WASHINGTON – It would have been the unlikeliest of inquiries just days ago. As President Obama stood Thursday amid the splendor of the Rose Garden, he was asked about comparisons between himself and one of the most notorious prior occupants of the Oval Office, Richard Nixon.
“I’ll let you guys engage in those comparisons,” Obama said in reference to the president who resigned in disgrace in 1974. “You can go ahead and read the history, I think, and draw your own conclusions.”
In the lexicon of the Watergate days, it was a “nondenial denial” — and the muddy response seemed to symbolize the difficulty Obama has faced in a week in which he has been forced to respond to charges of secrecy, paranoia, and heavy-handedness.
On one hand, the comparison between Nixon and Obama is unfair, some say. As startling as the reports have been in recent days —
“I find the comparison — that whoever is making the analysis is challenged in their understanding of history,” John Dean, who was White House counsel during the Nixon administration, said in an interview. “There are no comparisons. They’re not comparable with any of the burgeoning scandals.”
And Dean is in a position to know. Nearly 41 years ago, Dean was with Nixon in the Oval Office on a Friday afternoon when the president wondered aloud about utilizing the powers of the IRS to target his political opponents.
“How come we haven’t pulled [George] McGovern’s file on his income tax?” Nixon asked Dean.
At the same time, however, analysts said the Obama White House failed to grasp one of the central lessons of the Nixon era: when it comes to presidential crisis management, the rule has been to get out damaging information immediately, and stay ahead of the story. Instead, this White House was reluctant to release more information about its immediate response to the crisis in Benghazi, where a US consulate was attacked last September, killing four Americans including an ambassador.
The White House insists it did nothing wrong, yet waited until the matter had become a full-blown crisis and did not publicly release relevant e-mails until Wednesday. The administration said the e-mails showed the White House did not interfere with talking points about the matter. Republicans interpreted the e-mails more harshly.
In any case, the delay in releasing the e-mails seemed to only stoke the crisis atmosphere.
“They’ve mishandled everything all the time. Everything. Without exception,” said Lanny Davis, a former special counsel for President Clinton and author of the book “Crisis Tales.” “They’ve made all of the mistakes that should have been learned from the Nixon administration. They don’t proactively put facts out, they wait much too long, and then their message is legalistic or unclear.”
To be sure, no one knew about the depth of Nixon’s misdeeds until the secret White House tapes were released. The current controversies are still in their infancy, and it is unclear how high in the White House they will go once more information is known and once committees start holding hearings. But that has not stopped some of Obama’s critics to find parallels with Nixon, who resigned 39 years ago.
“This is an agency with an enemies list,” commentator Lou Dobbs said on Fox News of the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny. “This is Nixonian. This is a president whose inner Nixon is being revealed.”
Nixon put into motion a clandestine and illegal operation that began to be exposed with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington.
“It certainly seems overblown at this point,” Robert Dallek, a historian who has written about Nixon, said of the comparison to Obama. “It’s too facile. It’s glib.”
Far from having an “enemies list” like Nixon, Obama seems to be confronting a lack of a “friend’s list.” Democrats in Congress are rushing to distance themselves from the scandals, joining with Republicans in planning congressional investigations.
The controversy that could most closely approximate anything that Nixon did it is the one involving the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny. Nixon had the IRS investigate his political opponents, harassing them with audits.
But there has been no evidence linking Obama to the decision by the IRS to target conservative groups.
In fact, many observers say, if Obama is at fault, it is for the most un-Nixonian of reasons: not being in control. The White House has said that in most of the cases, the president did not learn of the scandals until after news reports had broken.
“If anything, he could be accused of not knowing enough about this,” said David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “To compare him to Nixon, who was pulling the strings, it’s not a fair comparison at all.”
Dean has recently been reviewing White House tapes, including some that have not been transcribed, in preparation for a book he is releasing next year on the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. He said the use of the IRS for political purposes was more aggressive than most realize.
“It’s way beyond anything I thought was going on,” Dean said of Nixon’s use of the IRS. “He used the IRS just as a tool to attack his enemies. He minces no words. It’s repetitive. It is a tool that he thinks is there for him to use if he wants to politically.”
Of the current IRS matter, Dean said: “This is not even close to Nixon’s uses and abuses of IRS.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.