Opinion

The Great Debate

Why Nixon matters

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Forty years ago, on August 8, Richard M. Nixon made unprecedented constitutional history when he resigned the presidency amid the disgrace and scandal of Watergate. He cannot escape that legacy — for he left an indelible record of his deeds in a treasure trove of tapes and papers that continue to fascinate us with revelations.

Alas! Watergate is Nixon’s spot that will not out. The break-in, the ensuing revelation of what Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, called the “White House Horrors,” the congressional and prosecutorial investigations that considered those travesties and Nixon’s eventual resignation laid bare unprecedented instances of presidential abuses of power and yes, criminality.

Watergate was a major constitutional crisis; the promiscuous use of the suffix “gate” only trivializes it. Alexander Butterfield, who revealed the existence of the White House taping system, described Nixon as a man always conscious, if not obsessed, with history and his role in it. How ironic then that he left rich historical documentation, a self-inflicted wound as it were, that has so sullied his record and reputation. YouTube Preview Image

Yet Nixon endures. He stands as the commanding figure of American political life since the end of World War Two. His style, achievements and failures range over the political landscape and persist nearly two decades after his death. As a rising politician, as an opposition figure, as president and in his 20 years of “retirement,” Nixon greatly influenced his time. Today his impact is still apparent in so much of U.S. public life. He survives to praise or “kick around.” Either way, Nixon matters.

Nixon’s history was not pretty. Beginning with his first campaign for Congress in 1946, Nixon honed the practice of wedge politics, which he has bequeathed to later politicians. His 1950 Senate campaign raised “Red-baiting” to an art form. When former General Dwight D. Eisenhower selected him as his running mate in 1952, Nixon deftly turned the controversy over his political funds to his advantage with the “Checkers” speech, inaugurating a new era of political television. As vice president, he stirred partisan conflict while Eisenhower seemed above the political fray.

Benghazi: The zombie scandal

Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks to members of the World Affairs Council in Portland, Oregon

We’re not making scandals the way we used to.

The House of Representatives has now voted, virtually along party lines, to create the Benghazi Select Committee that conservatives have long called for. The atmosphere of scandal that has surrounded Bill and Hillary Clinton for decades has gotten, at least temporarily, a renewed lease on life.

Will the committee produce enough news to revive the idea of the Clintons’ dubious past and inject the poison of illegitimacy into Hillary Clinton’s much-speculated 2016 presidential campaign?

Not likely. Today’s political scandals seem unable to develop the momentum needed to exert real political influence. There’s sound and fury — adding up to an electoral and prosecutorial nothing.

JFK’s legacy: The party’s over

The current commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy raises one lingering question: What explains JFK’s enduring hold on the national imagination?

Why does Kennedy figure so largely in American memory when his presidency was so short, his accomplishments so few (particularly in the domestic arena where he cannot compare with his successor) and his legacy transient?

So is our collective fascination with Kennedy just superficial — a product of the remarkably attractive, compellingly visual nature of his presidency?

For Obama’s second Inaugural, skip the poetry

President Barack Obama should hope that old adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” isn’t true. In his second Inaugural Address Monday, he has a chance to sharpen his arguments and move the nation in a way that eluded him the first time around.

Instead of a soggy sermon about political maturity, Obama should offer a ripping defense of his vision of government and its role in the economy. He has nothing to fear but controversy itself.

Obama faces a low bar. Facing history, presidents often choke. They know that these talks are among the only ones sure to be collected in a book or chiseled on the wall of their presidential library. The genre tends toward the ponderous.

Cuban Missile Crisis proved compromise is key

The most-quoted line from history’s most dangerous confrontation declares, “We were eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.” Now, with the opening of Robert F. Kennedy’s personal papers on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, there can be no doubt that before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev blinked, President John F. Kennedy winked.

In the official narrative, Kennedy stood tall, hung tough and stared his opponent down. What this obscures is the critical role that cunning, craft and willingness to compromise played in resolving this crisis.

This narrative has informed — and misinformed — many presidential decisions over the past five decades. In 1964, for example, while choosing to Americanize the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “It required great American firmness and good sense — first in Berlin and later in the Cuban Missile Crisis — to turn back [Khrushchev's] threats and actions without war.”

Obama, Elvis and America’s birthers

Bernd Debusmann– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own. –
Nobody ever landed on the moon, the televised images are a hoax. John F. Kennedy was murdered in a complex plot involving the Mafia and the CIA. Elvis Presley lives. Barack Obama was born outside the United States and therefore is ineligible to be president.

All these claims stem from conspiracy theories and myths born in the U.S. and they throw a question mark over the long-held view of experts that such ideas flourish most in societies where news is controlled, access to information difficult and barriers to independent inquiry difficult to overcome.

This kind of restrictive environment  applies to many Third World countries – conspiracy theories are particularly abundant in the Middle East and Africa — but not to the technologically and economically advanced United States. Yet there is a parallel universe inhabited by millions and millions of Americans immune to facts, logic and common sense.

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