By Fred Benson
It was early afternoon on July 24, 1974. Seated beside the desk of White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig in the San Clemente, Calif., Western White House, I watched as he took the call that signaled the end of the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. (See note below.)
The White House legal team was informing Haig that the Supreme Court had just voted 8-0 to require that the White House release the oval office tapes that would clearly establish evidence of the president’s direct involvement in a cover-up of the Watergate burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters. The ramrod-straight general slumped in his chair, dropped the phone in his lap and said, “That’s it – it’s all over.”
Just 16 days later, with Nixon flying out of Washington in disgrace, Gerald Ford was sworn in as president of United States.
Many members of the media suggest that the Trump presidency will result in the same painful exit. They argue that the arrogant and dismissive White House responses to accusations of presidential misbehavior mirror exactly what occurred in the Nixon White House some 43 years ago. This current daily water-torture of accusatory news titillates the imagination of Democrats and excites the more ebullient members of the press.
To date, however, the presence, or even the hint, of a “smoking gun” is not apparent. This is not to suggest that such a result is unlikely, but rather a realistic assessment that we’re a long way off from either impeachment or resignation. Nixon faced a Democratic-controlled Congress and was caught in an outright lie. Trump currently enjoys a Republican majority on Capitol Hill, and with few exceptions, GOP members are not drifting off the party script. And he hasn’t been caught doing anything illegal – yet.
While there is a substantial legal gap between what Nixon did that forced his resignation and what Trump allegedly has done to date, one factor is common to both presidencies. For several months, the Nixon White House became fully occupied with protecting and defending the president from questions surrounding what and when he knew about the “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Hotel. The rest of government lay virtually dormant as this high-level tragedy played out.
Much the same thing is happening today. With media attention focused on FBI investigations and White House staff infighting, it is easy to overlook the potential risks to the future of our country stemming from domestic and international political atrophy.
Here at home, Congress is unwilling or unable to pass any meaningful legislation, thousands of immigrants remain fearful of being taken from their homes and deported, and millions of Americans believe that they might lose their current health coverage. Granted, Trump has proposed a tax reform package that would throw crumbs to the middle class while further enriching the wealthy, and he has recommended a budget that decimates Medicare, the EPA, the State Department and many other essential government functions.
Internationally, our key allies are uncertain that we will remain reliable partners or protect their classified sources, our major detractors enjoy observing the dysfunction within the U.S. government, and we are sending more troops to Afghanistan even with the sure knowledge that whenever we do finally pull out, the Taliban will retake control. Moreover, North Korea has just tested an “improved” mid-range ballistic missile, an accomplishment that may shorten the time before they will be able to deliver a nuclear weapon on U.S. soil.
What has become abundantly clear is that we are living in an environment of Trump-driven chaos, uncertainty and dysfunctional partisanship, surrounded by a penumbra of distrust that defies imagination and is without precedent. The net result is that the president’s continuously erratic behavior diminishes U.S. administrative efficiency at home and lessens our power and influence around the globe. We have a weakened government, and until the president can get down to the business of leading this country in a cohesive and effective manner, or get out of the way, we will remain a nation living up to neither its reputation nor its full capabilities.
In 1973-74, Benson was selected as a White House Fellow, a nonpartisan federal program bringing younger citizens with interest in public service to Washington for a year. For Fellowship details, see whitehouse.gov.