By J.F. McKenna
Sitting in The Clock diner on East 4th Street, I watched Richard M. Nixon depart the White House for good August 9, 1974. Neck-deep in political scandal and facing Clio’s eternal scorn, the 37th President of the United States announced his decision to resign the office the night before, skipping over any admissions of guilt while shamelessly borrowing from Teddy Roosevelt’s celebrated “man in the arena” address.
Every patron contributing to that lunchtime crowd was investing full attention in the TV near the bar, realizing that as a citizen he was certainly a part of the Watergate story itself. The moment was the most interesting sidebar story coming from my reporting internship at the weekly Universe Bulletin. Russ Faist and Jim Kramer, old hands at the craft I was learning, offered comments as Nixon left the world stage by helicopter; I simply absorbed this slice in time.
The common opinion generated from that scene, as I recall now, was that the President had chosen the best course for himself and for a constitutional republic whose structure was wobbling. This callow apprentice journalist (and, I should add, a Kent State history minor) finally asserted to his elders that such an event could never happen again in America.
Those memories came to call this week as I read and watched 2014 pundits consider the new White House crisis, its historical ties and the long-term implications.
Duquesne University’s Ken Gormley, in a Sunday op-ed, summarized the potentially nation-busting shenanigans of the Nixon Administration, from the third-rate burglary of Democratic headquarters in 1972 to subsequent obstructions of justice that provoked bipartisan ire across the Beltway and generated three articles of impeachment from the House of Representatives. “The final straw for Nixon,” the constitutional law scholar wrote, “was the landmark ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Nixon. In that unanimous 8-0 decision, handed down during the final hot weeks of July, the Supreme Court held that no person, not even the President, was above the law.”
What was obviously clear to any bright seventh-grader back then was the source of non-stop social and political discord in America. Up to his final departure, POTUS 37 was saying clever things such as People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.
But Nixon, himself a lawyer, was not a stupid man. As Gormley explained in his article, “Richard Nixon’s agonizing decision to resign, while he continued to deny any wrongdoing in the Watergate affair, was likely driven by the calculation that it might be the only way to keep himself from going to federal prison.” President Ford pardoned Nixon shortly thereafter, and excused the rest of the nation from an even longer national nightmare.
Which brings me to another current op-ed, this one written by Andrew P. Napolitano, a sage judicial analyst and a former Superior Court judge in New Jersey. Addressing every President’s constitutional duty to faithfully execute the nation’s laws, Judge Napolitano wrote of POTUS 44:
The word “faithfully” appears in the oath of office that is administered to every president. The reason for its use is to assure Americans that their wishes for government behavior, as manifested in written law, would be carried out even if the president personally disagrees with the laws he swore to enforce.
President Barack Obama has taken the concept of discretion and so distorted it — and has taken the obligation of faithful enforcement and so rejected it — that his job as chief law enforcer has become one of incompetent madness or chief lawbreaker.
Time after time, in areas as disparate as civil liberties, immigration, foreign affairs and health care, the president has demonstrated a propensity for rejecting his oath and doing damage to our fabric of liberty that cannot easily be undone by a successor. He has permitted:
- unconstitutional and unbridled spying on all Americans all the time
- illegal aliens to remain here and continue to break the law, even instructing them on how to get away with it
- his Internal Revenue Service to enforce the law more heavily against his political opponents than against his friends and to destroy government computer records in order to hide its misdeeds
Obama has done these things with a cool indifference and he has threatened to continue to do so until the pressure builds on his political opponents to see things his way. The Framers could not have intended a president so devoid of fidelity to the rule of law that it is nearly impossible to distinguish between incompetence and lawlessness. But the Framers did give us a remedy — removal from office. It is the remaining constitutional means to save the freedoms the Constitution was intended to guarantee.
Almost immediately after reading the judge’s opinion, I heard the voice of Mark Twain—who, by the way, would have enjoyed the company at The Clock in downtown Cleveland. “History,” Twain observed, “doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
In 2014 ours is an unhappy rhyme, and one whose next lines will have to be written by the President himself.
The 24-hour news cycle and the venal political pros relish the drama of battle between the factions, but they have yet to weigh the constitutional consequences. Just as the nation was challenged back in the Watergate Era, so the nation is challenged today. The only difference is that ours is a world after 9-11, a largely angry place that watches and waits for democracy’s finest model to stumble and fall. To borrow a phrase from historian Joseph J. Ellis, “the awkward truth is that we have been chasing our own tails in an apparently endless cycle of partisan pleading.”
“Obama has lost much of the country’s support and the world’s trust—but he does have a phone and a pen,” a friend recently remarked to me. “He should call the Speaker and ink his resignation. It’s time.” A harsh analysis and remedy, certainly. And one that can be executed only by a leader generous enough to put immediate concern for constitutional integrity above personal and political aims.
To be sure, the nation finds itself at a Watergate-like juncture—only with greater possible, and likely destructive, consequences. But the age-old Similia Similibus Curantur—Likes Cure Like—remains a valid option of homeopathic remedy. As our history has shown, the carefully dosed constitutional disruption can save the patient in the long run.
J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. The Cleveland native and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at email@example.com .