1974.
Nixon shouldered the blame for whatever the congeries of wrongs that composed Watergate were. He did not marshal his dwindling forces in the Congress and abroad in the country for a last gasp defense. He had indeed lied, though how serious or unusual his lies were I leave to historians. Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson with few exceptions in between, had encouraged cover ups and lied about it when necessary. Only one other president has ever found himself in the condition Nixon was in 30 years ago prefatory to his resignation. He too had lied and obstructed justice. But he was not about to shoulder the blame. Rather he would whip up his supporters to defend him. Faced with impeachment for wrongs he obviously had committed, he would bring the country to what he and Nixon both saw as Constitutional Crisis. Then he blamed prosecutors for his plight.
In the wake of the Nixon resignation there is no enduring controversy dividing the nation. He lied. He shouldered the blame. And historians will judge him on that and on all the other things Nixon did, for instance, the opening to China, détente, arms control negotiations. Bill Clinton lied too. He deceived his cabinet, prosecutors, a grand jury, and the nation. He put members of his party and his government in the intolerable position of admitting that had he misbehaved as charged he had committed grave and probably impeachable offenses. Then he prevailed on them to contradict themselves and defend him to the end. Rather than shouldering the blame Clinton palmed it off on others, brought the nation to the brink, and created an enduring controversy with hatreds that will last a generation.
Quite possibly the intense enmity that embitters politics today — and this presidential election in particular — is a malign byproduct of the Clinton impeachment, an impeachment that never would have taken place had the President shouldered the blame for his own conduct.
Thus I end with a question? Is it possible that the media let the 30th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation pass unnoticed because a comparison between his behavior and Clinton’s would be inescapable? The media have forgiven Clinton after his every scandal. Could they ever forgive him for behaving more loutishly than the disgraced-Richard-Nixon?
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