Nixon, Clinton cases offer only limited guide to national agony
For more than a hundred years, a span that overlapped two world wars and two ghastly regional conflicts, the boom of industrialization and a crushing Depression, the birth of nuclear weaponry and the terror of the East-West face-off, the United States dared not contemplate challenging, charging, or removing its president.
But now, for the third time in four decades, a mature nation with 58 presidential elections under its belt has set in motion a process that will affect and perhaps even cut short Donald J. Trump’s presidency. Whatever the ultimate result of the report Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller delivered to the attorney general Friday, it will alter the shape of the presidency itself and roil a country already bitterly divided over the legitimacy, personal style, and politics of the 45th president.
The late Cornell cultural historian Michael Kammen once described the Constitution as a “machine that would go of itself.’’ And if the last two experiences with presidents under siege tell us anything — the agony of Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in disgrace in 1974, and the travails of Bill Clinton, who survived his 1998 impeachment — it is that the country’s political class now is being controlled by a scandal machine that will go of itself.
That machine, based on the intentionally vague impeachment provisions in the Constitution, will prompt howls of reaction and screams of recrimination, even if those provisions are not invoked this time around. It will lead to bruising congressional hearings, cries of media bias, claims of silent majorities, charges that the will of the people is being questioned and betrayed. There will be talk of due process, of rushes to judgment, mob rule, and above all there will be great national and neighborhood debates about the national character and American values.
And that is perhaps the single redeeming element of it all.
Having done this only twice since the 1868 impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson, there are few common threads.
The Nixon episode was moving toward certain impeachment after a searing report by a House Judiciary Committee staff that included the young William F. Weld, later governor of Massachusetts and now a GOP primary challenger to Trump; Hillary Rodham Clinton, later the first lady and presidential-campaign opponent of Trump; and Larry Lucchino, later the president and CEO of the Boston Red Sox. The Bill Clinton episodes spawned the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, whose case against the president had the whiff of a soft-porn narrative.
Unlike the previous two inquiries, which concentrated on domestic affairs, the Mueller report involves relations with Russia, not only a foreign nation but also a geopolitical rival led by a ruler steeped in the ethos, methods, and inclinations of the KGB.
There is no easy pattern to discern here. Each unhappy administration has been besieged in its own way.
Richard Nixon’s coverup, abuses, and financial dodges bore no relation to Bill Clinton’s furtive assignations, his awkward rhetorical justifications, his wife’s claims of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.’’ And neither bear any relation to what Mueller has identified — this much we can know from those he has already indicted — as the misdeeds of the sorry circle around Trump, his family, his business initiatives, and associates.
And yet all three episodes — four if you count the Iran-Contra scandal that enveloped Ronald Reagan — tell us something important about country and Congress.
They tell us that the frequent but facile critique of European statesmen and scholars — that the United States has no meaningful political parties, that Republicans and Democrats are cut from the same bland cloth — is wrong. These parties fight fiercely, even if it sometimes seems like the political equivalent of Freud’s notion of the narcissism of small differences.
And despite generations of electing trimmers, rogues, small-bore criminals, and abject criminals to political office, these moments tell us Americans still regard the rule of law as the tiller of our national life. The motivation of the fight now gathering force may be politics, or revulsion to the political comportment of the president, or calculations over future political prospects. But overall, that fight will be conducted in the language and the context of the law. A nation of readers transfixed by whodunnits will engage in a process to determine what Trump did or didn’t do, just as it did with Richard Nixon (he did, and it mattered) and Bill Clinton (he did, too, but it wasn’t enough to remove him).
The lessons of the difficult past tell us the president isn’t the only one whose career, reputation, destiny, and legacy are being shaped in this formidable crucible. The careers, reputations, destinies, and legacies of everyone involved will soon be shaped by the machine that now is going of itself.
That machine destroyed Richard Nixon, so much so that even the graveside plea of a onetime bitter Nixon critic — sitting President Clinton’s poignant request that “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close’’ — still has not come to pass. Nixon is remembered for his overtures to Soviet Russia and China, to be sure, but principally for being the only president to resign from the White House.
That machine indelibly marked Bill Clinton, whose survival did not spare him public criticism and late-night television cabaret comedy about his promiscuity and betrayal of Hillary Clinton, who despite a star turn as secretary of state was forced to confront questions about her husband’s actions during her own presidential campaigns years later.
That machine boosted the career of Republican Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, whose what-did-the-president-know-and-when-did-he-know-it question is the litmus test of all the White House scandals that followed. Baker became a revered Senate majority leader and, later, White House chief of staff. That machine turbocharged the career of GOP Representative Bill Cohen of Maine, whose rectitude and open mind during the period became a model of congressional probity and led him to the US Senate and secretary of defense in a Democratic administration.
That machine even transformed the profile of two conservatives reviled by liberals, GOP Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Democratic Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, who, moved by a sense of national purpose, served as honest brokers during the Watergate period. It was Goldwater whose argument prevailed on the president to leave office after Nixon’s role in the Watergate coverup became known in that tortuous summer.
That machine changed the trajectory of House Republicans whose zeal 24 years later to remove Clinton from office hurt their reputations and political prospects. For the first time in a century and two-thirds, a party out of the White House actually lost seats in the sixth year of a presidency. The five seats the Democrats picked up were not a whisper but a shout about the views of Americans, who by large measures believed Clinton had lied about his indiscretions — but who also believed he didn’t deserve to be removed from office.
Will that lesson convey to the present day?
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and House majority leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland both witnessed the GOP meltdown of 1998 and have displayed enormous reluctance to overplay the anti-Trump hand they have been dealt. Only when the fullness of the Mueller report is revealed will it be clear if it is a full-House hand or not. The Democratic leadership has been chary of even talking about impeachment, even as questions have mounted about the president’s relations with Russia and possible payoffs made from the Oval Office.
Their determination to avoid the process may yet hold. But the determination of House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler of New York, who early this month filed 81 requests for information related to Trump, and the decision by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff of California to hire an attorney steeped in prosecuting Russian organized crime suggest a Democratic restiveness and aggressiveness that the speaker and majority leader may not be able to quell.
What looms is a contest of base against base.
On one side is Trump’s electoral coalition of the rural, the less educated, the anti-elitist, and the dispossessed, all troubled by political correctness, motivated by rage over being on the sad side of the wealth gap, contemptuous of the mainstream media and the faculty club.
On the other is the increasingly left-leaning coalition of environmentalists, abortion-rights advocates, and wealth-gap warriors, outraged by Trump’s treatment of women, political style, and eagerness to eliminate the guideposts of postwar America, from multinational financial and diplomatic institutions to the Western alliance.
The contempt each of these bases has for the other — created before the election of Trump but deepened during the two years after his ”American-carnage’’ inauguration — has no bounds in contemporary America and few precedents in American history. The reaction to the Mueller report almost certainly will enflame these groups, turning them against each other in an ever more furious cultural civil war.
The wounds of the Nixon and Clinton episodes were deep but ultimately not long-lived. The wounds of the Trump years show no signs of easy healing. The Mueller report will enrage some Americans and delight others. But it is the beginning and not the end of the judgment on President Trump, and it will salve no wounds, solve no mysteries, settle no controversies.
David Shribman, a former Washington bureau chief of the Globe, is a nationally syndicated columnist and executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.