WASHINGTON WATCH: Heeding Santayana’s warning

The two presidents share an obsession with plugging leaks and creating bulging enemies lists. Nixon ordered illegal wiretaps and tax audits for his enemies; we don’t know yet whether that is another

IS US President Donald Trump heading the way of Richard Nixon?  (photo credit: REUTERS)
IS US President Donald Trump heading the way of Richard Nixon?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One item on my wife’s and my bucket list is visiting presidential libraries and museums. So far we’ve been to those for Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, William McKinley, Rutherford B. Hayes, Jerry Ford, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
The libraries are a fun bit of tourism for the politically minded, but they also hold some sobering lessons for the current occupant of the White House. Sadly, all evidence suggests that President Donald Trump, ignorant of history as just about everything else, is unlikely to learn them.
The most surprising of the libraries, in the most positive sense, was Nixon’s.
We expected it to be dark, brooding and secretive like the man himself. After the glitzy and glossy displays at the nearby Reagan library, the last word I expected to use to describe Nixon’s memorial was “honest,” but that’s what it was. And more. The first display that confronts visitors is a panoramic orientation video that opens with an unvarnished story of the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency.
It wasn’t always that way. The private Nixon Foundation operated it like a shrine, glossing over Nixon’s career. His biographer, Stephen E. Ambrose, called it a whitewash and “entirely self-serving.” In 2011 the National Archives became a partner and has given visitors a more balanced and honest view, particularly of the scandals that led to Nixon’s downfall.
There is deservedly much about Nixon’s positive achievements, domestic and international. His views on environment, health care, women in college sports, ending the draft and lowering the voting age, and the rights of Native Americans would brand him a liberal in today’s GOP.
His opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union and resupplying arms to Israel in the 1973 war were historic achievements. His prolonging the Vietnam War and condoning the genocide in Bangladesh are permanent stains.
But all are forever overshadowed by his crimes. For that reason alone the incumbent 45th president should visit the 37th’s and take a long, reflective walk through the corridor that traces the events beginning with the June 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, the dirty tricks, creation of the secret White House “Plumbers,” the Watergate break-in and the extensive cover-up that culminated in Nixon’s resignation.
It might help him save his presidency. To learn how paranoia, hate, revenge, lies, political espionage, deceit, abuse of power and narcissism brought down one president and now threatens another.
John Dean, who knows a thing or two about bad presidents from his years as Nixon’s White House counsel, said Trump makes Nixon “look good” by comparison. Nixon, he noted, “was competent, just dishonest” while Trump is both incompetent and dishonest, calling the incumbent “the worst president ever.”
The two presidents share an obsession with plugging leaks and creating bulging enemies lists. Nixon ordered illegal wiretaps and tax audits for his enemies; we don’t know yet whether that is another practice Trump follows.
Something else they share besides deeply flawed character and lack of ethics is a need to surround themselves with similarly challenged individuals and plain old sycophants. It took longer to expose Nixon’s criminals; several of Trump’s have already been indicted, entered guilty pleas, are cooperating with investigators or severing jail time.
Each president has his see-no-evil clerics. Trump has Franklin Graham (whose father was a die-hard Nixon defender) and Jerry Falwell Jr.; Nixon had Rabbi Baruch Korff and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
And their intransigent supporters in Congress. Congressman Earl Landgrebe (R-Indiana) said he’d stand with Nixon “until he and I are taken out into the street and shot.” Trump has Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California), who destroyed the credibility of the House Intelligence Committee, which he chairs, by being Trump’s snitch.
In Nixon’s time as today, congressional Republican leadership avoided directly criticizing the president for fear of incurring his wrath and that of his hardcore followers. The only two Jewish Republicans in the 115th Congress, Lee Zeldin of New York and David Kustoff of Tennessee, are staunch Trump defenders.
Trump, like Nixon, is an equal-opportunity bigot, virtually no group has escaped his virulent racism. He has a history of discrimination going back to his real estate days; he has been accused of embracing the worst – Nazis, KKK, White supremacists, Judge Roy Moore, Sheriff Joe Arpaio – and condones the venom spewed by his followers.
Jews have also been their targets. Both waged bitter war on the media, including many Jewish journalists. Nixon ordered an aid to count the number of Jews in the Bureau of Labor Statistics because he suspected their were cooking the numbers to make him look bad.
The ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt says Trump has “emboldened and given encouragement to the worst anti-Semites and bigots.”
It matters little how many times he declares “I love Israel” or points out his Jewish grandchildren. It’s not Jews but the millions of Evangelicals who vote overwhelmingly Republican that he has in mind.
Once again we see a president at war with his own law enforcement agencies, meddling in criminal investigations which involve him, personally attacking investigators, lying to the media and public in order to cover up the truth. Another president who cares nothing about the enormous damage to the country and its democratic traditions; it’s all about “me.”
Trump also threatens to follow Nixon’s example and fire the prosecutors, but so far he hasn’t; maybe someone has told him how that turned out.
Trump may be more disastrous and thus dangerous than Nixon because he is more skillful at manipulating the media, effectively uses social networks to get out his “alternative facts” and has a major news network that acts as his echo chamber.
The extent of Trump’s crimes may not be fully known until after his presidency and when the record is examined by the National Archives, if then.
As the Nixon library shows, Nixon paid for his crimes because there was still an independent judiciary and a Congress able to put rank partisanship aside long enough to meet the grave constitutional crisis he fomented.
Trump is well on his way to compiling an even uglier and more dangerous record. What’s not clear is whether a Republican Congress that – so far – has been unwilling to demand even minimal accountability from this president will act with equal concern for a democracy at risk.