Sunday, February 19, 2006

How to understand presidential indiscretions

Since it was revealed that the Bush Administration has been illegally wiretapping calls coming into or going out of phone numbers in the United States, there have been attempts to justify such an act as White House politics as usual. Such an "everybody does it" mentality can be traced back to the Watergate investigation of the early 1970s that led to the indictment and conviction of a numerous amount of high-levels employees of the Nixon administraion and the resignation of Nixon himself. Such an unprecedented affair did establish one precedent in the American consciousness: that all politicans are equally corrupt.

Ironically, the legacy of Watergate seems to be not a desire to root out presidential indiscretions a la Nixon, but the exact opposite: to let them pass because they are merely representative of politics as usual. Witness, for instance the Iran-Contra Affair, also an unprecedented and wholly illegal act wherein high-level aides in the Reagan Administration actively funnelled money from arms sales to Iran, one of the most rogue nations of our time to fund a violent rightist group in Nicaragua.

Not only has the legacy of Watergate resulted in the excusing of grave presidential indiscretions like Iran-Contra, but it has allowed politicized special interest groups to conflate minor indiscretions with major ones. Thus rabid interests spent the entire two terms of the Clinton Presidency trying to prove Clinton guilty of something, anything, finally forced to try and prosecute on a lie about an unfortunate but hardly impeachable affair with an intern. The rhetorical technique of using the "gate" from Watergate as a suffix to label something a political scandal (e.g. "Monicagate," "Travelgate") helped to conflate made-up indiscretions with the grave indiscretion that had forced Nixon to resign in 1974.

What needs to be cleared up in order to understand whether a president has abused their office is the conventional wisdom that "everybody does it." Does everybody really do it? In studying Nixon in a course this past quarter, that question has nagged me. Nixon's Administration had, as I have learned, yielded some foreign and domestic accomplishments: among them decreasing U.S. involvement in the disastorous Vietnam War, normalizing relations with China and Russia, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, among others. In retrospective accounts, Nixon has been portrayed by many liberals--even people who did not like him at the time--as our last progressive president. If Nixon's prime reason for resignation, which was the accumulation of irrefutable evidence that he actively tried to prevent a government investigation into the Watergate burglary, is simply politics as usual, Nixon could be viewed as a man who became a target of a nihilistic cynicism of the time. Revisionists have in fact persisted at this exercise.

Such revisionism makes it important to understand whether Nixon was just part of politics as usual, and therefore unfairly vilified by the press and a Democratic majority in Congress. I finally arrived at an answer that illuminated this question for me. In one of our books for the Nixon class, a book titled called The Presidency of Richard Nixon author Melvin Small provides some perspective on Watergate. After noting that Nixon's White House taping system was by no means unprecedented, Small goes on to note all that was unprecedented about the Nixon administration:
The Nixon administration would be revealed to be the most scandal-ridden administration in American history. And those scandals did not involve merely looting the public treasury by public officials, as had occurred during the Grant and Harding administrations, or the irresponsible and reckless sexual peccadilloes of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. They revolved around a variety of illegal and extralegal political actions directed by the president and his chief assistants, including the former attorney general of the United States, that attempted to subvert the American political system (273).

and on the National Security claim, which we are currently hearing from the Bush Administration:

National Security was not at stake here. The CIA's only involvement with the burglars involved the technical assitance that Hunt's friends in the agency had provided for the [Daniel] Ellsberg break-in and other intelligence gambits. Nixons' fraudulent employment of national security constituted his first major invovlement in an illegal scheme to curtail the Watergate investigation (277).

Watergate did not begin when CREEP operatives broke into Democratic headquarters in 1972. It began when Nixon took office, armed with a private slush fund, prepared to do battle by fair means and foul against his enemies. Although he felt he was merely playing political hardball, no president before or after ordered or participated in so many serious illegal and extralegal acts that violated constitutional principles. The wiretapping and surveillance of his enemies in politics and the media, his attempts to replace civil-service bureaucrats with loyal Republicans, his intervention in the Democratic primary politics, and his shakedown of corporate America for campaign contributions came close to undermining the entire political system (310).

Such a comparison between Nixon and other American Presidents vindicates clearly and succinctly that the Nixon Administration's indiscretions were unprecedented, that they weren't politics as usual.

Such a comparison is also relevant for us today in assessing whether the Bush administration ought to be investigated for their indiscretions which are, like Nixon's, numerous. John Dean, who was once Nixon's Chief White House Counsel, offers his perspective:

There can be no serious question that warrantless wiretapping, in violation of the law, is impeachable. After all, Nixon was charged in Article II of his bill of impeachment with illegal wiretapping for what he, too, claimed were national security reasons.

These parallel violations underscore the continuing, disturbing parallels between this Administration and the Nixon Administration - parallels I also discussed in a prior column.

Indeed, here, Bush may have outdone Nixon: Nixon's illegal surveillance was limited; Bush's, it is developing, may be extraordinarily broad in scope...later reports have suggested that NSA is "data mining" literally millions of calls - and has been given access by the telecommunications companies to "switching" stations through which foreign communications traffic flows.

In sum, this is big-time, Big Brother electronic surveillance.

Dean goes on to describe how Bush's activities parallel Nixon's. If Nixon's administration was rightly accused of having committed unprecedented, impeachable offenses--as both Dean's and Melvin Small's analyses suggest--so to should Bush's administration.

So now that we have gotten that nagging question of whether Bush and Nixon were playing politics as usual out of the way, can a full and fair investigation of the Bush Adminstration indiscretion please commence?


wtn said...

I think Mr F's investigation remains key. An outsider like him has to score some convictions in the courts... Then the primary scandals will get traction. The Democrats don't have enough credibility/cultural capital to get anywhere on their own, because the incumbents have done enough to shape the stories as debates, not facts.

Mr F can shape his arguments in isolation, and present them in the courts, where rational arguments hold more sway. If he does very well, the emotional energy of the public will push the Congress towards more aggressive policy. However, despite the president's weakness, the Republican incumbents in Congress look like they will be strong enough to hold this fall, so impeachment is probably out of the picture unless the Democrats win a landslide and/or Mr F gets a huge conviction on charges we haven't heard about yet.

The VPW affair is the one I care about, mainly because it has so many tangents into the forged Italian documents and Brewster-Jennings' status.

Elaine said...

Well, first of all, I'm not really talking about impeachment tactics but rather the case for impeachment in genral, but I appreciate your analysis.

I think you are wrong that the Democrats don't have enough capital to impeach Bush. Their main problem is simply not being in the majority, which is why they need to win in November. Despite being assailed by Republicans for being the party of liberal extremism in the early 1970s (this in the context of unrest at home and abroad), the Democratic party was then successful in pressing Nixon to resign because they had a majority in Congress and therefore could get the ball rolling on investigation. Once the facts were out, it was clear the Nixon Administration was corrupt to the core and therefore impeachable.

To say that Republican incumbents are strong is to concede a ripe battle. The Republican party today is also corrupt at its core. If Democrats hit at this and hit at it hard, they can get a majority. The problem is the Democratic party's core is suffering from inertia. They need to listen to their base.

wtn said...

I can't quite explain why the Democrats can't win. Obviously gerrymandering is part of it. Why is the Republican patronage network so strong, because they get a lot of cash flow from being anti-worker? I need to learn conflict sociology. [The reason I mentioned their strength was that they individual members have been pretty good at disassociating from the president and his low public approval.]

I think there won't be any serious investigation in Congress unless Mr F gets more indictments after the election, or unless he releases key information before November. I don't think they can win enough ground on the corruption issue. The Abramoff story is too confusing, and the other criminals have been swept backstage. The war issue is not a clear winner because there is division within the party over the right course of action. The president has done an incredible job of shielding the public from conditions in Iraq.

Even if the D miraculously get over inertia, there's not enough time before the election, and there won't be enough time to do much afterwards unless they win.

Elaine said...

Here's my problem with your analysis: the Abramoff story really isn't confusing, or at the very least, it's not anymore confusing than Watergate was. By saying otherwise, you are only legitimating the conventional wisdom of the punditocracy who are against Democratic wins anyway. I don't think people are so stupid that they can't understand political corruption when they see it. Sure, the prosecutor ought to know the details of such a case, but the generality that Abramoff gave illegal money to Republicans to get them to do things for clients is comprehensible. The first thing the Dems need to do is insist that Abramoff=Watergate in terms of it's gravity.

The criminals have been "swept backstage"? Get out the proverbial dustpan and dump them back in the center ring. Basically, if Democrats and the media were hammering away at the Bush administration every day (especially the lethargic media who must be blamed for not revealing this administration as the corrupt group that it is), Bush would be doomed. Maybe you remember in the 1990s that President Clinton was accused all of the time of having an "appearance of corruption"? Name five people who could actually tell you the details of Whitewater or even that it regarded a real estate venture. The ongoing investigation into Whitewater (which yielded no indictments nor any evidence of guilt on the part of the Clintons) allowed the media to parrot the "appearance of corruption" mantra night and day whether or not anyone knew what the confusing details of Whitewater.

I respect your views and your knowledge, but I think you are repeating pundit-style conventional wisdom that has paralyzed the Democratic party and our media from getting to the core of Republican corruption.

And of course there's time before the election to change the discourse. Do you know how quickly political fortunes can change? Look at Richard Nixon, LBJ, and so takes a mere few months!