Every now and then I refer back to former President Nixon in this blog. But it is hard to explain to folks who didn’t live through the Nixon years why his memory still rankles. It is not just about Watergate. Though Watergate certainly brought out enough ugly stuff. There was something deeper than that. Something dangerous. It was a certain lack of respect for people and for the truth. A single mindedness about power that you would might find in a Hitchcock villain. Or perhaps something you would expect from the Roman corruption displayed in I Claudius. But it was real.
And as Woodward and Bernstein’s point out in WP it was worse than we thought at the time. It is sobering reading.
Back then, one often heard the question, why would Nixon risk all to break into the Democratic Party Headquarters? What could have been there that was so important? The implied answer was “nothing”, and therefore it was unlikely that Nixon himself had authorized the break in. If Nixon was guilty of anything, it was excessive loyalty to underlings who had done stupid stuff. Well, more recently, we have learned that Nixon had reason to believe something important might have been in those DNC offices. Something that could have destroyed his political career. In light of all of the other dirty tricks he was employing at the time, one little break in might not have seemed like such a big deal (actually, the plumbers burgled the DNC 2 times. They went in a second time apparently to try to fix bugs on DNC chair Larry O’Brien’s phone that were malfunctioning). But it turned out to be rather a big deal.
There is another aspect to this that troubles me more than the revelations about Nixon’s own character. It is incredible how many top people were up to their noses in organizing and covering up dirty tricks with him. Indeed, this was not just the story of a rotten apple by the name of Richard Nixon. As Woodward and Bernstein point out, Nixon nurtured a culture of lies and nastiness in the White House. It was intensely mean spirited.
Did this nastiness pass from the scene along with Nixon? Hmm …