Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Nixon, Watergate, and Political Realism


Nixon, Watergate, and Political Realism

Peter Schultz


                  Although it is commonly argued that Richard Nixon’s paranoia led to his downfall, his politics played a role as well. In some ways, as people have noticed, Nixon’s actions seem odd in response the revelation of the Watergate burglaries. For example, even though he played no part in the burglaries, did not approve them, and did not even know of them until revealed in the press, Nixon almost immediately tried to control the outcome, to cover up the burglaries, rather than uncover what had happened. Why did Nixon act like that when he was innocent?


                  Paranoia is one answer, but politics is another. Nixon, like most politicians, saw himself as a realist. That is, he understood how the political world worked, and that in that  world power was indispensable in order to succeed. Thus, the essence of politics is to get and maintain power, and to get and maintain power, cunning and shrewdness are absolutely essential. They are capital political virtues. So, when your power is threatened, as so often and repeatably happens in the political world, the politically realistic response is to defeat your enemies as cunningly and as shrewdly as is necessary. Survival requires power and power is best secured via cunning and shrewdness. These means might involve injustice and/or dishonesty, but they are validated by the end, success.


                  Nixon, of course, faced such a threat and, so, without knowing what the burglars or the burglaries were about, he immediately sought to manipulate by covering up what had happened. But this led Nixon to work with and for those men, like John Dean, E. Howard Hunt, and James McCord, who had been involved in the burglaries and who, therefore, had reasons to lay blame on Nixon himself if necessary to protect themselves. On the other hand, if Nixon had decided to uncover the burglaries, to investigate them, he could have learned the truth about Dean’s, Hunt’s, and McCord’s roles in the burglaries; that is, he could have put the blame where it justly belonged. Being a realist, however, Nixon’s politics led him to act as he had always acted, cunningly, shrewdly, and manipulatively, rather than acting justly.


                  Had Nixon not been a realist, he might have appreciated that power does not, cannot justify itself. Being cunning, e.g., is not the same thing as being just and, ultimately, politics is about justice. Like any realist, Nixon did not think questions of justice were important and, hence, he never questioned the justice or legitimacy of his cover-up. The justice of his cover-up just wasn’t relevant.


                  Ironically, though, by ignoring those questions, Nixon contributed to his own downfall. If Nixon had sought justice rather than power, he might have survived Watergate because he would have been led to expose those responsible for the burglaries and their agendas. Ironically, Nixon’s realism led to his downfall because that realism gave Nixon a distorted view of the political, a view that ignored questions of justice. By ignoring questions of justice, Nixon failed abysmally and was disgraced.

                  A question: How often would entertaining questions of justice have saved the United States from abysmal failures and disgrace? Consider, e.g., the Vietnam War waged by the United States. Or consider the United States’ invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Or consider the decimation of America’s indigenous peoples. Political realists pride themselves on their “hard-headedness,” on their alleged competence. Yet, ironically, political realists have led the US into quite a few abysmal, disgraceful failures. Maybe political realism is not quite as realistic as it claims to be. If you ever see Richard Nixon, in the great beyond, you might ask him about this possibility.  

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