Take a day, any day, in January 1973 and you will find some momentous act. On January 8, 1973, for example, Richard Nixon met with his advisor Chuck Colson in the Executive Office Building. Across town, the Watergate burglars’ trial was opening in Judge John Sirica’s courtroom. Nixon and Colson discussed executive clemency for the leader of the burglars, E. Howard Hunt, should he plead guilty and keep his mouth shut.
Nixon later admitted to John Dean: “I was foolish to talk to Colson about clemency for Hunt, wasn’t I?” Dean, Nixon’s youthful White House Counsel, replied without hesitation: “Yes, Mr. President. That would be an obstruction of justice.”
But of all the significant days of January 1973, Monday, January 22 wins the prize. On that day, Henry Kissinger flew back to Paris to initial the peace accords with the North Vietnamese to end America’s involvement in that divisive and tragic conflict. As Kissinger flew over the Atlantic, the Supreme Court, though Justice Harry Blackmun, announced its ruling in Roe v Wade, the abortion case. And about the time Kissinger landed in Paris, former president Lyndon B. Johnson suffered a massive heart attack at his ranch in Texas and died on an emergency plane ride to a hospital in San Antonio.
Days are rarely filled with such drama and meaning.
And it is only 45 years later that we can truly measure the impact of these events on America’s body politic. January 1973 was, in important ways, the set-up for Donald Trump’s presidency.
Of first importance was the decision in Roe v Wade. At the time, the opinion to legalize abortions under certain circumstances was met with only mild opposition, though the Catholic Church vehemently objected. Protestants like its author Harry Blackmun saw the decision to end a pregnancy as a personal matter, one to be decided between a doctor and patient. Nixon’s appointees to the Court, Blackmun, Powell and Burger, voted in favor, with only William Rehnquist in dissent.
But Roe v Wade would come to dominate American politics in a way that no other issue—save race—has ever done. Over the next decades, the controversy over abortion sparked a major reordering of the nation’s political structure. The Religious Right became active in politics. Evangelicals turned into Teavangelicals. Compromise, so necessary in a democracy, gave way to blocking as a way of life. Who compromises with an adversary who is evil? Instead of the founders’ checks and balances, we now see only checks.
Nixon was already on the way to turning the South. He used his great counterrevolution to convert former New Deal Democrats to bedrock Republicans. Harry Truman died at the end of December 1972 and his memorial in the National Cathedral took place on January 5, 1973. With LBJ’s death three weeks later, the nation was not only without a former living president (a rare event itself), it witnessed the symbolic death of the New Deal and the Great Society. The war on poverty gave way to culture wars, as Nixon played on “social issues” such as race and the chaos of the anti-war movement to turn Democrats into Republicans virtually overnight.
Nixon also articulated the philosophical tenets for what would become the Reagan Revolution. In his second inaugural, delivered on January 20, 1973, President Nixon set out the case for less government and more personal responsibility. “Let us measure what we will do for others by what they will do for themselves,” Nixon intoned. “Government must learn to take less from the people so that people can do more for themselves.”
Nixon was the anti-Kennedy, much as Trump is the anti-Obama. “Let us remember,” Nixon declared, “that America was built not by government, but by people—not by welfare, but by work—not by shirking responsibility, but by seeking responsibility.”
Nixon even purposely twisted JFK’s “ask not” tagline from his inaugural in 1960, saying: “Let each of us ask—not just, ‘What will government do for me?’ but ‘What can I do for myself?’”
Let that sink in. Kennedy asked Americans to think not about what the country could do for them but what they could do for their country. Nixon encouraged Americans to think about what they could do for themselves. It was the birth of what some labeled the “Me Generation,” for folks like young Donald Trump and Wall Street barons who saw America as a place to enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens.
It was an entirely selfish and narcissistic political worldview that sounded mean-spirited coming from Nixon, but Ronald Reagan put a sunny face on it, with his appeal to Western individualism and self-determination.
Make no mistake, though, the point was to get the government off people’s backs and to let those who floundered flounder—it was, after all, their own fault. They struggled not because of poor education, poor housing, poor health care, racism or poverty—the problem with the disadvantaged was that they just didn’t take responsibility.
Ask that question to someone working fulltime at a national chain store and taking food stamps just to make ends meet.
Martha Mitchell, the irascible spouse of John Mitchell, Nixon’s “law and order” Attorney General who went to jail over obstruction of justice, was a troubled soul but she was generally known as a truth-teller. It was Martha who called reporters late at night to say that there was something rotten in the Nixon administration.
On the evening of Nixon’s second inaugural, Martha said it all when she told reporters, “I’m going to be with the rich cats tonight.”
Many traditional Democrats fell away from the party over abortion. There is no doubt that a great number of conservative Republicans held their noses and voted for Trump mainly because they wanted him to appoint justices on the Supreme Court who would undo Roe v. Wade.
There is also no question that the party realignment that started with Nixon continues to have enormous consequences in national elections. The breakup of the New Deal coalition that brought the country Social Security, Medicare and anti-poverty programs has somehow been engulfed in a government being controlled by “the rich cats.”
No doubt Citizens United and the dark influence of money in our elections has had its own dire consequences. And it doesn’t help to have foreign interference in our elections and a president and Congress that will look the other way.
But the truth is that January 1973 was the turning point. The only ray of light is that January 1973 carried within it the seeds of Nixon’s destruction. The Watergate burglars’ trial ended with convictions and eventually one of those convicted, wireman James McCord, broke his silence rather than face a long prison term. Nixon’s promise of clemency to Hunt did no good. There were too many people who knew about the cover-up. One insider, John Dean, warned Nixon of a cancer growing on his presidency and finally got his own lawyer and started cooperating with prosecutors.
This all should sound somewhat familiar, perhaps hopeful.
James D. Robenalt is author of January 1973, Watergate, Roe v Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed History. He also is a contributing author to The Presidents and the Constitution: A Living History. His first book, Linking Rings, profiled his great-grandfather who served as Franklin Roosevelt’s register of the Treasury. Robenalt lectures with John Dean on legal ethics. www.watergatecle.com