George Bush is the back-slapping, joke-telling, nickname-giving antithesis of the dour Richard Nixon. But his administration is showing itself to be crafted after the same secrets-protecting and enemies-listing of 1974’s Paranoia Presidency.
The current flap over whether Karl Rove did or did not out Valerie Plame is academically interesting, but no one is surprised that Rove, Bush’s #1 White House operative, would be capable of such a thing. This week’s revelations of career officer dismay within the Pentagon concerning our definition of torture is greeted more with a knowing nod than disbelief. Bush’s preparation of a recess-appointment for the controversial John Bolton would be an outrage in the Clinton administration but hardly gets noticed in this one. A war based on increasing evidence of false pretenses? So, what else is new?
The same level of accepting the unacceptable surrounds this presidency as Nixon’s.
The difference is, Nixon was not a friendly guy. Nobody wanted to go quail-hunting or play a round of golf with Tricky Dick. His twice-daily need to shave epitomized the dark side of a dark man and he took us many places, most of them falsely labeled under the most dangerous of presidential paranoias, the distrust of the nation’s citizenry. He paid the price, impeachment and dishonor.
The difference is a lesson in jocksmanship. Bush won’t pay the price, not because he hasn’t lied, kept enemies-lists, relied on henchmen like Rove, been secretive, stonewalled investigations or surrounded himself with crooks . . . he won’t pay the price because we like him better than Nixon. It’s come down to that. Jocksmanship constantly failed the stiff and remote Nixon, but serves the casual, leg-over-the-golf-cart Bush famously.
He may be all hat and no cattle, the cowboy who can’t ride a horse, but the image is right for the times . . . a Marlboro Man, no matter that smoking causes cancer.
We will survive this attack on integrity in government. We always survive such lapses and would have survived Nixon had he not been run out of office. What will not survive is the matter of political legacy and legacy is especially important to this president. When one lacks an essential frame of ethical reference, operating instead on efficacy, the importance of history and one’s place in it becomes an end in itself. One cannot hope for legacy by locking up the records because legacy is a forever thing and the Freedom of Information Act unlocks all locks eventually.
Great leaders persuade rather than prevaricate, letting history take care of itself. Statesmen bring together rather than drive apart, no matter the difficulty, whatever the time required, allowing history the freedom of its own judgment.
Small hearted and small-minded men use secrecy as a weapon, create the big lie as a substitute to argument, list and forever denigrate their perceived enemies, bend the intent of law when it doesn’t suit them, hire surrogates to fight their battles and deny access to their public records.
Richard Nixon was a small-hearted and small-minded man.