- Posted August 15, 2014 by
The Chief Executive - Nay, The Thief Executive
Much of the US heaved a collective sigh of relief when a helicopter conveyed Nixon away from the White House on Aug 9. His unelected successor, Gerald Ford, declared that the nightmare was over, and most Americans accepted the notion that the presidency, after having descended to its nadir, had been rescued by a broader system that worked.
The idea behind Meadows’ lyrics was to point out that there was, in many ways, worse to come.
Reflections on the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s dishonorable exit this past week have inevitably focused largely on the Watergate scandal, which related to the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee by ‘plumbers’ tasked by the White House. A pair of young reporters at The Washington Post, intrigued by the fact that one of the culprits was directly associated with the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), decided to dig further.
Much of the US was relieved when Nixon resigned. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were astonished by what they began to discover — a chain of culpability that seemed to stretch all the way to the apex of the American political structure. Yet the first few months of their reportage barely seemed to register in electoral terms, given that Nixon was returned to the White House by an unprecedented landslide in November 1972.
By then the White House was in full cover-up mode. But Nixon had surreptitiously set up a system for recording all conversations in the Oval Office and its environs. Amazingly, the hidden microphones remained in place even after the cat was out of the bag.
On more than one occasion, Nixon ordered his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, to destroy all the tapes. For reasons that are not altogether clear, the order was never carried out. Once the existence of the tapes became public knowledge, some of them were legally subpoenaed. It is widely acknowledged that but for the incriminating tapes, Nixon would not have felt obliged to quit.
He resigned in the face of impeachment proceedings that cited not just the Watergate affair but the secret bombing of Cambodia as part of the Vietnam War effort. In fact, it was activists opposed to that war who first provoked Nixon to violate the law.
Arguably, one of the Nixon administration’s worst misdemeanors was to thwart a Vietnam peace initiative launched in the dying days of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. In certain other respects, though, Nixon pursued a relatively enlightened foreign policy, which notably included the overdue establishment of ties with Mao Zedong’s China (with assistance from Yahya Khan’s military regime in Islamabad, which was rewarded with the infamous ‘tilt towards Pakistan’ in 1971) as well as détente with the Soviet Union.
Even on the domestic front there were some progressive initiatives. The primary trend, however, was overwhelmingly reactionary, and included relentless pursuit of the “southern strategy” whereby the Republican Party became the natural home for Americans disenchanted by the Democrats’ adoption of the civil rights agenda.
The bitter and paranoid personality Nixon brought to the White House in 1969 was in some part a consequence of his conviction that the Kennedy family had stolen the 1960 presidential election. He is subsequently likely to have rued the fact that his downfall was precipitated not by constitutional violations per se, but by the almost accidental discovery of his direct role in crimes and cover-ups. And the dogged pursuit of the truth not just by Woodward and Bernstein, but by the likes of district court judge John Sirica, Senator Sam Ervin and special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
“Forty years later,” Bernstein told the BBC’s Owen Bennett-Jones recently, “what we see is that the truth was far worse than we thought at the time. That the criminality was far more extensive, pervasive and basic to what this president and his presidency was.”
Several of Nixon’s closest aides and advisers served time in prison, but the ring leader got away thanks to a pre-preemptive presidential pardon from his successor.
Back in the day, meanwhile, artists considerably more prominent than Sonny Meadows were singing a different tune. Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Presidential Rag’ featured the lines “You’re the one we voted for, so you must take the blame/For handing out authority to men who were insane”. And Phil Ochs, well before Watergate, had rewritten one of his best-known songs to say: “Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of/Richard Nixon find yourself another country to be part of”.