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.