Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why One Veteran Journalist Warns about Comparing Watergate to Trump's Scandal

by Nomad

As we all grope blindly in the slimy darkness of the Trump scandal, it is perhaps natural that we attempt to make comparisons to the past, for some sort of precedent. And when the topic of a president in trouble arises, the first name that comes to mind is, of course, Nixon in the Watergate debacle.

However, one journalist who witnessed first-hand the presidential contortions and the political chess game back in the 1970s warns that comparisons are misleading for a variety of critical reasons.

Witness to Watergate

Politico's Susan Glasser interviewed veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew, a Washington correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly from 1967 to 1973. Drew was at ground zero when President Nixon's met his Waterloo and kept a real time record of the event. In 1975, she published her account of the Watergate scandal in her book, Washington Journal: The Events of 1973-74.

Her book was reprinted back in 2014 before Trump appeared as a serious presidential candidate. That book, for obvious reasons, is now selling like hotcakes.

Superficially, Trump and Nixon share a few characteristics. As Frank Rich recently pointed out in a NYMag piece:
The skids of Trump’s collapse are already being greased by some of the same factors that brought down his role model: profound failings of character, disdain for the law (“If the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” in Nixon’s notorious post-resignation formulation to David Frost), an inability to retain the loyalty of feuding White House aides who will lawyer up to save their own skins .. and dubious physical health .. Further down the road, he’ll no doubt face the desertion of politicians in his own party who hope to cling to power after he’s gone. If the good Lordy hears James Comey’s prayers, there may yet be incriminating tapes as well, Trump’s weirdly worded denial notwithstanding.
In the POLITICO interview, Drew turns her extremely perceptive eye to the comparisons between Trump and Nixon. For a variety of reasons, this is, she stresses, the current crisis is very different.
...[P]eople were saying to me and I had some friends who would say, “Is this what Watergate was like? Do you think this is Watergate?” And my view is always and still would be: No, because each one has its own characteristics...
The most outstanding difference between politics then and politics now has nothing to do with the president. It's about the Republican party itself.
Washington was a very different place in the Nixon era. Drew points out that within the Republican Party, the majority were moderates.
Moderate Republicans are very hard to find now and so the whole situation was not as partisan as now.
The discussion in Congress about the impeachment process was "very high-minded."
There were also some very strong conservatives and one or two stuck with him until the very end. So it wasn’t a wrangle. It was a sober discussion. The excellent thing about that period was that these politicians rose to it.

Nixon and Trump

As individuals, says Drew, there is the vast difference between Nixon and Trump. She sees Trump as incapable of becoming anything close to a president. 
People would say, “Oh, well, when he gets to the presidency, you’ll see the majesty of the office. He will rise to the event.” No, he’s a 70- to a 71-year-old man who is used to having his way.
He ran a family business and he took the family business to the White House, I’m sure to the everlasting regret of some of the family for having gone. He had no idea that he couldn’t just get his way."
He had no board of his company. It was just him and his kids and he didn’t have to answer to anyone. He can’t stand the idea that there are these institutions and forces getting in his way.
Elizabeth DrewNixon also resisted being bound by oversight. In his case, however, the psychology element was much more complex.

Some have speculated that Nixon suffered from a borderline personality disorder and that Nixon’s psychological problems may have been "more subtle and more profound than straight narcissism or paranoia might indicate."

Here's a footnote worth mentioning.
When Nixon was vice-president under Eisenhower, he consulted a psychotherapist named Arnold Hutschneckert for treatment of insomnia (but possibly for relief of pain in his neck and back). He continued to see him for four years.
All that came to an abrupt (and unfortunate) end when, in 1955, gossip columnist Walter Winchell spilled the story that Nixon was seeing a "head-shrinker." Years later, after President Nixon was forced to step down, Hutschnecker wrote:
“I cannot help think[ing] that if an American President had a staff psychiatrist, perhaps a case such as Watergate might not have had a chance to develop.
Even so, compared to Trump, Nixon was, at least, comprehensible and articulate. He was able to express his ideas without making a complete ass of himself. Drew observed:
Nixon read books. Nixon thought. Nixon thought about policy. You could have a coherent conversation with Richard Nixon. He didn’t do it easily or casually. But he was very smart.
Yet, Nixon's intelligence ultimately didn't prevent him from abusing the power entrusted to him. And that's the core similarity between Watergate and the Trump scandal: The abuse of executive power, the president's inability to accept restrictions to his power and his attempt to undermine checks and balances.

Drew added:
The most important article of impeachment against Nixon was Article II, which held that a president could be held accountable for the acts of his subordinates, even if he really didn’t know anything about it.
This question- whether a president can be held accountable for the acts of his subordinates- will, she predicts, also come into play in the Trump scandal at some point.

Trump and the Question of Trust

If people were unnerved by Nixon's handling of power, people today are terrified of Trump in an entirely different way. We are coming to grips with the inarguable fact that this is an administration that cannot be trusted. This is a president who lacks the moral fitness and intelligence to fulfill his executive duties.

And worse than that, he is out of control and unable to control himself. 
For example, Drew says, Trump causes us to worry when he goes abroad. That's a species of anxiety Americans have not faced in the past, (at least not since Reagan's Reykjavík Summit with Gorbachev).
There’s no accounting for what he’s going to say and do. Think about it: he came out from a two-hour and 15-minute conversation with Putin with the bright idea that Russia and the United States would have a joint anti-cyber war arrangement. Putin must have been laughing hysterically afterward that he got Trump to agree to that.
When Nixon journeyed to China, we never felt that he would humiliate the nation. We never felt he would, in a boastful moment, accidentally reveal classified information to the government of Red China.

Regardless of the political pressures in Washington, few Americans were concerned that Nixon would undermine the status of US power in the world. And most importantly, we never for a moment believed that Nixon was beholden to a foreign government for helping become president. 

Until Trump came along, all that was literally unthinkable.That's something Americans never had to fear when Nixon was president, even in the midst of a crisis. 
Because he’s so unfamiliar with what government is, is supposed to be domestically or internationally. He doesn’t really quite know what to do. So when he goes abroad, we worry, and we didn’t used to worry about something like that.
We’re sort of fearful about what’s he going to say next and what’s he going to commit us to. So Trump is a running crisis. The crisis is the president and the presidency.

A General Sense of Accountability

In Nixon's day, the beleaguered president and his staff understood right from wrong even when they choose to ignore the distinctions. Moderates in Congress from both parties could be counted on to follow procedure. These elected officials understood how high the stakes actually were and that this was more important than anything else. The news media could be trusted to indifferently search for the truth and not become a part of the right or left wing agenda.

That was back in 1973. It was a different time and that was a time that no longer exists in Washington. Ultimately, that's why every comparison to Nixon and Watergate will ultimately fall short.
When asked what the future holds, Drew offers these wise words:
This cannot be a rush to judgment. It’s a huge thing to try to decide about the viability of a president. That’s an awesome thing if you think about it and if anything is going to be done about whether he remains president, it has to be done slowly, carefully, with some bipartisanship. I don’t know if we can get that in this day and age. So the only thing I’ll predict is this is going to go on for quite a while and having said that, there’s probably going to be a resignation 10 minutes from now.
We will all have to be patient and keep our eyes peeled for signs.  
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Be sure to listen to the full interview with Elizabeth Drew. She is both knowledgeable and fun to listen to. You will hear many of the same things being said in our own comment section. 

If you'd like to read the full transcription, click here