From Nixon to Trump: The decline of the common good in American politics
America’s failure to hold Richard Nixon accountable for his attacks on democracy when he was president undermined the common good and paved the way for Donald Trump to mount even worse attacks.
The scandal that came to be known as “Watergate” and led to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency was a shock to the American political system. Afterward (analogous to putting locks on the doors after a town’s first robbery), Congress enacted many reforms, but all were eventually watered down or found by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional.
The Watergate scandal began the modern era of “whatever-it-takes-to-win” politics — blatant disregard of any and all norms and laws that interfered with gaining or keeping power. Trump is the logical and inevitable consequence.
In 1974, in his last remarks about Watergate as a senator, 77-year-old Sam Ervin —who as chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee became widely revered for his fairness and deep respect for the Constitution — explained that President Nixon and his aides had “a lust for political power” that “blinded them to ethical considerations and legal requirements; to Aristotle’s aphorism that the good of man must be the end of politics.”
What was particularly chilling about Nixon’s behavior was his disdain for the common good and total obsession with himself.
On the tapes of his White House meetings, Nixon can be heard to talk incessantly about himself — his needs, his place in history, and his animosities — but he never once mentions the nation’s needs. For Richard M. Nixon, there was no common good. Only Richard Nixon.
In 1970, Nixon authorized break-ins or “black bag jobs” of people considered domestic security threats. An early goal was to destroy the reputation of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked to the news media the Pentagon Papers, showing that the Johnson administration had lied to the American people about the Vietnam War.
Nixon’s burglars broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, seeking information that might smear Ellsberg and undermine his credibility in the antiwar movement. “You can’t drop it, Bob,” Nixon told his assistant H. R. Haldeman in June 1971, referring to Ellsberg. “You can’t let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it. You understand?”
In early 1972, Nixon launched a plan for spying on and sabotaging Democrats in the upcoming presidential campaign, including wiretaps and burglaries.
His henchmen paid the chauffeur of Senator Ed Muskie, whom Nixon considered his most likely Democratic opponent, to photograph Muskie’s internal memos and strategy documents.
They paid others to dig up dirt on the sex life of Senator Ted Kennedy, a potential opponent in 1976. “I’d really like to get Kennedy taped,” Nixon told Haldeman. They inserted a retired Secret Service agent into the team protecting Kennedy who, Haldeman assured Nixon, would “do anything that I tell him.” Nixon replied, “We just might get lucky and catch this son of a bitch and ruin him for ’76,” adding, “That’s going to be fun.”
Nixon ordered another assistant, John Ehrlichman, to direct the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the tax returns of all likely Democratic presidential candidates, including Kennedy. “Are we going after their tax returns?” Nixon asked. “You know what I mean? There’s a lot of gold in them thar hills.”
In the early morning of June 17, 1972, a team of burglars wearing business suits and rubber gloves broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office building in Washington. The burglars were discovered and arrested, and the FBI immediately began an investigation.
Six days later, Attorney General John Mitchell proposed to Nixon that he order the CIA to claim national security secrets would be compromised if the FBI didn’t halt its investigation. Nixon agreed. “Play it tough,” he directed. “That’s the way they play it, and that’s the way we are going to play it.”
Six weeks after the burglars’ arrest, Nixon and Haldeman discussed paying them off to keep them from talking to federal investigators. “They have to be paid,” Nixon said. “That’s all there is to that.”
On March 21, 1973, Nixon counsel John W. Dean reported that the burglars were still demanding money. Nixon asked “How much money do you need?” Dean estimated a million dollars over the following two years. Nixon responded “you could get it in cash, and I know where it could be gotten.” They discussed using a secret stash hidden in the White House, laundering the money though bookmakers, and empaneling a grand jury so the burglars could plead the Fifth Amendment or claim memory failure. Nixon praised Dean’s efforts. “You handled it just right. You contained it. Now after the election, we’ve got to have another plan.”
Four days after the tapes revealing much of this malfeasance were released, on August 9, 1974, Nixon was forced to resign.
I RELATE THESE DETAILS to remind you just how far Nixon went in violating norms and laws in order to retain power. Even though his actions led to his resignation and to some reforms, Americans’ trust in politics was deeply shaken.
Nixon was never held legally accountable.
Even before President Nixon’s resignation, speculation had swirled around a possible deal between Ford and Nixon in which Nixon’s resignation would be conditioned on Ford’s agreement to pardon him. Ford strongly denied that there was any such “deal.”
On September 8, 1974, the new president, Gerald Ford, issued a full pardon to Nixon for any offenses he “has committed or may have committed.”
I have searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family. Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must…..
After years of bitter controversy and divisive national debate, I have been advised, and I am compelled to conclude that many months and perhaps more years will have to pass before Richard Nixon could obtain a fair trial by jury in any jurisdiction of the United States under governing decisions of the Supreme Court.
I deeply believe in equal justice for all Americans, whatever their station or former station. The law, whether human or divine, is no respecter of persons; but the law is a respecter of reality. The facts, as I see them, are that a former President of the United States, instead of enjoying equal treatment with any other citizen accused of violating the law, would be cruelly and excessively penalized either in preserving the presumption of his innocence or in obtaining a speedy determination of his guilt in order to repay a legal debt to society.
During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And our people would again be polarized in their opinions. And the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad. In the end, the courts might well hold that Richard Nixon had been denied due process, and the verdict of history would even more be inconclusive with respect to those charges arising out of the period of his Presidency, of which I am presently aware.
But it is not the ultimate fate of Richard Nixon that most concerns me, though surely it deeply troubles every decent and every compassionate person. My concern is the immediate future of this great country….
[At this point, President Ford began reading from the proclamation granting the pardon.]
"Now, therefore, I, Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from July (January) 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974."
BUT THE PARDON DID NOT END THE CONTROVERSY. Nixon continued to insist he had not participated in any crimes. In a 1977 television interview with British journalist David Frost, Nixon conceded he had “let the American people down” but refused to admit to any illegality. “I didn’t think of it as a coverup. I didn’t intend a coverup. Let me say, if I intended the coverup, believe me, I would have done it.”
Nixon added, in words that Trump echoed decades later: “If the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
To many Americans, the fact that Nixon was not held accountable felt like another assault on the common good.
Once norms and laws are broken without consequence, such actions invite further norm breaking and lawbreaking. Nixon’s willingness to do anything to retain power presaged Trump’s willingness to do anything to retain power.
The shameful episode suggests that, if Trump is found guilty of seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election, it would be a profound mistake for Biden (or any future president) to pardon Trump on grounds that such a step would help the nation heal. It will not. The wound will fester and invite even worse abuses in the future.THE LINE FROM NIXON TO TRUMP passed through Newt Gingrich. When Gingrich took over the House at the start of 1995, he brought “whatever-it-takes-to-win” politics to Congress.
I was secretary of labor then, and I remember the sharp change in barometric pressure when Gingrich took the helm — as if a hurricane had blown in, and the norms and values that had anchored much of Congress before then were eviscerated.
When I had previously testified on the Hill, I had come in for tough questioning from Republican senators and representatives, which was their job. But after January 1995, I was verbally assaulted. Almost overnight, the Labor Department was deluged with demands from new Republican House chairmen for documents and information — fishing expeditions intended to find any small error or omission that might be used to catch me and then fry me.
Washington was transformed from a place where legislators sought common ground into a war zone. Compromise was replaced by brinkmanship, bargaining by obstruction, normal legislative maneuvering by threats to close down government—which occurred at the end of 1995 (a prelude to another shutdown in 2011 over raising the debt ceiling). Two years later, Gingrich and his stop-at-nothing colleagues voted to impeach Bill Clinton.
According to Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, two respected and nonpartisan political observers, “The forces Mr. Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines.”
Donald Trump would take bitter conflict and political polarization to a new level.EVEN BEFORE HE TRIED TO OVERTURN the results of the 2020 election, Trump used Nixonian tactics — lying to the public, seeking to punish his enemies with tax audits and prosecutorial probes, and obstructing justice. He also encouraged bigotry as a political weapon — urging travel bans on Muslims, enforcement raids on Latino communities, photo IDs to vote, a wall along the Mexican border, the purging of voter registration lists, and bans on transgender personnel in the military.
Like Nixon, Trump was interested only in advancing his own personal agenda at the expense of the common good.
Meanwhile, over the last five decades, the Republican Party has lost any relationship to the common good. Increasingly, its goal has been to gain and keep power at whatever cost, even at the expense of the public’s trust in the major institutions of our democracy.
A growing debate within the Democratic Party during these decades (one in which I have repeatedly participated) has been how to compete with an unprincipled Republican Party without similarly undermining the common good — how to fight against politicians who no longer care about democracy with tactics that don’t themselves harm democracy?
That debate continues.The decline of Americans’ trust in our government over the past five decades has been one of the nation’s most profound losses.
As you can see from the chart below, in 1964, a remarkable 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do what’s right just about always or most of the time. Then came a precipitous decline, beginning with the Vietnam War and Watergate.
By 1979, only 27 percent of Americans trusted their government. Trust picked up a bit under Reagan (to 44 percent), dropped under George H.W. Bush (to 19 percent), rose sharply with Bill Clinton (to 54 percent), and has steadily dropped since then, never reaching above 20 percent.
It’s too early to know the effects on public trust of Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen, the attack on the Capitol, and Trump’s denunciations of prosecutors and judges connected with his subsequent indictments.
But without trust, how can our democracy function?
A similar decline has occurred in trust toward the private sector — toward big corporations and the American economic system in general. Why, and who’s responsible? I’ll tackle this next week. Thanks again for joining me.
These weekly essays are based on chapters from my book THE COMMON GOOD, in which I apply the framework of the book to recent events and to the upcoming election. (Should you wish to read the book, here’s a link).