Friday, August 08, 2014

It was 40 years ago today...

Everyone, as I think I've pointed out here before, remembers exactly where they were when certain events occurred. Mine include the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the announcement from Lyndon Johnson that he would not run again for president, the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake (it would be difficult for me to forget that one, as I was right in the middle of it - it made a hell of an alarm clock), the Challenger explosion. There are more, but you get the idea.

And then there is an event that occurred 40 years ago today. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when Richard Nixon made his televised announcement that he would resign from the presidency, effective at noon the next day. It was all I could do to refrain from jumping up and down and cheering; I was never a Nixon fan. But, that wouldn't have been an appropriate thing to do, standing as I was in the middle of the electronics department of the K-Mart on Rosecrans Boulevard in Bellflower, California. Yes, I know that is an odd place to be watching from. I was at work at my first job out of high school, and happened to be on break from a busy evening at one of the registers. The announcement just happened to be coming on as I was on my way to the break room for my 10-munite break in the middle of a four-hour evening shift. So, because I was a bit of a news geek even then, I stopped to watch.

It wasn't really that much of a surprise that Nixon was resigning, even though he had repeatedly denied that he was going to do that. He was not only going to be impeached; it was fairly clear that the Senate would vote to remove him from office. It was, basically, a simple "I quit" before he could be fired, just like people do every day, from all kinds of jobs. But it came after a scandal that turned the country upside down. Ever the politician (and ever the ass-coverer), he proclaimed that he wanted to remain and fight through the mess, and that his family had urged him to do so, but that he had lost his base and was resigning in "the interest of the Nation". He said he regretted "any injuries that may have been done" during the course of the scandal - what has become the standard script of the "non-apology apology" - and then proceeded to list all of his accomplishments in office, invoking his "legacy to you, to our country" as if he hadn't left a legacy of divisiveness, of lies and deceitfulness that still reverberate today. He never did admit any wrongdoing, in his resignation speech or later on. He famously insisted, in one of a series of interviews with David Frost, that "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."

It's interesting what this legacy has meant in my own life. I am a registered Democrat (well, not now, because I'm in the process of moving for the second time in just a few months, but when I finally get settled in at my new location, I will once again be a registered Democrat) directly as a result of Nixon's legacy. You see, I was able to register to vote for the first time just fifteen days after Nixon's resignation speech, when I turned eighteen. I deliberately chose to register as a Democrat specifically because I did not want to be associated with the party of Nixon. I had followed the whole mess fairly closely, and didn't want any part of a political party that used the tactics that Nixon condoned as part of the Watergate break-in and it's aftermath. I won't even get into Nixon's long history of using dirty tricks to win elections and get his way. Even in his earliest campaigns, he implied that his opponents were Communists. Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, anyone?

This is not the time nor the place to comment on what has become of the Republican party since then, except that I will say that we've come to a fine pass when it would be necessary, if Nixon were alive and running for office today, he would probably have to run as a Green because he would be considered too liberal for many of the current Republican leadership. After all, Nixon was the president who signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 and under whose administration OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency were created.

Nixon was an enigmatic individual, to be sure. Or, in today's terms, he had issues. He came across, at all times, as awkward and overly formal. He appears, from the evidence, to have been paranoid. Yes, he did some things as president that could be considered progressive. But he also did things like calling his opponents Communists and adopting the Southern Strategy, appealing to the racism of white Southern voters in order to win the presidency. And he was, even though he denied it many times, a "crook". It really is difficult to see him as anything other than morally bankrupt.

I certainly was not sorry to see Nixon resign, even though by doing so and through the graces of Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon after Ford became president, he largely avoided any consequences for his actions as president. There was no impeachment, no Senate trial, no real accountability for leaving his country in much worse shape than when he entered office. And, I think, there should have been consequences other than the public humiliation of being the only president thus far to resign his office. Not because I like to see anyone get piled on, because I don't. But the reality is that Nixon violated his oath of office to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." It doesn't quite seem fitting that he ended his life with the status of elder statesman, despite all the things he put his country through in the name of winning an election.

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