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Nixon or Bush?

A parlor game for amateur historians

There was an interesting little tiff the other night in Washington, after a screening of

, the new film that dramatizes the historic 1977 face-off between British talk show host David Frost and recently disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon.

On the post-screening panel hosted by historian Robert Dallek,  there was apparently a lot of chatter equating George W. Bush’s ruinous presidency with Nixon’s ruinous presidency – all of which prompted an outburst from a member of the audience, Chris Wallace of Fox News. He didn’t like the comparison.

In his view, Nixon was far worse; Wallace argued that Bush was hit by 9/11 and, whatever his excesses, his honorable motivation was to keep us safe. Wallace reportedly scolded the panelists, contending that their dialogue “trivializes Nixon’s crimes and completely misrepresents what George W. Bush did…I think to compare what Nixon did, and the abuses of power for pure political self-preservation, to George W. Bush trying to protect this country – even if you disagree with rendition or water-boarding – it seems to me is both a gross misreading of history both then and now.”

Dallek, in response, brought up something that has been bugging him for a long time: the Bush administration’s ongoing efforts to shield presidential records from the historians. He suggested that Wallace, without knowing the contents of the Bush archives, was letting off Bush too easy.

To which Wallace retorted: “You’re making suppositions (equating Bush and Nixon) based on no facts whatsoever.”

To which Dallek retorted: “Oh, come on! You read The New York Times,” an apparent reference to Bush’s reported forays into warrantless surveillance and other alleged constitutional breaches.

A brief aside about Nixon: Back in the spring of 1996, I was awaiting the start of a Bob Dole campaign event at the Nixon Library in California. I asked a press colleague whether he knew where on the grounds Nixon was buried. His reply: “You’re standing on him.” I looked down, and sure enough, there it was at my feet, a flat tablet with Nixon’s name, birth year, and death year. We made a joke about how Nixon might claw his way topside at any moment…yet, the thing is, the guy still seems to be with us even now, 34 years after his presidency and 14 years after his passing.

The reputedly excellent

opens this week, and the National Archives has just released some new tapes from Nixon’s self-bugged White House system (For instance, from May 18,1972, while upbraiding Henry Kissinger: "The Ivy League presidents? Why, I'll never let those sons-of-bitches in the White House again. Never, never, never. They're finished. The Ivy League schools are finished…Henry, I would never have had them in. Don't do that again…Don't ever go to an Ivy League school again, ever. Never, never, never.")

It’s inevitable that American movie-goers under age 40 will consider

to be a metaphor for Bush – particularly when they hear the Nixon line that was lifted straight from the real interview: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” That line was also in the original play, and the audiences always howled.

So here are my questions; consider this a parlor game for amateur historians: Was Chris Wallace correct when he argued that it’s unfair to equate Bush with Nixon? Which president was worse, and why?

As Mike Myers used to say on

, “tawk amongst yawselves.” Granted, for many of you (indeed, for 75 percent of the American population), this is like a choice between gargling nails and body-surfing on burning coals, but give it a try anyway. I’ll give you my answer tomorrow.