By David Himmel
"Make sure you pay your taxes; otherwise you can get in a lot of trouble."
— Richard M. Nixon
We don’t learn from our mistakes. “We,” being the Imperial We—not the royal, for America is not a monarchy, it is an (crumbling) empire. America is a stubborn teenager of a country too enamored with itself because someone once told it that it was pretty and strong and smart and could do anything it set its military to do.
Yes, America is a pretty country. Beautiful, even. If you’ve traveled through this Union by road, rail, sea or air, you’ll see it. Mountains, plains, deserts, oceans, Great Lakes… John Mitchum wrote a poem about it, which John Wayne subsequently turned into a song for an almost farcical patriotic album in 1972. (Remember this year. It’s important to the story.) But America is not strong; it cowers at change. It is not smart; it does not think things through with reason. It cannot do anything it sets its military to do because, well, we weren’t greeted as liberators, the War on Terror is a calamity and built on faulty intelligence and absolute misunderstandings, and, um Vietnam.
So, no, we do not learn from our mistakes. We don’t even learn from history, and therefore, our history is doomed to repeat itself. And it’s already happening. Look around you. Read your news. This is all unsurprisingly familiar.
Forty-five years ago last week, marked the start of what would go on to become what President Gerald Ford called a “long national nightmare.” It was the break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. during the Presidential Campaign on June 17, 1972—see, there’s that year again.
So while The Duke was prattling on about “drifting on a bayou down Louisiana way,” Tricky Dick’s Plumbers were bumbling through file cabinets and leaving more damning evidence in their wake than Lee Harvey Oswald did when he left a rifle behind in the window of the Texas School Book Depository. In 1972, we needed Wayne and Mitchum’s poetic, patriotic pandering. The country was in turmoil over the conflict in 'Nam, race-charged riots and the burgeoning career of Kenny Loggins. But then Watergate happened. And instead of it just being a break-in, it revealed itself to be a massive abuse of executive power, a cover up of a cover up and a near total breakdown of the United States Constitution.
And all of this occurred because of paranoia. Nixon’s wounded and childish ego, and that of those he surrounded himself with, fueled the whole thing. They were all too stupid to do the right thing, and then worse, too stupid to stop doing the wrong things.
We know how Watergate ended. Nixon left office disgraced. Sixty-nine of his people were indicted. The days of a U.S. President presumed as inherently decent were squashed. We entered the age of distrust and cynicism. And we’ve never recovered from it. When Ford said that our nightmare was over, he was lying his sagging face off.
Because here we are today, almost half a century later and we’re facing the same kind of situation. The president and his people may have done some nefarious things during the recent campaign. And as that news unfolds, the White House only seems to make matters worse. What Trump is doing is not at all unlike what Nixon did. He’s just doing it faster than Nixon’s could have dreamed. If you’re not familiar with it, look into the Saturday Night Massacre. If that doesn’t look like what Trump did when he fired FBI Director James Comey or what he may have thought about doing with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, then you’re not paying attention to anything.
Trump, in so many ways, has seemed to rip pages right out of Nixon’s playbook. There were 44 men who came before Trump with playbooks of their own, you’d think that someone on his staff would have hidden Nixon’s before Trump arrived at the White House, opting to lift from at least Reagan’s instead. Or maybe FDR’s, which would have helped make Trump’s absurd claim comparing the two sound somewhat lucid.
So history is repeating itself here. In the early 1970s, we had a president pulling a Brock Turner on the Constitution, and today we, allegedly and potentially, are witnessing the same thing happen. The difference is—and this is where it’s proven that we don’t learn from history or our mistakes—by 1974, Congress, with the facts unfolded before them, recognized that Nixon’s misbehavior, insulting attitude, and blatant and dangerous abuses of power were fantastically troubling for the United States and the capacity of government to do its job. It didn’t matter whether it was for the good of the country as a whole or for the survival of the party, even Republicans—Nixon’s own—knew that he had to go. Today, instead, we have Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and the other spineless algae brains adamantly defending what should be so obviously not worth defending so adamantly.
I know, I know… innocent until proven guilty. Yes, there is the possibility that Trump and his goons did nothing wrong. They didn’t collude with Russia, there’s nothing damning in Trump’s tax filings, he didn’t technically obstruct justice… OK, sure. That’s a possibility. All this investigating may well exonerate the president. And if so, great. But Jesus Christ! The lawyers are getting lawyers and all this trouble for the White House has led Jared Kushner to finally speak in public. If that’s not a sign that something is terribly, terribly wrong, what then, does the GOP need?
It needs a Rosemary Kennedy lobotomy, I guess. What good is that gray matter in their skulls anyway if they’re not going to use it to process the behaviors and situations of what’s playing out before them? And what about us? Those of us who continue to cry “Witch Hunt!” or “Sad!” or whatever pre-teen pout Trump and his supporters spit out, is not going to make things any better. You can still support your government and love your country by demanding that your president act reasonably, within the law and not like a petulant helmet-wearing waterhead hell bent on out Nixoning Nixon. In fact, the Constitution Trump’s trying to wipe his ass with encourages this very thing.
Watergate hurt this country, it hurt the Office of the President and it nearly undid the Constitution. We’ll never come back from the damage it inflicted—the “long national nightmare” will never be over—but we can prevent ourselves from descending even deeper into a worse kind of nightmare.
We just have to remember that we’ve been here before. And if we do remember, we need to learn from this. It's the only way we'll survive it. Unfortunately, we’ll probably be here again in another 45 years.