Everything Old Is New Again: How Bush Imitates Nixon



It is always interesting to note the many ways in which history repeats itself – themes, patterns and events seem to follow predictable sequences, giving rise to the old saying that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.  There are more than the usual similarities, however, between the current Bush Administration and the Nixon Administration of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  In fact, it has become downright eerie.


The first and most obvious is war – specifically, unpopular war.  Both Presidents have had to deal with a war that was not supported by a majority of the American people during their term in office.  The Viet Nam War was, like the Iraq War, a civil war in a foreign country (OK, Viet Nam was technically two separate countries – and therefore it was not technically a “civil war” – but the division was an artificial one; they are now one country and were always one people), and most Americans now agree that we should not have been there.  President Nixon, while claiming that he wanted to get our troops out and bring us “Peace with Honor”, instead escalated the Viet Nam War by bombing Haiphong and Hanoi during the peace talks and expanding the war into Cambodia; meanwhile, 20,000 more Americans died in Southeast Asia as Nixon pushed for his “Peace with Honor”.  Of course, Communism has now – with the exception of China and a few very small countries (including Viet Nam) – been defeated WITHOUT us “winning” in Viet Nam, and Viet Nam has become a regular trading partner of the United States.  In other words, catastrophe did not befall America as a result of our leaving Viet Nam; instead, I would argue the catastrophe of 20,000 dead American troops – and an unprecedented level of divisiveness that still infects America – resulted from our staying in Viet Nam.  A key difference between these two Presidents regarding these wars, of course, is that the Viet Nam War was already raging when President Nixon came into office, but President Bush started the Iraq war.  How many more American troops will die while the Bush Administration continues to insist on keeping the troops in Iraq, in the middle of yet another civil war in a foreign country?  Both Presidents were accused of not leveling with the American people about key issues in the war; in President Nixon’s case it was the bombing of Cambodia, and in President Bush’s case it was the reasons for going to war in the first place.  In both cases, the President’s popularity dropped significantly as a result, at least in part, of the war.


Another striking similarity is the personnel. During the second term of the Nixon Administration, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee was George H. W. Bush – in fact, the senior Bush held that position at the time of President Nixon’s resignation. It was the senior Bush’s task to try to keep the Republican Party from collapsing in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and the father’s experience had to have made an impression on the son. In addition, among the key members of this Bush Administration that also worked in the Nixon Administration are Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. In fact, they worked in the same office for part of that time; Cheney served as a “Special Assistant” to Rumsfeld when Rumsfeld was Director of the United States Office of Economic Opportunity. The two then went on to hold other positions in the government, including serving back-to-back as White House Chief of Staff under President Ford. All three of these men – Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld – witnessed, firsthand, the downfall of a Presidency in the wake of scandal. They all witnessed, firsthand, the subsequent reigning in of what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called “The Imperial Presidency”. And they have all been working to restore the power of “The Imperial Presidency” ever since. Another similarity in personnel is the role played by each President’s political advisor. What Karl Rove has been to President Bush, Charles Colson was to President Nixon. Like Rove, Colson was known to be politically ruthless; like Rove, Colson was known to be in the President’s inner-most circle and, like what could (and should) happen to Rove, Colson went to prison.  Yet another familiar face within the Bush Administration is that of Henry Kissinger, who served as National Security Advisor and, later, as Secretary of State under President Nixon. Kissinger has been advising President Bush on his Iraq War policy, which probably explains why the Iraq war so strongly resembles Viet Nam.  Still another similarity in personnel is the role of “safety net” that is currently being filled by Vice President Cheney.  In this role, Cheney is President Bush’s best defense against impeachment – no one in Congress (not even the Republicans) wants to see a “PresidentCheney”.  During the Nixon Administration, this very same role was filled by Vice President Spiro Agnew, who would have been completely unacceptable as President.  It was not until Vice President Agnew had resigned (in a plea bargain with the Justice Department over bribes Agnew had taken while Governor of Maryland), and Vice President Gerald Ford had replaced Agnew, that impeachment proceedings were seriously considered by the Congress.  If the Congress were to consider impeachment proceedings against President Bush (as I believe they should), they will first have to find a way to remove and replace Vice President Cheney.  [UPDATE (1/10/2007): Yet another former Nixon Administration official has now joined the Bush Administration in a key position: Fred Fielding, who served under John W. Dean III in the White House Counsel’s office during the Nixon Administration, has replaced Harriet Miers as the chief White House Counsel in the Bush Administration. Fielding is intimately familiar with scandal in a Presidential administration, having worked closely with John Dean to contain the Nixon Administration’s growing Watergate scandal (He also worked in the Reagan Administration until just before the Iran-Contra scandal broke). It is, in this sense, altogether fitting that Fielding has taken Dean’s old job in another Presidential administration rocked by scandal.]


Third is the emphasis on personal loyalty to the President. In President Nixon’s day, a lack – real or perceived – of loyalty to Richard Nixon caused even cabinet officers to be cut off from access to the President. Those who resisted the various schemes – from IRS audits to NSA wiretaps – found themselves literally on the outside looking in. Those who openly opposed the President ended up on the now-infamous “enemies list”. In the Bush Administration, this has been taken even further. Loyalty to George W. Bush is paramount – nothing compares in importance. Merely being the bearer of bad news has led to firings and demotions. An example of this is General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the Army, who had the audacity to tell Congress the truth – that it would require more than 400,000 troops to conquer and pacify Iraq (J. Paul Bremer, who headed the Provisional Coalition Authority that governed Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, has now stated publicly – and written in a new book – that he urgently requested the same number of troops, but his request was denied). Shinseki was relieved of duty, sending a message that was received loud and clear by all other officials – both military and civilian. Anyone who has gone public against the Bush Administration has paid a stiff price; men such as Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neill, and James Wilson are just three of the more well-known examples.


President Nixon has been called “paranoid”, and this is meant in the full, clinical sense.   He was sure his enemies, including liberals, the press, and university intellectuals, were out to get him.  He was utterly convinced of his own necessity – he truly believed that it was absolutely essential to the country that he be re-elected, that his policies be carried forward.  In his view, anyone who opposed his re-election or his policies was trying to harm the country itself, and they were therefore unpatriotic.  He failed to make the distinction between President Richard Nixon and the Presidency, between the man and the office. In his final hours and days in the White House, President Nixon reportedly was seen wandering the halls of the White House, talking to the portraits of past Presidents.  In President Bush’s White House, the same confusion between President and Presidency exists; loyalty to the man is synonymous with patriotism – anyone who opposes President Bush and his policies is regarded as unpatriotic.  Even Senators and Members of Congress who attempt to question the Bush Administration’s handling of the war in Iraq are called “irresponsible”, and are accused of attempting to demoralize our troops and encourage the terrorists.  They are “sending the wrong message”.  Frankly, I believe the message these opponents are sending is exactly the opposite – that the vigorous democracy that is the United States of America, and the liberties we enjoy as citizens – in other words, the very things our troops are fighting for – are alive and well, a message that would encourage the troops and demoralize the terrorists.  As Senator J. William Fulbright wrote in The Arrogance of Power (1966), “We must learn to treat our freedom as a source of strength, as an asset to be shown to the world with confidence and pride.”  The Bush Administration believes otherwise.  Critics are attacked, reputations are destroyed, and, in the case of Joe Wilson, his wife’s status as an undercover CIA operative was exposed.  These guys play for keeps.


A fourth similarity can be found in how these two Presidents handled the conflict between the President’s Constitutional mandates to “provide for the common defense” and to “insure domestic tranquility” on the one hand, and his duty to protect the civil liberties guaranteed to the American people in the Bill of Rights on the other.  In President Nixon’s 1968 campaign, the rallying cry was “Law and Order”, and in trying to maintain law and order in the face of unprecedented disorder in the streets and on college campuses, the Nixon Administration trampled civil liberties, culminating in the shooting deaths of four students (and the wounding of nine others) by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio.  Under the Bush Administration, civil liberties have taken a back seat in the name of “National Security” – the same rationale used by President Nixon to justify many of his administration’s abuses.  Specific examples include the USA PATRIOT Act, with its many controversial provisions; the indefinite detention of an American citizen, captured on American soil, without charges or access to his family or a lawyer, and the subsequent manipulation of the court system in an attempt to avert a Supreme Court ruling on the detention policy; and the authorization of warrantless wiretaps of Americans who place (or receive) calls overseas.  These and other policies (predominantly the war in Iraq) have led to the most divisive atmosphere in this country since, well, the days of the Nixon administration.


The final similarity in our discussion is scandal.  In both administrations, the hint of scandal was already present towards the end of their first term, but was successfully contained until after election day, and both were able to win re-election.  In both cases, the scandal broke wide open after their re-election, contributing to precipitous drops in popularity.  In fact, Presidents Nixon and Bush rank last and next-to-last, respectively, in popularity among re-elected Presidents, measured on the one-year anniversary of their re-elections.  The similarities in the pattern of escalation of the scandals are truly remarkable.  In President Nixon’s case, of course, the scandal led to his resignation in the face of imminent impeachment and removal from office.  We have yet to see the final results of the various scandals swirling around President Bush, but they are potentially devastating.  Among these scandals are the ongoing and expanding torture and prisoner abuse scandal that began with the release of photographs from Abu Ghraib prison on 60 Minutes II (there are many more photographs, and even some video footage, that may be publicly released soon by court order); the CIA leak case, a treasonous act which has already led to the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff, and may lead further into the White House (Karl Rove and Stephen Hadley, among others, are still under investigation); the illegal propaganda and lying to Congress (as has been determined by the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress) that was used to pass the Medi-Care prescription drug benefit; the illegal payments (again as has been determined by the GAO) to news commentators, including payments of $240,000 in taxpayer money to Armstrong Williams, in exchange for positive reporting on the “No Child Left Behind” program; and the arrest on corruption charges of David Safavian, the Procurement Officer in the Office of Management and Budget.  This list does not even include the various scandals that have rocked the Republican Party outside the Executive Branch, such as those in Congress involving former Representative Randall “Duke” Cunningham and lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Both of these scandals may have “legs” – it has been reported that Cunningham wore a “wire” in conversations with lobbyists and other members of Congress in the weeks before he pled guilty, and Abramoff has pled guilty and agreed to cooperate in the continuing investigation against several Republicans in Congress and members of their staffs.  Bush administration officials have been scrambling to round up photographs of President Bush and Abramoff together; Abramoff was a “Bush Pioneer”, meaning he raised at least $100,000 for the President’s campaign).  There are also scandals at the state level, involving the past and present Governors of Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois, and Arkansas.  None of these, however, compares to the two other scandals that are far more devastating in their potential for leading to a Presidential impeachment: first, the intelligence failures that led to the Iraq war and the apparently misleading use of that intelligence in statements made by President Bush himself to Congress and the American people about the need to go to war, and second, the domestic spying scandal.


As noted earlier, the lies told by President Bush to get us into the war in Iraq can be compared – at least superficially – to the Nixon Administration’s expansion of the Viet Nam War into Cambodia.  There is a difference, however, between making blatantly false statements in a major speech on the one hand and engaging in silence to protect a secret military operation on the other.  Knowingly misleading the country into a wholly new war is a far more egregious offense than secretly expanding an already raging war by a few miles (North Vietnamese troops were operating out of bases in the jungles just across the Cambodian border).  While President Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia was merely controversial, President Bush’s misleading our country into war is impeachable.


The domestic spying scandal is another connection to the Nixon Administration; it is actually nothing more than the implementation of the so-called “Huston Plan” of the Nixon era.  That plan, approved by President Nixon in July of 1970, authorized the National Security Agency, or NSA, to intercept the cables and/or correspondence of Americans communicating overseas, removed restrictions on the opening and reading of American citizens’ mail, and allowed surreptitious entry into private citizens’ homes – all without warrants. Within five days, President Nixon’s old friend, Attorney General John Mitchell, prevailed upon the President that such a policy was flagrantly illegal, and must not be the policy of the United States Government.  The policy was revoked.  The Bush Administration has upgraded the technology, but the authorization of electronic surveillance by the NSA of cellular phone conversations, and the monitoring and reading of email, all without warrants, are merely high-tech versions of the Nixon Administration’s “Huston Plan”.  In yet another example of similarity with the Nixon Administration, it was again the Attorney General, in this case acting Attorney General James Comey – who was then backed up by the hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft – that resisted the plan. Unlike the Nixon Administration’s “Huston Plan”, however, the Bush Administration’s NSA surveillance program was eventually implemented in spite of the Attorney General’s resistance (the new Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, is fully supportive of the program).


The similarities between Presidents Nixon and Bush are astounding.  From unpopular war to paranoia, from personnel to personal loyalty to the President, from the balance between security and liberty to impeachment-caliber scandal, there are far more similarities than differences.  Wouldn’t it be fitting if their administrations had similar endings?


UPDATE (7/20/2006): The similarities between President Nixon and President Bush became even more pronounced with the revelation that President Bush had abused his Presidential power in order to block a Justice Department investigation – the same act that finally brought down President Nixon.  On Tuesday, July 18th, 2006, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that President Bush had personally intervened to block a Justice Department investigation into the domestic spying program.  According to Gonzales’ testimony – and confirmed later in the day by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow – it was President Bush himself who withheld security clearances from the attorneys of the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), the internal ethics unit that had been established within the Justice Department in the wake of the Watergate scandal.  The OPR had been asked by the Congress to investigate, among other things, whether dissenting opinions regarding the legality of the domestic spying program were ignored by upper-echelon Justice Department officials and whether the Bush Administration had given the go-ahead for the program before receiving the Justice Department’s legal opinion.  The OPR’s investigation had to be shut down in April of 2006 due to the inability of the attorneys attempting to conduct the investigation to acquire the security clearances necessary to gain access to the information they needed to go forward, but until Gonzales’ testimony, it was unclear who had made the decision not to issue the clearances.


To demonstrate the Nixonian aspect of this revelation, on June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon was discussing the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in (which had occurred just six days earlier) with his Chief of Staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman in the Oval Office.  They were especially concerned with money that had flowed through the bank account of one of the burglars arrested at the Watergate, Bernard Barker.  That money had gone from Barker’s account to the account of a Mexico City lawyer, Manuel Ogarrio, and then back into the United States, to the coffers of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), and finally to the cash “slush fund” stored in the safe in Haldeman’s White House office.  President Nixon did not want the money-laundering operation or the connection between the burglars and CREEP discovered, so he ordered Haldeman to contact Richard Helms at the CIA and have him tell the acting FBI director, L. Patrick Gray III, to “back off” that aspect of the investigation, and to claim that if the FBI did not do so, it would adversely impact a national security operation.  Of course there was no “national security operation” – the only adverse impact would have been on Nixon’s re-election chances.  This was a blatant abuse of Presidential power, and served the sole purpose of blocking an officially-sanctioned investigation, which is exactly what President Bush has now done.


When the tape recording of that June 23rd, 1972 conversation became public in the summer of 1974, virtually all remaining support for President Nixon evaporated.  The House Judiciary Committee had already approved three Articles of Impeachment before the tape of the June 23rd, 1972 conversation had been released.  Now, with the release of the tape, Senator Barry Goldwater, along with the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, went to the White House and informed President Nixon that they did not have the votes to block impeachment in the House, nor to prevent conviction in the Senate – and even Goldwater himself would now vote to convict Nixon on Article II – the Abuse of Power (The Republican Leader in the House, John Rhodes, had already announced that he would vote to impeach the President on two of the articles).  President Nixon announced his resignation the next day.


Now we have another President who has used his Presidential power to block a potentially-damaging Justice Department investigation.  To be sure, it is within the President’s legitimate power to make the decision to withhold a security clearance.  However, it is an abuse of that power, and an Obstruction of Justice, to do so with the intent to block an investigation.  The Bush Administration claims the security clearances were withheld to limit the number of people who had access to information about the domestic spying program – the program’s details remain top secret – but this claim does not hold up under scrutiny; clearances were promptly granted to those within the Justice Department assigned to defend the program and to those investigating who leaked the information about the program to the press.  If the only concern was to limit the number of people with access to that information, logic would dictate that clearances would have been denied to these officials as well.  It simply does not pass the “smell test” to grant security clearances to those who support the program, but to deny them to those conducting a potentially damaging investigation of the same program.  It is obvious to anyone paying attention that President Bush’s intent was to derail the investigation – successfully, as it turned out – and that is precisely the act that served as the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for President Nixon.


This blatant Abuse of Power, and the accompanying Obstruction of Justice, constitutes an impeachable offense.  The very same act – abusing Presidential power to block an investigation – was enough to convince Senator Barry Goldwater that President Nixon needed to be removed from office, and Senator Goldwater was certainly no liberal.  The Attorney General has testified that President Bush himself committed this Abuse of Power, and, rather than issue a denial, the White House has confirmed it.  It is almost as if the Bush Administration is challenging the Congress to impeach the President.


The Congress should accept the challenge.


UPDATE (4/14/2007):  The Judiciary Committees in both Houses of Congress have been investigating the firings of eight United States Attorneys, and in the process have uncovered an email network (which uses the website “gwb43.com”) operated by the Republican National Committee (RNC) that was apparently set up to avoid White House staff violating the Hatch Act, a 1939 law which prohibits the use of government assets (such as computers) for partisan political purposes.  While this seems fine on its face, the White House has now run up against the Presidential Records Act, passed in 1978 in response to the fight over ownership of President Nixon’s Presidential papers, which requires that all Presidential materials be preserved and archived.  Unlike the official White House network (which uses the “whitehouse.gov” website), emails sent on the RNC network are not automatically preserved.  Over the last six years, at least 50 members of the White House staff (22 of whom still work there – the White House has declined to disclose who they are) were given special laptop computers connected to this RNC email network for them to use when engaging in partisan political activities (as opposed to official government work).  The idea with the separate systems was apparently to avoid violating either law – official government business was to be conducted on the official White House network, which automatically preserves all records and communications (thereby abiding by the Presidential Records Act), and partisan political activities were to be conducted on the RNC system (thereby abiding by the Hatch Act).  In fact, it has been revealed that Karl Rove (who reportedly uses his RNC laptop “95% of the time”) and others in the White House who engage in political activity in addition to their government work have been specifically trained on both the Hatch Act and the Presidential Records Act, and on how to avoid violating either one.


The problem is that the RNC laptops – and thus the RNC email network – were apparently used for communications relating not just to partisan political activities, but to official government work as well, such as the firings of the US Attorneys, and that, in a situation reminiscent of the battle between the Congress and President Nixon over the White House tapes, these emails have not been turned over to the Congress (the Bush Administration has stated that they will try to extend the claim of  “executive privilege” to the RNC network emails, a position for which there is simply no precedent).  Democrats in the Congress have alleged that the RNC email network was used to avoid accountability on the part of the White House, since this RNC email network, like the Nixon taping system, had not been previously disclosed to the Congress (and therefore had not been included in subpoenas), a charge the White House denies.  The Judiciary Committees have now subpoenaed any emails (sent on any network) relating to the firings, but the White House has said that the emails sent on the RNC network may be “irretrievably lost”, since they were not automatically preserved as they would have been had they been sent on the official White House network.  In response, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, noted that “a teenager could find the lost White House emails,” adding, “I am beginning to wonder whether the White House has any interest in the American people learning the truth about these matters [the US Attorney firings]…They [the White House] say they [the emails] have not been preserved.  I don’t believe that!  You can’t erase emails – not today.  They’ve gone through too many servers.”


What is most tantalizing about this heretofore unrevealed email network is the possibility that this network was used on other matters.  An especially intriguing email on the official White House network was sent by convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff to a White House staffer, in which Abramoff chastised the staffer for using the White House network, saying, “Dammit – this isn’t supposed to be on the White House system!”  Clearly he meant that the staffer should have used another system – presumably the RNC network.  The White House has denied a connection to Abramoff (despite Abramoff being a “Bush Pioneer”, meaning he raised at least $100,000 for the Bush campaign); were there emails sent on the RNC network that would demonstrate such a connection?  In another example, during his investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson’s status as a covert CIA operative, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald subpoenaed all emails from the White House relating to that scandal.  Were there emails relating to the Plame case sent on the RNC network that were not turned over to the Special Prosecutor?


The Bush Administration now finds itself between a rock and a hard place:  If the White House cannot produce the subpoenaed emails from the RNC email network, they will be in violation of not just the Congressional subpoenas (a felony), but of the Presidential Records Act as well – potentially another felony.  If they do manage to produce the subpoenaed emails, however, the emails themselves could get the Administration into even more trouble.


This previously-unrevealed email network can be seen as a high-tech upgrade of the taping system used by President Nixon to record conversations in the Oval Office, and the supposedly “lost” emails as corresponding to the famous 18-1/2 minute gap found on one of the key tapes. Both systems were originated with good intentions: the Nixon taping system was originated for the purpose of recording oval-office conversations as a historical record of Presidential decision-making, and the RNC email network was established to avoid violating the Hatch Act.  Both systems were hidden from the Congress, and both recorded information that could be damaging to the White House.   Just as the Congress subpoenaed the Nixon Administration’s tapes once they learned of the tapes’ existence, the Congress has now subpoenaed the Bush Administration’s emails, including those sent on the RNC network.  Just as with the Nixon Administration’s claim that the 18-1/2 minute gap was an “accidental” erasure (technical experts determined the gap included five separate erasures), the Bush Administration’s claim that the RNC network emails may be “irretrievably lost” is not technologically credible.  Just as with the tapes, the Administration has failed to turn the emails over.  And just as with the Nixon tapes, these emails may bring about the downfall of several key members of the Bush Administration, if not the President himself.


UPDATE (8/30/07): The Bush Administration’s recent refusal to comply with Congressional subpoenas offers yet another striking similarity between the Bush and Nixon Administrations, and has outraged many in the Congress, including some who were there when a bipartisan majority of the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard Nixon over that very act.  Back in 1974, the Judiciary Committee, with bipartisan majorities, voted to recommend three Articles of Impeachment against President Nixon to the full House of Representatives (Nixon resigned before the full House could vote, but there is no doubt the Articles of Impeachment would have been approved).  The three Articles were for Obstruction of Justice, Abuse of Power, and Refusal to Comply with Congressional Subpoenas!


Perhaps someone could this point out to President Bush?


© 2006 by David Bleidistel.  All rights reserved.