Remember Black Jesus? The Lightworker? The One? The next Lincoln, the Democrats’ Reagan, the neo-FDR? He is now standing next to Tricky Dick and Slick Willie, caught in a quartet of burgeoning scandals, charged with rewriting the facts when they became inconvenient, harassing the press, and using the Internal Revenue Service to get at his enemies, subverting their rights of assembly, and speech. “Richard Milhous Obama,” writes Carl M. Cannon, and there are also Clintonian levels of cover-ups, literally in the case of Hillary Clinton’s role in the Benghazi debacle. In The Presidents’ Club, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy tell us of the bonds that unite former presidents, but within this club is a still smaller subset, the Scandal Society, those shadowed by crimes and abuses of power, who were caught up in snares of their own making and traps that they set for themselves. How do their troubles compare with each other’s, and with those that the current incumbent is facing? Let us look at them and see.
Born in obscurity, to far-from-rich parents, all three used their wits to rise to fame early. But while the Democrats adapted quite quickly to ruling-class manners, Nixon saw himself as a lifelong outsider, despised by the press, the establishment, and the people who mattered, forever imperiled and circled by foes. Where others evolved as they rose, he took the wrong side of the tracks along with him, never believing he really had made it, and the higher he rose in the rankings of power, the more embattled he thought he became. Never a charmer, he built his career on the corpses of three liberal icons—Rep. Jerry Voorhis, whom he defeated when he won his House seat in 1946; Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, the film star he trounced in a Senate race four years later; and Alger Hiss, the well-born New Dealer he exposed as a traitor, which opened an early-day culture war, and made him despised by the left. When he was just 39, he was picked by Dwight Eisenhower to balance his ticket, but the hero of D-Day looked down on the eager, unsure, young politician, letting him twist in the wind in 1952 in his fundraising scandal, trying to force him off the ticket four years later, using him as a hatchet man, and, perhaps worst of all to the insecure Nixon, never inviting him into his house. When Nixon ran on his own, Ike refused to endorse him before the convention; said “If you give me a week, I might think of something” when asked to name what Nixon had done to help him in office; and in his prime-time speech at his last convention, recalled the achievements of his eight years in office without mentioning his vice president’s name.
It was Nixon’s fate to take on John Kennedy, privileged, rich, and in Nixon’s words, “glamorous,” from the rarefied world that Nixon aspired to and never quite managed to crack. Ironically, Kennedy, who liked Voorhis, Douglas, and Hiss no more than did Nixon, sympathized with him and defended him until the day he started to run against him for president, telling one critic, “You have no idea what he’s been through” (referring to the beating Nixon took from the press when he defeated Helen Douglas), and saying shortly before announcing for president that if he were not nominated, he would be voting for Nixon himself. This did not stop the press from worshipping Kennedy, or Theodore White, in the first of his political sagas, from describing the race as a fairy-tale contest that pitted a graceful and witty modern-day Arthur (which would be Kennedy) against an awkward and much darker knight.
His loss was hard, but the coup de grâce seemed to come two years later, when, attempting a comeback in his home state, California, he was beaten in the governor’s race by Edmund (Pat) Brown, whom he considered run-of-the-mill and a hack politician, well below his own level of play. No one who heard his farewell press conference—“You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more”—would ever forget it or think he had a political future. But having nowhere to go except up, he began to remake himself, biding his time, playing the healer. Pacing himself, appearing largely in controlled situations, he had been able to hold things together. But this would not be possible once he held office, and then it would all fall apart.
Watergate as we know it actually began in the last months of the 1968 presidential election, when Nixon was in a very tight race with Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, and Johnson, who was eager to get talks started to end the Vietnamese conflict before his term ended, was in a race against time. Nixon was told of the talks, and vowed to support them. But he also feared that Johnson would use such an announcement as an “October surprise”—a game-changing stroke at the very last moment—and had grown more suspicious with time. Johnson “is becoming almost pathologically eager for an excuse to order a bombing halt and will accept almost any arrangement,” Nixon’s aide Bryce Harlow had warned him. Careful plans are being made “to help [Humphrey] exploit whatever happens. . . . [They] still think they can pull the election out with this ploy.”
A third loss in eight years would have been too much to tolerate, and when Johnson told Nixon he had been able to coax South Vietnam to the table—with peace talks to begin three days before the election—Nixon decided to act. Nixon’s friend John Mitchell called his friend Anna Chennault (the general’s widow and head of Republican Women for Nixon), who then placed a call to her friend, the brother of South Vietnam’s prime minister, telling him he would get a much better deal later, if and when Nixon won. The peace talks collapsed, Nixon won (narrowly), and Johnson raged but was unable to do much about it, as he could not expose the Nixon maneuvers without revealing at the same time how he had learned of them, which was by tapping—illegally—Mrs. Chennault’s phone. Johnson called Nixon’s act “treason,” and Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen agreed with him. Nixon, however, had a different opinion: “He had saved the country from a bad peace deal cut by a desperate president,” as Gibbs and Duffy inform us. “The country needed him. He would be a great president. He had earned this, after so many years of patient planning and serial humiliations. He would show them all.”
As it happened, the main thing he would show them was how unhinged he could be when he thought he was threatened, which seemed to be most of the time. He had barely been sworn into office when he began to fear Johnson might have proof of his actions, and might be planning to use them against him. He told his aide Bob Haldeman to investigate Johnson’s decision to stop bombing North Vietnam, which had been announced with much fanfare less than a week before the election. Haldeman told him that Johnson’s aide at the time, Leslie Gelb, had gone to the Brookings Institution and taken his documents with him. “I want that Goddamn Gelb material, and I don’t care how you get it,” Nixon insisted. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked in 1971, he brought up the Brookings plan again: “I want it implemented on a thievery basis,” he told Haldeman. “Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”
Nixon’s aide Charles Colson talked of a plot to firebomb Brookings and sneak operatives in with the firemen, to go through and plunder the safes. It didn’t happen, but this was the lens through which Nixon saw everything. Dangers appeared to abound. Because he feared leaks, he created the Plumbers, which led to the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Because he feared he might lose the 1972 campaign, he authorized rogue units to act under CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President), which led to the antics of Donald Segretti, the many and various fundraising scandals, and, finally, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex, which gave all the scandals their name. Whatever Nixon knew of the break-in, he knew of the cover-up on June 23, 1972, when he ordered the CIA to keep the FBI out of the picture, and committed the crime of obstruction of justice. Nixon won by a landslide, but his complex web of schemes had already begun to unravel. It was two years and two months to the end.
Years later, historians Paul Johnson and Andrew Roberts would depict Nixon as an innocent victim of media bias. Their case would be stronger if other presidents had ordered things “on a thievery basis” out of the White House and all of the time. Nixon apparently thought that they did: “They’re using any means,” he explained to Haldeman, saying the Democrats had done worse things to him for years but had “never got caught.” “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy,” he said, anticipating the “vast right-wing conspiracy” posited 24 years later by Hillary Clinton, who at that point was helping to draw up impeachment articles against Nixon, and years later would stand stoically next to her president husband when he was being impeached himself. History would repeat itself, but as farce, not as drama, and Bill Clinton’s sin wouldn’t be that he was paranoid. It would be that he never grew up.
"You must always remember,” Elihu Root once said of his friend Theodore Roosevelt, “the president is about six.” The thing to remember about William J. Clinton is that he in some ways was 16 forever, and that he was president during a strange tranche of history that began in 1991, when the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation stunned and baffled the nation, crested with his own impeachment, and ended with a crash and a shudder on September 11, 2001.
When George Bush the elder nominated a black conservative to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, Democrats in the Senate became frantic to stop him, and when nothing else worked, they happened upon Hill, a onetime assistant to Thomas, who told a tale of harassment—X-rated jokes and talk of blue movies—that she said had gone on for years. She claimed he was sick, he claimed she was lying. For weeks a stupefied national audience listened to people who had known one or both a decade before give contradictory testimony of who was the scorned and/or injured party, and of who had stalked whom. In the end, three long-lasting things would happen: Thomas would squeak through; “sexual harassment” would emerge as the feminists’ favorite issue (and give rise to a great many lawsuits and trials); and conservatives, convinced that one of their own had been badly maligned by duplicitous enemies, would burn for revenge.
Revenge would come sooner, and be sweeter, than they ever dared hope. Democrats declared 1992 the Year of the Woman, embraced both Hill and her grievance, making the war on harassment their theme. Hillary Clinton praised Hill for her courage, and urged other women who suffered as she had to speak out. She might not have known that one had already: Paula Jones, an Arkansas state employee in the late 1980s, who claimed that Governor Clinton once summoned her to his hotel room in Little Rock, and made her an offer she chose to refuse. This encounter gave rise to a lawsuit, which the Supreme Court allowed to proceed, and the discovery phase opened shortly after Clinton started his second term. Thanks to this lawsuit, the Jones legal team was free to ask Clinton about rumors that he had become too close to a college-age intern during the government shutdown of 1995. As the perpetual 16-year-old that he was, Clinton had gotten too close to the intern. Now, faced with the consequences, he did what 16-year-olds often do on these occasions: He lied.
Clinton’s defense, once the story exploded, was twofold. Part one, before the blue dress and his eventual confession, consisted of trying to deny that it happened, using the “nuts and sluts” tactics perfected in suppressing “bimbo eruptions” back in Arkansas. Part two, after the confession, was to say that (a) it was private, (b) it was his business, (c) it didn’t impinge on his conduct as president, and (d) that many men bigger and better than he was had done the same things, if not worse. The problem with (d) was that none of the others had put himself forth as a feminist stalwart, none of the others was sued for harassment, and none of the others had perjured himself. And under the sexual harassment rules as invented post-Anita Hill by his friends in the feminist movement, office affairs between powerful men and female underlings were coercive by definition. Under these rules, feminists had ended the careers of numerous men, mostly conservatives. Republicans reveled in turning the feminists’ standards against their hero in the White House. If Clinton’s conduct would cost him his job if he were a corporate head or a general, why shouldn’t it cost him his job as the president?
In explaining why not, the left was inventive, saying that lies about sex were the mark of a gentleman (from Kennedy devotee Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.) and (from feminist leader Gloria Steinem) that men were entitled to “one free grope,” at least if they leaned to the left. With talk such as this passing as argument, it was not a surprise that Impeachment 2.0 was deemed to lack the gravitas of the Nixon drama, and was played for lesser stakes: Clinton wanted to cover his tracks, not subvert the government; Republicans wanted less to evict him than to embarrass liberals; and the public remained entertained and/or indifferent, unable to buy the conservative claims that this was a full-blown state crisis, or the liberals’ spin that nothing of consequence had happened. Clinton escaped on a mostly party-line vote, the public yawned, and a consensus emerged that impeachment followed by acquittal was pretty much what he deserved.
Unlike Nixon, Barack Obama was not a paranoid (on the contrary, he was rather too self-confident), and unlike Bill Clinton, he was not a teen. He was, rather, Jay Gatsby, a stranger in town with a critical blind spot, and an unusual past. In 2008, Charles Krauthammer called him a “dazzling mysterious Gatsby,” and in 2013, the columnist Suzanne Fields agreed, drawing still more parallels between the 44th president and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s figure of myth. Like Gatsby, Obama had a colorful past, which led to multiple rumors; like Gatsby, he created a dream and became it. Like Gatsby, he had a quest which gave his life meaning—for Gatsby, it was to regain the lost love of Daisy Buchanan; for Obama, it was to impose his agenda. And to make their dreams come true, they were willing to use and be used by unsavory people. Gatsby’s dreams were wholly romantic, but the means to pursue them came from his connection to Meyer Wolfsheim, a gambler (in the novel, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series).
Obama had his own connections to people whose aims and methods seemed antithetical to those he professed to believe. A biracial man who posed as a healer, he attended the church of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who preached racial antipathy; a proponent of peace, he befriended Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, who had trafficked in violence; a high-minded reformer, he became a cog in Chicago’s notorious Democratic machine, known for corruption and strong-arm behavior. Obama never talked like Wright, acted like Ayers, or cashed in like other machine politicians, but he didn’t disown or object to them either, and what he got from them all had no price: Wright gave the half-white Hawaiian who had gone to Ivy League schools the street cred he needed; Ayers and Dohrn gave him entrée to Hyde Park’s academics and, through Ayers’s father, to the Chicago establishment; and the Chicago machine was a rich source of goodies, most of which seemed to happen around him, and came through no acts of his own. There was the good deal on a big house in a very good neighborhood, by way of a friend who has since gone to prison; in his 2004 Senate campaign, two opponents loomed as threats until documents surfaced about their divorces, and he waltzed to a win; and some of the things in his presidential campaigns seemed out of the Nixon 1972 dirty-tricks playbook, but unlike Nixon, he did not direct or oversee them. Under the eyes of his aides, his campaigns disabled the address verification system for online donations by credit card, allowing money to come from foreigners or from fictional donors, including, as Michael Barone tells us, contributions from “ ‘John Galt, 1957 Ayn Rand Lane, Galts Gulch CO 99999’ and $174,000 from a woman in Missouri who told reporters she had given nothing and had never been billed.”
The campaign also called for criminal investigations of conservative groups that ran ads criticizing Obama’s ties to Bill Ayers; tried to force radio hosts to cancel interviews with conservative journalists (and flooded stations with phone calls and emails) and got attorneys in the state of Missouri to threaten to bring criminal charges against people who said things concerning Obama that his campaign thought of as “false.” “We have a sick political culture, and that’s the environment Barack Obama came from,” John Fund quotes Jay Stewart, the executive director of the Chicago Better Government Association. “All of the complaints—from the lack of transparency to HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s shaking down corporations to promote Obamacare—stem from the culture of the Daley machine,” former Chicago election commissioner Chris Robling told Fund.
All this tracks the Nixon campaign circa 1972, with CREEP, the Plumbers, and Donald Segretti—the difference being that the Nixon campaign was run and created by Nixon, while Obama joined a machine that had been up and running before him, and seems to have played no large part in its maneuvers. Where Nixon taped himself plotting a break-in, Obama’s approach was more inferential: He did not direct the IRS employees to make life difficult for conservative activists, he merely launched a full-bore assault against “shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names” trying to subvert the electoral process. Almost simultaneously, the first “Be On the Lookout” alerts went out in IRS offices. The result was the same, but the method was different, as was the measure of legal exposure.
Unlike Gatsby, Suzanne Fields writes, “the great Obama isn’t a giver of parties, where he remains aloof and hardly known, but he is the aloof leader of his political party. That’s what leading from behind is all about. Others do the dancing and singing. It’s difficult to imagine that the president called in the bureaucrats at the Internal Revenue Service and gave them the order of the day, but those worker bees who targeted conservative political organizations for abuse were sure he would approve their work.” And why wouldn’t he? His views were the only ones seen in his world as legitimate. And after all, he was The One.
When Gatsby is dead, narrator Nick Carraway calls on Wolfsheim, who tells him how he met Gatsby, a starving young veteran with a chest full of medals, at the end of the war. “I raised him up out of nothing,” the gambler says. “I saw right away he was a fine appearing gentlemanly young man, and when he told me he was an Oggsford [Oxford] graduate I knew I could use him good.” He did use him good, and similar feelings must have animated folks in Chicago when the young Ivy League grad wandered in. So what we have now is a Nixon regime without Nixon, an apparatus that leans toward Nixon-like tactics, without the force of that vast humming core of resentment that drove the machine from within. “This is not Watergate,” Bob Woodward says, “but there are some people in the administration who have acted as if they want to be Nixonian.”
When the Constitution was written, the Framers were haunted by the threat of a Caesar, someone elected in the republican system who uses his office to seize absolute power, and turn himself into a king. But such threats have failed to materialize, and we have found ourselves dealing with crises arising from far more unlikely and personal matters: a troubled soul, trying preemptively to disarm his tormentors; a middle-aged adolescent unable to resist temptation or deal with the consequence of it; and a young man on the rise who makes deals with the devil and finds only later that these things have their costs.
These are perennial themes, but ones more often explored in plays and in novels, and ones with which political science is not wholly able to cope. Books like The Presidents’ Club bridge the gray space between them, detailing the bonds between Hoover and Truman, between Ford and Carter, and between Bill Clinton and both Bushes, to whom he acts as renegade brother and son. Strangest of all are those between Clinton and Nixon, two opposite types who were stalked by impeachment, but became so close in Clinton’s first term in office that when Nixon died, “Clinton said it felt like the loss of his mother.” Nixon died before Clinton hit his own spot of trouble, so nobody knows what Nixon would have told him, what Nixon would have said to Obama, or what Clinton now says to Obama, if he says anything. Or if Obama would listen. Or if Obama will find himself one of their number, in any way, or at any time soon.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.