Nixon vs, Trump
Election Nights used to provide better drama than they do now, in the era of exit polls and rapid data analysis … analysis that sometimes happens without any data.
One of the most dramatic of all was on November 8, 1960, when the candidates were then-Vice President Richard Nixon and a young U.S. Senator named John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy took a big early lead, but after midnight, his margin fell dramatically till it became a photo finish that wasn’t settled till late the next morning. Nixon would have won had he carried Texas and Illinois, but there were rumors of major hanky-panky in counting those votes.
President Eisenhower and others urged him to contest the results, but Nixon refused. He said it would dangerously divide the nation, something we couldn’t risk during the Cold War.
In fact, if he had tried, the odds were overwhelmingly against Nixon succeeding at even getting recounts, let alone winning them, and he knew it But at some level, he genuinely seemed to be concerned about the nation’s interests, not just his own.
Frankly, I’ve yet to see any sign of that from Donald Trump, who during his campaign, said he might not accept the results of the election if he lost. Nixon was also a professional politician who knew how Congress and the major parties worked. He was quite capable of forging effective compromises, when he wasn’t crippled by his lifelong paranoia. He wasn’t especially ideological, and in foreign policy, was something of a genuine visionary.
Few remember today that Nixon not only opened the relationship between this country and China, but that his administration started the Environmental Protection Agency.
Both Nixon and Trump were suspected of misusing their presidencies to the point where they committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” sufficient to justify impeachment.
We have no idea how this will play out in the Trump administration. But there was a big difference in the way Nixon viewed the world. Nixon never really challenged conventional morality or ethics – he merely lied about what he had done.
In a way, Watergate was like a Shakespearian morality play, in which the ruler is accused of foul misdeeds. He denies this, but at length proof emerges that he is guilty, and the bad king slinks into the shadows. When the jig was up, Nixon made no attempt to defy the Supreme Court; he just turned over the tapes, and then resigned.
I haven’t seen any reason to believe that we could count on President Trump to behave the same way. That’s not to justify Nixon. He helped open the door to much of the present ugliness in our politics. Even as a young would-be congressman, he smeared his opponents, slyly hinting they were Communist sympathizers or worse.
Nixon may have colluded with a foreign agent to prevent the Vietnam War from being settled while he was running for President. After he won, he was obsessed with politically destroying his enemies, but destroyed himself instead. His downfall began, you may remember, when a team of stumblebums called “the plumbers” were caught trying to bug Democratic National Headquarters during a presidential campaign.
The irony is that was an election that Nixon couldn’t have lost if he tried.
But by trying to rig the system, he lost it all.
Nixon still remains a fascinating and complex personality, a man who lacked charisma, had few friends and was mostly uncomfortable around people, but who nevertheless, by sheer discipline and determination, won his party’s nomination for president three times.
Henry Kissinger once said, “can you imagine what this man would be like if anyone had ever loved him?” I can’t. Nor can I imagine what, when Trump finally leaves office, we will say.