I know it is much the vogue in Washington these days for leaders to blame previous leaders for persistent problems rather than to accept accountability and responsibility for not successfully solving them. Trendy though this attitude may be, however, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker’s column assigning fault for the U.S. public’s growing and frightening distrust of government institutions to Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal shows its folly. It flies in the face of history and fairness, and lets literally thousands of subsequent leaders, elected officials, journalists, pundits and assorted knaves and hypocrites off scot-free.
“Beyond the obvious, Nixon and the Watergate episode did great, perhaps irreparable, harm to the American spirit. A generation already traumatized by a war that ended up killing 58,000 of its brothers, boyfriends, husbands and fathers lost any remaining innocence, as well as trust in authority and faith in governmental institutions. The flag our forefathers raised on the moral high ground looked suddenly shabby and soiled. When even the president of the United States was willing to burglarize the American people, there was no one left to trust”
Oh, nonsense. The Watergate scandal, by the end, was one of the American system’s finest hours. The system worked, and worked on live television for all to see. A brave judge, John Sirica, showed integrity and grit in refusing to cave in to Presidential intimidation, ordering Nixon to turn over the tapes that ultimately proved his guilt. Senators and House members of both parties handled a complex inquiry diligently and well, with ethics heroes emerging on the Republican side, in individuals like Sen. Howard Baker, and the Democratic side, with the inspiring Senator Sam Irwin and others. When Nixon decided to fire the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was getting too close to the truth, his own Cabinet member, Attorney General Eliot Richardson, resigned rather than do Nixon’s dirty work. Ultimately, Republicans and Democrats alike on the House Judiciary Committee voted for impeachment, forcing Nixon to resign. Yes, Tricky Dick was unethical and untrustworthy, but Americans had known that—and called him Tricky Dick— for decades. Then as now, too many Americans decided that “policies” trumped character, so they elected a man whose flawed values and integrity was a matter of public record—twice. Nonetheless, when he and his minions violated the law and threatened the principles of democracy, the vital institutions of the House, the Senate, the judiciary and the press showed their strength and virtue. Nixon was corrupt, not the Presidency, not the government.
Parker writes about how Nixon took away the public’s “innocence,” by which I assume she means “naive illusions.” The Kennedy Administration featured trust in the government by nearly 70%, although that administration was secretly embedding the U.S. in Vietnam, allowing segregation to flourish, and was headed by a man who placed his sexual pleasures above national security. The youthful rebellions against the government of the Sixties, spawned by the lies of the Johnson Administration, came before Nixon’s election, and indeed helped elect him.
What “innocence”? Television had made it more difficult for the government to hide its unethical proclivities and abuse of power, and finally journalists were handed the first Republican President they felt they could safely oppose since Hoover (rather than the Democratic Presidents it had protected, like Kennedy). So the news media finally did its job. I suppose that was Nixon’s “fault” too, but it was also a positive development. By the time Carter, who promised that he would “never lie” to us, and pretty much never did, and Ronald Reagan had filled the Oval Office, public faith in the government had climbed back from under 30% into the 40’s:
Yet today, according to various polls, trust in government is at an all-time low, lower than when Nixon resigned, and hovering near 15%. Nixon’s not responsible for that. These people are, among others:
- Jimmy Carter, who was honest and inept. When you can’t trust politicians who are honest to do a good job, who can you trust?
- The U.S. Senator and five Congressmen who were caught on tape accepting bribes in an F.B.I. sting called Abscam in 1980
- Ronald Reagan and his loyalists, who engineered an embarrassing scandal trying to circumvent Congress by laundering money through Iran, of all places.
- George H.W. Bush, who made one ringing (and stupid) campaign promise, and broke it. So much for trust.
- Bill Clinton, who made a mockery of candor throughout his administration by playing word games, openly sold access, never came clean about a succession of dubious events, and finished in grand fashion by lying to a court and a grand jury and forcing his entire administration to help him cover up a workplace sexual affair. Just as it doesn’t help public trust to have an honest leader prove inept, it doesn’t help to have a dishonest leader appear effective. Richard Nixon didn’t force William Jefferson Clinton to be con man. He was born that way.
- George W. Bush, assisted by his Vice President, who bungled the decision to go to war in Iraq, accepted various deceits to embarrass America by embracing torture, and expanded the long-time irresponsible practice of busting the budget to dangerous levels by simultaneously waging two wars and cutting taxes.
- The Democratic Party,which seized upon a periodic statistical and systemic anomaly that had elected previous Presidents receiving a minority of the popular vote, to persuade much of the public that the 2000 election was “stolen”, when it really was “tied.”
- The Republicans, under the corrupt leadership of Tom Delay and others, who embarked on a venal regime of deals with lobbyists, kick-backs, graft and dirty politics at a time when, unlike other points in the nation’s history when corruption ran rampant, it couldn’t be hidden.
- Both parties, which failed in their policy and regulatory oversight of real estate , banking and financial markets, paving the way for a magnitude of financial collapse in 2008 that we had been told was impossible.
- The financial industry, which turned a mortgage crisis into an international disaster by their own incompetence and greed, making the government look inept and futile as a result.
- All previous Presidents, administrations, and Congresses going back at least three decades—but after Nixon!— which put off immigration reform, entitlement reform, social security reform, health care reform, infrastructure renewal, energy reforms and debt reduction—all the hard stuff—until these problems were so immense that they will require massive sacrifice and disruption to fix.
- President Obama, who ran on a platform of expansive and irresponsible promises that he had neither the skill nor the resources to deliver.
- Current Republicans and Democrats, who have banished all dignity, respect and collaboration in government in favor or scorched earth partisan warfare that accomplishes nothing but wasted time
Richard Nixon left office 40 years ago. Nothing he did pre-ordained that his successors would lie, abuse power, botch their duties and let the public down, but they did. The public has little trust in government today because the government and the people who run it have been obviously untrustworthy, in waves and in different ways, but for a very long time.
We can’t blame Nixon for that.
Graphic: Charles Paolino
Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One thought on “Don’t Blame Nixon”
A thoughtful analysis of loss of trust as the interplay of people and institutions that conspire to be trustworthy or not and send noticeable signals which we can discern to decision to offer trust or suspicion as appropriate. In the final analysis it is trustworthy leaders who build trustworthy systems that will change the 30 year trend of declining trust in government, media and business. It is time for thoughtful and engaged customers and citizens to make better trust decisions to shrink the sizable market available for deceivers and frauds. We cannot expect regulators to make the world safe.
Dr. Robert Hurley – Author of The Decision to Trust