Recently I have re-watched the 1976 film, All the President’s Men, which depicts the efforts of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to uncover the web of Watergate crimes that would ultimately bring down President Nixon. I followed that up by reading the biography of Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post during that historic time.
At the time, the Post was accused by the President’s defenders of conducting a partisan witch hunt trying to get George McGovern elected. Their reporting, which turned out to be spot on, was subjected to flat denials. The remarkable thing is that those denials were flat out lies by the administration – and the Post knew this at the time.
And yet there was a particular incident depicted in both the movie and Mr. Bradlee’s account where the reporters made a mistake. They reported that the role of Bob Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff, in the paying of the hush money, had been established. While that turned out to be true, they reported that it had come out during Grand Jury testimony – which was false (only because the individual testifying was never asked). This led to the President’s defenders going on the attack against the Washington Post.
In his book, Mr. Bradlee concluded that had it not been for the existence of the infamous White House tapes and the secret surveillance system, installed in 1971, Mr. Nixon might have avoided having to resign. In the end, he concluded that, while the Post kept the story alive, Congressional Republicans would have avoided the issue of impeachment due to the lack of a smoking gun.
There are a number of troubling connections to the current White House – the question of subverting a democratic election process, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the question of coverup and obstruction of justice as well as the current lack of a smoking gun.
For those who believe that the world of 1973 was less partisan, former Watergate Investigator Scott Armstrong a month and a half ago reminded us that “in May 1973, Mr. Baker and Mr. Thompson continued to work behind the scenes to prevent the inquiry from focusing on Mr. Nixon.”
His key point was “bipartisanship didn’t exist when the Watergate committee began its work.”
That only really emerged with the Saturday Night Massacre (referring to Nixon’s orders to fire the special prosecutor, leading to the resignations of the AG and the deputy AG) when it became clear that Nixon really did have something to hide – prior to that, the defenders of Nixon pushed forward the idea that it was simply a partisan agenda.
The question that we must ask is whether that scenario is possible in 2017. I have my doubts, but it is fair to point out that many of the arguments made today existed in 1973.
At the same time, the biggest problem for the current President might be political rather than legal. The President continues to shoot himself in the foot – I think damaging both himself politically as well as the office.
Last week it was the tweets attacking Mika Brzezinski and then the video of President Trump beating an image that looked like CNN which raised the latest round of criticism.
This has prompted the latest war between the President and the media. Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued the statement, “We condemn the president’s threat of physical violence against journalists. This tweet is beneath the office of the presidency. Sadly, it is not beneath this president.”
But there is a danger for the media in these wars. Polling continues to show that, while the President receives low approval from Democrats and Independents, his support among his core remains remarkably high. Given his coalition – these attacks might not produce the kind of results that the media believes.
There is also the danger that this heightened rhetoric will simply play into the notion that many on the right have – that the left has lost all objectivity when it comes to President Trump and that they are guilty of the same hyperbole as the President.
Indeed we see this with the latest column by local columnist Debra DeAngelo. Her title: “Our country deserves better than a childish, misogynistic pig.”
She writes, “Trump is the president, and his ego is still so fragile and insatiable, he creates fake magazine covers of himself. It’s sad, it’s pathetic, and, moreover, it’s sick. ‘Mentally ill’ sick.”
She continues, “This well-deserved ridicule didn’t sit well with the Toddler in Chief, who immediately flung himself to the floor in a fit of rage, pooped his extra-large diapers, grabbed his cell
phone and got his fat, tiny thumbs a-tapping.”
This is not an effort to defend Mr. Trump, whose conduct is worthy of all the criticism he has received. Instead it is a warning that this type of rhetoric and discourse is not helpful to the cause of the republic.
Ms. DeAngelo is sinking herself to the level of Mr. Trump and she is not alone. The danger here is that, by sinking to his level, they are actually insulating Mr. Trump from his own conduct as his defenders can argue that the left and the media – joined at the hip – have lost it.
The left needs to work on mobilizing and also connecting with voters.
As the Atlantic put it back in April, “If Democrats want to regain the power they’ve lost at the state and federal level in recent years, they will have to convince more voters they can offer solutions to their problems.”
They continue, “The Washington Post-ABC News survey … found that a majority of the public thinks the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of average Americans in the United States. More Americans think Democrats are out of touch than believe the same of the Republican Party or President Trump.”
That suggests that the winning solution is not to continue the juvenile attacks on Trump, no matter how deplorable – and juvenile – his conduct, but rather to work on their own counter-narrative.
In the wake of the loss in the Georgia special election, critics pounded the Democrats.
“It is a bit surprising that Democrats haven’t managed a single victory yet, and haven’t had more success in turning their anger against the Trump administration into something tangible,” said Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The party can weather that for a while, but at some point it could become demoralizing.”
The Atlantic noted: “Despite efforts to rebuild, however, the Democratic Party’s national brand remains damaged, and it is still unclear whether the party will coalesce around a core message in the Trump era.”
In a perverse way, Trump’s continued antics may be harming the Democrats as much as they are harming him – as they distract the left into counter-attacks rather than message building.
As we know, the country survived Watergate – although not unharmed. The question is whether the nation can ever rebuild from this race to the gutter – with the President taking to twitter and social media to launch juvenile attacks and the Democrats and the media responding in kind. That is a question unfortunately worth pondering as we celebrate, once again, Independence Day.
—David M. Greenwald reporting