"Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning." - Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone
obituary for Richard Nixon, June 16, 1994
I was a mere, callow lad of 15 when Richard Nixon became the first US president to resign from office four decades ago today. During the early 70's, Dad had taken us on two vacations in Washington, DC and, politically speaking, it was like being in the middle of a highly-charged EMF Fear Cage. We lived in Maryland, Agnew Country, and the Capitol was only a glorified stone's throw from the Beltway. We went to a dinner theater and heard David Frye, whose entire shtick and career came to a crashing halt when Nixon scuttled out of office like a banana republic dictator as the rebels closed in.
For those of you too young to remember Watergate, you won't get much help from me here. I refer you back to the word "callow", meaning inexperienced and immature as most 15 year-olds are wont to be. I knew it was fashionable to hate Nixon like Red Sox Nation hated the Yankees and the current crop of Gen Xers hate Nickleback. Everyone hated Nixon, even his fellow Republicans (although it was only because he'd damaged their brand). Only Checkers didn't hate him because he was already dead.
It was impossible to get away from Watergate, the political hornet's nest kicked open by Woodward and Bernstein. Previously obscure senators, aides, judges and lawyers became more famous than Dick and Liz and John and Yoko and everyone knew on sight the faces and private lives of Judge John J. Sirica, John Dean and even future Senator Fred Thompson, who was the chief legal counsel for the late Sen. Howard Baker. It was really the birth of reality TV, the political scandal that was the biggest one since the long-forgotten Teapot Dome that toppled the Harding administration, the one that knocked the soaps off their lofty perch for better than a year. Because what's better than professionally crafted scandals? Real-life political scandals.
But all I knew was that I was supposed to hate Nixon for obstructing justice and something to do with breaking into some whistleblower's shrink's office and spying on some political party at some hotel they named the scandal after. But from my worm's eye view it seemed to be a big, hairy deal so it just seemed wise to go with the toxic flow of sludge that came in with the Potomac. Who was I, a shallow, callow child of 15, to argue with these very serious men and women who were seemingly on a 24/7 news cycle? They smelled Nixon's blue blood in the chum line and, if I inhaled deeply enough, I could, too.
So when Nixon hunched up the shoulders of his cheap suit on Marine One and gave us the Victory sign as if he'd just won a third term, we cheered. Mom cheered. Dad wouldn't say anything, since he was well on his way to becoming a racist right winger. But there was a sense of national relief, that, to quote the clueless boob from Michigan who was shuttled in rapid succession from the House to the Naval Observatory to the Oval Office like a lost piece of luggage, our long, national nightmare was at last over.
Watergate was the political Hiroshima and Nagasaki that was dropped on the Republican Party, one that salted Republican districts for years, if not decades, to come. A quarter of a century later, all they could counter Watergate with was a sleazy office affair that led to a blow job and a yellowing stain on a blue cocktail dress (Henry Hyde would say on the eve of his retirement from the House that the Clinton "scandal" that actually resulted in Slick Willie being the first POTUS to be impeached was in retaliation for Nixon's own impending impeachment that was stopped only by his resignation).
We thought the likes of piano wire artists such as G. Gordon Liddy, Henry Kissinger, Erlichman and Haldeman were the worst this nation could ever possibly produce, treasonous, morally palsied homunculi that could only be surpassed by the Nazi Party three decades ago.
We were wrong. All Watergate did was lower the bar.
Let's Limbo to the Oldies
That's right. Republican standard bearers and standards alike each got trampled in the mud and it never once occurred to these psychopaths to raise the bar and pick themselves from the primordial ooze and show they were better than Nixon, Agnew and the crime family with whom Nixon had surrounded himself. Instead, something wonderful, then horrible happened.
Like a bottled scarab beetle over a match, Dick Cheney, then Gerald Ford's chief of staff, began laying the groundwork to so thoroughly cripple and undermine the centrist Republican president's administration, it led to the improbable election of an obscure Democratic peanut farmer out of Georgia. It was the equivalent of blowing up or pulling a building to keep a raging fire from spreading.
Now hit the fast forward button and stop when the counter gets to Election Night 2000. No, you went too far. Back a little... there you go.
Thanks to Ralph Nader, who should've stayed in Connecticut and run for a senate seat and Florida's excruciatingly embarrassing inability to actually count, George W. Bush, a guy who couldn't eat a pretzel without the supervision of an LPN, "won" the Oval Office. He was a legacy child who thought a budget was "just a bunch of numbers" and the Constitution "just a Goddamned piece of paper", someone who didn't know the first name of the president of Pakistan. But still, we thought, what could be worse than Watergate? Molly Ivins? What'd she know?
Well, Bush was only too eager to show us what could be worse than Watergate. After drifting through the first eight months of his purloined presidency like a brain-damaged sloth in an opaque maze, 9/11 descended from the PNAC heavens like a deus ex machina, exactly the sort of disaster those fine elderly patriots had floated to Bill Clinton in a January 1998 letter, a deadly trick pulled off by a bunch of heartless pricks to get our nation back on track, sorta like Pearl Harbor. They just didn't specify which
heartless pricks would pull it off.
To try to compress it all for you. Terror attack on three fronts, blame the terrorist, forget the terrorist, go after another guy who had nothing to do with it. Lies about WMDs, then jokes about WMDs, smoking guns, mushroom clouds, 363 tons of cash literally dropped into the middle of a war zone. Forcing democratic elections in a war-torn country with as much stability as nitroglycerin, the MIC jiggling all the way to the bank. Belch
! Five and a half years later, finally admitting the guy whose country we invaded had nothing to do with 9/11, where did y'all get that idea?
On the home front, a disappeared American city, disrespecting a grieving war mother, inept and unqualified cronies in NASA, the FDA, every Cabinet position, tax cuts and war (an unprecedented combination), banning a future Vice President and a senior senator from consoling the families of the invisible war dead, needless terror alerts, corruption, corruption and more corruption that floated an entire blogosphere for nearly a decade.
So where's Bush now, after inflaming most of the Middle East with his Potempkin pretensions of bringing democracy there, after not only lowering the bar but essentially trampling it in the mud until one couldn't see it, anymore?
Painting little dogs and self portraits in Dallas with all the serenity of the elderly Matisse, with no hint of war crimes charges being brought, taxidermied with all the honors and respect accorded to any two term Chief Executive. And they called Reagan the Teflon President.
Since Nixon's fall from grace, it's become all but obvious to astute political observers that the nation is, for some absurd reason, more forgiving of Republicans than Democrats in the wake of their scandals. Equating Watergate or Iran Contra or the boondoggle of the Iraq War to Clinton's blow job ought to automatically come with pinking shears to the ears of anyone who patiently listens to this illegitimate moral equivalence and to the tongue of anyone who tries to make that comparison.
Getting Back to Our Roots Involves Going Back to the Muck and Mire
But we've forgotten what true scandal feels like, what real war crimes feel like. But as the living human memory of those who'd lived through those real high crimes and misdemeanors gets fuzzied and diminished with time, the younger generation cannot possibly, except in an antiseptic, anecdotal way, know what it felt like to live in those times. If you're under 50 or 55, you cannot possibly remember how horrifying My Lai was when it was first broken by Seymour Hersh, at just how crippling Watergate was not just to the GOP but the entire nation. As if we needed reminding, as if we needed an object lesson, Watergate confirmed the genetic-level American distrust of its own politicians.
But then Bill Clinton, a corporation-coddling, dictator-loving, Big Mac-munching, death-penalty-supporting fuckstick became the most loathed man on the Beltway over something that should;ve been kept within the First Family and tens of millions were spent in vain to bring him down. Then, as if to get the unofficial first black president off the hook, the official first black president has been even more vilified and for all the wrong reasons.
Barack Obama should serve, as should have Bush, as an object lesson in what happens when you elect a nonentity to the highest office in the land at a time when the MIC and a handful of multinational corporations essentially own the government. Between Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq again, drone strikes all over the world, state-sponsored assassinations of US citizens and their children without due process, you would think the American people would have been reacquainted with the outrage of their predecessors who'd listened with their hands over their mouths to the latest disclosures of the Watergate and Iran Contra hearings. But you'd be wrong.
Instead, America has been reintroduced to its imperialist roots, with isolationism now a quaint notion in which, with no sensible rubric, we attack and invade some sovereign nation states with the fig leaf of cardboard coalitions while blithely ignoring the terrorist, genocidal acts of others (cough, Israel, cough).
Essentially, anything goes as long as we don't get our cable interrupted during the Super Bowl and get shorted one inch on our Subway foot longs. Juvenal's Bread and Circuses works as well as it ever did and scandal seems as likely as Wall Street bankers going to jail for literally and cheerfully dumping the national and global economies like the fat guy in the dunking tank.
In other words, politically, a nation that manages a 40% turnout during midterms and hardly more during general elections is as callow and shallow as that 15 year-old boy in Maryland four decades ago who knew he should have hated Nixon for his soon-to-be-surpassed crimes but doesn't quite understand why.