Forty years after he slunk out of office, Richard M. Nixon retains the capacity to astonish and disgust.
Just when you thought you could no longer be shocked by Nixon’s willingness to abuse power, his seething resentments and paranoia and his florid anti-Semitism, another round of tapes emerges.
To listen to them — I highly recommend HBO’s new “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words” — is to be reminded, again, of the 37th president’s unrelenting self-absorption. The question is always about what is best for Nixon, never what is best for the country; his willingness to hijack the machinery of government to assure his success shows no bounds.
In Watergate, the crime, it turns out, was even worse than the coverup. “I want it implemented on a thievery basis,” Nixon explodes at aides. “Goddamn it, get in there and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”
Nixon is referring to an earlier, aborted plan to burglarize the Brookings Institution. By the time of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee — and it took the bungling burglars several attempts — Nixon had already orchestrated a burglary at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
The coverup was foreordained because of the crimes that predated Watergate, Ken Hughes, author of “Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate,” noted at a Post panel I had the privilege of moderating the other evening.
“It was a mind-set of doing anything to advance Nixon’s policies, his political stature, and there was no barrier, including the law,” Bob Woodward observed at the session commemorating the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation .
Nixon was, let us hope, a uniquely damaged and dangerous man to have ascended to the heights of the presidency. The ensuing scariness of the Watergate moment, as the nation watched a White House unravel and the country approach a constitutional crisis, was, and thankfully remains, unrivaled in post-Civil War political history.
Indeed, Elizabeth Drew, who chronicled the period for the New Yorker, noted the deliberate diminishment of Watergate by the practice of appending “gate” to every run-of-the-mill scandal, or pseudo-scandal. To take one current example: However suspicious you may be of the Internal Revenue Service’s handling of conservative groups’ request for tax-exempt status, the evidence amassed so far shows no Nixonian plot in which the White House schemed to use the IRS to harass political enemies.
So what is the relevance of Nixon to the modern era?
It is interesting — notwithstanding Carl Bernstein’s reasonable cautions against the impossibility of conducting such “what-if” history — to imagine the Watergate episode played out against our modern journalistic and political backdrop.
Could Woodstein’s sustained, painstaking reporting — and editor Ben Bradlee’s judicious willingness not only to print what his reporters had uncovered but also to hold back when they did not have the story nailed down hard enough — have survived the gotta-have-it-now environment of Twitter and 24/7 cable news?
That is far from certain.
Even if it did, would a citizenry now accustomed to picking its media source based on its preexisting political dispositions have absorbed the reality? Again, far from certain.
“One of the things that’s totally different today is that a consensus evolved in the country . . . based on the best obtainable version of the truth,” Bernstein said. “Today, I suspect that if you look at why people are seeking out information, it’s no longer predominantly for the best obtainable version of the truth. It’s for partisan and ideological ammunition to reinforce what they already believe.”
Even more important, would our current partisanship-above-all politics have risen to the occasion as did the Watergate-era Congress?
Not to get all misty-eyed about the statesmanship of the Watergate-era Congress: “This wasn’t just valor on the part of the Republicans,” Drew recalled. “They were scared, and they just wanted to get him out of there to save their own skins.”
Still, it is hard to imagine the Congress of Darrell Issa or Ted Cruz dealing with the Watergate scandal, and there is enough reflexive partisanship among Democrats to wonder the same about how they would handle accusations of grave misdeeds by a Democratic incumbent. (However repulsive Bill Clinton’s conduct, it wasn’t the same.)
Which means, sadly, that the answer to the question — would a modern-day Congress stop a modern-day Nixon? — may be the least certain of all.