politics

In Search of Elliot and Archibald

On May 18, 1973, the United States Senate began nationally televised hearings on Watergate. Incoming Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson, recently appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, assigned former solicitor general Archibald Cox to serve as the Justice Department’s special prosecutor for the investigation. The rest, as they say, is history. 478 days later, amidst mounting evidence that he himself had broken the law by authorizing illegal activities against the Democratic National Committee in an attempt to effect the 1972 presidential election, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only man to resign the office of President of the United States of America.

At the time that the Senate Committee launched their hearings and Cox began his investigation, there was no public evidence that implicated President Nixon in those illegal activities. The election, held the previous November, was won by Nixon in one of the great landslides in presidential election history. He took just under two-thirds of the popular vote; a tally impossible to explain by any illegal activities. But he broke the law. And then he tried to cover it up. So he had to go. By all other respects, Nixon was at a minimum, a serviceable executive.

Lost in the scandal of it all and Nixon’s personal disgrace is the great first world governance triumph that was Watergate. The most powerful man in the world broke a law that actually had no measurable impact on his claim to office or the effectiveness of his administration. But he lost power. Not because of his own personal honor. But because the institutions that firmly stood in place to limit his power insisted that he lose it. There was a legislative branch that acted independently of political goal. There were a judiciary and law enforcement entities that insisted on seeing it through. There was  a free press that spoke truth to power and shone light on what was important. And there were Americans of character and principle in positions of authority.

Perhaps no event more symbolically illustrates the courage of principled government than the “Saturday Night Massacre”. On October 20th, 1973, with mounting pressure and evidence piling up against him, Nixon ordered his Attorney General Richardson to fire the special prosecutor Cox. Richardson refused. He was fired. His immediate replacement William Ruckleshaus also refused and resigned. Eventually, a third man, Robert Bork carried out Nixon’s order. But the damage had been done. Within a year, Congress passed the articles of impeachment. And Nixon was gone.

There have been and always will be inappropriate men who inappropriately seek power. There’s even been a few elected to lead our country. There will always be outside powers looking to interfere in our wellbeing as a nation. There’s even been a few who have. But what has made us great, what has delivered 55 peaceful transfers of power and 2 percent per capita growth for 240 years, is the institutions and mechanisms that respond to them. The great risk of our times, is that perhaps now, they can’t or won’t.

We’re about to inaugurate a man who has held no position of government in his life; a man who can scarcely point to a single aspect of service in seventy years; a man who capitalized on an ugly message of exclusion to mobilize a frustrated base of voters. But he’s not the real risk. It’s the Americans standing next to him and the institutions charged to check him that scare me the most.

We’re no doubt in for a very different experience. And perhaps the only person who could drive the needed change is someone like Donald J. Trump. But I’ll ask the question to his supporters, when am I allowed to be concerned? What does he say and what does he do that alarms you? Because you’ve shrugged off quite a bit already. And when the people who supported a man’s rise to power can’t be counted on to eventually tell him he’s gone too far, we’re left with the institutions to do it. When I think of those institutions today, it gives me grave concern. Who in Trump’s inner circle blows the whistle? Who on his cabinet resigns over principle? What Republican stands for no more in Congress. Who in the press will we believe? Who are today’s Elliot Richardson and Archibald Cox?

Our most serious problem probably isn’t Donald J. Trump. It’s that the answers to those questions feel like the same ones throughout history that failed to check the truly dangerous leaders that hurt so many. And that’s new in America.

 

13 replies »

  1. Who indeed. It’s been a very sobering experience for those of us who supported Bernie Sanders – a man (imho) of great moral integrity. Thanks for putting words to what we are facing today, and for being a sane conservative voice in the sea of chaos that consists of our governing and media institutions. I just heard today that The Washington Post’s claim that Russia tried to break into Vermont’s utilities is false. It’s sad!

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  2. On point, as always. While not a supporter of Pres.-elect Trump. For better or worse he will change the political landscape in Washington. The question is whether his “business approach”, lack of political experience and service (lto a question of credibility). As well as his thin-skinned ego. Will lead to a positive change in governance. Having observed the business model in Atlantic City firsthand, integrity will never be a word associated with Trump. It is evident in his choices for cabinet posts that they are none that have demonstrated integrity of an Elliott Richardson.

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  3. First, thank you for recommending Headspace to your readers. I have a meditative practice; nonetheless, i’m enjoy the application. It is yet another affirming and helpful tool for my spiritual and professional toolkits.

    As for your question of today, it seems more than reasonable to ask and seek wisdom about whether or not there is a political canary in the cool mine to declare Donald Trump’s illegitimate claim to serve as the President of the United States. Given the recent Intelligence reports as well as the President Elect’s horrific claims as a candidate I too with you wonder if self-identified people of faith, especially Evangelical Christians will admit that they are looking past many of the President Elect’s and their own righteousness and sins in order to justify this Presidency. When the time comes, as it will, shall there be a prophet in the President’s inner circle who is willing to publicly and privately declare that the President-Elect is abusing his power. Will such a prophet or prophets beckon the legislative and judicial branches of our government to respond when the illegal and unethical actions of the President-Elect manifest themselves, as they surely will. Thank you for your continued objective and well-balanced, intellectual posts.

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  4. I would like to believe that the American people would elect a man who would surround himself with a staff and cabinet full of the most distinguished and conscientious people available. I just don’t think they did. In the article you observe that the supporters of Donald Trump have shrugged off and awful lot of behavior that would, at a minimum, indicate tragically poor character for office of the POTUS. I too wonder if anyone around him would flag his plays and enforce penalties for what I perceive to be unavoidable bad conduct by the executive.

    It appears that in no way has the President-elect actively searched for integrity in his cabinet, but has populated it and his staff with ideologues. Why would we suspect anything else? You’re right to wonder from where a person like Archibald Cox or Sir Gregory Howe, whose public resignation is thought to have torpedoed the career of Margaret Thatcher, will come from. Do we really expect a man who tried to trademark the phrase “you’re fired” to tolerate scrutiny from his own appointees? The American people (through grotesquely antiquated electoral math) gave Donald Trump the Executive branch, undivided government and an open spot on the SCOTUS after everything nearly 63 million voters shrugged off. I can’t imagine he feels accountable to much of anything at all. But then again, I could be wearing a tinfoil hat.

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  5. Once again, you speak my fears. As bad as he is, (and he most certainly is bad) Mr. Trump is a small part of our problem. Like “The Architect” of The Matrix was the least of Zion’s problem. Even without him the system he is putting in place could kill us. (Sorry for the bad movie reference, but it just feels so appropriate right now. )

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  6. Being a college student living in DC during the Watergate years and running to get my Washington Post every day, excellent insights about drawing from the events and lessons from that part of history to the rise and future of Trump. Thank you.

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  7. Great post. Recommend re-run of your article that called out the national security community elite, in particular intel professionals, to put a public face on their profession, and connect at the community level. The IC as an institution is being publically destroyed at exactly the time that it needs to rapidly modernize. Workforce already demoralized due to weak and misguided management and leadership …at least at ground floor levels, exacerbated by the last 15 years of the meteoric rise of a lot of self serving executives who are now less qualified than ever to manage and lead in a complex global security environment. House cleaning certainly needed; but moreso, a rededication to principled daily management actions that truly reflect corporate approaches, and leave retaliation for doing the right, hard things (by all of those very dedicated workers) at the doorstep.

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