The day we adopted a low bar for presidential behavior

You’ve probably heard that today is the 40th anniversary of the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States, a day that now is typically marked by younger people revealing the massive failure of American history teachers.

“I just find it irritating that Nixon is lambasted for what he did, not saying it isn’t well deserved, but there is no overwhelming call for our current president to do the same and he may have actually done worse things than Nixon,” one apparent youngster posted in a Facebook discussion on the subject yesterday.

For many Baby Boomers, Watergate (a scandal that, it should be noted, might not have advanced had a Minnesota man not answered a question truthfully) was our own moment when we realized that we’d been indoctrinated to believe that presidents are infallible, their words and deeds the work of deity. We’d been duped. Crooks can become presidents and the Constitution can — and is — easily subverted by those sworn to uphold it.

“In the current era of partisan gamesmanship and governmental gridlock, it’s understandably difficult to comprehend what a genuine constitutional crisis feels like,” David Hawkings writes on his Roll Call blog.

The desire to prevent a repeat of the Nixon drama helped prompt Democrats, just 12 years later, to quickly quash calls for President Ronald Reagan’s impeachment, despite solid evidence he violated the law and misled Congress in the Iran-Contra affair.

Similar sentiment fueled the Senate’s never-in-doubt, bipartisan 1999 acquittal of President Bill Clinton on the House GOP’s charges that he should lose his job for lying to a grand jury and otherwise trying to cover up his affair with West Wing intern Monica Lewinsky.

A decade later, Democrats made clear they had no interest in spending the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency prosecuting him for launching the Iraq War under suspect pretenses.

In that context, this summer’s casual talk sounds astonishing.

Both sides are equally aware that President Barack Obama is not going to be impeached during the 113th Congress. There are not anywhere close to enough votes.

Unsurprisingly, not one of his fellow Democrats has given a whiff of credence to the notion that the president has committed any “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the vague phrase in the Constitution that assures the standard for removal from office is inherently political, not legal.

Nixon ushered in the era of low expectations for future presidents, having created, as Elizabeth Drew wrote this week on Vox, an “environment where criminality was acceptable.”

CRP, Nixon’s campaign committee, illegally attempted to interfere in the 1972 Democratic primaries in a variety of ways. “They made it their goal to get any stronger candidates eliminated,” Drew tells me.

“I’m not saying they achieved [George] McGovern’s nomination but that was their goal.” CRP operative Donald Segretti was involved in many of the worst of these efforts, including fabricating multiple documents with stationary from Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, the 1968 vice presidential nominee and a strong contender for the presidency that year.

One accused Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, also a 1972 contestant, of having an illegitimate child with a teenager and also having been arrested for homosexuality. Another slurred French-Canadians as “canucks,” then a potent racial epithet; that damaged Muskie’s standing in the New Hampshire primary and contributed to his eventual defeat.

And there was more that simply never got unearthed. There’s tape of Colson bragging about blackmail efforts where even Nixon sounds surprised — but on the tape, Colson swears he’ll take those secrets to his grave, and he seems to have kept his word. Reviewing John Dean’s new book “The Nixon Defense”, Bob Woodward writes, “the full story of the Nixon administration’s secret operations may forever remain buried along with their now-deceased perpetrators.”

In all probability, there’ll never be another political story quite like Watergate, because Watergate made it possible for us to shrug at future scandal and criminality and say, “so?”.

  • Jack Boardman

    It’s the 115th Congress, at least potentially, gives me cause to pause.