John Colson: An instructive look at a Nixon-era report
September 3, 2018
We should thank our lucky stars that we still have at least a semblance of in-depth news coverage in the form of magazine articles about nearly everything under the sun, and that the editors of certain magazines are doing what they can to keep long-form, investigative journalism alive amid the current wave of newspaper failures.
In this instance I refer to The New Yorker, a magazine that has been around for nearly a century and that has managed to maintain its hardcore standards of truth in reporting despite the barrage of anti-news fervor emanating from our current president and his acolytes.
If not for this magazine, for example, I might never have heard of a book-length analysis of presidential wrongdoing put together in 1974 to determine whether then-President Richard M. Nixon was the worst we had ever had up to that point in time.
The report, instigated by then-special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee John Doar, was put in the hands of a Yale historian, C. Vann Woodward (apparently no relation to Watergate investigator Bob Woodward of The Washington Post) in an effort to provide "a sense of scale … of magnitude" for Nixon's scandal-ridden presidency, by comparing Nixon's crimes against those of his predecessors.
Woodward's report, which seemingly concluded that Nixon was the worst of the lot to that point, was completed only a couple of weeks before Nixon resigned, and was not immediately printed. Not, that is, until Woodward decided it should be printed in the interests of history.
And since then, according to New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, it has been gathering dust on various library shelves, hardly even read, much less cited in subsequent press reviews and reports.
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But, as Lepore writes of the 14 historians who did the work, "they found rather a lot" in terms of presidential malfeasance. She concluded, after reading the report, that every president we have had — with the exception of William H. Harrison, who died in 1841 after only a month in office — "has been accused of some form of misconduct," much of it amounting to criminal behavior.
For instance, Lepore writes, James Buchanan "appears" to have been involved in the Democrats' attempts to rig two elections, in 1856 and 1858. And when a Republican-dominated House of Representatives in 1860 launched an investigation and then leaked the results to the press, Buchanan denounced the investigation as "nothing but falsehoods" issued by "parasites" intent on bringing him down.
It should. It's the same kind of language that President Donald J. Trump uses today to discredit any efforts by his critics to rein him in and place limits on his corruption, his malfeasance and his disregard for established governmental norms and rules.
Back to the Woodward report.
According to Lepore, the historians learned that in the Warren G. Hardin administration (which was marred by the Teapot Dome scandal and others) three of his presidential appointees went to jail for various crimes, and his Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, "nearly did, and probably should have" for giving a friend a government office and allowing him to use that post to enrich himself with hidden business deals arranged while he was "posing as a federal government employee."
Again, sound familiar?
It should. Two of Trump's associates, Paul Manafort (former campaign manager) and Michael Cohen (Trump's "fixer" in numerous shady dealings), have been found guilty of campaign finance law violations, tax evasion, fraudulent business practices and other crimes, and Cohen has implicated the president by claiming Trump was involved in the commission of certain illegal acts.
Other administrations where rampant criminality seems to have been the norm came under Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Johnson, Lepore reported.
What has all of this to do with us, mired here in 2018 in yet another murky, corrupt and anti-democratic governmental mess?
Well, for one thing, it proves we have not learned much from our own history.
We knew before he was elected that Trump was corrupt in his business dealings, that he had turned to Russian oligarchs to finance his real estate empire when U.S. banks refused to lend him money for his schemes, and that he was a misogynist of legendary proportions long before he became a presidential candidate, among other well-known failings.
Yes, we knew his presidency would be problematic, to say the least, but we as a nation (I exclude myself from this grouping) elected him anyway.
And now we are reaping the results of that cosmically bad choice, as we grapple with questions about what Russian President Vladimir Putin has over our president that makes Trump turn a blind eye to Moscow's misdeeds; about how it is that Trump is so irrationally focused on undoing the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, that he ignores or worsens many serious and pressing problems facing the U.S.; and about the questionable legality of the actions of an alarming segment of his staff, cabinet, legislative partners and a whole host of sycophants and hangers-on.
The Woodward report shows us that all too often we really do not know enough about the character and principles held by the men we elect to our highest office, and that we need to do better in the future.
Which brings me to what will become a familiar end-note to these columns as Nov. 6, election day, approaches.
Whatever you do, wherever you are, you must be sure to get out and vote in these mid-term contests, whether by mail prior to election day itself, or in person at a polling place on the big day.
The habit of voting is one we seem to have lost in recent years, if turnout numbers are to be trusted, and it is one we must regain if we are to retain control of our government, our nation and our future.
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