Saturday, May 9, 2009

After Nixon, Bush was Inevitable

I watched Frost/Nixon on DVD last night. It's a great movie and I recommend it if you haven't seen it.

I don't remember watching the interviews but I remember the Watergate hearings. More for the fact that they disrupted my summer TV viewing schedule than anything else. (I was 9) They monopolized the airwaves and the entire fiasco was inescapable.

There is a moment in the film when Frost finally pushes Nixon into the closest thing to a confession that we ever got and it struck me as prescient:

"I let them down. I let down my friends, I let down my country, and worst of all I let down our system of government, and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now they think; 'Oh it's all too corrupt and the rest'. Yeah... I let the American people down. And I'm gonna have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life."

That highlighted section there, that's a perfect summation for my personal belief in politics for most of my life.  Politicians were not to be trusted.  If absolute power corrupts absolutely then almost by definition whoever is President is corrupt.  What it takes to get to the White House, the decisions that have to be made once you're there, the incredible position of prerogative and privilege  that you have as President would tempt and suborn even the most resolute person. And it wasn't just the President, lower offices held the potential to similarly contaminate to a lesser degree. In essence my understanding of political power was irretrievably tied up with the pursuit of personal power.

To be certain, there are those kinds of politicians out there in offices both large and small.  Men and women who enter politics in search of power and privilege. They're the ones we hear about all the time in the news.  Those who serve in quiet dignity receive no adoration, no recognition and no press.  It's no wonder that its so easy to believe that all politicians are corrupt.

I would posit that Nixon and his revelations of corruption and unscrupulous government tainted the following decades in ways that are subtle in their mechanics but profound in their result and ultimately culminated in the election of George Bush as 43rd President.  

After Nixon, our next president was chosen as much for how different he was than Nixon than anything else.  (Ford was just a placeholder in history, deserved or not) Carter was Southern, genteel, soft spoken and a Washington outsider.  He stood in stark contrast to Nixon's arrogance and abrasive manner. Yet Carter was and is deceptive.  Not in a venal way but because his southern gentleman demeanor hides his intelligence.  The press, drunk on their own power after Watergate, looked for any excuse to expose Carter as incompetent.  The comics made endless fun of his grin and family and any number of things that really made up his essential southern-ness. I think that history has so far been unfair to Jimmy Carter.  He may not have been a great president but he was what we needed. He was someone that, through his background, seemed incorruptible.  

All this set the stage for Ronald Reagan.  After the Iran Hostage crisis, Carter really had no chance at reelection. Reagan's confident manner trumped Carter's more serious one and, after portraying Carter's presidency as ineffectual, he won decisively.  I won't say much about Ronnie Ray-gun. He is not my favorite President.  By the time he was elected, memories of Watergate were beginning to fade. So much so that by the time the Iran-Contra scandal broke, the American people had internalized the idea that politics and politicians were corrupt and were thus something we had to live with.  We had our scapegoat in Oliver North and moved on.  After all, with John Hinckley's failed attempt on his life and an astonishing 1984 reelection result, Ronnie seemed unstoppable and impervious. 

Bush Senior hoped to carry on the Reagan tradition but lacked his force of personality.  {Make no mistake, Reagan had a cult of personality thing going for him.}  Bush managed to cash in long enough to get elected after running one of the dirtiest campaigns in history, at least until McCain came along.  He reaped the rewards of Reagan's  policies until the economy did him in.

Next came Clinton and I must say that he has some striking superficial similarities to Nixon. Besides the obvious impeachment, which was a bogus Republican smear- I mean who doesn't lie when caught in an adulterous affair?- his obvious political ambition struck a little too close to the Nixon mold. Though in all fairness, so much of what seemed tainted with Clinton was due to partisan politics.  

And then we get Junior and I believe we came full circle back to Nixon.  From the belief that if the President does it, it isn't illegal to dirty political dealings and maneuverings to torture, Bush was every bit the crook that Nixon was.  

His election and of the Presidents before him came about in no small part because a generation of Americans were weaned on the Watergate scandals and abdicated their participation in government. It seemed that for most everyday Americans, national politics were something that were impossible to affect.  It took Bush's return to Nixon era arrogance and venality to wake up those Americans of my generation. We were blessed with a candidate of quality in Barack Obama and, together with our children, decided to take back the reins of government.

With the advent of Internet politics, everyday Americans could finally have a voice. We were disgusted and tired of the unethical nature of everything that Bush touched. It's like we woke up to the fact that we were responsible in part for electing the idiot to start with and were determined to correct the error.

In essence, I believe that without Nixon and his Watergate, Bush would never had made it into the Oval Office.  What we need to learn from this is the fact that our collective memories are short and easily manipulated.  We must never forget the damage that was done by both these men and be ever vigilant to the return of complacency.


Sidhe said...

This was an excellent post True Blue. I saw Frost/Nixon in March and was struck by the idea that it's not illegal if the president does it. I am inclined to believe that you are entirely right on about this chain that resulted in the election of GWBush and subsequent bamboozling of the American public. It's a vital warning that we not be lulled into complacency, even the kindest kings may be poisoned by power.

skyewriter said...

I loved your analysis here, True Blue. I wonder if part of the problem, too, is that Americans expected too much from our leaders (not saying we shouldn't) and not more from ourselves? After all, as you write here, the biggest part of a participatory Democracy is participation.

Altho' I was six when Carter became president, I can recall my parents grunting every time he was on TV. I also recall knowing at that age that he was a peanut farmer, had a brother named Billy, and was always parodied as a yokel, just from the three networks in operation in the 70s (all via antenna).

How many people know he was a nuclear engineer? Or even today, how much attention is paid to his successes in foreign policy?

In terms of Nixon; one president got off scott-free (and even pardoned). What kind of precedent did that set for our future presidents? If we don't hold Bush and company accountable for their actions, we will never be able to blame our government for what's wrong with our country. We will all be accomplices (even if only implicitly) in the breaking of international laws and the trampling of our Constitution.

Sorry to rant. And I was in such a fine mood after seeing Star Trek yesterday...

Pseudonymous High School Teacher said...

This is one of my favorite posts - ever. Interesting and thoughtful discussion True Blue.

Grandpa Eddie said...

With the pardoning of Nixon a precedent was set and the floodgates were opened to all other presidents to do what ever they wanted because they knew they could get away with it. Reagan did it, and so did Bush II.(I have wondered if things would be have turned out different if Hinckley had been a better shot.)