By Donald Mazzella, Special forUSDR.
George Washington is credited with saying he “could not tell a lie.”
In our lifetimes we have seen presidents tell the American people outright lies.
One was driven from office because of his lie.
The others somehow escaped universal censure.
It is forty years since Richard Nixon was driven from office because he tried to cover up a stupid criminal blunder by his subordinates.
Was he wrong? Absolutely!
Could he have handled the situation better? Without a doubt!
Did he pay a heavy price for his blunders? Yes
Was he truly wrong? History will be the judge.
What went wrong? Everything.
What was his biggest mistake?
His most egregious blunder was not admitting the folly of the Watergate break-in and immediately firing the people who ordered it.
As the Watergate affair proved, it was not the original crime that hurt but the actions taken afterward that led to his downfall.
The scenario best to describe what happened to President Nixon, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
Although often ascribed to Shakespeare the quote is really found in Sir Francis Scott’s epic poem Marmion.
His downfall began with a botched break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate office in Washington.
Eventually, the break-in was traced to key members of his re-election campaign and to the White House.
He chose to stonewall the investigation escalating the scandal instead of containing it by admitting mistakes were made.
In the years since, politicians, sport figures, and celebrities have learned it is best to admit their mistake and have Americans forgive them.
In this instance, President Nixon was covering up a crime. That is a key consideration which makes his resignation appropriate.
But people make decisions based on personal imperatives and perceptions.
There were two key factors motivating President Nixon’s actions:
Loyalty to his subordinates
His relationship with the press
Many thoughtful historians and individuals have marveled at President Nixon’s loyalty to the people around him who ordered the break-in.
In the years before and since, individuals have been quick to jettison subordinates who have blundered.
President Nixon chose to protect them. He was wrong and paid the ultimate price—his presidency.
From this decision to protect and support those subordinates sprang much of the actions which caused his fall.
Little noted in the commentary on his resignation is that In their subsequent lives, almost to a man they returned that loyalty.
Often overlooked in a more cynical world today is the loyalty of this group to each other.
A driving element in the Nixon saga is the hostility the media had towards him.
As the many books written about him since his resignation, he did not enjoy a positive relationship with national media.
In his famous concession speech after losing the 1962 California governor’s race he angrily denounced the press by saying they “wouldn’t have (him) to kick around again.”
The speech aptly encapsulated his perception of the media towards him.
This mantra drove much of his decision making.
The press in turn fed on this perception and almost reveled in it.
Take the challenge Dan Rather threw at him during a press conference.
President Nixon’s attempt at humor when he asked if Rather was running for president and Rather’s tart reply “are you?”
One need only look at how the press treated his epic journeys to China. Historians today admit it was one of the crowning achievements of any 20th Century president in opening China to the world.
Review the press coverage of those journeys and one sees a reluctant admission of his achievement.
Rightly or wrongly, President Nixon perceived a hostility which would have crippled his administration for its remaining years if he admitted the truth and fired his subordinates.
President William Clinton said he “did not have sex with that woman.”
Despite his impeachment, his reputation remains positive with the press.
Perhaps the bigger lie was the one President Barack Obama told when he told the nation “if you like your doctor, you can keep him. If you like your health insurance policy, you can keep it.”
The media (which we now call the press) has been very kind to him on this issue.
There is little doubt President Nixon would have been slammed repeatedly for such a lie.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s handling of it.
Among them are:
Don’t commit crimes under your presidential watch
If some are done fire the people involved immediately
Admit whatever role played
Don’t lie about it
Trust the American people to forgive
Sadly, President Nixon did none of these things and suffered the consequences.