I never thought that I would say this, but I am feeling nostalgic for President Richard M. Nixon.
The Washington Post published a piece last week recalling that Nixon had an “enemies list” compiling the names of his alleged foes, and noting in the headline that “now so does Trump.” While this parallel is accurate, I think that it obscures major differences between the two men. The comparison does not give Nixon his due.
I am hardly a Nixon defender. I was part of the special prosecutor investigation that led to his downfall. I was and remain shocked at the extent of his crass and criminal behavior, which first became palpable to me listening to the secret Oval Office tapes that we pried away from him, eventually including the “smoking gun” tape the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over. It was that evidence that convinced Nixon’s closest supporters that his defense against impeachment and removal from office would have been unsustainable, and that he had no choice but to resign in disgrace.
I even created a rift with Leon Jaworski, Archibald Cox’s successor as Watergate special prosecutor, when I publicly protested the pardon that President Gerald Ford issued to Nixon shortly after the resignation, thereby shielding Nixon from the legal consequences that were soon to be visited upon his co-conspirators, who, after conviction, spent years in prison for the coverup.
But then I look at the incumbent, and I become wistful.
I have previously written my view that, like Nixon, President Donald Trump has implicated himself in obstructing justice with his own public statements. Other publicly available information, including Trump’s own admissions, also suggests more ominously his complicity with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to help Trump win the 2016 election. So, to this extent, the substantial character flaws in both presidents appear to have led to serious breaches of the norms of law.
Nevertheless, unlike Nixon, Trump was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and has exploited his family’s power and wealth from his earliest days. Supposed bone spurs insulated him from the crucible of military service, when many of his contemporaries were called to duty to fight in Vietnam. He relishes the flamboyant and the superficial, though the glitz comes with hefty dose of cheesiness — which I can attest to as someone who lived briefly in one of his “Trump Towers.”
Except for Trump’s own unsupported braggadocio, he entered the Oval Office ignorant of even the rudiments of American history and world affairs. He is a man of no particular political principles; his vacillation between parties (and occasionally as an “independent”) reveals the lack of any political core. Nor did he have any experience in public office, civil or military, or familiarity with the practical art of governing.
Nixon, on the other hand, grew up impoverished and was the archetypal self-made man. He was demonstrably thoughtful — even brilliant. At a conference several years ago at Duke University, where he attended law school during the Depression, I heard stories of his struggles living in a cold-water flat but achieving a distinguished record that was respected decades later.
Few people entered the presidency as well prepared as Nixon did, having served as a naval officer at Guadalcanal, a congressman, senator, vice president for eight years and Wall Street lawyer. While his political creed may have been excessively zealous in some matters, including an occasionally ruthless anti-communism, it was carefully thought out and consistent.
Most importantly, unlike his present successor, Nixon understood government and policy. Rather than rail against some mythical “deep state,” Nixon used the levers of power to pursue concrete policies, many of which have had lasting benefits. Nixon was, for example, our first “environmental” president.
Nixon also had enough decency and respect for the office to cloak his conniving in secret. Trump openly degrades the office by flaunting his contempt for the institutions of government, particularly the Justice Department and intelligence agencies, and by daily defaming his enemies in vitriolic tweets.
In 1992, I received an invitation to attend a private briefing by Nixon, then an elder statesman who had been out of office for 18 years. The invitation announced that there would be a photo opportunity. The invitation was irresistible. For nearly an hour, Nixon gave a bravura performance, speaking cogently and eloquently on a vast array of domestic issues, economic policies and strategic challenges. I treasure the photo of us shaking hands, recording Nixon’s look of bemusement as I greeted him with, “Mr. President, it is nice to see you again after all these years.”
Sure, despite his denial, he was a “crook.” But compared with the incumbent, I’d take Nixon any day.
Philip Allen Lacovara, a former president of the D.C. Bar, served as counsel to the Watergate special prosecutor.
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