Nixon At 101

Yesterday was Richard Nixon’s birthday. “Tricky Dick,” who was the only American President ever to resign from office, would have been 101.

It’s interesting that Nixon, much more so than many other of his political contemporaries, remains a relevant, well-known figure today. Nobody talks much about Hubert Humphrey, or Barry Goldwater, or even Lyndon Johnson or Dwight Eisenhower, but Nixon always finds his way into political conversations. For example, some people are comparing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s long press conference yesterday to Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, in which Nixon adeptly defused allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate conduct. The “Checkers” speech was the first real evidence of the power of TV in dealing with a political scandal, and it remains a touchstone even today.

Nixon isn’t remembered for his political positions. There isn’t a Nixon wing of the Republican party, and it’s hard to think of any current politician who is even remotely comparable to him. Instead, Nixon’s existence as a significant political figure at the dawn of the TV and mass media age, his demonstrations of how TV can have a positive and negative impact, and the fact that he endured the worst scandal in the nation’s history and resigned in disgrace will always make him a point of comparison.

And for every positive juxtaposition — Will Christie’s press conference be as effective as the “Checkers” speech? Is President X’s new global initiative the boldest foreign policy gambit since Nixon’s China strategy? — there will be thousands of uses of Nixon as a negative marker. The worst debate appearance since Nixon seemed to have a five o’clock shadow in his debate with Kennedy. The worst self-pitying press conference since Nixon said “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” after he lost a race for California Governor in 1962. The most self-revealing comment since Nixon said “I am not a crook.” And, of course, the worst scandal since Watergate. The fact that, 40 years later, people still try to put “gate” on every scandal is powerful testimony to Nixon’s lasting place in the American political firmament.

Richard Nixon resigned 40 years ago and died 20 years ago, but the references to him are still fresh and constant. He will always be a significant historical figure and an instant measuring stick when something bad happens to a politician who aspires to the presidency or who already occupies the Oval Office.

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Ho Hum Gate

Mother Jones magazine recently published a story about Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and his staff talking about candidates who might oppose McConnell in the next election.  The story was based upon a recording obtained by the magazine.  The McConnell campaign has reacted with outrage, claiming that someone must have bugged campaign offices and requesting an FBI investigation.

I’d venture a few predictions about how this story will play out.  First, the McConnell campaign’s reaction has just focused attention on the story and will boost the sales of Mother Jones magazine far beyond what would otherwise have occurred.  (Incidentally, the Mother Jones story and the quotes from the tape recording seem like pretty thin gruel.  I don’t think anyone will be shocked that U.S. Senators and their staffs spend time researching opponents and discussing how to best portray them as idiots, demons, or out-of-touch plutocrats.  If the McConnell campaign hadn’t gone ballistic, the story probably wouldn’t have made a blip on the nightly news.)

Second, I’m betting that there was no bugging.  When leaks occur, the obvious reaction is to claim improper conduct by somebody else, but often the truth is that the leak was made by some disgruntled staffer trying to advance his own agenda.  Don’t be surprised if the recording in this case was made by someone in the McConnell campaign for his own purposes and then shared with someone, either intentionally or inadvertently, and ultimately ended up in the hands of Mother Jones as a result.

Third, who does Mitch McConnell think he is?  Does anyone really think that Mitch’s Kentucky campaign strategy sessions would be viewed as so likely to produce priceless nuggets of information that Democrats would risk criminal prosecution to find out what McConnell is discussing with his staffers?  And, even if the Democrats had bugged his office for some reason, why would they blow their cover by leaking a bland story about opposition research to a magazine like Mother Jones, rather than keeping their recording devices a secret and continuing to listen in on Mitch’s ruminations?

The McConnell campaign’s reaction to this non-story makes no sense . . . but I guess that’s the core problem in Washington D.C. these days.

A Peek Inside The Brittle, Thin-Skinned D.C. Bubble

Every once in a while we hear about a story that gives us a good sense of the warped world of politicians and journalists in Washington, D.C.  The recent snit between Bob Woodward and the White House is one of those stories.

In case you missed this earth-shattering tale, Bob Woodward — the Watergate reporter who has since made a career out of writing turgid, insider-based accounts of Washington events — was getting ready to write about “sequestration,” the Rube Goldberg process by which $85 billion in “automatic” spending cuts will be made today because our current President can’t lead and our current Congress can’t legislate.  When Woodward told a White House aide his view on the genesis of the “sequestration” concept and the President’s approach to it, he says the aide yelled at him for a half hour, then sent Woodward an email that stated, among other things, that Woodward would “regret” staking out his position on the issue.  Woodward, miffed, disclosed the exchange, which he saw as a veiled threat.

What does this tell us about Washington, D.C.?  It tells us that the White House is focused more on spin than solving problems and is amazingly thin-skinned about criticism.  “Sequestration” — the implementation of “automatic” spending cuts that were consciously designed to be so draconian and blunderbuss that they would force the parties to sit down and reach an agreement — is an idiotic way for our government to operate.  I don’t blame the White House for trying to blur its role in putting such lunacy into place.  The Democrat-controlled Senate, and the Republican-controlled House, are engaging in similar juvenile finger-pointing.  The notion of accepting responsibility and reaching agreement on a rational approach evidently is too adult a concept to hold sway in the weird world of Washington.

But what of Bob Woodward? He received a dressing down from some presidential flunky and then got an email he thought was ill-considered.  Big deal!  I guess the politicians and reporters in D.C. are so chummy that a few strong words are deeply wounding and cause for scandal.  Maybe that’s our problem.  The reporters and the politicians in the D.C. fishbowl are so used to stroking each other that real reporting never gets done and real accountability never gets assigned.  I’d be perfectly happy if more politicians and aides with bloated egos did some yelling at reporters tracking down the news, and more reporters shrugged off the tirades and printed what they and their editors decided was the real story.

A Costly Solar Flame-Out (III)

In recent years — where important legislation always seems to be prepared at the eleventh hour, after closed door meetings with only selected congressional leaders — it has been easy to forget that one of Congress’ more important powers is the power to investigate, obtain documents, and take testimony.  Much of the drama in the Watergate story, for example, came during the long, drawn-out congressional hearings into that scandal, as witness after witness drew the ring of scandal closer and closer around President Nixon.

The story of Solyndra — the solar power company that recently went into bankruptcy after receiving more than $500 million in government loan guarantees and then became the subject of an FBI investigation — may reignite interest in congressional hearings.  ABC News is reporting that the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will hold hearings on the Solyndra story tomorrow, has obtained emails that indicate that the White House was carefully monitoring the Energy Department’s consideration of loan guarantees to Solyndra, at the same time that government analysts were expressing serious concerns about the risks involved.

The Solyndra story is no Watergate, of course, but congressional oversight and investigation powers aren’t reserved only for scandals capable of bringing down a President.  Congress should determine whether federal officials disregarded clear risks and awarded more than half a billion dollars to a private company just to advance a political agenda — or, even worse, to help a political contributor who invested in a struggling business — and, if so, Congress should take steps to ensure that those officials are appropriately punished and such recklessness does not happen again in the future. Such actions would be a good sign that Congress may actually get back to doing its job and exercising its powers, rather than simply, and endlessly, fundraising and grandstanding.