Friday, June 8, 2012

Nixon Against the Government

There's a big Woodward and Bernstein WaPo piece -- that's right, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, writing together again for the first time in years -- on the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Watergate initial arrests.

It's very good, in my view, as an overview to exactly what Watergate was all about. I'm especially impressed that they put the real story -- Nixon and his people -- front and center, leaving to others to sing the praises of the press's role (which, while in my view was quite admirable, was not nearly as central as some would have it, and at any rate a lot less important than what exactly was wrong with what we know as "Watergate"). They do an excellent job of utilizing some of the key quotes and episodes -- the ones we now properly think of as central to the real story, rather than the great lines which everyone knew in 1973 and 1974.

I think, however, there's one important omission in their otherwise first-rate story. They frame it as five "wars" -- against the antiwar protesters, against the press, against the Democrats, against the judicial system, and then as  a postscript, against history, as Nixon continued to fight to minimize what he had done over the rest of his life. All true. But there's another part to the Nixon story, one that was often less criminal but may indeed have been even more important, which was a sustained attack on the government itself. The attack on the executive branch included pettiness -- counting the Jews -- to the momentous, including keeping the State Department, including the Secretary of State, in the dark about ongoing China policy.  It was, however, thorough and extreme, and had exactly the outcome one would expect. That's why it was no surprise that the FBI's Mark Felt turned out to be a major source for Woodward and Bernstein; the bureaucracy correctly believed Nixon was out to get them, and so they fought back. And when almost everyone in official Washington feels threatened by you, it's no surprise that no one stands by you when trouble comes. Now, it may be that the specific criminal violations involved with Watergate would have threatened anyone's presidency, but Nixon was particularly vulnerable.

Here's Nelson Polsby's summary of the Nixon presidency -- and why when he got into trouble, there was no one remaining he could count on to be loyal to him, because he had tried to systematically undermine the legitimacy of so much of the government outside of the White House:
It was a strong Presidency, strong in the sense of setting and achieving goals. Yet it achieved its ends to an unusual degree through the device of attacking, crippling, neutralizing, and diminishing the powers of other legitimate power centers in the political system. Underpinning this approach to presidential government were two articles of belief, frequently stated by Mr. Nixon or by one or another of his spokesmen. The first held that the accountability of the President ran solely to his electoral majority. Politics for Mr. Nixon was electoral politics, campaign politics. Election conferred a mandate, an entitlement for him to act in office as his predecessors had acted, i small ways as well as in large ways.

Nixon's second article of belief was a matter of political judgment: the the elite political stratum in this country -- not excluding officials of the government itself -- was out of step with the dominant mood of conservatism in the country at large. Thus, in his view, his election conferred not only an extraordinary measure of legitimacy upon him, but also a kind of illegitimacy upon many of the very people with whom a President ordinarily does business: the bureaucrats, interest group leaders, journalists, Congressmen, and party leaders of official Washington...

To most of these groups in the course of his Presidency Nixon gave intentional offense, and in each case it was offense of a character that carried with it a clear threat of a very basic kind...Nixon's policies...consisted of a systematic trampling of his political fences, a direct assertion that the legitimacy of the Presidency entailed the illegitimacy of those other political elites to whom a President normally is accountable.


  1. I like some of the lessons you draw about how a president who tries to trample the other institutions in government will eventually be defeated by them. I wonder whether this lesson is applicable to more partisan times, though.

    What happens if people in other parts of government, including the bureaucracy, come to see themselves as partisans first, and members of Congress or the judiciary or the FBI / DOD / HUD second? At that point, do the relevant institutions just become the parties? Then using all your power (which arises through your partisan connections) to undermine your opponents no longer has drawbacks. It fits the new partisan institutions. Of course, you're trying to undermine an institution that will fight back (the other party) but your party is made for this kind of combat and will stick by you.

    1. That's a really interesting point and one I'm going to have to think about.

      I think that the W. presidency says that the old rules still apply in the modern partisan era, but it's certainly not quite the same.

  2. But this is exactly what conservatives mean when they say Nixon was railroaded by the Washington establishment, regardless of any crimes he may or may not have committed.

    Of course legitimacy comes from the people, and of course liberal elites are illegitimate to the extent that they try to flout that. It's in that sense Nixon was a hero, and why many conservatives look on him with a degree of favour. The complicating factor is that Nixon's actual agenda was profoundly misguided (price controls, spending, AA), which is why his relationship with conservatism is ambiguous.

    1. Congress is as elected by "the people" as the President is, and whatever legitimacy the President gains from their election doesn't override the legitimacy of the law or of the other branches of government, which both come from "the people" as much as the President's election does.

    2. Yes, exactly.

      Moreover, bureaucrats acting according to law are also legitimate, regardless of what happens in elections. The place of interest groups and parties in the system isn't exactly mandated by law (other than the First Amendment), but nevertheless their traditional roles aren't negated by presidential elections.

      It's a serious mistake, IMO, for conservatives to embrace this kind of presidentialism. Wrong for liberals too (and liberal sometimes hero Woodrow Wilson was the theorist of it). It's a thin, non-participatory, and non-substantive version of democracy.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?