Forty-five years on from Nixon, America needs to heal once again

Nixon’s resignation 45 years ago was followed by greater accountability. We need a new reckoning, writes Janine di Giovanni

President Richard Nixon is seen in the Oval Office of the White House, 1969.  (AP Photo)
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Exactly 45 years ago, Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, gave his resignation speech in the Oval Office of the White House. Nixon's role in the Watergate cover-up had been made clear to the public a few days earlier when taped Oval Office conversations  including one known as "the smoking gun"  revealed without a doubt that Nixon had been aware of the White House connection to the Watergate burglary. Two years earlier, five men had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington DC, leading to the discovery of multiple abuses of power by the Nixon administration. This led to a constitutional crisis. The country was in deep pain and Nixon had to go.

Nixon did the right thing by standing down on August 9, 1974. His involvement in the Watergate scandal had grown too large for him to manipulate and hide. He was deeply unpopular throughout the country and had earned the dubious moniker Tricky Dicky. His political support had collapsed.

“With the disappearance of that base,” Nixon told the American public, “I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.” By evening, a helicopter had landed on the White House lawn and whisked away Nixon and his family to their home in California. Gerald Ford was installed as the new president. “Our national nightmare is over,” he told a traumatised country.

One president left; another began. It was that swift.

Nixon was the only US president to resign from office and it had a tangible effect on political life in Washington. Because of Watergate, more than 69 government officials were charged and 48 were found guilty but the real cost was that trust in the executive branch had taken a plummet.  That trust did not rebound again until the Clinton administration.

Nixon’s resignation came just after one of the most volatile times in US history. The war in Vietnam had raged for more than a decade, an unpopular, ugly conflict that divided the country and left societal wounds that would take decades to heal. Racial violence was spiralling out of control, culminating in riots in urban flashpoints in 1968. A counterculture hippie movement rejected mainstream American ideals, foregoing the materialism and suburban life that had been the hallmark of 1950s post-war America. College campuses staged moratoriums. Underground radical movements, many of them militant, were born.

The comparison between Nixon's administration and our present     one is stark

After the initial shockwaves subsided, the long-term effect of Watergate and Nixon's resignation, however, had a positive effect on the country. It became an era of legal reform.  Laws were passed to ensure what had happened would not happen again: the Ethics in Government Act; the Freedom of Information Act. Reporters from the Washington Post had doggedly tracked and broken the Watergate story so investigative journalism was at an all-time high. Post-Watergate, everyone was accountable.

The comparison between Nixon's administration and our present one is stark. Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, presides over an administration which flies in the face of what the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution hoped to achieve. The liberal ideas and republican form of government that defined the US has morphed into something more aggressive and populist.

By appealing to voters who feel alienated from Washington life, Mr Trump has exposed a frightening side of America: one that is racist, polarised and, as we saw in El Paso and Dayton, sometimes violent. He has repeatedly shown a disdain for nearly all the pillars of democracy: freedom of press; human rights; the rule of law.

According to a report from the Alliance for Justice advocacy group in the US, Mr Trump’s attacks on the justice system are systematic. It states he expects undying loyalty from those in law enforcement but has simultaneously tried to undermine proceedings and flouted constitutional rights.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Mr Trump denies climate change, which will have lasting effects on generations to come. He is friendly to rogue governments. He has torn up treaties, not necessarily because he does not believe in them but because they were instigated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

There are growing calls for his impeachment but it is a fantasy to think Mr Trump and his family members – whom he has installed as his closest advisers, with security clearances, despite the fact they have no credentials for the job – will leave the White House, board a helicopter and return to Mar-a-Lago forever.

Nixon was once seen as the epitome of corruption and misuse of power. Forty-five years on, the shootings in Texas and Ohio, a bitter war of words and accusations of racism in Congress, and allegations of outside interference in elections are once again indicative of a divided nation.

Yet despite the pain of 1974, some good emerged from the wreckage: reckoning, responsibility, new laws and regulations. Trust, eventually, was restored. Forty five years after Nixon, we need that healing again.

Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a Guggenheim fellow