Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Nixon's Impeachment, Trump, and American Politics

Nixon’s Impeachment, Trump, and American Politics
Peter Schultz

            Rick Perlstein in his Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, writes about “a spirit of the age” that led “Americans … to train their eyes on ugly truths. They had to abandon their heroes. They had to join the suspicious circles - to abandon blithe optimism.” [261]

            But this is precisely what the impeachment, the hunting of Nixon was all about: Confronting this “spirit of the age,” where the ugliness of American politics and even American life was being revealed – by the war in Vietnam, by the investigations into the CIA, by black power advocates, by feminists, by gays and lesbians coming out, by the free speech movement, by “stagflation,” to name a few phenomena of importance. Impeaching Nixon was a way to hide the ugliness of American politics behind a façade of righteousness. And then, once again, Americans could be made to believe that their politics was not ugly; rather, it was Nixon who was ugly. And, of course, it made perfect sense that this project led to the election of Ronald Reagan, a person who represented, even incarnated the idea that Americans and American politics were not ugly, who incarnated “blithe optimism,” that Perlstein shows was so much a part of Reagan’s politics.

            And after Nixon’s resignation, two phenomena confirm this. First, by forcing Nixon’s resignation, the establishment could claim, once again, that the political system “worked.” It cleaned itself up, as it were, confirming that the Constitution is one of the greatest political documents ever created. Second, by not following through with the impeachment proceedings against Nixon, which would have been perfectly constitutional as early on in our history the Congress decided that a resignation could not stop an impeachment, the curtain of respectability was once again drawn closed, covering over the ugliness of American politics. Nixon was banished and all was well again in the house built by our founding fathers.

            And this is how the story was played, from the White House to the mainstream media. From Gerald Ford, now president: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.” [273, Perlstein] A pundit at the NY Times said that “the end of the ‘Watergate agony’ presaged ‘an era of more open government.’” Frank Wills, the security guard who stumbled on the break in at the Watergate was quoted as saying “NO POSITION TOO HIGH” in a headline whose article said “in America even the president is not above the law.” NY Times senior columnist, James Reston celebrated “A SENSE OF NATIONAL RECONCILIATION” while guest writers quoted James Madison. As Perlstein summarizes: “They all resounded with the very same theme: the resignation proved that no American was above the law, that the system worked, that the nation was united and at peace with itself.” [273. Perlstein]

            And what a contrast the new president presented to the recently resigned president. He made his own breakfast; that is, he toasted an English muffin, which became “the joyous keynote – a national talisman of normalcy restored, “ according to the Washington Post. And Ford was “just a balding, square-jawed, honest, straightforwardly pleasant man….a man, who smoked a pipe, like one of those kindly old dads in a 1950s television situation comedy. A pure pragmatist, with no ideology to divide the nation.” Let the good times roll. [278, Perlstein]

            Hiding the ugliness of American politics behind a façade of righteousness has a certain ring to it, especially these days as so many righteously call out Donald Trump for his crassness, his politics, his racism and sexism. And, of course, like Nixon, Trump’s impeachment allowed this righteousness to flourish, while hiding the ugliness of our politics from view. There is no Reagan available to cap this project off these days but there is “Stumbling, Stuttering Uncle” Joe Biden to fill that role. While Biden is no Ronald Reagan, perhaps he will do until the next blithely optimistic doppelganger gets here.

           As William Faulkner wrote somewhere: “The past isn’t dead. In fact, the past isn’t even the past.” Indeed. Or as Mark Twain wrote somewhere: “Maybe history doesn’t repeat itself but it certainly rhymes.”  

           Of course as Perlstein points out, the ugliness of America was still there, even though buried beneath platitudes of pompous patriotic drivel. Three female Episcopalian deacons were banned from performing their official duties because they were …. women. In Jamaica, Queens “a criminal gang of police sergeants had extorted $250,000 from legitimate business owners.” And in Los Angeles, cops were buying bulletproof vests with their own money because they were being shot frequently and the police department wouldn’t buy the vests. It was also the year when Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson as a homicidal vigilante, became one of the most profitable movies of all time. . [274, Perlstein] And Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, asserted “the same kind of people who were paid to do the dirty work in Watergate were paid to so the dirty work in the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations.” [276’ Perlstein] As Malcolm X use to say, you would have to be asleep to believe the American dream, which was actually a nightmare.


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