Rutgers Professor David Greenberg has a nice review of John Dean’s new book The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It in The New Republic. The impressive thing about Dean’s book is the exhaustive amount of research he’s done of the Nixon audio tapes, including a tremendous amount of new transcribing. Historians will be grateful for this resource.
I want to explore just one piece of this review, and it only touches on Watergate by way of comparison with the administration of George W. Bush. Prof. Greenberg sees Dean as being irrationally opposed to the Bush administration, at least in terms of the seriousness with which Dean compared its misdeeds to those of the Nixon administration.
Dean’s quest for absolution has also taken the form of calling out abuses of political power, as he did in a string of Bush-era polemics: Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush (2004); Conservatives Without Conscience (2006); and Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches (2007). These books confirmed that Dean had grown more liberal in his politics, and like many liberals during the Bush era, he couldn’t help venting his outrage toward the president’s Nixonian abuses of power. Though Bush’s misdeeds certainly deserved censure, the newly fashionable genre of the political attack book is not an ennobling one for anyone. Especially regrettable was Worse than Watergate, if only because its title implied that Dean endorsed the then-fashionable (but profoundly mistaken) idea that Bush somehow did more harm to the republic than Nixon. Although Dean later explained that he meant to suggest only that Bush’s secrecy outstripped Nixon’s—though that claim too is debatable—it was plain that he had inhaled the contentious partisan ether of the new century.
I don’t want to minimize the harm that Nixon did to the republic, but much of what Nixon did was also done by previous administrations, going back to at least Woodrow Wilson. One of the injustices of Watergate was that the Nixon administration took the full brunt of the blame for actions that had been routine under J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for decades, and for domestic intelligence operations and other dirty tricks that traced back through the Johnson, Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations. Nixon didn’t invent COINTELPRO, for example, nor did he initiate the CIA’s secret mail opening program. What Watergate and the subsequent investigations revealed was that American’s First and Fourth Amendment rights had been largely mythological in the post-war era. The great triumph of the era was that America rose up and demanded that reality match the myth we were taught in our public schools. Congress enacted the FISA law, gave teeth to the Freedom of Information Act, passed campaign finance reform laws, created intelligence oversight committees, passed the Sunshine Act, the Ethics in Government Act, and the Presidential Records Act. Our country’s dirty laundry was fairly thoroughly aired through multiple congressional investigations, and the media became more combative and confrontational.
The Bush administration attacked all these reforms in a fairly methodical fashion. I won’t list their sins here, as the archives of this blog offer one of the most comprehensive records of that history that you could hope to find. But the harm done to the country by the Bush administration was largely in eviscerating the Watergate reforms and heaping disdain and scorn on the values Americans had risen up to insist upon in the immediate aftermath of that scandal.
We can argue about whether the decision to invade Iraq was worse than the decision to bomb Cambodia, or whether the warrantless surveillance of the Nixon administration was more egregious than the warrantless surveillance of the Bush administration, or whether Operation Phoenix was more grotesque than Bush’s torture programs. But the great sin of the Bush administration was to attack and corrode that noble values that were defended in the face of the revelations of Watergate. He made the Republican Party defend the exact kinds of things that the nation had insisted were indefensible in the 1970’s.
And, for that, his administration was worse than Nixon’s and did much more to harm the country. Look at the GOP today, and compare it to the GOP of the late 1970’s. Which is a greater shame to the republic?
Which legacy would you choose?
[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]