And with the disputes over the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, the targeting of tea party groups by the IRS and the Justice Department’s secret gathering of Associated Press phone records, the Nixon comparisons are rife.
“Do these people not remember the Nixon administration?” asked NBC’s senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this, except in the past during the Nixon years,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). And BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith captured the moment with his post featuring Obama’s and Nixon’s faces morphing into one another in an endless loop of guilt by association.
The White House deserves some of the blame for the mess it’s in, but let’s be clear: The comparisons to Nixon are hyperbolic. Watergate, with its unique depth of criminality, remains a scandal unlike any other in modern times, and the echoes today reveal far more about the culture of Washington than about the supposed similarity between Obama’s troubles and Nixon’s crimes.
The 44th president has plenty of company in the he’s-as-bad-as-Nixon club. Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, recounting the Iran-contra scandal during the Gipper’s second term, asked: “What did the president know and when did he know it? This had been the central issue in the Watergate scandal and it became and remains a principal unanswered question of the Iran-contra affair.”
President Bill Clinton had several “gates” attached to his woes: Travelgate, Filegate, Lewinskygate. House Republicans, armed with Watergate comparisons, voted to impeach Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, insisting that the president’s sexual relationship with a White House intern and his misleading testimony rivaled Nixon’s abuses of power. (In a bit of trivia, Lewinsky was living in the Watergate complex at the height of her scandal.)
President George W. Bush had Watergate analogies hurled his way so often in his second term that the charge almost became banal. John Dean, Nixon’s counsel during Watergate, who subsequently became a liberal voice, wrote a book about Bush titled “Worse Than Watergate,” accusing the president of obstructing the investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with “tactics not unlike those used by the Nixon White House.”
None of these comparisons holds up. Nixon had an “enemies list.” He directed a cover-up to shield his White House from blame for the break-in and theft of documents at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Nixon, asking aides to pull “dirty tricks,” was involved in thwarting FBI and congressional investigations into Watergate. He even ordered aides to burglarize the Brookings Institution.