One of the benefits of age is perspective, a sense of what matters most over time. With that perspective, I suggest that we have seen worse then Donald Trump, and that the republic will survive.
This is not to underestimate the horror that is the Trump presidency.
On top of denying climate change and removing environmental protections — on top of all the lying, the overt racism and the demeaning schoolyard taunts on Twitter — on top of all that, we have the train wreck that was the Trump campaign and subsequent coverup. We already know this:
- Trump conspired with Michael Cohen and the National Enquirer to break federal election laws.
- He called on the Russians to hack and publicly release Hillary Clinton’s emails.
- His top campaign officials met with Russians in Trump Tower to get dirt on Clinton during the campaign.
- Standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump told the world he believed Putin, instead of America’s own intelligence agencies, that Russia did not try to influence the 2016 election.
- Trump has steadily obstructed justice, in part by firing FBI Director James Comey and later handing oversight of Robert Mueller’s investigations to a political lackey. He has repeatedly attempted to influence witnesses via Twitter and by dangling pardons for people who may implicate him in other crimes.
Little wonder, then, that millions of Americans have concluded this presidency is a train wreck. We seemed poised for much worse to come.
But the historical reality is this: America has already survived and indeed prospered since the worst and most immoral president we’ve ever seen. Because Nixon was worse than Trump.
Why? Two words: Watergate and Vietnam.
Sure, give Richard Nixon credit for going to China and for backing some policies that today are identified as being enlightened. But since he resigned in disgrace, we’ve forgotten how bad his presidency truly was.
We tend to equate Nixon with Watergate, the building that was the scene of a bungled break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The burglars’ legal expenses and aborted cover-up were paid by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (appropriately known as “CREEP”).
But there was much more than just the break-in among the crimes that sent 48 Nixon associates to prison. As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote, “Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.”
Nixon’s henchman raided the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist when Ellsberg was indicted for exposing the embarrassing Pentagon Papers. “You can’t let the Jews steal that stuff and get away with it,” the president told his chief of staff. (Ellsberg was exonerated and a judge threw out the case against him once the break-in was revealed.)
The White House tapes show Nixon ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution to learn more about ex-President Johnson’s Vietnam policy. Nixon actively supported efforts to infiltrate the anti-war movement with informers, and he campaigned for crackdowns on the growing protests. (Among the strong-arm tactics were the illegal arrests in 1971 of myself and other demonstrators in front of the White House, one of many efforts to curb dissent and punish those of us in the peace movement.).
Nixon saw the media as abetting efforts to end the war. Yes, Trump has called the media “the enemy of the people.” But Nixon & Co. actually acted on that sentiment.
Henry Kissinger, the national security adviser, ordered illegal wiretaps on 17 journalists and White House staffers who were suspected of leaking to the press. Nixon is heard on a 1971 tape saying, “In the short run, it would be so much easier, wouldn’t it, to run this war in a dictatorial way, kill all the reporters and carry on the war.”
It may one day be proved that Trump or his associates illegally conspired with Russians to undermine the Clinton campaign. We don’t yet know.
But we do know that Nixon and his campaign conspired against not just one but several Democratic candidates as part of his 1972 re-election campaign.
CREEP actively undermined Maine Sen. Ed Muskie, even putting Muskie’s chauffeur on the payroll as a spy. Over 50 operatives were paid to get dirt on Democratic candidates using campaign money, illegal slush funds and money laundering. Nixon pushed for IRS investigations of his potential opponents. He urged his deputies to learn more about Sen. Ted Kennedy’s sex life and get compromising photos that could be leaked to the press.
We also now know, thanks to Rachel Maddox’s “Bag Man” podcast, that Nixon ordered an illegal and unsuccessful effort to quash the investigation into bribes being taken by Vice President Spiro Agnew. (Among the team players in the unsuccessful cover-up was George H.W. Bush, then head of the Republican National Committee.)
Looking back on these constitutional disasters, Woodward and Bernstein concluded: “Nixon had lost his moral authority as president. The secret tapes — and what they reveal — will probably be his most lasting legacy [but] … by the time he was forced to resign, Nixon had turned his White House, to a remarkable extent, into a criminal enterprise.”
All of that wrongdoing encompasses only what we subsume under “Watergate.” It’s his conduct of everything that falls under “Vietnam” that seals Nixon’s fate as our worst and most immoral president.
The United States fought the bloody, senseless and seemingly endless Vietnam War for very little gain. We sunk a large portion of our national treasure in the conflict, damaged our international standing, demoralized our military, and destroyed the lives of many servicemen and their families.
To what end? Today the Soviet Union, which backed the North Vietnamese effort to rule their own country, is gone. Vietnam is little more than a hip destination for vacation travelers.
Consider the war’s death toll alone. Over 58,000 American soldiers, including 100 Vermonters, died during the conflict. More than 21,000 American combatants died when Nixon was president. Overall,, more than 304,000 American servicemen were wounded in the war.
But of course the toll was much worse on the Vietnamese side. An estimated 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers died in the war, with an additional 200,000 or more South Vietnamese dead. As for innocent civilians? Put that horrific toll at more than 2 million dead.
The best estimates are that over 1.5 million of those deaths came during Nixon’s prosecution of the war. In Cambodia, an additional 300,000 to 500,00 more people died as a result of his policies.
The cost in dollars? About $473 billion in direct military expenditures from 1969 to 1974.
Yes, Lyndon Johnson expanded the war in the years before Nixon, and Johnson bears much of the blame for the war. But even before Nixon was elected, he was secretly and perhaps treasonously conspiring to block Johnson’s peace talks, fearing they would boost the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey.
When Nixon was elected with his “secret plan to end the war,” he had a chance to do just that. Instead he doubled down on the dying.
In the face of Americans’ widespread disenchantment with a war that was tearing apart both Southeast Asia and the fabric of our own society, Nixon chose to expand the fighting. He accelerated the human suffering by widening the bombing of the north, including civilian areas of Hanoi and Haiphong. Then he covertly spread the conflict into Laos and Cambodia, engulfing most of Southeast Asia in the war.
Nixon’s presidency ended in disgrace with his resignation when he faced certain conviction for Watergate and related crimes. His immoral war raged throughout his presidency and beyond.
All of this is Richard Nixon’s legacy.
Yet we survived that debacle. American institutions and our traditions of democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law remained relatively strong.
Perhaps history will judge Donald Trump’s presidency as even worse. We certainly do not know all that Robert Mueller has learned about Trump’s conduct and culpability.
But for now, no president has been shown to have broken so many laws as Nixon. And at least Donald Trump, for all his failings, does not have the blood of tens of thousands of American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese on his hands.
- Greg Dennis’s column appears here nearly every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at http://www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
To hear some people tell it, you’d think we were on the eve of destruction.
They worry that once Donald Trump is fully exposed as a dangerously deranged criminal, he won’t agree to leave office either by impeachment or by losing in 2020. Instead, these people foresee an America where Trump orders the tanks to roll. His white, evangelical, gun-toting rural base then turns its sights on anyone who opposes El Presidente. In this dystopian vision, the Trump presidency continues not by law but by force.