George Bush: Shades Of Richard Nixon? genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

I just don't get it. Has this administration put something into the water of those they employ that makes them prone to bad judgments and unexplained acts of arrogance and incompetence? As I read that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, his second in command, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and others within the Justice Department, had threatened to resign if they were forced to return documents seized from embattled Congressman William Jefferson's office, I scratched my head in wonder. Just to be clear, while Jefferson is innocent until proven guilty, I am inclined to believe he has broken the law and is fully deserving of all appropriate punishment. My remarks are not intended to defend him.

At a time when the President is experiencing the lowest polling numbers of his presidency, what would possess any appointee to make such a statement? What could possibly be gained from such a precipitous action? As I began to think about the possibilities, it struck me that those answers may provide the best insight into the tone and tenor of this presidency and how this circle of selected warriors view all those who are outside their privileged and proprietary perimeter. Is this apparent war mentality that pervasive? If so, where did it come from?

I've written before about some of the possible explanations. Unfortunately, I keep coming back to the President and his state of mind. Earlier this morning I was listening to Jonathan Turley, nationally recognized legal scholar and professor at George Washington University. He went on at length about the constitutional ramifications of the actions of the Justice Department in executing the search and seizure of documents from Congressman Jefferson's office. However, what caught my attention was his comment that this President began to push for the broad expansion of executive powers well before 9/11.

I suddenly remembered a paper I had written many years ago about Richard Nixon...a couple of years after his resignation. Recently, I ran across the paper in a box of old documents although I didn't read it at that time. After listening to Turley, I pulled the paper out of the storage box and read it for the first time in decades. The comparisons to George Bush were astonishing. I won't reproduce the paper here as it was nearly twenty typed pages, but I offer the following points in order to draw the necessary comparisons.

Both men seemed to have closer relationships with their mothers than their fathers and both mothers doted over and frequently defended their sons. Much of what I read about Nixon in sourcing the paper seemed to indicate that his mother had a significant influence in his life. As I compare this to George Bush, it seems to be the same. When President Bush speaks about toughness, he has often referenced his mother. When asked about consulting his father for advice, few can forget his remark that he instead consulted the heavenly father. Similarly, Nixon's mother is often the parental influence cited when reading about the former president.

While little can be concluded from these observations, one can put forth the argument that George Bush has a tepid relationship with his father...one that was characterized by a son who followed in his fathers footsteps but rarely achieved the same successes. In many ways, I view their relationship as competitive and I suspect that Barbara Bush has often been the arbiter. One is left to wonder what part this dynamic may have played in the motivation and justification to invade Iraq. As with much of psychology, little can be proven. Nonetheless, sometimes when one strings together enough information it can remain inconclusive but it can also be powerfully convincing.

Both Nixon and Bush were driven to achieve success and both struggled in their early efforts although Nixon had a rather charmed childhood as an excellent student…he was an accomplished debater, and he had a much clearer set of goals. Both demonstrated erratic behavior that seemed to be characterized by periods of highs and lows.

Nixon's first political opponent, Jerry Voorhis, stated after being defeated in a campaign filled with attacks, "Mr. Nixon had to win. Nothing else would do at all. I had not yet grasped the idea that what was good for Richard Nixon must be good for the U.S." In contrast to George Bush, I don't recall reading that Nixon asserted his decisions were made with guidance from God. Nonetheless, both men demonstrated a stubborn certainty in the decisions they made despite evidence to the contrary.

Winning was important to both men and their early political careers were similarly checkered with hardball campaigns that often focused on attacking the other candidates. Nixon often accused his opponents of being sympathetic to communism and routinely cited the voting records of his opponent to make the assertion...despite often having cast many similar votes. I've previously written about the alliance of George Bush and Karl Rove that spans the bulk of Bush's political career. I'm convinced they are both driven to win and have the same attack instinct that does not hesitate to discredit the opponent. There are numerous examples that support this observation.

In one particular speech during the Eisenhower - Nixon candidacy, Nixon stated, "Ninety-six percent of the 6,926 communists, fellow travelers, sex perverts, people with criminal records, dope addicts, drunks, and other security risks removed under the Eisenhower security program were hired by the Truman administration." I was immediately drawn to the comparison to the swift boating of John Kerry. Granted, elections are dogfights...but the tactic of dismantling the opponent’s cornerstone of credibility seems to be a clear objective.

When Nixon ran for president in 1960, he sought to appeal to all Americans...not unlike the strategy used by George Bush to appear as a compassionate conservative who would be a uniter, not a divider. Both men made measured calculations to win election and sought to connect with common folk...eager to be likable and magnanimous...all the while fostering campaigns to discredit the opposition. Crafting a majority coalition remained the driving force and principles were not allowed to impede the effort.

During Nixon's successful run for the presidency in 1968, he and his staff used television to their advantage. The campaign scheduled some ten events before Republican clubs and organizations. The groups were handpicked and coached. They were instructed when to applaud and even to rush to surround Nixon at the conclusion of his remarks. Reporters were not allowed to attend these events. The campaign was quite regimented and concise and repetitive answers were given to each topical question. The similarity to the Bush campaign strategy, including the many scripted and staged events, is remarkable.

Once elected, it was clear that Nixon lacked knowledge of the mechanics of governance. As an expert political strategist and partisan operative, he surrounded himself with a select group of trusted advisors. Most of these advisors had little experience in government. Rather than transitioning to running the country, he seemingly continued to function as if still engaged in a campaign. Again, the comparisons are obvious.

Once in office, Nixon began to concentrate executive power and authority. He was isolated from contrary opinions and held fewer press conferences than any of his predecessors. At the same time, he sought more structured television time than those who previously occupied the White House. He demanded conformity from his staff and sought to bypass congress when considering policy decisions. Quoting from my paper, "It was within his trusted staff, if not within his own mind, that decisions were made." Again, the similarities are abundantly apparent.

Returning to the present situation with regards to the office of Congressman Jefferson, while the entry to this office was likely not illegal (although some contend it wasn't consistent with the constitution), it is fraught with the same questionable judgment that went into the Watergate break-in. Was the motivation to enter the office driven by a grave concern as to the significance of what might be found (keep in mind there are existing methods to obtain the desired access...although it would have taken longer) or were these the actions of men who have lived in an environment rife with secrecy, suspicion and an unmitigated fear of all that is contrary to the prescribed order?

If Jonathan Turley is correct, then it appears that this administration is intent on consolidating power within the executive office in order to establish and maintain a new and dominant political order. Is it possible that six years in this administration has taken such a toll on the foot soldiers (otherwise thoughtful people) that they can no longer make rational judgments and decisions? Has the din of war drowned out the prudent restraint of dialogue and debate? Are there any limits that will overcome the execution of unprecedented actions that seek to exert power? Do the other branches of our government have the will and the integrity to challenge what may well be the greatest threat to our democracy since the actions of Richard Nixon led to a virtual revolt that forced his resignation?

George Bush has frequently sought to cast his legacy in with the likes of Ronald Reagan...and in the end history may well equate him with the notoriety of Richard Nixon. We can only hope that the miscalculations that allow for such divergent perceptions can be successfully overcome in the near future. The stakes are enormous.

Daniel DiRito | May 27, 2006 | 12:25 PM
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