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Characters on a continuum

Why Bush was worse than Nixon

So who was worse: Richard Nixon or George W. Bush?

I posed this question yesterday; in response, I confess that I have been swayed by the verdict of John W. Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel who blew the whistle on Watergate back in 1973. Dean believes that Bush has been far worse than Nixon. Here how Dean put it in a magazine interview:

"Nobody died as a result of the (Watergate) abuses of power during Nixon's presidency. You might make the exception of the secret bombing of Cambodia (in 1970), but that never got into the Watergate litany per se. You look at Bush's abuses and Cheney's – to me, it's a Bush/Cheney presidency – and today, people are dying as a result of abuse of power. That's much more serious.

"Dying in Iraq. God knows where they're dying. In secret prisons. To me the fact that a vice president can go to Capitol Hill and lobby for torture is just unbelievable. The fact that a small clique of attorneys in the Department of Justice can write how we can get around the Geneva Conventions so that we can torture during interrogations – I can't even get there mentally."

Dean's point: Watergate was a largely Washington-centric scandal that pales in comparison with the sin of using a national tragedy (9/11) as a pretext for launching a war for non-existent reasons, and killing tens of thousands of people in the process. (Dean overlooked the fact that Nixon extended the Vietnam war for five years after first claiming as a candidate that he had a "secret plan" to end it; on the other hand, Nixon inherited the war, he didn't start it.)

I am also influenced by an informal survey of 109 historians (including some Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize winners), conducted over a three-week period earlier this year by the History News Network website. Sixty-one percent rated Bush as worse than Nixon; to be more precise, those 61 percent rated Bush as the worst ever. They offered a variety of reasons, but this is the combination that I find to be most persuasive:

Nixon, whatever his personal flaws (such as insecurity and paranoia), was also seasoned and smart. He was fluent about policy, and he was pragmatic when he deemed it necessary. He racked up a number of positive achievements, including his historic outreach to communist China, and his signature on the law creating the Environmental Protection Agency. By contrast, Bush was intellectually incurious, knew little about policy, and leaves office with virtually no positive achievements, unless one believes that tax cuts for the affluent are boast-worthy…and that's without even mentioning Iraq.

One historian, Robert McElvaine, summarized his arguments back in April: "Mr. Bush inherited a sizable budget surplus and a thriving economy. By pushing through huge tax cuts for the rich while increasing federal spending at a rapid rate, Bush transformed the surplus into a massive deficit. The tax cuts and other policies accelerated the concentration of wealth and income among the very richest Americans. These policies, combined with unwavering opposition to necessary government regulations, have produced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Then there is the incredible shrinking dollar, the appointment of incompetent cronies, the totally inexcusable failure to react properly to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the blatant disregard for the Constitution…"

Morton Halperin, who served Nixon as a staffer on the National Security Council, addressed that constitutional issue in an article he wrote several years ago. Even though Nixon had illegally bugged his home phone without a warrant for 21 months, he still rates Bush as worse.

First, he laid out the similarities: "Both the Nixon and Bush presidencies rely heavily on the use of national security as a pretext for the usurpation of unprecedented executive power. Now, just as in Nixon's day, a president mired in an increasingly unpopular war is taking extreme steps, including warrantless surveillance, that many people believe threaten American civil liberties and violate the Constitution. Both administrations shroud their actions in secrecy and attack the media for publishing what they learn about those activities."

The difference, he persuasively argued, is that Bush has been far more blatant in his defiance of the law, and far more willing to argue (especially via Cheney's office) that there is a valid legal basis for a nearly all-powerful presidency (what the Bush lawyers have called "the unitary executive"). Nixon's excesses prompted Congress to enact oversight reforms, in order to constrain a future president from running rampant – and yet, when Bush was outed for conducting warrantless surveillance in direct violation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, he basically shrugged.

John Dean has argued that when Bush said he was bypassing the FISA requirements, it marked "the first time that a president has actually confessed to an impeachable offense…One of the provisions in Nixon's bill of impeachment was his warrantless surveillance of media people – which is now covered directly by the FISA law. Warrantless wiretapping is an impeachable offense."

(Bush defenders, such as Chris Wallace of Fox News, undoubtedly would argue that Bush took such actions in order to keep us safe, and that Bush should get some credit for the fact that terrorists have not attacked us domestically since 9/11. Perhaps he should. On the other hand, it's also worth citing the bipartisan congressional report, released this week, which warns of a possible nuclear or biological attack somewhere in the world during the next five years, and concludes that "America's margin of safety is shrinking, not growing." That shrinking margin has occurred on Bush's watch.)

In the end, perhaps it's wisest to view Nixon and Bush not as separate characters worthy of comparison, but as characters on the same continuum. Halperin essentially argued that. And in a sense Karl Rove clinches the argument, since he started his political career as president of the College Republicans during Nixon's tenure.

Rove did some good work in 1972, reaching out to young voters. But historian David Greenberg has also written that, during the Watergate scandal, young Rove set up a phony grassroots organization to make it appear that Americans were rallying en masse to Nixon's defense, against what Rove called "the lynch-mob atmosphere created (by) the Nixon-hating media." The thread of this tactic – the orchestrating of resentments against "elites" - runs from Nixon to Bush and (most recently) to the rhetoric employed thus autumn by Sarah Palin. In historian Greenberg's words, Nixon "was the soil from which the Bush presidency grew."

But let's give Bush the last word. Here's what he said on Fox News last February, in his inimitable style: "As far as history goes and all of those quotes about people trying to guess what the history of the Bush administration is going to be, you know, I take great comfort in knowing that they don't know what they are talking about. Because history takes a long time for us to reach."


Speaking of history taking a long time for us to reach, here's my favorite trivial factoid of the week:

When was the last time that the Republicans won a presidential election without either Nixon or a Bush somewhere on the national ticket?


As Casey Stengel used to say, "You can look it up."