How Nixon Won Watergate

220px-Richard_NixonPresObamaBelow is today’s column in USA Today. It is a follow up to my speech at the National Press Club on the 4oth anniversary of Watergate. The event included a number of Watergate figures from Daniel Ellsberg to Liz Holtzman to Alexander Butterfield and others. It was an extraordinary event organized by Common Cause.


This month, I spoke at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal with some of its survivors at the National Press Club. While much of the discussion looked back at the historic clash with President Nixon, I was struck by a different question: Who actually won? From unilateral military actions to warrantless surveillance that were key parts of the basis for Nixon’s impending impeachment, the painful fact is that Barack Obama is the president that Nixon always wanted to be.

Four decades ago, Nixon was halted in his determined effort to create an “imperial presidency” with unilateral powers and privileges. In 2013, Obama wields those very same powers openly and without serious opposition. The success of Obama in acquiring the long-denied powers of Nixon is one of his most remarkable, if ignoble, accomplishments. Consider a few examples:

Warrantless surveillance

Nixon’s use of warrantless surveillance led to the creation of a special court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). But the reform turned out to be more form than substance. The secret court turned “probable cause” into a meaningless standard, virtually guaranteeing any surveillance the government wanted. After hundreds of thousands of applications over decades, only a couple have ever been denied.

Last month, the Supreme Court crushed any remaining illusions regarding FISA when it sided with the Obama administration in ruling that potential targets of such spying had to have proof they were spied upon before filing lawsuits, even if the government has declared such evidence to be secret. That’s only the latest among dozens of lawsuits the administration has blocked while surveillance expands exponentially.

Unilateral military action

Nixon’s impeachment included the charge that he evaded Congress’ sole authority to declare war by invading Cambodia. In the Libyan “mission,” Obama announced that only he had the inherent authority to decide what is a “war” and that so long as he called it something different, no congressional approval or even consultation was necessary. He proceeded to bomb a nation’s capital, destroy military units and spend more than a billion dollars in support of one side in a civil war.

Kill lists

Nixon ordered a burglary to find evidence to use against Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the famed Pentagon Papers to the press, and later tried to imprison him. Ellsberg was later told of a secret plot by the White House “plumbers” to “incapacitate” him in a physical attack. It was a shocking revelation. That’s nothing compared with Obama’s assertion of the right to kill any U.S. citizen without a charge, let alone conviction, based on his sole authority. A recently leaked memo argues that the president has a right to kill a citizen even when he lacks “clear evidence (of) a specific attack” being planned.

Attacking whistle-blowers and Journalists

Nixon was known for his attacks on whistle-blowers. He used the Espionage Act of 1917 to bring a rare criminal case against Ellsberg. Nixon was vilified for the abuse of the law. Obama has brought twice as many such prosecutions as all prior presidents combined. While refusing to prosecute anyone for actual torture, the Obama administration has prosecuted former CIA employee John Kiriakou for disclosing the torture program. The Obama Administration has also threatened action against journalists in receiving precisely the same type of information published in the Pentagon Papers during Nixon’s administration.

Other Nixonesque areas include Obama’s overuse of classification laws and withholding material from Congress. There are even missing tapes. In the torture scandal, CIA officials admitted to destroying tapes that they feared could be used against them in criminal cases. Of course, Nixon had missing tapes, but Rose Mary Woods claimed to have erased them by mistake, as opposed to current officials who openly admit to intentional destruction.

Obama has not only openly asserted powers that were the grounds for Nixon’s impeachment, but he has made many love him for it. More than any figure in history, Obama has been a disaster for the U.S. civil liberties movement. By coming out of the Democratic Party and assuming an iconic position, Obama has ripped the movement in half. Many Democrats and progressive activists find themselves unable to oppose Obama for the authoritarian powers he has assumed. It is not simply a case of personality trumping principle; it is a cult of personality.

Long after Watergate, not only has the presidency changed. We have changed. We have become accustomed to elements of a security state such as massive surveillance and executive authority without judicial oversight. We have finally answered a question left by Benjamin Franklin in 1787, when a Mrs. Powel confronted him after the Constitutional Convention and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” His chilling response: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We appear to have grown weary of the republic and traded it for promises of security from a shining political personality. Somewhere, Nixon must be wondering how it could have been this easy.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.

USA Today March 26, 2013

79 thoughts on “How Nixon Won Watergate

  1. What? No mention of Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew? Somehow the phrase “nolo contendre” comes to mind. Not exactly a Bradley Manning type prosecution of the “lawbreakers,” to say the least.

  2. Please proof read better. In the sixth paragraph you say Nixon was impeached. Nixon was never impeached. He beat them to it and resigned. So, no impeachment. Andrew Johnson, impeached but was acquitted. Bill Clinton is the only President both impeached AND found guilty.

  3. “From unilateral military actions to warrantless surveillance that were key parts of the basis for Nixon’s impending impeachment, the painful fact is that Barack Obama is the president that Nixon always wanted to be.” – Jonathan Turley

    That word, “impending”, is an important adjective.

    It occurs in the second paragraph and thus modifies the usage of “impeachment” from thereon out, including in the sixth paragraph.

  4. As I have always understood things, “impeachment” serves as the political equivalent of a criminal “indictment.” If it so wishes, the House of Representatives can vote articles of impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” meaning by those terms (if it wishes — and it did) even extramarital fellatio, whereupon the Senate will try the case, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. Punishment, if any, consists in removal from office, nothing more.

    The House of Representatives has voted articles of impeachment against three presidents: Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. The Senate did not vote to remove either Johnson or Clinton from office, so both finished out their terms — Bil Clinton quite successfully. Richard Nixon, realizing that the Senate had enough votes and the intention to remove him, chose to resign from office as part of a deal the terms of which only became apparent after his resignation when his personally selected Vice President granted him a carte-blanche pardon that essentially short-circuited any possible legal proceedings — civil or criminal — against him.

    As Glenn Greenwald summarizes the impact of the Nixon pardon in his book With Liberty and Justice for Some:

    Although there have been episodes of unpunished elite malfeasance throughout American history, the explicit, systematic embrace of the notion that such malfeasance should be shielded from legal consequences begins with the Watergate scandal – one of the clearest cases of widespread, deliberate criminality at the highest level of the U.S. government.

    Remarkably, [President Gerald] Ford explicitly pointed to Nixon’s lofty status as a reason to exempt him from the accountability applied to ordinary Americans – a complete reversal and rejection of the central covenant of the American founding. Ford’s signature line – “Our long national nightmare is over” – put a heroic spin on the betrayal of the rule of law: we end the “nightmare” of high-level criminality by sweeping it under the rug, protecting the wrongdoers, and pretending their crimes never happened.”

    The actual beneficiary of the pardon, of course, was not “Americans” but Richard Nixon.

    That about covers the subject, I think.

  5. “Ford’s signature line – “Our long national nightmare is over” – put a heroic spin on the betrayal of the rule of law…” -Glenn Greenwald

    Being in the thick of it, I can attest to the fact that “our long national nightmare” most certainly isn’t “over.” Many are slumbering and the nightmare continues.

    ———

    “Watch “The Lessons of Watergate””

    “Thanks to everyone who made our “The Lessons of Watergate” conference possible. Watch the footage from the first day — we’ll have more as it becomes available.”

    http://www.commoncause.org/site/pp.asp?c=dkLNK1MQIwG&b=8601105

  6. Many believe it will take another scandal the size of Watergate, or worse, to get us back on track. Let’s hope not. -Michael Winship

    It will… It’s in plain sight. And it’s a doozy. One of these days…

    Watergate’s Lessons, Washed Away

    March 29, 2013

    by Michael Winship

    http://billmoyers.com/2013/03/29/watergate%E2%80%99s-lessons-washed-away/

    Excerpt:

    But the Lessons of Watergate are lessons learned and lost. We’ve got to organize, get our government back and make it accountable. Many believe it will take another scandal the size of Watergate, or worse, to get us back on track. Let’s hope not. Instead, four decades in the future, let there be changes for the good America can celebrate, so we don’t wind up like those old ballplayers on the road, reliving an unforced error, again and again.

  7. Elaine M.,

    From retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich’s book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War:

    In sum, failure in Vietnam seemingly left the Washington Rules in tatters. That within five years of Saigon’s fall they were well on their way to reconstruction qualifies as remarkable. That within another decade the American credo and sacred trinity had been fully restored deserves to be seen as astonishing. In retrospect, what distinguishes the legacy of Vietnam is not how much things changed, but how little. Seldom has a war been so fervently memorialized even as it was being so thoroughly drained of meaning.

    But the whopper of a remark that really sticks in my craw — as a veteran of the Nixon Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent (Vietnam 1970-72) — comes from no less an amoral monster than Nixon’s Teutonic Rasputin himself:

    Already in 1975, in a memo drafted for President Gerald Ford, Kissinger, then secretary of state, called it “remarkable, considering how long the war lasted and how intensely it was reported and commented upon, that there are really not very many lessons from our experience in Vietnam that can be usefully applied elsewhere despite the obvious temptation to try.”

    The impeachment of Richard Nixon derived principally from three sources: (1) his scurrilous, low-road political career that savaged so many who never forgot or forgave; (2) his dragging-out and accelerating (via intensified bombing) a ruinous foreign war that the American people had long-since abandoned as pointless and dishonorable; and (3) his petty — and even worse, incompetent — criminality. Unfortunately for America, only the pathological personality of Richard Nixon (preceded by the simply venal Spiro Agnew) had to leave the scene of national government; whereas the reactionary gutter politics and official criminality remained, perpetrated and refined by more attractive and competent personalities.

  8. While over in the Philippines, I had a silk screen made, along with two T shirts: one black letters on white, one white on black; I’ll expand it to sweat shirts after I return to the States in two weeks. Here it is:
    Is BARACK O More Dangerous Than ADOLF H? (front)
    (on the back:) .1.Murders Children To Abolish The 2nd Amendment!
    2.Abolishes The Rule Of Law Using U.S. Drone Strikes!
    3.Repeals The Magna Carta With Rights Stripping NDA Act!
    (obviously larger letters on front, three lines) (back is six lines)
    Looks really good, especially in black with white letters. I do it because I’m personally outraged by what is going on.
    Seems exagerated or too ‘radical’? I get that a lot, but the answer is ‘Not at all!” We live in very radical times! Very! The extremism is out there, with our government & their bosses, corporate or private; and that goes both ways too, but the actions of our recent presidents are inexcusable, the latest being the worst ever. So, if any of this seems too radical, just get more education on what is going on, from presidential edicts to the role of psychiatry, to bankers, drug corporations, Illuminati & the New World Order. Bush Snr. didn’t make his NWO speech on 9/11/1990 for nothing!
    Anyway, we still have a chance but we have to use it. Should anyone else have the balls & conviction to wear this shirt, I’ll try to make it available at market prices. Meanwhile, I’ll be wearing it myself.

  9. travelinglimey,
    Thanks for sharing this vital information with us.
    Good, then we Illuminati of the New World Order can identify you by your Tshirt. We’re recruiting delusional paranoids, such as yourself, to be taken to the home planet on the Mother Ship.
    You will be surgically altered, to remove your balls and convictions, before being returned to the New World Order, as a quadruple-agent.
    Welcome!

  10. Is Lewis Carroll alive? Even he couldn’t have written this. I for the life of me can’t believe what has happened in the past dozen years. I wonder what it’s going to take for people to wake up?

  11. Well, I am having quite a mixed reaction to reading this article. I am opposed to the expansion of presidential powers over the last several decades, and especially to the extreme powers granted President Bush after 9-11, many of which Obama has retained and used. But the article seems to be blaming Obama, who really had very little to do with any of it and simply continued using many, though by no means all, of the anti-terrorism resources set up during the previous administration. The article would have made much more sense comparing Nixon’s power with GW Bush’s. The fact that the author did not write it this way makes one suspect that his purpose was to bash Obama rather than to make valid points about the expansion of presidential powers. None of these powers had anything to do with why Nixon faced impeachment, so the premise of the article is strained, to say the least.

  12. Carl R, you are making the mistake of picking a side in the left/right donkey/elephant shell game. Its a distraction only, so you will miss what is really going on. I thought it could not get worse than Bush Jr after the Patriot Act. It has, & Obama is in the driver seat now.
    Mark C, you’re right, but fact can be stranger than fiction. That’s why David Ike titled his 9/11 book: Alice & Wonderland & the 9/11 Story… I’d like to answer your question but I’ll pass it on if I see him.

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