Friday, August 5, 2016

Nixon's Ghost

“We professional journalists are freaking out over the fact that no matter how hard we try to explain to the public that Trump is unqualified, a lot of the public keeps right on liking him and his bold vision for America consisting of whatever happens to cross his mind at a given moment. We journalists are like, ‘What is WRONG with you people? Why aren’t you LISTENING to us?!? We’re PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS WITH VERIFIED TWITTER ACCOUNTS!!!'"
 —Serious journalist Dave Barry, reporting from the GOP convention in Cleveland, July 17
The name of Richard Nixon gets invoked regularly in American politics, but it has been a while since the late president’s name has been brought up as frequently as it is these days. The only question is, which of the two major presidential candidates is the more Nixonian?

Donald Trump certainly emulates the 37th president in his rhetoric. Whether he is talking tough about foreign policy or domestic law-and-order issues or secret peace plans or the American silent majority, it is downright eerie how he seems to be following the Nixon playbook. That is, to the extent that he seems to be following any playback at all. The two men also share a distinct antipathy for the press, which is and was amply reciprocated in both cases. How long until we finally hear The Donald bellow that the press won’t have Trump to kick around anymore?

Yet, when we think of Nixon’s penchant for secrecy and for hiding his communications and just acting plain paranoid, it is hard not to also see parallels with Hillary Clinton. Like the so-called Tricky Dick, she operates as though she assumes everyone is out to get her and takes excessive measures to cover her tracks—even when there seems to be no discernible reason for it. And, like Nixon, she is determined to keep going after the presidency until the voters finally just give up and let her have it. In the end Nixon was undone by a secret recording system he set up in the Oval Office. Clinton could yet be tripped up by a horde of email communications that were supposedly deleted but, because they were on an unsecured server in her own private home, may actually be in the hands of Wikileaks and/or the Russians.

While for many the Nixon name conjures up the worst of American politics, let us keep some perspective. Generally, when the considerable topic of the Watergate scandal is put to one side, the one-time vice-president of Dwight D. Eisenhower gets pretty high marks for how he performed as chief executive. On the world stage he reestablished relations with China, initiated the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and secured an anti-ballistic missile treaty. He wound down Lyndon Johnson’s huge escalation of the war in Vietnam and brought home the POWs. Domestically, he enforced school desegregation in the South and established the Environmental Protection Agency. He also presided the first human moon landing.

It just goes to show, even if you are a flawed human being and maybe even a corrupt one, it does not mean that you cannot also be an effective national leader. And maybe that observation is the closest thing we can find to a silver lining in this dark cloud of a presidential campaign season.

Despite all the comparisons we might make between Trump, Clinton and Nixon, the reality is that 2016 is a very different year than 1968. In the midst of domestic and world tumult 48 years ago, Nixon presented himself as a figure of stability. In this sense, as the candidate presenting herself as more stable and level-headed, Clinton would be the more “Nixonian” of the two nominees. This year, however, there is a large portion of the electorate that feels things are not working in the economy and in other areas. They want things to be drastically shaken up. And many of these people have settled on Trump as their change agent.

The smart money is betting that Clinton’s “stay the course” message will prevail, and so far the polls bear that out. On the other hand, the polls consistently underestimated Trump’s voter turnout in the primaries. Likewise, pollsters totally got it wrong leading up to the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum. There is a dramatic disconnect between, on one hand, the so-called elites in government and in the media (including the conservative media) and, on the other hand, the masses of people who are suffering in an economy that has left them behind—no matter what official government statistics may say.

Our best hope is that, regardless of who becomes president in January, she or he will perform much better than her or his campaign to date would suggest. And let us hope that the winner’s presidency ends more happily than that of Richard Nixon. He remains to this day the only U.S. president to have resigned from office. By doing that he avoided impeachment. That means the only president to have been impeached in the last 147 years is one who bore the name Clinton.

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