In retrospect, it was inevitable that in the age of the most corrupt, venal, petty, and un-American president in our history, a look back at the previous champion would emerge. But that inevitabilty does not in the slightest diminish the accomplishment of the guy who got their first and actually did it, Leon Neyfakh of Slate, creator of “Slow Burn,” an eight-part podcast (what used to be called a “radio documentary”) about Watergate.
This impeccably made, compulsively listenable series takes us back to that roughly two-year period from the botched break-in at the DNC headquarters in July 1972 to Nixon’s roof-of-the-US Embassy-in-Saigon-like departure from the White House lawn in August 1974. Cleverly, the show recounts that tectonic but already heavily documented period by focusing on little-known or never-fully told stories, like those of the doomed Martha Mitchell, little-remembered Texas Congressman Wright Patman, Watergate committee staffers Marc Lackritz and Mary Diorio, conspiracy theorist Mae Brussell, and others.
But, not surprisingly, what makes “Slow Burn” so special, and so germane to the present moment, is how it illuminates the current crisis with an eerie precision that will send a chill down your spine.
Or is it up your spine?
Either way, it’s fucking spooky.
I was a boy during the Watergate scandal (Nixon resigned just before I turned 11) so my perspective on it was that of a child. Revisiting it now, forty plus years later, was bracing.
Neyfakh has done a phenomenal public service with this podcast, not merely in offering an incisive survey of this seminal piece of American history—particularly for younger generations that didn’t experience it firsthand, including Neyfakh himself, as he frequently notes—but in giving us a prism through which to view the present political crisis. Though the series occasionally makes overt reference to Trump, mostly it just tells the Watergate story in all its gory glory and lets the audience connect those dots itself…. which is asburdly easy to do. At virtually every step the story of Watergate offers echoes of the present day. (Yes, I know have the chronology of an echo backward.)
Listening to Nixon’s press secretaries sneer at the very idea the White House had anything to do with what it called a “third rate burglary” (they were shocked, shocked!) is EXACTLY like listening to an outraged Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mike Pence, and Trump himself insist that his campaign and administration had NO contacts with Russia whatsoever…assurances that, like those about the break-in at DNC headquarters, quickly fell apart.
Listening to Nixon’s defenders in Congress and elsewhere—from George H.W. Bush to Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan—angrily insist that the scandal was overblown, that it was a “witchhunt,” that the “liberal press” was out to get the president, that the country ought to “move on and let the man do the job he was elected to do” is EXACTLY like listening to the tedious Trumpian refrain of his minions and apologists today.
Reagan— governor of California at the time, and Mr. Law and Order, a man who had once urged a “bloodbath” against antiwar protestors—comes off as a particularly noteworthy jackass when he tries to explain how the Watergate burglars were “well-meaning individuals” committed to Nixon’s re-election (as if those two are compatible), and shouldn’t be considered criminals because they weren’t “criminals at heart.”
Even as the evidence against Nixon mounted, the excuses Republicans used to defend him—hilariously parodied by Art Buchwald—continued, astonishingly reminiscent of a certain present day phenomenon. (Chief among it, the “whataboutism” of Chappaquiddick, a near-perfect analog to the cries about Vince Foster, Benghazi, the Fast and the Furious, Uranium One, and child porn rings run out of pizza parlors. Chappaquiddick was at least a legitimate crime for which Kennedy bore blame, not a John Birch fever dream of the tinfoil hat crowd.)
Listening to Republicans calculate that Democrats wouldn’t impeach Nixon because they loathed his VP even more made me smile, and listening to Nixon make the ridiculous claim that he wasn’t concerned about himself, only about protecting the prerogatives of ”future presidents,” made me laugh out loud. Apparently it didn’t fool many people at the time either: like Trump’s taxes or his obstinance on Russiagate, a stubborn refusal to let the evidence come out has a funny way of making people think you’re guilty. But like his “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam—which did fool a lot of people—Dick had a real penchant for these howlers, again presaging another Republican congenital liar 44 years later.
It is telling, however, that in attempting to thwart the special prosecutor’s investigation against him, not even the reliably vicious Richard Milhous Nixon dared engage in the kind of overt, hyperbolic attacks that Trump has mounted against Jim Comey, Bob Mueller, and even his own Attorney General. Cox was a tweedy Harvard Law professor who had worked for JFK and invited Teddy to his swearing-in (!)…..as Neyfakh says, a veritable cartoon of a Nixon foe. Yet Nixon never publicly assailed him as a partisan whose objectivity was in question (though he did so privately). Contrast that with Trump’s relentless, wildly dishonest, almost daily public attacks on Mueller—a lifelong Republican—attempting to paint him as some sort of Hillary-loving liberal.
Of course, Nixon did do something worse: he fired Archibald Cox. Listening to “Slow Burn”’s account of the Saturday Night Massacre is especially chilling, though also thrilling in its portrayal of the integrity of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus. (Nixon’s allegation that Richardson was putting his “purely personal commitments ahead of the public public interest” is a perfect bookend to Trump’s beyond-outlandish claim that the FBI raid on Michael Cohen’s home and office was “an attack on our country.”) The Saturday Night Massacre functions simultaneously as a parallel to the firing of Comey—the single worst, most self-destructive decision of Trump’s presidency, and the one that has brought all this shit down upon him—and an ominous augury of what might befall Mr. Mueller, with a similar backfiring effect, one hopes. (Rod Rosenstein, take note: history has its eyes on you.)
Perhaps above all, listening to rank-and-file Republicans dismiss Nixon’s actions as no big deal is a disturbing parallel to today’s chorus from Trump supporters, whose typical MO is first to deny any wrongdoing by their boy, whatever the subject (Russia, taxes, Stormy), and then, when pressed, eventually blurt out Nathan Jessup style: “Even if he did, so what?”
Likewise, the right wing’s central defense during Watergate was, “Everybody does it; Nixon just got caught!”, and its corollary, “We don’t care!” This resort to cyncicism-as-justification is itself eminently cynical, as neither of those things are really true. Everybody does not subvert the Constitution, siphon off campaign money for an illegal slush fund, fire special prosecutors, engage in perjury, wanton deception of the American public, intimidation of the press, abuse of the FBI and CIA as a personal gestapo, dirty tricks, ratfucking, and on and on, and certainly not at the level Nixon did. And Republicans damn sure do care that that stuff happens—and indeed, infinitely less egregious transgressions—when it’s done by Democrats or anyone else. Ask the Clintons.
Hypocrisy, thy name is GOP.
Of course, even mainstream conservatives evenutally turned on Nixon when the sheer magnitude of his crimes became undeniable. I grew up in a garden variety middle class Republican family—an Army family, no less— and we lived just outside Washington when the scandal reached its denouement. I distinctly remember the day— it must have been in late 1973 or early ’74—that my mother shook her head sadly and said, “I’ve tried to believe the President. But now….” and trailed off.
I think her attitude reflected that of many honest conservatives, and foreshadowed a new political reality in America that would be much more jaded—ironically, one that facilitated the exact sort of scuzzy behavior in which Nixon specialized. This then was another tragic legacy that Tricky Dick bequeathed us, paving the way for the deeply Machiavellian, viciously immoral incarnation of the current Republican Party and its mean girl cheerleaders in the right wing media who have exploited that toxic mentality for their own ends….a doubly cruel irony.
MAY I QUIBBLE?
The listener reviews of “Slow Burn” on iTunes are overwhelmingly raves—Citizen Kane would be envious. But the cranky few mostly bitch about the comparisons to Trump, with some complaining that it’s unfair to him, and others that it’s unfair to Nixon. I am reminded of the commonality between opinions and assholes, to say nothing of the latter who have the former.
My one quibble with the otherwise brilliant series comes in Episode 5, “True Bellevers,” which might also be its best. That installment shines in its depiction of the blind loyalty of Nixon’s supporters, both in the GOP leadership and the general public. But for my taste, in the course of that telling, Neyfakh gives too much credence to a man named Mike Madigan, a member of the Rebublican staff of the Senate Watergate Committee (and now a prominent archconservative Washington DC lawyer), who adamantly depicts his side as patriotic Americans dedicated to discovering the truth, and not a bunch of craven partisans trying only to protect the Nixon White House, as others have charged.
Yet this depiction comes hot on the heels of the show’s revelation that the Republican members of the committee were secretly coordinating with the White House, which was leaking to them info, advice, and even actual crib sheets with instructions on how to undermine witnesses like John Dean. (The prototype, quite clearly, for the behavior of Devin Nunes.) Madigan proudly identifies himself as an acolyte of his boss and friend Fred Thompson, the minority counsel for the GOP side of the Senate Watergate committee, and later a Republican US Senator himself and failed presidential candidate in 2008. Thompson personally wrote the crucial piece of evidence that accidentally broke the Watergate case wide open: notes on how to discredit Dean that incorporated direct quotes from conversations captured by the secret White House taping system. It was the mysteriousness of those quotes that caught the attention of a staff stenorgapher, who in turn alerted a Democratic staffer named Scott Armstrong, who in turn asked HR Haldeman’s deputy, retired Air Force Colonel Alexander Butterfield, where the quotes came from.
I understand that Neyfakh may have been letting Madigan to say his piece and allowing the audience to judge for itself, with the previously mentioned damning evidence to the contrary still lingering in its collective mind. But does it linger? Or is it obliterated by what follows, which feels very much like a “Now wait a minute” journalistic trope that purports to show “both sides of the story.” That is very much like the predelection for false equivalencies in contemporary American reportage that has led people to equate Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as somehow equally corrupt—or equally qualified to be president.
To be fair, it was a GOP staffer named Don Sanders—Armstrong’s Republican counterpart in the tag team interview of Colonel Butterfield—who delivered the coup de grace by asking bluntly whether Nixon was secretly taping his conversations. To which Butterfield guilelessly replied—in a moment that would get you thrown out of the Writers Guild if this were a fictional screenplay—“I guess you guys must already know, the President has an automatic taping device in each of his offices.”
Madigan rather snidely disputes Armstrong’s account and is scornful of his role of cracking Butterfield. Neyfakh has him on tape calling Armstrong’s version “horseshit” and objecting to the portrayal of Fred Thompson as anything as honest and forthright, even though we have just learned that Thompson was conspiring with the White House to undermine witnesses against it, to include use of transcripts from the secret tapes.
Madigan’s claim is deeply unconvincing, and betrayed even by the verbiage he uses. In the same breath that he insists on the bipartisan nature of the Senate investigation, he refers to Sanders as “our guy” (meaning a Republican), thereby emphasizing the very tribalism he is denying.
But all you really need to know about Madigan’s credibility—or lack thereof—is that he recently defended Trump’s firing of James Comey and scoffed at the idea of any parallels to Watergate. ‘Nuff said.
It may be unfair to single out for criticism this one moment in a series that ripples with hundreds of countervailing examples of the very best journalism. But it speaks to an important point about the current state of play in America in 2018.
That Don Sanders did what he did speaks to his personal integrity. What it does not do is prove Madigan’s claim of general Republican altruism. The behavior of Madigan’s idols Thompson and Howard Baker (among others) in carrying water for the Nixon White House while maintaining the pretense of impartiality cannot be excused, and these days looks very familiar. The principled behavior of individual Republicans like Sanders flew in the face of the party leadership, not in line with it.
(Meanwhile, history best remembers Fred Thompson as a character actor in films and TV shows like “Law & Order,” where he routinely played the kind of guy he sort of had been, or aspired to be: district attorneys, CIA men, senators, and presidents. Occasionally he was cast as a villain: arguably, a role he played in real life too. In his golden years, as required by law for aging actors, he was a TV pitchman for reverse mortgages, which actually may have been a less despicable exploitation of his fellow senior citizens than being a Republican politician.)
Nil nisi bonum be damned: what we need right now is a lot more Republicans like Don Sanders and a lot fewer like Fred Thomspon.
THIS TAPE WILL SELF-OBSTRUCT
This issue of institutional corruption is a huge one.
During Watergate, the GOP fixated on the irrelevance of the taping system, arguing—with some merit—that previous 20th century presidents had also recorded White House conversations. What they ignored was the much more salient point that it wasn’t the existence of the tapes that was the issue, but what was on them. Nixon sure knew that, and so did Rose Mary Woods.
The tapes ultimately revealed Nixon’s guilt. But when Reagan, Bush, Ford, and others self-righteously defended Nixon in the early and even middle phases of Watergate, insisting that even the mere allegation of his involvement was outrageous, was it criminal perfidy on their parts, or did these men really believe in the president’s innocence?
Either way, they were at least willing to let an investigation go forward, if only in hopes that it would clear Nixon’s name. Despite the aforementioned obstructionism, the Republican Party seemed to understand that the rule of law demanded that much, or at least the pretense of such. Contrast that with today, when much of the modern GOP spends its time citing various flimsy, dishonest, and utterly hypocritical non-reasons for loudly insisting that the Mueller probe be shut down, and doing everything it can to achieve that.
In the end, the accumulated weight of evidence finally forced the Republican leadership to abandon Nixon and present him with an Corleone-like offer he couldn’t refuse: resign before you are impeached and convicted. Nixon wisely took the deal. Clearly, in appointing Gerry Ford to replace the disgraced Spiro “Nolo Contendere” Agnew (another story), he had anticipated this possible contingency and planned for it.
Whether the current GOP leadership will ever reach a similar inflection point, if only for strategic reasons of self-preservation (I’m not holding my breath for a sudden burst of principle) remains to be seen. They may instead go to the mattresses, believing—not without justification, based on recent events—that they can bully, bluster, and bullshit the American people into submission.
Likewise, it remains to be seen if there are any circumstances under which Trump would see the writing on the wall (or be able to read it) and cut his losses. Nixon was, if nothing else, a truly tough sonofabitch, as even his enemies would concede. Trump, by contrast, is simply a monster who can’t be reasoned with, even when it’s in his own best interest, as his own lawyers would attest. That may end up being his epitaph.
As the Butterfield incident showed, it was the Nixon White House’s own clumsy attempts to obstruct the Watergate investigation that led to the president’s eventual downfall. Forget about a smoking gun: with the tapes, the White House handed the Senate committee the loaded gun with which it blew Nixon’s brains out.
OK, I’m mixing metaphors, detective versus assassin wise, but you get the idea.
The comparisons to Team Trump—the gang that couldn’t collude straight—are blatant. From the moment the Very Stable Genius fired James Comey, if not sooner, the wounds this administration has suffered have consistently been self-inflicted, from its hamhanded attempts to squash the investigation into Russiagate, to its relentless denigration of the intelligence and law enforcement communities and a free press, to its vicious attacks on the rule of law and the courts, to its general desperation to cover up….something (stay tuned). The Trump White House is its own worst enemy, which is saying something considering how many other enemies it has.
It was after all, three instances of obstruction of justice that were the first impeachment charges brought against Nixon—triggering his resignation eleven days later— not the inciting crime itself, though let us duly remember that he was implicated in both. That fact ought to be foremost in the minds of Trump and his Kool-Aid besotted followers.
When it comes to Russiagate, the central question still under consideration is the extent, if any, of Trump’s involvement in conspiring with Moscow to defraud the United States—a more precise description than the amorphous “collusion,” and the charge the Mueller team brought against 13 Russian nationals last February, the one to which Paul Gates pled guilty, and the one with which Don Jr. and others may eventually be charged as well.
In other words, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
But even if no such evidence is found, the issue of Trump’s obstruction of that inquiry is impossible to reputably dispute, and may well be the thing that brings him down. Contrary to the popular saying, the coverup isn’t always worse than the crime, especially when the crime is treason, but it’s often the thing that gets you busted.
THE BLOOD ON NIXON’S HANDS
Nixon, an absolutely horrible president and even worse human being (see Hunter Thompson’s obituary of him), was at least a proper villain. Just from a pragmatic point of view, he would blanch at Trump’s cloddishness and stupidity. Paranoid, cripplingly insecure, petty, vindictive, bullying, self-pitying, pathologically dishonest, and contemptuous of democracy and the rule of law (sound like anyone else you know?), Nixon was at least smart, politically savvy, and deeply experienced in public life…not some demented, borderline illiterate game show host and D-list celebrity wannabe untethered to objective reality who’d been born into obscene wealth and never did anything other than try to accumulate more of it. (And fuck porn stars.) On domestic policy Nixon actually oversaw some decent things, such as the institution of wage-and-price controls and the creation of the EPA. Today, some of his policies and positions would get him run out of the GOP as a flaming liberal. (Saint Reagan too, by the by.)
But to me, as a son of a Vietnam veteran and professional soldier in my own right, Nixon’s mysteriously enduring reptuation among hawks as a rockribbed champion of our national defense stands as one of the most stomach-churning swindles in American history.
This is a man who, after building an entire political career on rabid, borderline McCarthyite anti-communism, promised an end to the war in Vietnam during the 1968 presidential campaign. But subsequent research has shown that at the exact same time he was sabotaging the peace process through backchannel messages to the Saigon regime in order to keep the war going and help his prospects at the polls. (It worked.) Once in office, he continued to wage war for five more years, subverting negotiations to end the fighting, extending the war into Cambodia, and carrying out an unconscionable campaign of carpet bombing, among other travesties. We would do well to talk about the number of Vietnamese he slaughtered, but I’ll confine myself to a single emblematic indictment of his actions as they affected the American side:
Of the 58,000 US dead in Vietnam, 41,000 came on Richard Nixon’s watch….well after the national security apparatus had concluded that the war could not be won, as revealed in the Pentagon Papers. When it finally suited Nixon and Kissinger to make peace with Hanoi in 1973, they got the exact same terms LBJ had been offered in 1968.
For that I will never forgive Richard Nixon and neither should anyone else who ever wore the uniform of the United States military, or lives under the flag for which it fights.
That same criminal megalomania is on ample display in “Slow Burn,” and nowhere more so than in the very first episode, which tells the story of Martha Mitchell. In the immediate aftermath of the break-in, the famously outspoken Mrs. Mitchell was held prisoner in a hotel room and drugged to prevent her from talking to the press—on orders from her own husband no less, the attorney general, who eventually went to prison for his role in the scandal. She managed to speak out anyway, for which she was subjected to a campaign of character assassination that would look very familiar to anyone who has watched Team Trump go after its enemies. (The goon whom John Mitchell employed to hold her hostage, a former FBI agent named Steve King, is now Trump’s ambassador to the Czech Republic.)
In that episode of “Slow Burn” there is a clip from the famous 1977 David Frost interviews in which a voluble Richard Nixon muses that if not for Martha Mitchell, Watergate would not have ever come to light, at least not as the presidency-ending scandal it became.
What’s eye-popping about this comment isn’t just Nixon’s incredible arrogance and continued disregard for the enormity of his own crimes, although that is certainly appalling. Only three years removed from his ignominious departure from the White House, there he sat—tan, rested, and ready—blithely talking about the worst political scandal in US history (to that time) as if it were a parking violation. Having barely dodged impeachment and perhaps prison, he was still acting as if he were the one who had been treated unfairly, as if Watergate were not his doing but some natural disaster, or some minor inconvenience rudely foisted on him by a pesky press.
What was really instructive about that remark, however, was what it says about his pardon.
There can be little doubt that a backroom deal was struck with Gerald Ford to pardon Nixon in exchange for the Vice Presidency, and eventually the Presidency itself. (Earlier in “Slow Burn,” Ford figures in the story as a leader in the Republican sabotage of Texas Congressman Wright Patman’s early attempts to “follow the money.”) Ford explained the pardon in terms of sparing the country further pain, which is not a rationale that many criminals have successfully used to dissuade the authorities from prosecuting them. (“Yes, Your Honor, I killed and ate all those door-to-door salesmen, but must the country suffer further by putting me on trial?”)
It was a transparently dishonest explanation. But for every American citizen who was outraged that this miserable bastard got away with his crimes, there was another who agreed that the pardon was “for the good of the country” in avoiding additional trauma and divisiveness,…..or more probably, had internalized those rationalizations out of partisanship. (Ford of course paid the price in November 1976, and rightly so.)
I bring that up with an eye toward the ultimate fate of Donald J. Trump. Assuming he does not annihilate all human life in a global nuclear holocaust, or extinguish the light of American democracy by suspending future elections and staying in power for life (which many Republicans would support), someday Spanky will be out of office. It may be in chains at the hands of Robert Mueller, it may be in a humiliating defeat in 2020, it may be in triumph (gulp) after two terms, or it may be feet first if the Big Macs and Diet Cokes kill him while he’s watching “Hannity” in the Lincoln Bedroom, but one way or another he’s going. And unless it’s that last scenario, his crimes will follow him into his post-presidential life, as will the possibility of prosecution for them.
There is a vague consensus—but not a settled matter of law—that a sitting president cannot be indicted for ordinary crimes, that impeachment is the proper constitutional mechanism for his or her removal, after which he or she may be prosecuted (or not). That assumption has never been challeneged in court, but it soon might be. Unfortunately for us, with a shameless crook like Trump, that incentivizes him to stay in office as long as possible, utilizing the power of the office and executive privilege to help him fight like the cornered rat he is.
But when Trump finally goes, however he goes, surely there will be people who will say, “Let’s put it behind us.” Right wingers will take that position for obvious reasons, like Nixon’s dead enders before them. But many progressives—breathing a sigh of relief—may simply be so glad just to have the Very Stable Genius gone that they will have no stomach for holding him to account in the way that justice demands.
But to listen to Tricky Dick casually speculate to David Frost about what a shame it was that Watergate ever came to light is to feel the full force of the injustice of Nixon’s escape. The man simply had no regret, no compunction, no sense of guilt, no recognition of how lucky he was that he didn’t end up hung by his heels Mussolini-style. (Oh, and three weeks after being pardoned, he sold the rights to his as-yet-unwritten memoirs for $2.5 million dollars. 1974 dollars, I hasten to add.)
Does anyone doubt for a New York second that Donald Trump, in similar circumstances, would be just as blithe and arrogant? Not to get out too far over my skis, as the cliche goes, but contrary to the claim that removal from office would be punishment enough, it’s my humble opinion that our country would be best served if Donald Trump is prosecuted to the full extent of the law for once in his absurdly entitled life. It is no less than he—and we—deserve.
As many have noted, in the end it was the willingness of Nixon’s own party to hold him accountable for his crimes that sealed his fate. Thus far, we have seem absolutely no sign of a similar integrity on the part of the contemporary GOP—very much the contrary, in fact. And that, more than anything else, appears to be the most relevant difference between the Nixon and Trump eras, and the one that is most worrying. It is unnerving to think that we might one day look back on Watergate as the more minor scandal, when some semblance of non-partisan principle and integrity carried the day—the Great War overshadowed by World War II—compared with what followed.
As I was fond of writing at the end of my lazily composed undergraduate term papers, only time will tell.