He’s compared himself to Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, evoked nostalgia for John F. Kennedy, sought to emulate Ronald Reagan, (belatedly) praised George W. Bush, and enlisted the assistance of Bill Clinton in his 2012 re-election effort, but as his second term stumbles along, the president with whom Barack Obama finds himself being compared is Richard M. Nixon.
My father, Lou Cannon, covered the White House with distinction for the Washington Post for many years, beginning in the Nixon administration. He employed an easy rule of thumb when fielding phone calls from anonymous tipsters:
If the caller said, “I have a story that will make Watergate look like a picnic,” Dad would hang up on him.
In the past week, Nixon’s name has been invoked often, and not in a way that pleases the current president or his loyalists. Unless it’s a reference to his dramatic 1972 visit to China, Nixon is not the president any of his successors enjoy being likened to — especially when the suffix “gate” is attached to it.
Barack Obama was only 13 years old when Nixon resigned from office one step ahead of the posse. This is old enough to know that correlations between himself and the 37th president should be contested, which Obama has done.
“I’ll let you guys engage in those comparisons,” he replied when asked at a rainy Rose Garden appearance Thursday how he felt about the Nixon parallel. “You can go ahead and read the history, I think, and draw your own conclusions.”
This response echoed language employed earlier in the week by Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney. “I can tell you,” the White House press secretary told reporters, “that the people who make those kinds of comparisons need to check their history.”
Fair enough. Carney was a colleague of mine in the White House press corps during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years, and he summoned a pretty good institutional memory about the beat. Nixon’s presidency unraveled on the shoals of widespread criminality with no precedent in American politics. So, yes — by all means, let’s leave Watergate out of it.
Yet, I can’t help but think that Nixon and Obama have more in common than either man’s devotees might imagine.
Richard Milhous Nixon was thin-skinned, felt persecuted by the opposition party, had a penchant for classifying political adversaries — and journalists — as “enemies,” and tried to control his image so fiercely that, ultimately, zealous aides committed illegal acts to further his re-election.
But even before that had happened — and before Nixon himself began directing a coverup — truth had become a casualty of his administration. This is the parallel between Richard Nixon and Barack Obama.
No evidence has been unearthed connecting Obama, or anyone under his direction, to illicit activities. But the absence of criminality isn’t the only test here. Nixon’s “enemies,” at least in his mind, also included vast swaths of the Fourth Estate. That apparently is how the current president operates, too.
Barack Obama often displays contempt for the proper role of news-gatherers and, by extension, for the value of reporting that seeks to be unbiased. Often, officials in his White House or re-election campaign seem uncomprehending of the concept of straight reporting.
In their Manichean world, there are liberal news organizations (good) and conservative outlets (bad). Some of the news business does work this way — more than when Nixon was president, for sure — but what Obama and his political advisers and White House press handlers have done is graft their own hyper-partisanship onto the media.
In the Obama administration, it’s not uncommon for a White House press official to scream profanely over the phone at journalists whose stories they dislike, plant questions from friendly media outlets, and deny access to briefings to reporters who ask tough questions. This administration has aggressively used the Justice Department to ferret out news leaks, declared open season on a media organization out of sync with his philosophy (Fox News), and routinely questioned the professionalism of reporters and the patriotism of the opposition political party.
And though the current administration’s evasions about last September’s attacks in Benghazi, the partisan 2010-2012 activities by IRS, and the unprecedented scope of the Justice Department’s snooping into Associated Press phone records are all unrelated controversies, there is a common thread.
Those who work for this president have a fetish for stage managing the news. They never simply trust the facts; or maybe a better way of saying it is that they don’t trust the American people be able to handle the facts. Washington has been consumed in recent weeks about who, exactly, massaged the administration’s “talking points” on Benghazi.
The underlying problem is that there were talking points at all. The phrase was popularized in the 1970s in the State Department. Originally the practice ensured that government officials were employing the precise, but opaque, language required in the field of international diplomacy. But the phrase soon migrated to politics, where it meant something quite different: Talking points were the lines of the day to be employed in interviews by partisan political operatives either to defend their position or attack the other side.
Benghazi represents the merging of two uses of the term. Four government officials were killed and a U.S. facility was attacked. Yes, some Republicans wanted to use that for partisan gain, but most Americans simply wanted to know what happened, and why. They still have not been told.
All politics is local, famed Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is known for saying. Under Obama, all foreign affairs is domestic politics.
Concerning the IRS scandal, there is no evidence that Obama unleashed tax collectors on opponents, as Nixon did. But after years of comparing congressional Republicans to terrorists and hostage-takers, and characterizing the Tea Party as racists and extremists, what message did the president or the leaders of his party think they were sending IRS managers?
Obama is never content to simply say he thinks he can show how wrong-headed Republicans are about the federal budget. No, he says they should put “country ahead of party,” thereby suggesting they are deliberately hurting the economy to hurt him.
This, too, is Nixonland.
On June 29, 1972, Nixon was talking to Henry Kissinger in a taped conversation about the Democratic Party platform. “These people are so revolting that they have to be smashed,” Nixon tells his national security adviser.
“I don’t mean just beat them,” Nixon adds. “It’s good to beat them. But I mean smashed. They must be, they must be, disgraced, driven right out of public life.”
No tapes are available to know how Obama speaks about Republicans in private. But tonally, he’s not that much different from Nixon when speaking in public. Last week, even after the Benghazi, IRS, and AP controversies crested on the White House steps, Obama found time to blame Republicans at a New York fundraiser.
“What’s blocking us right now is a sort of hyper-partisanship in Washington that I was, frankly, hoping to overcome in 2008,” the president said. “My thinking was when we beat them in 2012, that might break the fever, and it’s not quite broken yet. But I am persistent. And I am staying at it. … If there are folks who are more interested in winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation, then I want to make sure there are consequences to that.”
Get all that? The Republicans don’t merely have a difference of opinion with the president. They are rabid, and craven, and willing to sacrifice their own children’s futures to win elections. This Nixon-esque attitude constitutes a toxic brew: whining, boasting, and name-calling all overlaid with persecution-complex and a profound contempt for his opponents — along with a determination to make them pay.
Like Nixon, Obama also fancies himself a press critic. Although the man received press coverage in 2008 and 2012 that Nixon would have killed for, there are considerable irritants out there, including radioman Rush Limbaugh, but primarily Fox News, which Obama and his aides have attempted to delegitimize by name.
In so doing, Obama has actually gone places in public Nixon only dared go in private.
As I write this piece, I am looking at a memo written on July 30, 1972, by President Nixon to White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. That morning, The Washington Post had published a story by Lou Cannon headlined “Nixon Running Scared.”
That article apparently got under Nixon’s skin. His memo to Haldeman runs for three pages. His premise is that the Washington Post “is totally against us.” Making no allowance for the possibility of objective reporting, Nixon starts by telling his top adviser that he understands campaign aides must deal with “media representatives that we know are antagonistic to us.”
Nixon’s second point is that they should not “waste time” with such outlets at the expense of “turning down interviews with media representatives who are our friends.” This seems to be to a false choice, but Nixon — who would win re-election in 1972 in a landslide — is just warming to his main point:
“Third, even when our most intelligent people are meeting with people like Cannon they must constantly keep in mind that they are confronting a political enemy and that everything they say will, therefore, be used against us.”
We don’t know if Obama or his minions also keep enemies lists, if only in their heads. But we do know that they view the media with the same with-us-or-against-us mentality that Nixon fostered. And though that attitude can help win elections, it surely impedes good governance.
Richard Nixon thought liberals were out to get him. Guess what? Many of them were. Likewise, Barack Obama thinks the Republicans want him to fail in office. Many of them do. But it’s a poor excuse for bad behavior.