Snap Judgment: Back to the summer of '74

Looking for political inspiration from Richard Nixon.

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
August 8, 1974 found me spending summer vacation at a hotel in the resort town of Scottsdale, Arizona. The previous night I had been treated to one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen, either before or since: a "dry" lightning storm of such booming intensity it lit up the desert landscape for hours on end. It turned out to be an ominous curtain-raiser for a much rarer and no less dramatic occurrence, one so memorable for Americans of my generation that it has become a landmark "where were you when you heard"-level event. I was on the hotel's practice putting green when someone ran out yelling: "Hey, they just said on TV that Nixon is about to resign." I ran back to my room and watched as, for the first time in American history, a US president - a haggard-looking, Watergate-battered Richard Nixon - announced he was stepping down from office the next day. Nixon's resignation was certainly no surprise - many had seen it as a fait accompli in the face of the impeachment hearings going on in Congress. But no one was certain whether the president was going to politically survive the summer months, or try to fight it out until the bitter end of an impeachment trial expected sometime later that year. One particularly strong memory I have from that period is of the popular 1974 "Nixon Countdown Calendar," one embossed with a photo of the president's face in such a way so that each passing day marked off with an x also further erased Nixon's image. By mid-August, the entire top of his head was obscured by such marks, leaving only its jowly bottom half visible. These days, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert finds himself in a not dissimilar position, I find myself flashing back to that summer of '74. No one here believes that Olmert will survive in office until the end of 2008, any more than they thought Nixon would do so back then. Each week also seems to bring new revelations of wrongdoing and a weakening of the prime minister's political position, as they also did then for the US president in the dog days of summer. Still, one can't claim quite the same level of drama and tension is involved as the clock ticks down on Olmert's political career. The potential resignation of an Israeli prime minister hardly ranks as an epochal event with that of a US president, and not only because of the respective importance in the global pecking order of the two nations involved. Nixon's resignation remains a unique moment in American history, still the only time in that country's 232-year existence that a chief executive has stepped down while in office. In contrast, Israel's six-decade run has been dotted by such events; David Ben-Gurion even did it twice, although both times of his own volition, and actually against the wishes of his party and a public that would have preferred he remain in office. Not quite Golda Meir, who resigned just a few months before Nixon did; although she could have clung to office a while longer, Golda acted responsibly after correctly gauging a public mood that held her leadership largely to blame for the country's shortcomings during the Yom Kippur War. The same could be said for her successor, Yitzhak Rabin; after revelations about his wife's illegal overseas bank account emerged, he moved promptly to step down in such a proper manner that he was able to salvage his political career in such a way as to pave his eventual return to the Prime Minister's Office. IN 1983, Menachem Begin also chose August as the month in which to resign from the premiership, after suffering the setbacks of the First Lebanon War, the loss of his beloved wife Aliza and the deterioration of his own physical and mental well-being. Begin's decision to step down while the Lebanon conflict was still unresolved, and his subsequent total seclusion from public life, makes his resignation perhaps the most dramatic in the country's history. I didn't arrive here until two years after that, and have thus missed out so far on the experience of seeing a serving prime minister resign from office - a gap in my personal historical resume that will almost certainly be filled in the coming months. Ehud Olmert's current situation perhaps bears the most resemblance to the downfall of Richard Nixon, in that it is taking place in the context of a developing scandal. Olmert's travails, though, seem relatively paltry in comparison to those of Nixon, and even compared to those of his predecessors in similar circumstances. It's not just the gap in stature between him and the likes of Ben-Gurion, Meir, Rabin and Begin, but the fact that Olmert has already so far overstayed his time in office that his final departure from it is sure to have an anti-climatic tone. At least he still has the option of stepping down before ending up as the only prime minister to be indicted while in office. Even Nixon realized history would judge him more kindly if he resigned before being forced out of office by an impeachment trial conviction. As he said to the American nation on that day in the summer of '74, in the most memorable presidential address of my lifetime: "I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the president and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home." Of course, when one has to look for political inspiration from the likes of Richard Nixon, well, then you know things have sunk pretty low. But that's where we stand, here in Israel, in the summer of '08. [email protected]