The comparisons of the Obama and Nixon White Houses are suddenly coming—pardon the expression—fast and furious, and why not? The IRS investigations; the administration’s fixation on leaks and leakers and its obsession with enemies; the cover-ups, the blame-shifting to subordinates, the defiant chief executive, even the sweating, pathetically dissembling press secretary; it all has the odor of that earlier time. Again, it’s all happening early in the second term, following a triumphant reelection. Again, the operative terms are arrogance, contempt for law, and thuggery.
The growing awareness of administration malfeasance is evident in the numbers on Google: more than 59 million hits for “Obama and Nixon” and 24 million–plus for “Obama and Watergate.” For those interested, the 44th president’s face can already be found morphing into the 37th’s. Then there’s the rising tide of commentary. “Obama knee-deep in Nixon-esque scandal” runs the headline of columnist Joe Battenfield’s piece in the Boston Herald, which notes that Obama’s campaign slogan would have been more appropriate if it were not “Forward” but “Backward”—“All the way to, say, 1972.” “Benghazi, IRS—Son of Watergate?” asks Cal Thomas. “In IRS Scandal, Echoes of Watergate,” observes the Washington Post’s George Will.
Such talk is mostly confined to the Right so far, but a handful of principled liberals have also weighed in. “There’s no way in the world I’m going to defend that,” said U.S. Representative Michael Capuano of Massachusetts of the IRS’s going after the Tea Party. “Hell, I spent my youth vilifying the Nixon administration for doing the same thing.” Former Michigan Democratic congresswoman Lynn Rivers echoed him: “For anyone over 50, this news couldn’t help but stir memories of Richard Nixon’s Political Enemies Project. . . . To use Dan Rather’s ‘duck test,’ the IRS probe of ‘hostile’ ideological groups looks like, swims like, and quacks like government dirty tricks.” One of the heroes of Watergate weighed in, too. “This is outrageous, and it is totally inexcusable,” Carl Bernstein raged about the revelation that the Department of Justice had secretly seized the phone records of Associated Press journalists. “There is no reason that a presidency that is interested in a truly free press and its functioning should permit this to happen.”
Thus it is that questions that once seemed unfathomable take on unexpected plausibility. Where and how far will it all go? Is it remotely conceivable that where Richard Nixon led, Barack Obama might follow? The answer, of course, depends primarily on the nature and severity of the crimes committed—if, indeed, they are crimes—and whether presidential culpability can be established.
But such an observation instantly gives rise to two other considerations. Lest we forget, while Democrats led the congressional inquiries into the Nixonites’ misdeeds—Sam Ervin’s committee in the Senate, Peter Rodino’s in the House—in the end, it was principled Republicans, led by Barry Goldwater (who told Nixon he could count on no more than 15 Republican votes in the Senate), who forced the president’s resignation. Can we expect such nation-above-party behavior on the part of today’s Democrats? Can you imagine Patrick Leahy ever deserting Obama? Or Al Franken? Or Barbara Boxer?
Then there’s the role of the press. Unsurprisingly, the media on the far left have circled the wagons in defense of the president. “Desperate for a Scandal, Fox’s Dobbs Attacks Obama’s ‘Inner Nixon,’” read a dismissive headline on Media Matters for America, while DailyKos has harped on previous “GOP-Fabricated Non-Scandals” that went nowhere. And it’s true that, whether it was the president’s associations with his racist pastor or the Fast and Furious boondoggle, such allegations have gone nowhere—but primarily because the press has protected Obama. So it is a given that the media will again play a key role in determining whether the current scandals are pursued to their logical conclusion or are allowed to fizzle out.
Recent history suggests which outcome is more likely.
Benghazi? With a few notable exceptions, such as CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson and CNN’s Jake Tapper, reporters shrugged off the administration’s cover-up in the immediate aftermath of the attack, when it might have harmed Obama’s presidential fortunes. They have at last been forced by whistleblowers to start asking obvious questions, but their impulse to protect Obama is presumably undiminished. The IRS scandal? Reporters have as little sympathy for the Tea Party as other liberals do, but this story can’t be ignored, at least for the moment. Even administration apologist Joe Klein opines: “I don’t think Obama ever wanted to be on the same page as Richard Nixon. In this specific case, he now is.” But the “specific case” wording is telling; Klein’s piece is generally tepid, arguing that the IRS matter is an exception to what has been a generally scandal-free administration. It is a line that many in the media are apt to adopt.
As Bernstein’s outburst makes clear, the media generally saves its greatest outrage for government attacks on . . . the media. Thus, the DOJ/AP episode may be the most dangerous to the administration of the mushrooming scandals. It’s likely that a prominent head or two will roll, perhaps even Attorney General Eric Holder’s. Reporters are nothing if not creatures of the pack, and the pack has been dissed here, big-time. How hard will they go after the president? Probably not very. Think battered-woman syndrome: he may be an abuser, but he’s still their man—the one they covered for when he was caught with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, the one they played along with on the faux war on women and the anti-Islam video as the cause for the Benghazi attack. With Nixon, by contrast, once the media picked up the faintest scent of blood, they were relentless and increasingly joyous in pursuit.
As George Will writes: “Episodes like this separate the meritorious liberals from the meretricious. The day after the IRS story broke, The Post led the paper with it, and, with an institutional memory of Watergate, published a blistering editorial demanding an Obama apology. The New York Times consigned the story to page 10.” So it’s also the case that, amid all the stunning events of the past few days, the story that will likely prove the most relevant is this one, courtesy of hotair.com: “Top CBS, ABC, CNN execs all have relatives working as advisors for White House.”