Matthew Dallek is an associate academic director at the University of California Washington Center and the author of “The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.”
When a reporter asked Jay Carney this past week how his boss felt about the comparisons he was drawing to one Richard M. Nixon, the White House press secretary shot back: “I don’t have a reaction from President Obama. I can tell you that the people who make those kind of comparisons need to check their history.”
Actually, if Carney checked his history, he’d realize that the “Nixonian” accusation has been a rite of passage for presidents over the past four decades, particularly in their second terms. Critics have routinely charged that presidents’ conduct has demeaned the office, reaching levels of malfeasance not seen since, of course, Watergate.
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.
Obama’s secrecy on issues from drone strikes to (until recently) Benghazi talking points is disappointing for a president who promised the most open administration in history, but it hardly rises to Nixonian levels. Indeed, Obama seems about as open on internal White House and administration matters as his recent predecessors — which is to say, not much. Even so, the broad forces now undercutting him have also harmed past presidents. The so-called scandals, and the “Nixonian” charge, are not without consequences.
With their party on a presidential losing streak, Republicans in Congress are seizing any opportunity to damage the White House by pumping up its missteps, big or small, into Watergate-like proportions. Such tactics are hardly unique to the GOP, of course; Democrats took a similar approach toward Bush on issues such as Sept. 11 investigations, weapons of mass destruction and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
At congressional hearings, Republicans have called witnesses who push the notion of an administration cover-up of the Benghazi debacle. Obama has fired the acting IRS commissioner, but we should brace for more hearings on the IRS as well as the Associated Press phone records.
On all these fronts, the Obama administration has made matters worse for itself. It initially failed to give a straightforward account of its response to the Benghazi attack, which killed four Americans. The Justice Department’s seizure of AP phone records is an affront to civil liberties. And news that the IRS targeted tea party and other anti-big-government groups for special scrutiny — actions that the president has called “inexcusable” — only strengthens the perception on the right that Obama’s government has become a leviathan. Carney’s efforts to distance the White House from the Justice Department, the IRS and, to a lesser extent, the CIA and the State Department give the impression of a bureaucracy run amok.
But none of this even come close to Watergate. There are far more apt and instructive analogies.
If anything, the tragedy in Benghazi recalls Reagan’s failed effort to tame Lebanon’s civil war — resulting in the suicide truck bombing that killed 241 Marines and other U.S. troops in 1983 — and Clinton’s disastrous military operation in Somalia, where 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis died in the Battle of Mogadishu. During Gerald Ford’s presidency, a Palestinian separatist group killed the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Francis Meloy, and his economic adviser, Robert Waring, and sniper fire killed Ambassador Rodger Davies in Cyprus.
Putting U.S. soldiers, spies and diplomats into civil wars or politically volatile situations in weak states is a fraught and sometimes deadly enterprise. The kind of limited military and diplomatic actions that Reagan, Clinton and Obama took in Beirut, Mogadishu and Benghazi, respectively, all failed because of flawed strategies and inadequate security precautions. These parallels, more than any Nixonian cover-up, are most salient to the Benghazi debacle.
The IRS developments bring to mind past government intrusions, such as when a State Department official in the George H.W. Bush administration searched Bill Clinton’s passport files in 1992, or in 2008, when State Department employees also searched the passport records of Obama, Hillary Rodham Clintonand John McCain. In all these instances, mid-level officials invaded politicians’ privacy and singled them out for scrutiny. (In all of them, the White House appeared to have no involvement.)
The Justice Department’s secret collection of AP phone records is the most revelatory of Obama’s three so-called scandals. During the Cold War, presidents of both parties agreed, more often than not, that the United States must use diplomacy, economic aid and military intervention to stop the spread of communism. But the unfolding AP saga is the latest example of how, in the post-9/11 world, Democratic and Republican presidents have arrived at a different consensus: National security trumps civil liberties.
The Justice Department’s actions are an extension of efforts by the George W. Bush administration to hound journalists in pursuit of the sources of leaks of classified information. Bush’s attempts to find out who leaked information on warrantless wiretaps presaged Obama’s. On guarding national secrets, the current administration has displayed far more continuity with Bush’s than most of Obama’s supporters would have imagined on Inauguration Day in 2009.
Indeed, what we know of the Associated Press saga bolsters the evidence that this administration’s anti-leaking efforts are more zealous than Bush’s. The previous administration threatened to prosecute reporters for espionage, but, according to a Bloomberg News report, this Justice Department has actually prosecuted more officials for leaking than all prior administrations combined.
Nixon’s paranoia and vengefulness defined his White House. He abused his power to silence his opponents and Vietnam War critics, and win reelection. But the Obama White House’s penchant for secrecy and its hostility toward the media should be seen in the context of the blinkered attitudes that recent administrations have displayed toward domestic detractors. Clinton, Bush and Obama surrounded themselves with loyalists and cultivated a bunker mind-set, battling a legion of critics eager for any hint of scandal to take the president down. (It’s an understandable mind-set when members of the press hype up any hint of scandal, turning minor stumbles into mini-Watergates.)
Obama seems to have cultivated within his administration a broad disdain for conservatives and for the tea party in particular, which may help explain why mid-level IRS employees put a bullseye on these groups; a frustration with congressional Republicans that has bred the kind of antagonism to opponents seen in Clinton’s and Bush’s White Houses; and suspicion of much of the news media.
Such attitudes may bear a surface resemblance to Nixon’s secrecy and belligerence — but in truth they are found deep in all modern White Houses. Even Obama, who vowed to change politics in his 2008 run, has been no less susceptible to them than any of his predecessors.
It’s hard to imagine the next White House team — whether under Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush or someone else — behaving very differently.
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