How our memories of Nixon are leading us astray

I was 15 years old in August of 1974, traveling in Germany with my family, when President Nixon resigned. It made a powerful impression on me. I think, because of our shared history of that time, we all feel we understand what might be coming for Trump. But we don’t.

My father had gotten a summer assignment to train dozens of teachers for the U.S. Armed Services Schools in Europe. (These schools existed to teach the children of American troops and diplomats stationed in Europe.) We were stationed in the bachelor officers quarters on a U.S. army base in Munich, Germany. My parents and my father’s business partners were doing the training, leaving my brother, my sister and me to roam the base. I’d never been outside of North America before, or in any non-English speaking country. But there we were in this American enclave, a sort of airlock before entering another culture. The base was a small, fully functioning American community, but a few things were strangely different, like the German version of Tony the Tiger on the box of Frosted Flakes, the tiny pattern of pockmarks on the streets from where tanks had traveled, and the enormous, loud helicopter that would occasionally land outside our quarters.

Back in America strange things were happening. I recall playing pool with my brother, who was 13, as we discussed how the storm clouds were gathering over Nixon. We were both math geeks who never paid much attention to politics, but this had been all over the news.

After a few weeks, the program was over and our family squeezed into a tiny rental car and began touring Europe, starting in Bavaria, the south of Germany. I’ll forever be grateful to my parents for that trip, which exposed me to the idea that there were other proud and rich cultures outside America. That sounds trite, but when you’re an adolescent you feel your own little bubble is the world. Regrettably, for so many Americans that didn’t have the ability to travel as we did, that bubble remains their idea of what the world is.

One day we were driving a narrow, winding road to visit one of Hitler’s former headquarters high in the Alps, which had been turned into a NATO post. We were listening to Armed Forces radio, which was broadcasting Nixon’s resignation speech. Here I was in this alien environment and my country was self-destructing. Neither my parents nor the rest of the responsible adults back in 70s America had any idea what this meant. It was inconceivable and disturbing.

And yet the country continued, with the affable Gerald Ford holding things together. In the next election, I voted for President for the first time, for Carter over Ford. And America continued.

We think we know the script for an unraveling presidency, but we don’t

Anyone who lived through Watergate cannot help feeling that we’ve been here before. A president stands accused of impeachable offenses. Congresspeople are calling for special prosecutors. The media is in a feeding frenzy, the White House is a leaky bucket, the president’s spokespeople are saying there’s nothing to investigate, and the president seems crazed and paranoid. When Trump fired the man in charge of the investigation, the parallels to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre were obvious.

We think we know where this goes. Intrepid reporters like David Farenthold ferret out the truth. Congress holds hearings and grills Trump’s aides and former staffers. A key, patriotic source inside Trump’s White House or administration leaks damning information. And Trump’s attempts to cover up his involvement in treasonous activity eventually result in his resignation or impeachment.

If you believe this is certain, you must believe in the institutions of government. You must believe in the integrity and independence of investigators and prosecutors in the FBI and the rest of the intelligence apparatus. You must believe that Congress will put patriotism ahead of party.

But things are not as they were in 1974.

In 1974, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Now, Republicans do.

In 1974, an independent press considered itself the watchdog of democracy, and a few newspapers and TV networks set the tone. There was no CNN, no Fox News. And there is now a parallel press of Brietbart, Drudge, and Fox News creating a very different narrative. This has emboldened Trump supporters with an alternative version of the truth.

There is no guarantee that the investigation of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign will continue vigorously ahead under whomever ends up running the FBI.

There is no guarantee that Republicans in Congress who have waited eight years for a Republican president will now turn on that president. The actions of Senators like Bob Corker, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham may well determine the future of the investigation, and the Trump presidency.

There is no guarantee that Trump will not start a war to boost his support and distract attention from the investigation.

For all his flaws, Nixon was a patriot. When it became clear he would not survive an impeachment, he resigned, rather than put the nation through a pointless defense of his presidency.

There is no reason to believe that Trump will step aside, even if he suspects he’s about to go down. This is a president who has repeatedly prevailed when others were certain he would fail. He has proven wily and ruthless in defense of his presidency. He has no tolerance for dissension in his White House, so even at the point that he is toast, no one will tell him so.

Watergate is not destiny, Trump is not Nixon, and America in 2017 is not America in 1974. I’m a lot older than I was on those winding roads in Germany. But I’ve got the same unpleasant feeling in the pit of my stomach, because while we’ve been here before, there is no map for where we are going.

8 responses to “How our memories of Nixon are leading us astray

  1. Is this what you intended to write? “There is reason to believe that Trump will step aside, even if he suspects he’s about to go down.”

    From the context of the paragraph it seems that it might be missing “no” — “There is no reason to believe…”

  2. Heads-up, you left out a word and it reverses the meaning of the sentence:

    “There is reason to believe that Trump will step aside, even if he suspects he’s about to go down.”

    You meant “There is NO reason to believe…”

  3. Great analysis, but I feel compelled to point out some weasel-wording. You say that Breitbart et al. deliver “an alternative version of the truth.”

    The truth only comes in one version: the true one. You can tighten up your “alternative version of truth” to one word: Lies.

  4. Thanks, Josh. This is one of the best blog posts you’ve ever written.

    You and I are about the same age, with similar memories of Watergate and the Nixon resignation. It all seemed like uncharted territory, but when you’re in your teens a lot of things seem new and uncharted. I don’t think I fully grasped the uniqueness of that moment in history (I won’t presume to speak for you).

    Now that we’re older, I think our first impulse is to compare every new experience with something we’ve seen before. The current situation sure feels a lot like Watergate — much more so than anything else in my memory. But you’re right: it’s not the same, a lot of it is uncharted territory, and we dare not assume that our political and social institutions will save us this time.

  5. Brilliant analysis, Josh, but I can’t help but wonder, should any of this surprise us?

    Did it matter that we elected Trump over Clinton? Both are so detested by the other side as to instantly become “fresh meat” for ravenous partisans. Their sins, real or imagined, would only further domestic polarization, stall progress on critical issues and embroil the country in a fitness for office debate for 48 months.

    Who loses when each party nominates a person of flawed integrity, character and substance?

    1. Hillary Clinton was far from perfect. And there was an honesty deficit there. But there is a difference. Whatever would have happened if she were elected, it could not possibly come close to the terrifying thrill ride that is the Trump presidency.

      You say “Their sins, real or imagined, would only further domestic polarization,” but Trump’s sins are real, not imagined, and we are living them. That makes a difference.

      1. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for either candidate while my friends and clients on both sides of the political aisle were quick outline the transgressions of Trump’s business empire and the Clinton’s pay to play foundation.
        I would welcome your review and critique of Rod Rosenstein’s Comey letter; his reputation is decidedly un-Trump-like and his history of bi-partisan service portends greater objectivity than the left cares to advertise.

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