compared himself to Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, evoked
nostalgia for John F. Kennedy, sought to emulate Ronald Reagan,
(belatedly) praised George W. Bush, and enlisted the assistance of Bill
Clinton in his 2012 re-election effort, but as his second term stumbles
along, the president with whom Barack Obama finds himself being compared
is Richard M. Nixon.
My father, Lou Cannon, covered the White House with
distinction for the Washington Post for many years, beginning in the
Nixon administration. He employed an easy rule of thumb when fielding
phone calls from anonymous tipsters:
If the caller said, “I have a story that will make Watergate look like a picnic,” Dad would hang up on him.
In the past week, Nixon’s name has been invoked often, and not in a
way that pleases the current president or his loyalists. Unless it’s a
reference to his dramatic 1972 visit to China, Nixon is not the
president any of his successors enjoy being likened to -- especially
when the suffix “gate” is attached to it.
Barack Obama was only 13 years old when Nixon resigned from office
one step ahead of the posse. This is old enough to know that
correlations between himself and the 37th president should be contested,
which Obama has done.
“I’ll let you guys engage in those comparisons,” he replied when
asked at a rainy Rose Garden appearance Thursday how he felt about the
Nixon parallel. “You can go ahead and read the history, I think, and
draw your own conclusions.”
This response echoed language employed earlier in the week by Obama’s
spokesman, Jay Carney. “I can tell you,” the White House press
secretary told reporters, “that the people who make those kinds of
comparisons need to check their history.”
Fair enough. Carney was a colleague of mine in the White House press
corps during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years, and he summoned a
pretty good institutional memory about the beat. Nixon’s presidency
unraveled on the shoals of widespread criminality with no precedent in
American politics. So, yes -- by all means, let’s leave Watergate out of
Yet, I can’t help but think that Nixon and Obama have more in common than either man’s devotees might imagine.
Richard Milhous Nixon was thin-skinned, felt persecuted by the
opposition party, had a penchant for classifying political adversaries
-- and journalists -- as “enemies,” and tried to control his image so
fiercely that, ultimately, zealous aides committed illegal acts to
further his re-election.
But even before that had happened -- and before Nixon himself began
directing a coverup -- truth had become a casualty of his
administration. This is the parallel between Richard Nixon and Barack
No evidence has been unearthed connecting Obama, or anyone under his
direction, to illicit activities. But the absence of criminality isn’t
the only test here. Nixon’s “enemies,” at least in his mind, also
included vast swaths of the Fourth Estate. That apparently is how the
current president operates, too.
Barack Obama often displays contempt for the proper role of
news-gatherers and, by extension, for the value of reporting that seeks
to be unbiased. Often, officials in his White House or re-election
campaign seem uncomprehending of the concept of straight reporting.
In their Manichean world, there are liberal news organizations (good)
and conservative outlets (bad). Some of the news business does work
this way -- more than when Nixon was president, for sure -- but what
Obama and his political advisers and White House press handlers have
done is graft their own hyper-partisanship onto the media.
In the Obama administration, it’s not uncommon for a White House
press official to scream profanely over the phone at journalists whose
stories they dislike, plant questions from friendly media outlets, and
deny access to briefings to reporters who ask tough questions. This
administration has aggressively used the Justice Department to ferret
out news leaks, declared open season on a media organization out of sync
with his philosophy (Fox News), and routinely questioned the
professionalism of reporters and the patriotism of the opposition
political party. That disquieting sound you hear is an echo from the
And though the current administration’s evasions about last
September’s attacks in Benghazi, the partisan 2010-2012 activities by
IRS, and the unprecedented scope of the Justice Department’s snooping
into Associated Press phone records are all unrelated controversies,
there is a common thread.
Those who work for this president have a fetish for stage managing
the news. They never simply trust the facts; or maybe a better way of
saying it is that they don’t trust the American people to be able to
handle the facts. Washington has been consumed in recent weeks about
who, exactly, massaged the administration’s “talking points” on
The underlying problem is that there were talking points at all. The
phrase was popularized in the 1970s in the State Department. Originally
the practice ensured that government officials were employing the
precise, but opaque, language required in the field of international
diplomacy. But the phrase soon migrated to politics, where it meant
something quite different: Talking points were the lines of the day to
be employed in interviews by partisan political operatives either to
defend their position or attack the other side.
Benghazi represents the merging of two uses of the term. Four
government officials were killed and a U.S. facility was attacked. Yes,
some Republicans wanted to use that for partisan gain, but most
Americans simply wanted to know what happened, and why. They still have
not been told.
All politics is local, famed Democratic Speaker of the House Tip
O’Neill is known for saying. Under Obama, all foreign affairs is
Concerning the IRS scandal, there is no evidence that Obama unleashed
tax collectors on opponents, as Nixon did. But after years of comparing
congressional Republicans to terrorists and hostage-takers, and
characterizing the Tea Party as racists and extremists, what message did
the president or the leaders of his party think they were sending IRS
Obama is never content to simply say he thinks he can show how
wrong-headed Republicans are about the federal budget. No, he says they
should put “country ahead of party,” thereby suggesting they are
deliberately hurting the economy to hurt him.
This, too, is Nixonland.
On June 29, 1972, Nixon was talking to Henry Kissinger in a taped
conversation about the Democratic Party platform. “These people are so
revolting that they have to be smashed,” Nixon tells his national
“I don’t mean just beat them,” Nixon adds. “It’s good to beat them.
But I mean smashed. They must be, they must be, disgraced, driven right
out of public life.”
No tapes are available to know how Obama speaks about Republicans in
private. But tonally, he’s not that much different from Nixon when
speaking in public. Last week, even after the Benghazi, IRS, and AP
controversies crested on the White House steps, Obama found time to
blame Republicans at a New York fundraiser.
“What’s blocking us right now is a sort of hyper-partisanship in
Washington that I was, frankly, hoping to overcome in 2008,” the
president said. “My thinking was when we beat them in 2012, that might
break the fever, and it’s not quite broken yet. But I am persistent. And
I am staying at it. … If there are folks who are more interested in
winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation, then
I want to make sure there are consequences to that.”
Get all that? The Republicans don’t merely have a difference of
opinion with the president. They are rabid, and craven, and willing to
sacrifice their own children’s futures to win elections. This
Nixon-esque attitude constitutes a toxic brew: whining, boasting, and
name-calling all overlaid with persecution-complex and a profound
contempt for his opponents -- along with a determination to make them
Like Nixon, Obama also fancies himself a press critic. Although the
man received press coverage in 2008 and 2012 that Nixon would have
killed for, there are considerable irritants out there, including
radioman Rush Limbaugh, but primarily Fox News, which Obama and his
aides have attempted to delegitimize by name.
In so doing, Obama has actually gone places in public Nixon only dared go in private.
As I write this piece, I am looking at a memo
written on July 30, 1972, by President Nixon to White House Chief of
Staff Bob Haldeman. That morning, The Washington Post had published a
story by Lou Cannon headlined “Nixon Running Scared.”
That article apparently got under Nixon’s skin. His memo to Haldeman
runs for three pages. His premise is that the Washington Post “is
totally against us.” Making no allowance for the possibility of
objective reporting, Nixon starts by telling his top adviser that he
understands campaign aides must deal with “media representatives that we
know are antagonistic to us.”
Nixon’s second point is that they should not “waste time” with such
outlets at the expense of “turning down interviews with media
representatives who are our friends.” This seems to be to a false
choice, but Nixon -- who would win re-election in 1972 in a landslide --
is just warming to his main point:
“Third, even when our most intelligent people are meeting with people
like Cannon they must constantly keep in mind that they are confronting
a political enemy and that everything they say will, therefore, be used
We don’t know if Obama or his minions also keep enemies lists, if
only in their heads. But we do know that they view the media with the
same with-us-or-against-us mentality that Nixon fostered. And though
that attitude can help win elections, it surely impedes good governance.
Richard Nixon thought liberals were out to get him. Guess what? Many
of them were. Likewise, Barack Obama thinks the Republicans want him to
fail in office. Many of them do. But it’s a poor excuse for bad
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