Monday, February 9, 2015
I criticized this book for being boring. Then I had second thoughts, particularly as I revisited the last few chapters of the book.
Firstly, Frost asks Nixon a checks-and-balances question in relationship to his acts as president that the current occupant (and recent past occupants) of the White House should be pressed to answer:
What I wanted him to respond to was his bedrock claim that he, as President, had the right to decide unilaterally when constitutional protections could apply and when they could not. In a sense, I suggested, “You were behaving like a king . . . you were behaving like George III rather than George Washington.
Alas, that line would eventually find itself on the cutting room floor, because Nixon’s answer was unusuable. He seemed so thoroughly beaten – or “psyched” – on the question of his own abuses of power that his defense was no longer even credible enough to stand as a meaningful test of our two positions. In this case he began with a brief reference to the Black panthers and the Weathermen, and then went into a long dissertation supporting his belief on capital punishment.
I tried to come back to the point, “But when you said, as you said when we were talking about the Huston Plan, that the President orders it . . . that it makes it legal, as it were. But is the President in that sense . . . is there anything in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that suggests the President is that far of a sovereign . . that far above the law?”
“No, there isn’t,” Nixon replied. “There is nothing specific that the Constitution contemplates in that respect. I haven’t read every word, every jot and every tittle. But I do know this. That it has been, however, argued that as far as a President is concerned, that in wartime a President does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and Constitution, which is essential for the rights we’re talking about.”
Classic political equivocation. All you have to do is expand the definition of “wartime” and bingo, you’re the President with all the power because you’re in the shower. And because sometimes these unilateral presidential moves occur in areas we support, we as a people allow it to happen. And then we quail when it’s done in an area we don’t support. We can’t shake the devil’s hand and say we’re only kidding. Either we’re okay with our presidents acting like kings, or we’re not.
Frost puts it better:
Others may honestly regard [Nixon] as dangerous. They may see in his conduct and mind-set the germ of something drastically at odds with the nation’s democratic heritage. But Richard Nixon knows his own mind and his own heart better than anyone else. And whatever others say, he knows that undermining our system of government, the constitutional traditions of the American Republic, the rights and freedoms people enjoy was the furthest things from his mind. That was never his “motive.”
In other words – despite what he did, he was a good guy. He’d never do anything to deprive Americans of their rights. That’s in the eye of the beholder. And then again, what’s to stop the next guy – who could possibly make Nixon look like a beloved character – from doing really nasty things with that Imperial Presidential power because his predecessors helped set the precedent for him? This is what ought to scare us in our sleep.
And while we’re talking about checks and balances, Nixon had this to say:
“About where power lies today. In the media. With no checks and balances. You’ve probably cut that out.”
“Well, I have half passed the test,” I say. “We’re including it in the fifth show.”
Yes, we can write that off as traditional Nixon media-hatred. But I think there’s a grain of truth in it. Not because of what Nixon ever said about the media, but because of what Aldous Huxley wrote in “Brave New World.” If we as a nation, a people, allow the media – truly without checks and balances – to lie to us with partisan reporting or dull us with sound bites and entertainment rather than news, we get the kind of government and media we deserve.