Nixon Is a Fair Comparison

by Victor Davis Hanson

There have been lots of comparisons, most hotly dismissed by the president’s defenders, between Nixon and Obama, but in some ways the latest scandals have the potential to match or even trump those of 1973–4.

Nixon’s sins were primarily domestic; no one died. Benghazi goes to the heart of U.S. foreign policy, when an administration knowingly misled the United States, and stuck to a preelection campaign narrative that ensured a facility was endangered, help was not sent, Americans died, and a petty crook would be jailed to take the rap — while officials for weeks peddled an untruth. Unlike “Bush lied, thousands died,” the CIA did not give the president “slam dunk” information, supported by most agencies abroad and both Houses of Congress, but rather had its initial analyses massaged by the White House for overtly campaign purposes. 

Much of the hatred toward Nixon emanates from the tapes that reveal the private man to be a paranoid and often deceitful character. But while Nixon stormed on about the IRS, and dispatched the odious John Dean to find a way to use tax returns against his enemies, at least after Donald Alexander took over, the agency pushed back, and often in heroic fashion thwarted the destruction of the once independent bureau.

So far, in 2013, the IRS seems to have been compliant, almost an extension of Obama-Biden 2012. Will a memo surface of just a single Alexander-like hero who said, “No, the IRS does not determine its tax policies on the basis of politics”? I hope so, but think not. 

And while Nixon certainly went after the press and ordered phone monitoring of supposed leakers, Obama more often selectively has gone after the press, in a fashion in some sense even more chilling, using the mainstream media to peddle administration tropes, while demonizing dissenters like Fox News (and monitoring a Fox reporter) and talk radio. 

The Justice Department’s beef with the AP was not just leaks — after all, the Obama administration itself leaked all sorts of classified information that it felt was useful to the reelection effort, from the details of the Stuxnet virus to the drone targeting details, to channeling information to favorite New York Times and Washington Post reporters, who were even given exclusive access to troves of the bin Laden documents. The AP’s problem was that it thought it had been given the unofficial green light to release information that the Obama administration on second thought wanted to release first, and so was considered a sort of “how dare you” double-crosser by the administration.

On this incestuous relationship with the media and the corruption in selectively releasing classified information for particular political purposes, I wrote back in May 2012, in the Corner the following about the Washington Post’s analyses (branded with “EXCLUSIVE”) of the recovered bin Laden documents:

While the analyses may well be insightful and balanced, no one can know that, given that Ignatius is apparently working alone (“exclusively”) with formerly classified documents under conditions that are not transparent and without a published narrative of how he obtained them and/or any detailed information about the nature of the raw data he has acquired. . . . The trove found in bin Laden’s compound either belongs to the security agency or Defense Department bureau that classified it, or the documents that were given to Ignatius belong in the public domain — otherwise, fairly or not, the impression given is that we are a sort of garrison state that choses authorized state megaphones to analyze what have become court documents. And when administration officials praise Ignatius’s sobriety and that sanction is echoed by peers in New York and Washington, then one only gets the impression that something is terribly wrong in this insular DC-NY corridor, where no one any longer seems aware of simple ethics and propriety.

I think when one adds up Benghazi, the AP mess, the IRS scandal, the politically correct laxity about domestic terrorism and radical Islam, the deliberate leaking of classified documents to preapproved in-house reporters, and what Kathleen Sebelius is trying to do, the impression given is Nixonian to the core: scores of “blindly” ambitious underlings, competing with each other to outdo the next, in order to gain attention or brownie points from the man at the top, who lets it trickle back down that he is in a virtual push-back war with certain Americans (e.g., the Tea Party, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the NRA, the post-2010 Republican House, and assorted conservative groups).

In 1973, the press was almost uniformly adversarial; today it has shamefully functioned from 2009 onwards as a Ministry of Truth, a sort of force multiplier of the West Wing. Everything Nixon did was suspect, often with good cause, and seen through the prism of his excesses; in the case of Obama, from Fast and Furious to Solyndra to the EPA and NLRB freelancing to the selective enforcement of the law, the press has more often been an enabler, working to explain why a scandal or an excess is really some sort of right-wing obsession, emanating from suspect or even racist motives. Something very scary started in 2009–10 — and that this new way of doing business was supposedly done for the proverbial “people” to ensure “fairness” has made it even more insidious and far more difficult to come to terms with. 

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