John McCain, Brain Cancer, and Human Decency

As the presidency of Richard Nixon collapsed, one national parlor game centered on resignation and pardons.

Would President Nixon issue a pardon covering himself before resigning?
“Pardon me, I resign.”

Or would he resign and plead with the new President, Gerald Ford, to issue a pardon?
“I have resigned. I beg your pardon?”

Resignation seemed probable. The tapes were bad, then became worse. A smoking gun recording had the President of the United States conspiring with top aide H.R. Haldeman to stop the investigation. We hear Haldeman outlining the plan.

That the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters call Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this…this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” That’s not an unusual development, and, uh, that would take care of it.

H.R. Haldeman, Taped on June 23, 1972

It was clear obstruction of justice. President Nixon liked the idea of inventing a CIA story and using it to get the FBI to stop investigating. So he ordered Haldeman to carry out the plan.

I’m not going to get that closely involved… You call him. You got that?

It was as bad as it would get. In fact, it couldn’t have gotten worse.

Well, actually it could have. There were more tapes the public would never hear until decades later. There was the President casually voicing ethnic biases that went way beyond the common prejudices of the day.

Italians were different from us, our President said. They looked different, they talked different. They even smelled different. Biggest problem was, you couldn’t find an Italian who was honest.

Black people in America, as Richard Nixon saw it, were barely a step or two away from climbing down from the trees.

Jews were smart, according to the President. But they couldn’t be counted on for any loyalty. They would turn on you in an instant. And there were too many Jews in government.

President Nixon ordered his aides to survey all federal agencies. They were to make lists of all Jews working in government. A non-Jewish monitor would be assigned to keep track of all of them. As far as we know, the order was never carried out.

The Nixon bigotry did have the virtue of not involving lawbreaking. At least up to the part about tracking Jews. But there was lawbreaking. The smoking gun for Watergate involved a cover-up, not the original crime. But tapes that came out later had the President order other break-ins. In one tape he could be heard pounding the table, furious because his order to burglarize the Brookings Institution had not been carried out. “I want it done!” he yelled. “I want it done now.”

The generally accepted explanation of why President Nixon resigned when he did was that he did not want the humiliation of impeachment by the House, trial in the Senate, and eventual removal from office.

I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

President Nixon, August 8, 1974

One bit of popular speculation had the President jump ship because impeachment would have cost him his Presidential pension. He wanted the money.

Maybe so.

I sometimes wonder if the President hesitated at the public release of those other tapes, the ones smearing Italians and Jews and African Americans. His table pounding fury and his direct order of other crimes might have produced a popular revulsion that would end his hope for a pardon. He might have worried about life in prison.

President Ford is most remembered by those of my generation for two public statements. One was his famous assurance the night he was sworn in.

My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.

Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.

President Gerald Ford, August 9, 1974

The other is what tormented him for the rest of his brief presidency, and prevented his election for another term.

…a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed…

President Gerald Ford, September 8, 1974

But some of us may remember the lengths he went to avoid any hint that he wanted to become President.

Q. If the Judiciary Committee votes out impeachment and this process is going, headed towards the Senate, do you feel that the president should step down and name you acting president during this period?

A. I don’t think so. I don’t believe that a president should remove himself from office until he’s convicted, which would be the trial in the Senate.

President Ford, Meet the Press, February 3, 1974

Years later, after he had retired from politics, President Ford was explicit. He insisted he had refused even to give advice to President Nixon about resignation. When an aide to the President had asked him for input, he remembered his response.

I’ll have no part of any recommendation. I don’t want any of our conversation to give any advice or counsel to President Nixon. I’m going to stay out of it, absolutely.

President Ford, with Merv Griffin, 1979

President Ford’s studious effort to avoid the slightest hint that he wanted to become President because of what he later called a national nightmare had to have come from a simple humanity common to most of us.

I was reminded of that transparent sense of decency soon after the terrible announcement came that John McCain had been stricken with an almost identical brain cancer that took the life of Edward Kennedy.

His opponent in the 2016 Republican primary lost and lost badly. But that did not stop Kelli Ward from offering some helpful advise to Senator McCain.

I hope Senator McCain is going to look long and hard at this, that his family and his advisers are going to look at this, and they’re going to advise him to step away as quickly as possible.

Kelli Ward, July 20, 2017

That was one day after the cancer announcement. One day.

So, because of his medical diagnosis, Kelli Ward insists that John McCain should resign from the United States Senate. And she has a a helpful suggestion about the ideal person to take over from him right away.

I have a proven track record from years in the state Senate of being extremely effective and of listening to the voice of the people that I represent.

Yup. John McCain ought to resign. And Kelli Ward should take his place right now.

Human decency is not unique to Gerald Ford.

I remember the way Senator McCain, campaigning against Barack Obama in 2008, gently but firmly turned away from bigotry and smear. When anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bigots insisted that Barack Obama was both Arab and Muslim, candidate McCain would have none of it.

No ma’am no ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happened to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about. He’s not!

John McCain, October 10, 2008

I have had occasion to wince at the occasional short tempered outbursts. Those my age often try to avoid the image of angry old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. I try not to do that very often. Senator McCain’s public stands often strike me as unreasonable. He differs from folks like me on policy. I would not vote for him if presented with a reasonable opponent.

But I also feel that John McCain has earned the right to incidental invective common to those my age and older. A half century ago, he became a prisoner of war in Vietnam after being shot down as a pilot. He nearly died from his injuries. He was imprisoned in unbelievably harsh conditions for more than five years. He did not have to stay in captivity nearly that long. A year after he was shot down, his captors offered to release him as a propaganda ploy. He refused release until every prisoner who had been captured ahead of him had been let go. It took four additional years, but that finally happened.

Old-man outbursts and public stands do not tarnish a simple fact.

John McCain is a hero.

Here is another simple fact:

…to advise him to step away as quickly as possible…

…I have a proven track record…

Kelli Ward should be profoundly ashamed.

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Conservatives, Mental Health, Pardon Me, Ending Democracy

Why Trump Goes Flake Squeezing

The Christine Jorgensen Story was a bit of a stylistic throwback, even in 1970. It was kind of a low-grade melodrama, but the sympathetic treatment of its subject was groundbreaking.

In 1970, we were barely emerging from an ethos in which any sort of sexual divergence from socially approved norms was considered perversion.

Christine Jorgensen was a real person. She had started life as George and became Christine through sex reassignment surgery in 1951. That was way, way before transgender became a word known to much of anyone. The film introduced the idea to a resistant society. Most viewers had to have nodded in recognition of our common upbringing:

George, remember? I told you before. Your sister has her toys, and you have yours.

Look, you have so many lovely toys of your own. Come over. Take a look at your Erector set, why don’t we build something?

Your father will be so proud of you. Let’s build a beautiful, big skyscraper. The best building, the most beautiful building, in all the world.

The Christine Jorgensen Story, 1970

The film brought her into what would probably have been a fleeting bit of fame. But then she found herself at the center of a United States Senate campaign.

When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed a Republican to take his place in the United States Senate. Rockefeller had always been more conservative than was generally acknowledged. He had a reputation as a liberal Republican mostly because of his clashes with what we euphemistically called “cultural conservatives” in those days. That was the polite, politically correct term for those who thought black people were too damn pushy about voting rights and anti-discrimination laws. In those days, lots of folks felt that black people should have been grateful that lynching had been confined mostly to the south.

Rockefeller appointed conservative Congressman Charles Goodell to fill Kennedy’s seat. Goodell was not well known except as a sort of right winger. But a student intern from Wellesley College, working in his office, described him as a thoughtful man who had growing concerns about the conflict in Vietnam. That conservative Republican student was developing doubts of her own. Her name was Hillary Rodham.

After Goodell became Senator Goodell, he began openly questioning the war. Soon, he was speaking out at protest rallies. I remember listening to him him as we peaceably assembled in October, 1970 in Washington DC. He voiced his departure from a vain and tragic hope:

That we can convert, by words alone, a corrupt Saigon government into a government representative and responsive to the needs of its people.

Senator Charles Goodell, October, 1970

It was not a surprise that the Nixon administration conducting that war was not happy that their conservative friend was urging us to get out of a losing situation. President Nixon sent Spiro Agnew out to destroy Senator Goodell.

Those of us who remember Nixon’s Vice President are most likely to recall a few pithy phrases:

…an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.


nattering nabobs of negativism.

His attacks on Charles Goodell were, at first, notable:

I will NOT support a radical liberal no matter what party he belongs to.

Then they became spectacular. His most aggressive attack seems pretty mild today. At the time, the words were considered so inflammatory they were disowned and criticized by Republican candidates for office across the country. He was asked about his criticisms about Senator Goodell, who was, after all, a member of his own party.

If you look at the statements Mr. Goodell made during his time in the House and compare them with some of the statements I have been referring to, you will find that he is truly the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party.

Spiro Agnew, October 8, 1970, New Orleans

And so Christine Jorgensen became a household name. She was the subject of interviews, mentioned inferentially in films and television shows for decades. Christine Jorgensen died of cancer in 1987 at the age of 62.

Charles Goodell was defeated in his 1970 re-election campaign. The New York liberal vote was divided between Goodell and Democrat Richard Ottinger. Conservative Party candidate James Buckley was elected for a term with slightly more than a third of the votes cast.

I occasionally think about that 1970 campaign. It was a contentious and discouraging year. The attack using Christine Jorgensen’s name forced me to think about, and to be ashamed of, the way I had always considered sexuality and those whose orientation differed from my own.

Now I think about 1970 as a year of protest. And I think about the spectacle of a conservative Republican national administration targeting an otherwise conservative Republican Senator for defeat because of genuine differences of conscience.

Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is said already to be a target of the Trump administration in next year’s campaign.

The White House has met with at least three actual or prospective primary challengers to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in recent weeks, a reflection of Donald Trump’s strained relations with the senator and the latest sign of the president’s willingness to play hardball with lawmakers who cross him — even Republican incumbents.

Politico, July 17, 2017

It seems unlikely that this is a result of the failure of healthcare repeal. It is true that Senator Flake did not endorse the last proposals to end healthcare for millions of people. Neither had several other Republican Senators who are not targeted by our President.

Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas announced they would vote against repeal. Two other Republican Senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine had already said they would vote no on repeal. They were not targeted by Donald Trump for defeat.

Senator Flake has not yielded to loud and persistent pressure from his constituents to come out against healthcare repeal. He has refused to oppose President Trump.

In fact, on most issues, Senator Jeff Flake is among the Senate’s most reliable conservatives. The NRA is enthusiastic about him. Opponents of abortion rights give him a 100% rating. He is a hardline hawk on deficit spending. He is a firm advocate for a balanced budget amendment. He opposes gay marriage. He is a reliable vote against any enforcement of laws against hate crimes that target gay people. The list goes on and on.

Yet President Trump vowed to spend a million dollars of his own money to defeat Senator Flake. Why?

Here’s why.

In 2016, Senator Jeff Flake was reported to have told then candidate Trump that some of his remarks about women were personally offensive, and that some positions seemed like those of a hopeless bigot. He told him that to his face.

Here is what he said publicly:

There are certain things you can’t do as a candidate, and some of the things he’s done, I think, are beyond the pale.

Senator Jeff Flake, June 12, 2016

And there it is: the difference between today and almost half a century ago.

In 1970:

Spiro Agnew worked at provocation. He used alliterative phraseology to attract attention to what he called “positive polarization.” But, in the end, his motivation was an actual important difference.

Senator Goodell has sought, flamboyantly and ceaselessly, to openly divorce himself from our President and from the Nixon administration.

Spiro Agnew, October 7, 1970

The word for that is policy.

And today:

A year ago, Senator Jeff Flake told his constituents, and told Donald Trump to his face, that he didn’t like how Mr. Trump was acting. The President still seethes with resentment.

The word for that is petty.

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