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On Nixon and Trump

Today, I finished John Farrell's new biography of Richard Nixon, a fascinating read on its own, but never more so than in the age of Donald Trump. This new book is a compact tale that benefits from the author's having full access to the unabridged and infamous Oval Office tapes that ultimately led to Nixon's downfall. The odor of scandal has followed Trump throughout his campaign and presidency, and he and James Comey have exchanged barbs about "tapes" to the shock of a nation. On the left, the assumption that Trump is crooked is a given, and comparisons are quickly drawn to Nixon, another paranoid, power-obsessed, win-at-all-costs president. However, though both of these men's reputations will likely be defined by their misdeeds and will to power, the comparisons end there. Would that Donald Trump were one percent of the intellectual, statesman, and above all, diplomat that Richard Nixon was.

This is not to excuse the abuses of the Nixon presidency. He ordered a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia that killed thousands, and that probably led to the fall of that nation's government, prompting the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. He prolonged the war for political gain, a fact that was suppressed until Farrell cracked the case while researching his book. He sabotaged many fine careers for political gain and revenge. He was a famous red-baiter who contributed mightily to the climate that allowed a McCarthy to virtually shred the Bill of Rights. And in case after case, he raised himself above the law in order to keep himself in power.

However, Nixon prided himself on his erudition and scholarship. He served our nation in the Pacific. He opened up China at a time when that nation has hopelessly opaque and isolated. He negotiated strategic arms treaties with the Russians. Did he cozy up to some terrible dictators, including the Shah of Iran and Anwar Sadat? Yes, but he genuinely believed he was working for the best interests of our nation. And during the Cold War, the threat of communism and its proliferation was very real. In the years after Watergate, it was revealed that presidents back to Truman engaged in the same dirty tricks as Nixon. John Kennedy, for example, personally authorized the relentless FBI attack on Martin Luther King, Jr. that included the distribution of recordings of that civil rights leader's extramarital affairs. The fact is, the Cold War became the impetus and the justification for a dangerous expansion of executive power that we are still grappling with today. It is just that Nixon ruled when the 60s were peaking, along with its inherent distrust of authority.

Nixon's aides Haldeman and Erlichman were notorious in their protection of the President, enforcing a discipline on the White House few other administrations have rivaled. (Compare this with the Mickey Mouse Show that is the Trump Oval Office.) One of the hallmarks of their guardianship of Nixon is that they knew when to ignore some of the orders the president gave in piques of fury, and honestly, drunkenness. The wheels came off the Nixon bus when he expanded his circle to include opportunists who anticipated and gave life to some of his darker impulses, such as framing opponents in sex scandals. Here we can draw a parallel to Trump, who requires absolute fawning obeisance and who will not tolerate criticism or disloyalty of any kind. This means that his worst impulses--which seem to occur daily--become policy, via tweet or through his unquestioning advisors. Good leaders relish dissonant and even combative ministers and aides who will help them hash out controversies, outcomes, and contingencies in detail before any action is taken. Not so with our current chief executive. He would rather consume cable news with his McMuffin for breakfast, then tweet about it on the commode, a location that perfectly symbolizes the quality of those communications.

So while Nixon will certainly be one of the faces chiseled into the Mt. Rushmore of Hades, Donald Trump should have his own mountain top reserved for the bowels of hell.


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