by iampunha | 8/08/2008 08:00:00 AM
Goodbye to you
Goodbye to everything I thought I knew
You were the one I loved
The one thing that I tried to hold on to

-"Goodbye To You," Michelle Branch

The judicial process is such that by all rights, the testimony of Karl Rove, Josh Bolten, Harriet Myers, Alberto Gonzales and Monica Goodling, combined with the tell-nothing-new book by Scott McClellan, should have led to the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

But where today's dishonoree faltered, the Bush White House has succeeded with flying colors.

See, one of the things about a loyal Bushie is that s/he is loyal to her or his president, not country. By refusing to testify, Rove et al. are very clearly saying that they value the president over the country.

On this date 34 years ago, thanks to a tremendously paranoid president, loyal Americans such as John Dean, members of Congress who were not backing down and a news media able to focus on something more significant than Paris Hilton's jail time, President Richard M. Nixon announced his resignation effective at noon the next day.

I sometimes wonder if perhaps Nixon's resignation provided the roadmap to Republicans for how to get away with much more and have to fight people much less to do it.

The more I saw Bush filling his administration with "a friend of the president from his days as governor of Texas" or "a former campaign aide" or simply "a loyal Bushie," the more I began to suspect that Bush has put people around him who, more than not wanting to see the president have to account for his actions, personally do not want to see Bush have to account for his actions.

This is one area in which Nixon failed. Oh, sure, his circle had a number of people who answered to him and only cared about the American people to the extent that we didn't make life more difficult for them. But we had W. Mark Felt, newsmedia interested in pursuing this story, and among other people, John Dean, who saw through Nixon then as he sees through Bush now.

I am no Nixon scholar, but tell me people who admired Nixon didn't take the Watergate hearings as an example of what a president should never do — in terms of not being entirely nepotistic.

We will probably spend the next four years discovering new and exciting ways in which Bush administration officials did what nobody else had done. If this is what we're finding out now, after eight years, how much more are we going to discover once competent people loyal to America are in jobs previously held by unqualified Bush hacks who didn't know if they were breaking the law (and presumably were encouraged to not ask)?

We are still discovering methods the Bush administration discussed as viable precursors for war. And we should perhaps count ourselves lucky that Iraq has taken so much longer than the Bush administration wanted to think it would:

Seven countries.

Oh, and of those countries, two not on the list: Pakistan and Afghanistan. (And our commitment to places Osama bin Laden might be, versus places he most certainly has no interest in being, will forever be a shameful hallmark of the extent to which Bush administration officials are beholden to him personally and not to the thousands of Americans killed, wounded or still serving in Iraq.)

We are today resigned to the fact that the Bush administration cares about Bush, not the administration, enforcement and introduction of laws and policies that benefit you, me or any other average American.

A generation of high school students is growing up learning that government does not answer to the people no matter what those people say. Civics lessons are lessons in theory, not practice. And while that has always been the case, it is even more so today, when it is factually correct to say that a sub poena means you should show up in court, not that you must, and that there is no necessary punishment for defying a sub poena.

And some of that generation of high school students is learning, because nobody is telling them how outrageous it is, that it is acceptable to hire people because they are your friends, not because they are good at their jobs. Some of them won't think anything of that. And the next time a Republican is in the White House (which I think will be 2016), putting incompetent people in positions of significant oversight or power will not seem like such a big deal to them. They will trot out the typical Republican line, "The best government is no government" — omitting the troublesome fact that their tax dollars are paying for that "no government."

See, I don't worry about the people who recognize the farcical nature of this administration, where lobbyists get jobs doing oversight they have a vested interest in screwing up. I don't even worry that most people won't realize, despite the news media's relative ignoring of this situation (Keith Olbermann notwithstanding, but there's only so much hard news you can cover in an hour), that the Bush administration makes Teapot Dome look fairly tame.

I worry instead about those who are influenced heavily by the dead-enders, by the people who think Bush is doing a good job, that giving your friends jobs is honorable (which it is, when they do their jobs), that shooting first and asking questions later requires only retroactive legislative immunity, and that ignoring sub poenas is a matter of moxie, not morals.

These people vote. They enter the work force. Some of them will run small businesses. They will even run for office.

And they will have learned the lesson Nixon Republicans learned from the failure of the Nixon White House: If you're having a "Let's break the law!" party, you invite only people you can control.

Government shouldn't be in the business of perfecting organized crime.



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Anonymous Scott on 8/08/2008 9:08 AM:

I've seen that video by Wesley Clark a few times. I have a hard time giving his statement credibility.

Clark stated back in 2004 when asked about voting for the Iraq war, one of his responses was "At the time, I probably would have voted for it, but I think that's too simple a question." Granted, he went back and forth on this topic several times until his presidential bid ended, but why would he even consider voting for the war knowing what he claims he knew back in 2001?

I'm not calling him a liar, but the whole thing just doesn't add up.


Anonymous Anonymous on 8/09/2008 8:14 PM:

I was a Nixon Republican. As a senior in high school, I worked on Nixon’s1968 campaign for President and attended by invitation the Inaugural youth ball in 1969. At the age of 21, I cast my first vote for President for Richard Nixon in 1972. From 1976 until 1990, I was an employee of the U.S. National Archives. It was my job to listen to the Nixon White House tapes to see what portions required restriction and what portions could be opened to the public. I was a Republican until about 1989. I’ve been an independent for the last couple of decades.

With that introduction, I’d like to offer some comments on Nixon’s downfall. But before I do that, here are some observations on government positions. There are several types. Some are Senate confirmed Presidential appointments, some are political appointments and some are civil service appointments. (I’ve been working for the past 35 years in the latter category.) Many of the people who surround the President in the Executive Office of the President in the White House serve in positions where they can be fired at will. (Such positions often are referred to as serving at the pleasure of the President.)

I’ll focus here just on Nixon’s immediate staff in the White House. Presidents often bring with them into the White House long time associates. Richard Nixon did this with people such as H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman, Herbert G. Klein, and others. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton all did this as well. To bring longtime associates into the White House is not a characteristic of one party alone. Remember Hamilton Jordan? Remember how his longtime friend “Mack” McLarty served as Clinton’s first chief of staff?

To surround oneself with longtime associates can work well or not. Much more depends on the character and abilities of the people than on the political party involved. So I don’t look at such matters through a partisan lens. Friends can serve a President ill or well.

Sometimes, it helps to know the chief executive very, very well. Although they were not friends in a personal sense, H. R. Haldeman was close to Nixon professionally. He knew Nixon well enough to know that he sometimes had outbursts of anger when he issued orders that it might not be best to carry out. Were these real action items or was Nixon just venting? Haldeman, whom I met in the late 1980s, was highly intelligent and knew how to read Nixon. He wrote about one of Nixon’s characteristics in one of his books. At times, the President snapped that he wanted something done and Haldeman deliberately took a path of passive resistance. He wouldn’t carry out the order. Nixon would ask a few days later, “have you done it yet?” Bob would answer, “no, not yet.” Nixon would ask again a few days later and get a negative response. Finally, Nixon might signal indirectly that on reflection, he didn’t actually want follow through. On hearing yet one more negative report from Bob, he actually might wave his hand and say, “Just as well.”

That’s a risky way to operate but Nixon had a tendency to vent. Another person might jump in and do the assignment right away. Bob knew better. And he was willing to take the heat from Nixon, bearing his wrath until the President himself came to realize the course of action was not a good idea.

If you look at the way Haldeman set up paper flow in the White House through the Staff Secretariat, you can see that Bob actually tried to act as an honest broker. Nixon preferred to work off of decision memos and these usually presented in depth background on issues and several options for him to consider. Briefing papers and talking points actually worked quite well in the Nixon White House. Early in his term, Nixon even included people such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan on his staff.

There was more of a tendency to circle the wagons later in his term, but again, Democratic Presidents have done this as well as Republican Presidents. That's not to excuse it. Nixon clearly let down former Nixon Republicans such as me who once placed our trust in him. I for one had expected better of him.

As Bob Haldeman pointed out, he (and he believes Nixon also) initially looked at Watergate simply as a PR problem. After he was sentenced in the Watergate case, Haldeman clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what really went wrong and why. I found Bob quite courageous in his willingness to do that in his later years. In an oral history interview he did with us at the National Archives in the late 1980s, Haldeman talked about the impact of having so many young men (in those days, staffers mostly were still men) on the White House staff. Haldeman acknowledged that some of the men he and other senior staff hired lacked perspective, life experience and the ability to say no. One of those young men, Egil “Bud” Krogh explained in a 2007 book why such an environment led him to prison for his role in the break in into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. His book is called Integrity and is well worth reading if you want to see how the Nixon White House appeared to one young Nixon Republican who came to regret what he did. Bud Krogh has a self named website where he discusses some of the lessons he learned the hard way while working in Nixon's White House. He didn’t come to the conclusions you cite in your essay. They probably are not what most observers would have expected of him when they read in the 1970s that he had been sentenced to prison for his activities with the so-called Plumbers unit in the AWhite House. Sometimes things are more complicated than they seem on the surface.

Curiously, few academics have looked at how a White House operates in terms staffing, management and paper flow. And most importantly of all, the fact that most of the people around a President can be fired at will. They have zero job protection. I sometimes wonder how some armchair analysts would do, if placed in a situation where they have to nudge a power player off a course that clearly is wrong. It can be very difficult.

Unfortunately, a President’s greatest strength – his vested power – can be his greatest weakness. From studying Nixon I believe it is easy to lose perspective, to lose one's sense of self, to conflate personal political goals with governmental ones. A President has to fight those tendencies. Ultimately, it is up to the man at the top to reward, not shoot, the messenger. Nixon needed more people around him capable of telling him “no, that’s not a good idea.” Sometimes, there was no such person there. When an angry Nixon reacted to release of what he viewed as damaging employment figures by saying he wanted Fred Malek to determine how many Jews worked in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, no one pushed back and said, “no, we can’t do that with civil servants, it’s wrong.”

Friendship doesn’t necessarily make pushback impossible. Sometimes, we are willing to listen to criticism from friends that we would find difficult to take from those whom we don't like and respect. We all have friends who are willing to be candid with us and others who tend to butter us up or look the other way when we stumble. Our friends act in various ways because they define differently how they serve us best as friends.

If you read James Rosen’s new biography of John Mitchell, titled The Strong Man, you can see that there were cases where Attorney General Mitchell stood up to Nixon despite their long association. Rosen makes a good case that there were areas where Mitchell was a moderating force. Mitchell had the influence to do that precisely because Nixon knew, respected, and trusted him from their long association. Now, if only Mitchell had shut down Gemstone all the way, he really would have done Nixon and the nation a big favor!

Nixon was a smart man, very well read. (In a presentation at UVA, David Gergen once said he thought Nixon would have made a good history professor.) I myself tend to think that had he won in 1960, he might have had two successful terms as President. Some observers believe the U.S. would not have ended up in the Vietnam situation had Nixon won in 1960. Nixon understood the world in macro and micro terms and he was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. So perhaps that might have been the case. We’ll never know. He wouldn’t have carried the baggage in 1961 that LBJ later did and which he himself had gathered by 1969. Some of Nixon's baggage proved to be his undoing. As he himself finally admitted, "I gave my enemies a sword."

Maarja Krusten
Historian and former National Archives' Nixon tapes archivist


Anonymous Anonymous on 8/09/2008 8:50 PM:

Thanks, Maarja Krusten.

I was hoping you might comment on the
conclusion of many people that Nixon
was the victim of a "Silent Coup".

In my view, John Dean was as much responsible for the events aka Watergate as anyone then alive.

Bob Woodward runs a close second.


Anonymous Anonymous on 8/10/2008 9:43 AM:

In response to the anonymous commenter at 8:50 p.m. on August 9, 2008:

The blog essay contained the sentence “And they will have learned the lesson Nixon Republicans learned from the failure of the Nixon White House: If you're having a ‘Let's break the law!’ party, you invite only people you can control.” My response focused on what some Nixon Republicans – not a monolithic group by any means – learned from their experiences.

I wanted to point out that there are several types of federal employees. Those in policy making positions are named by the President. The vast majority of government employees at the federal departments and agencies are ordinary civil servants, who by law have some job protections. Policy makers and senior staff at the White House do not. Many Presidents have brought in longtime associates into such positions. I noted for example that Bill Clinton brought in a longtime friend, Mack McLarty, although he later replaced him as chief of staff with Leon Panetta.

The senior staff who surround a President are vulnerable to being fired at will. This can create conditions which adversely affect decision making, from sycophancy to groupthink to the inability to say no when pushback is needed. Bud Krogh demonstrates effectively in his book the dangers of insularity. It is up to a President to recognize the risks in such an environment and to deal wisely with advisors and not to abuse his power. Some Presidents have handled this better than others but none has been handled it perfectly. Presidents are merely human, after all. They all struggle with various challenges.

The abuse of governmental tape segments that the National Archives has released from Nixon’s tapes reflect what can go wrong when there is a sense of “do to others as you believe they have done unto you.” Nixon believed he was operating much as some of his predecessors had. While Nixon did not give explicit orders for all the Watergate abuses, he did set the tone at the top. He was smart and capable and might have been a good President, had he set a different tone and defined differently what it meant to serve the President well.

Perplexing questions surround the Watergate break-in itself. If the objective was to gather information on what the opposition was doing, the DNC would not seem to be an obvious target. Whether the questions surrounding Watergate ever can be resolved definitively, I do not know.

As to the theories you mention, I don’t comment on the various conclusions researchers may reach in studying Watergate. I’m aware of and follow with interest the various theories put forth but I don’t choose among them. Nor do I take sides among the Nixon historians.

Maarja Krusten


Anonymous Anonymous on 8/10/2008 12:44 PM:

People often refer to Nixon as paranoid. You can find an insightful take on one aspect of this complicated issue in an April 2002 Atlantic article, “Nixon and the Chiefs,” if you Google the words rosen atlantic monthly radford moorer nixon mitchell