“Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”-Richard Nixon
Watching All The President’s Men, Revisited last evening I was particularly struck by two competing themes of the Watergate affair: one, the arrogance of Richard Nixon; and two, the ferocious effectiveness of our system of governance. In the end the system prevailed. Are we about to witness a replay of this extraordinary episode in our history once again? If the facts warrant it, let us hope so.
Richard Nixon was, despite his protestations to the contrary, a crook. He was caught in the cover-up not the crime and he had some prophetic reflections upon his disgraced exit that could serve Donald Trump well if he would heed them. Addressing White House staff prior to his last helicopter ride departing the south lawn he uttered these pearls of wisdom, “always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Just as violence begets violence, hate begets hate. Trump’s 35 percent base feasts upon both and the Hater-in-Chief is virtually incapable of expanding upon this narrow constituency. The result is stalemate, inaction, and an unsettling uncertainty that is in the long run anathema to progress. Something has to give, and soon.
It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Arrogance of power is so all-consuming that it distorts any semblance of rational perspective. While both Nixon and Trump share arrogance there are crucial differences that portend uneasiness in where we go from here. Nixon was a creature of politics and government. No one ever accused him of being a stupid man. He was experienced and knowledgeable. Trump is a legend in his own mind. No one ever accused him of being an intellectual giant. He is inexperienced and ignorant. But power has a way of transcending these differences, while hate has a way of destroying the weakest and strongest among us.
The Watergate investigation had a profound effect upon many in my generation. It played an huge role in my decision to devote a professional career to politics, public policy and government. To me it represented a victory of process over politics, a triumph of right over wrong, an example of the public good prevailing over personal interest. Congress, led by Republicans yet acting in bipartisan cooperation saved the nation from a constitutional crisis.
Today we have a governmental system that is largely dysfunctional, and a skewed and unbalanced relationship between the interlocking components of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our constitutional government. Insidiously we have allowed for an expansion of the concept of an “imperial presidency” identified by Arthur Schlesinger in his 1973 book with the same title. In that masterpiece he essentially argues that the power of the Presidency has exceeded the constitutional limits as outlined by the founding fathers. Will a Republican-led Congress similarly step forward to avert a constitutional crisis this time?
Can there be any doubt that Donald Trump envisions anything less than unconditional surrender of the other two branches of government to him and him alone? He has made no secret of his belief that only he and he alone can fix what ails the country and his demands for absolute fealty to him belie the oath our civil servants take to protect and defend the Constitution not a monarch, a king or even a president. Will our system of checks and balance reassert itself once again?
Power can be intoxicating and Trump is consumed by it. His inability to control his tweet addiction, lack of self-discipline to refrain from straying off script, temperamental disorder that
causes him to lash out at real and perceived enemies, and inattention to both detail and intellectual curiosity that reflect poorly upon his judgmental and leadership skills greatly add to the prospects for catastrophic consequences.
Will the system once again save us from potential disaster? Or will the forces spawned by hate, racism, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance prevail?
September will be a critical month. The nation is facing some monumental challenges. Further, investigation into possible Russian collusion hangs like a sword of Damocles over the heads of a Republican Congress. As evidence gathers we may be staring down the barrel of a full-fledged constitutional crisis questioning the very legitimacy of the recent presidential election itself.
We as a nation are precariously perched upon a precipice that allows for little if any margin of error. The only thing that is absolutely certain is that the current state of affairs is unsustainable and dangerous. The wisdom of the founding fathers will be tested severely in the months to come.