Nixon and President Trump are different men, and their tenures may yet have very different outcomes. But to look back at news coverage in the months before Nixon’s resignation is to find remarkable echoes. Americans in 1974 focused on the same personality traits, debated many of the same issues, and experienced the same sense of news overload and impending national nervous breakdown that seem so familiar today.
As Trump does today, Nixon faced questions about his tax dealings and whether he was using the presidency for personal profit. “It boggles the mind,” New York Times editorial writer William V. Shannon wrote in July 1974, “to think that any man who has won this great honor might see it as a wonderful opportunity to line his pockets.” Like Trump, Nixon used huge write-offs to limit his tax liability. Just as one of Trump’s companies profited from his Secret Service protection during the campaign, Nixon made improvements to his properties at government expense on the grounds that they were necessary to keep him safe.
Both presidents encountered criticism about whether their families were profiting off the presidential name. Decades before debates over the business activities of the Trump children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Nixon’s brother Donald Nixon faced criticism for influence-peddling in the Dominican Republic in exchange for the rights to develop oceanfront property that belonged to the Dominican government.
Both presidents were described as their own worst enemies, unable to ignore a slight or let go of a grudge. Nixon was privately obsessed with revenge, “a battle to be fought and won, no quarter given,” observed Post writer William Greider. Likewise, they shared a tendency to choose staffers more on the basis of loyalty than expertise, and observers debated whether working for the president would degrade those associated with him or was justified by the need to keep capable people serving their country.
In January 1974, former Nixon speechwriter William Safire argued that qualified people should remain in even a corrupted Nixon administration lest the president wobble over the finish line of his term “surrounded by the baddies.” By May, Nixon’s secretary of the interior, Rogers C.B. Morton, declared in public that “We have seen a breakdown in our ethics of government, which I deplore and which I am having a very difficult time in living with.”
Both presidents engaged in a strange and long-standing love-hate relationship with the media — even as they sought to bypass it to speak directly to the people. In 1974, the press was grappling with a president who was “something of a media buff,” in the words of The Post’s Nicholas von Hoffman, and yet was engaged in a “hate affair” with the press that was “poisoning the flow of information to the American people,” as Jack Anderson put it in another column. The relationship between Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, and reporters had become so toxic that a National Press Club committee condemned him for having “misled the public and affronted the professional standards of the Washington press corps.” As syndicated columnist Marquis Childs wrote, “For the loyalists … slanted newspapers and television commentators are out to destroy the President.”
But, as Nixon speechwriter John K. Andrews Jr. came to recognize, “of all of Mr. Nixon’s enemies … his worst enemy is something inside himself.” Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson marveled at Nixon’s ability “to crank almost every problem he touched into a mindbending crisis.”
As now, reporters seeking to understand Nixon duly trooped to the heartland to interview his supporters, who were daunted in Warren, Mich., and defiant in Bay Ridge, N.Y. Meanwhile, some of Nixon’s opponents managed to find some hope in a flowering of civic action and the idea that, as Thompson wrote, “political apathy is no longer considered fashionable, or even safe.”
Members of the president’s own party grappled with the idea that they should be loyal, that “our fortunes are as one” with Nixon, as White House Counselor Dean Burch told some officials. Tom Braden, writing in The Post, placed a bet that the country had not reached the point where “435 congressmen don’t give a damn about their Constitution or their country.” He was right then: Congressmen from Nixon-leaning districts, including Walter Flowers, Tom Railsback and James R. Mann, ultimately voted for impeachment.
To a contemporary ear, the grim mood of the nation in these 1974 dispatches feels shockingly familiar. The New York Times’ Russell Baker glumly surveyed Washington and found “The Presidency is a ruin, the Congress a dilapidation. … Everything comes unstuck and nothing works.”
That Nixon had acted with such impunity seemed like a symptom of something gone terribly wrong. As Times columnist Anthony Lewis lamented of the Nixon White House and its impact on the country, “There is no respect for truth, and the community loses the belief that knits it together. … Americans may hesitate at what seems to some regicide, but they understand that their sickness comes from the king.”
“What has it done to us as a nation? To our government and the way it normally functions?” The Post’s Greider wondered on the day Nixon was set to resign. “It was like a great experiment in open-heart surgery, painful but presumed necessary for the survival of constitutional government. Now that it is over, will the patient be his old self again or weak and dispirited?”
The answer, so far, appears to be the latter. Trump may be innocent of high crimes and misdemeanors, but he’s still managed to entangle us in another round of the same traumatic psychodrama. Whatever procedures are eventually deemed necessary on our ailing body politic, the lesson of 1974 is a reminder that open-heart surgery, no matter how effective, leaves dramatic scars.