It was a bitter day for the better angels of our national nature when Richard Nixon became President Nixon.
It was worse, in many respects, than most of America could imagine at the time.
Behind the scenes conversations now reveal deep seated beliefs that were out of place, even four and a half decades ago. Did some of those views have an effect on policy? It is hard to see how they would not.
Nixon’s famous southern strategy, in the form of repeated appeals to the white racist segment of the electorate, was not entirely cynical. Much of it came from actual belief. He explained in private that black Americans really were inherently inferior. In his words, most were “just out of the trees.”
Most of them , basically, are just out of the trees. Now, let’s face it, they are.
Yeah, let’s face it.
His opinion of Jews was emphatic. With a few exceptions; Kissinger, Garment, Safire, for example; most were disloyal, not to be trusted:
Most Jews are disloyal … You know what I mean? You have a [Leonard] Garment and a [Henry A.] Kissinger and, frankly, a [William L.] Safire. And, by God, they’re exceptions. But, Bob, generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.
They were not only untrustworthy, they were arrogant about their disloyalty.
No, but they have this arrogant attitude, too.
Could this be dismissed as one more example of private bigotry, separate and compartmentalized from policy?
In July, 1971, the President ordered a search throughout the government for Jews. They had to be brought under control.
I want to look at any sensitive areas around where Jews are involved, Bob. See, the Jews are all through the government, and we have got to get in those areas. We’ve got to get a man in charge who is not Jewish to control the Jewish . . . do you understand?
He had to correct a bad situation.
The government is full of Jews.
Italians were dishonest. He would not tolerate Italians in positions of trust.
They’re not, we, ah, they’re not like us.
Difference is, the … they smell different, they look different, act different. After all, you can’t blame them. Oh no. Can’t do that. They’ve never had the things we’ve had.
Of course, the trouble is … the trouble is, you can’t find one that’s honest.
Like other Presidents, Richard Nixon’s prejudices were partly a product of his life and times. But even that explanation cannot take us past his enthusiastic embrace of bigotry, or his application of it to policy. He went way beyond prevailing attitudes.
The part of President Nixon’s legacy that endangered the nation, its laws, the constitution he was pledged to defend, was not prejudice. It was lawlessness.
Was President Nixon guilty of actually planning, of authorizing, the Watergate break-in?
Non est demonstratum. We do not have a mathematical proof. But we do have a preponderance of evidence in the form of an unmistakable pattern of behavior. He ordered at least one other break-in, that of the Brookings Institution. He ordered it twice.
In one tape, recorded on June 30, 1971, the President of the United States wants to know if the Brookings Institution has yet been broken into.
Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night?
The answer is no. President Nixon is furious. He can be heard pounding the table. He demands that his order be carried out.
Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute! safe! cleaned! OUT!
He wants the Brookings safe cleaned out in a way that makes somebody else look bad.
And have it cleaned out in a way that makes somebody else look bad.
The cover-up is what eventually cost him the last vestiges of Republican Congressional support. Actual recordings proved guilt to diehard Senators. Barry Goldwater reportedly told him it was hopeless. Later, in a conversation over a conference dinner, Goldwater is reported to have said that the President had told too many lies to tolerate.
I remember George Will’s sardonic summary: Nixon had exceeded the allowable number of falsehoods.
Of all the possible lessons of Nixon’s downfall…
- It’s not the crime. It’s the cover-up
- No-one is above the law
- The system works
- The system didn’t work. We came this close to losing democracy, freedom, everything
- There IS a God after all
…one lesson is almost always missed.
There was one prelude that was known to a small group of non-conspirators. Richard Nixon had won the election for President in 1968, in part, by sabotaging on-going Vietnam peace talks. It looked to negotiators as if the talks were about to succeed when, suddenly, the South Vietnamese changed their minds and rejected any settlement.
President Johnson had meeting dates and places. He knew who was responsible. He had proof. Candidate Nixon had sent messengers to the South Vietnamese government. If the South Vietnamese stopped negotiating, if they blocked a peace agreement, Nixon would become President and he would guarantee much better terms. President Johnson is recorded in conversations with Senators Richard Russell, Everett Dirksen, and others. Here he speaks by telephone with Richard Russell.
The Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both. He’s been doing it through rather subterranean sources here. And he has been saying to the allies that, “You’re going to get sold out…”
In one recorded conversation, President Johnson used the word treason. He was right.
Now, this is not guesswork.
I thought of President Johnson as details came to light about James Comey and the Russian campaign to take over the government of the United States.
The FBI had received a document revealing a series of emails between the Clinton campaign and the Department of Justice. The emails showed that Comey’s bosses in the Justice Department and the Clinton people were cooperating, plotting together to close out any investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. It was a cover-up. At least it would be if it was true.
The documents were false, produced by the same Russian hackers who were already known to be conducting a separate campaign to elect Donald Trump. The FBI, and James Comey, knew the documents were fake. But Director Comey decided to act on them anyway. He felt that the fake emails would eventually be made public and would be believed by a large number of Americans. The reputation of the FBI could be damaged, perhaps damaged forever.
So Director Comey went public, at least partly public. He issued an open scolding of Hillary Clinton, an exaggerated rebuke that went way beyond the facts. His logic was simple. Hillary would win in any case, and the over-the-top public reprimand would insulate the FBI from later criticism.
Almost half a century before, Lyndon Johnson explained on tape that he would not reveal the treachery of candidate Richard Nixon. The nominee of a major political party was actively engaged in treason. President Johnson did not want to endanger public confidence in America’s system of government.
In both cases public servants wanted to protect an institution. Both were dishonest for honest reasons. Both decided the American public could not handle the truth.
President Johnson protected the American system of government. We got Nixon, years of death in Vietnam, and Watergate. Public confidence was shaken after all.
Director Comey protected the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We got, well, we got Donald Trump.
Their betrayal of principle was not deliberate. Both acts of deception came from the same crisis of faith.
History, and future generations who will live with that history, will come to a harsh judgment: These guardians could not bring themselves to trust the institutions they thought they were protecting.
Our institutions can survive the truth. If they cannot survive the truth, they do not deserve to survive.
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