Americans face a critical question in this era of strife and acrimony: Isn’t it about time we cut Dick Nixon some slack?
No, this isn’t a plea for historical revisionism. Rather, I am here to argue that American history is teeming with relevant examples of corruption, ham-handed cover-ups, and utter incompetence. As a nation, we’re exhibiting a tragic lack of imagination by incessantly relying on one scandal to make our point.
The day Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, the on-again/off-again nemesis of both Democrats and Republicans, reaction was as swift as it was predictable. “Nixonian,” Senator Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania declared. Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts claimed that he was reminded of the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon fired independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which in turn led to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
And because it’s never too early for some wish-casting, headlines such as “Trump Is Mirroring Nixon’s Final Days” and “All the President’s Tweets Cap a Nixonian Week” and “Trump’s Nixonian Relationship with Truth” littered the political press. Heated discussions on cable news — on occasion featuring former Hillary Clinton aides who were powerless to recall a single event that had occurred between the years 1974 and 2017 that might have been pertinent to a discussion about impeachment — left a trail of “Nixon, Nixon, Nixon.”
To watch journalists mining Wikipedia pages for analogous Nixon moments was to see quite a spectacle. In one widely disseminated social-media scoop, we learned that Trump had called the investigation into his alleged Russian collusion “a witch hunt.” Just. Like. Nixon. This eerie similarity became far less chilling when one googled the phrase and found that virtually every politician who’s ever been under any investigation has used the same phrase, including Bill Clinton (whose impeachment was also the only one that many of those journalists had ever witnessed).
While the overuse of the Nixon analogy is a reflection of an intellectual tediousness that has infected political discourse, it’s also evidence that we function under the liberal view that nothing — and I mean nothing — is as momentous as Watergate. It is the benchmark for all presidential deviousness; the event that all others shall be compared to in perpetuity.
So you can imagine, to be worse than Nixon is the worst thing ever.
Late-night comedian Seth Meyers and many others contend that “Trump is worse than Nixon.” No one ever accuses you of being worse than James Buchanan or Ulysses Grant.
In my lifetime, so many scandals have allegedly outpaced Watergate in nefariousness that I’m confused why we’re even bringing up Nixon. The New York Times argued that Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal — known also as “Irangate” or “Contragate” — was “worse than Watergate.” Jimmy Carter concurred, noting that the scandal was actually “far worse.” Republicans maintained that Whitewater was “worse than Watergate.” Nixon himself stated that the Clinton scandals — which also included Travelgate and Monicagate — were “worse.” Also, Plamegate was definitely “worse than Watergate,” according to Arianna Huffington and numerous other progressive pundits.
Which brings me to a tangential grievance: Perhaps our grating habit of affixing “gate” to every single scandal that pops up — you know, Pardongate, Rathergate, Climategate, Bridgegate, and so on — makes it difficult to entertain any political outrage without the specter of a four-decade-old burglary gone wrong. Nixon would lament that Watergate had evolved from a “political scandal into a national tragedy.” It was worse. No event casts a shadow on American politics quite like it.
It’s true that political firestorms and scandals tend to share certain characteristics. It is not necessary to go back to Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome scandal or Andrew Johnson’s impeachment to make useful observations. Lyndon Johnson was an unparalleled bully. Kennedy was a reckless lightweight. Both were coddled and protected by the sentinels of democracy. When Trump is allegedly preparing to shut down the First Amendment, no one brings up Woodrow Wilson. The Obama administration might have used the IRS to punish political opponents, and yet it’s always Nixon catching flak.
As it happened, I’d recently been reading the excellent (though somewhat liberally tinged) new biography of Nixon by John Farrell — because I read virtually every Nixon biography. I’m not sure any president is as compelling to read about as the 37th. What struck me most was how unlike Nixon was from Trump in the most fundamental ways. A self-made man who struggled with bouts of self-doubt, Nixon displayed prodigious focus and discipline to succeed. “Others may hate you,” a self-aware Nixon told his staff before leaving the White House forever, “but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”
Until his avoidable downfall, “Nixonian” might as well have meant “prevailing even when everyone is really out to get you.” Conservatives such as M. Stanton Evans had every reason not to like Nixon “until Watergate.” By D.C. standards, Nixon was exceptionally effective at running and growing the federal government. As foreign policy goes, he may have been the most competent president in American history.
This is not to excuse Nixon’s abuse of power, but to put his presidency in a context it is almost never afforded. For journalists, Watergate wasn’t a tragic event but a magnificent one. One that they hope to repeat. There is, after all, no greater cause in a newsroom than saving the republic from a Republican. And Trump has provided plenty of fodder for hope.
To be fair, though, Nixon isn’t the only comparison liberals like to make. Historical analogies about Republicans tend to go from Nixon to Hitler pretty quickly. So perhaps we should be appreciative that we’re dealing with merely a “gate” rather than another Reichstag fire.
– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.