“I’m saying that when the President does it, it’s not illegal.” – Richard M. Nixon
MARKING THE 100th anniversary of Richard M. Nixon’s birth, the legacy he leaves behind was seen in full glory through President George W. Bush’s unitary executive notion. It was shepherded by Vice President Dick Cheney, a man who never got over what happened to President Richard Nixon, working for Donald Rumsfeld during the Nixon Administration, and chose to make sure the presidency would be strengthened because of Nixon’s resignation.
President Gerald R. Ford’s unforgivable action of pardoning of Nixon brought on a new way to look at political corruption and executive malfeasance and illegality through ignoring it.
Nixon’s statement about executive illegality above has turned out to be the bedrock of the modern presidency, unless of course sex is involved.
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton fought for her husband’s presidency and her actions were seminal in saving it, which I cover in the history of Hillary’s rise in my book The Hillary Effect, as Democrats in Congress grew antsy over the deplorable conduct of their party leader and president. But whatever people thought of President Bill Clinton’s scandalously stupid actions with the intern Monica Lewinsky, Mrs. Clinton knew they didn’t come close to meeting the bar of impeachment that even Nixon escaped, and the public agreed. Clinton should have been censured for his actions, while impeachment, especially looking at the Nixon or Reagan litmus tests, was absurd.
Richard M. Nixon ducked impeachment by being the only president in U.S. history to resign.
As far right as this country’s gone today, Nixon would likely be considered a Democrat now. He created the E.P.A., worked on national health care with Teddy Kennedy that would have been a private insurance win, and signed Title IX into law. On foreign policy, Nixon made his reputation going after Communists, so when he went to Communist China it changed world history. Through detente, Nixon also visited the Soviet Union, easing tensions caused through the Cold War and especially Harry S. Truman who handled our relationship with the Soviets after WWII abysmally.
On Vietnam, Nixon sabotaged President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts at peace, then prolonged the war and illegally bombed Cambodia, ending up getting the same agreement that could have been forged years earlier without killing tens of thousands of Americans, not to mention Vietnamese.
Bringing the U.S. off the gold standard, known as the “Nixon shock,” remains controversial in many conservative quarters, which he announced during the popular show “Bonanza” in 1971.
If Nixon’s pardon taught our politicians anything it’s that even if there is a good reason to hold the president accountable for crimes, Congress can get away without doing it if partisans stick together or self-righteous hypocrites clothe themselves in God. Ronald Reagan ducked impeachment over Iran-Contra because of this, while George W. Bush was allowed to get away with committing to torture policy and a false case for war, because Democrats thought it might hurt their political prospects, but especially the newly inaugurated Barack Obama who campaigned on a “different kind of politics.”
It certainly would have been a different kind of politics if Democrats had decided to finally hold a Republican president accountable for his illegalities.
Doing right for the sake of it is no longer a respected or even demanded American political trait, especially if it will cost your political party discomfort.
The unitary executive that was entrenched during Richard M. Nixon’s presidency lives on through Barack Obama today. It can be seen in the civil liberty encroachment, Gitmo, the NDAA, assassination policy overseas, as well as the drone policy of killing across the world in a new type of undeclared war against enemies uncharged but claimed. That the C.I.A. is now a military unit without congressional oversight is another issue of executive prerogative, which Barack Obama sanctioned and Richard M. Nixon would approve.
Yet compared to Republican Party leaders today, Richard M. Nixon actually looks like a leader. But he was still a crook.