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Jane Ahlin: After 40 years, the Nixon nightmare is still with us

After Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States at the White House, Aug. 9, 1974, he addressed the nation saying, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

Forty years later, the response that comes to mind is, “Don’t we wish.”

Marking the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the face of certain impeachment is a good time to recognize the lasting impact of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s unfortunate presidency. The popularity of other ex-presidents may wax and wane, but Nixon’s status is fixed as the president of dirty tricks, outsized paranoia and petty retributions, not to mention plain old criminal obstruction of justice.

Others have discussed how unnecessary Nixon’s underhanded schemes were, particularly concerning the 1972 election that he won in a landslide over the Democratic candidate, Sen. George McGovern. True, by then the Vietnam War was seen by the majority of the public as a debacle, and yet that acknowledgement did not make the hippie/peacenik scene of the times popular with the rank and file. Peace at any cost made most Americans uncomfortable. Everybody wanted out of Vietnam, but McGovern’s stance of trading American prisoners of war for our exit was seen as capitulation at a level unacceptable to the generation who had won World War II and returned home with honor. In addition, ordinary citizens – folks Nixon labeled the “silent majority” – were disoriented by rapid social and cultural change happening in concert with the anti-war movement. It all was too much too fast.

What Nixon might have accomplished had he not given into his baser instincts and surrounded himself with like-minded men, we’ll never know. In fact, because Nixon and the Watergate scandal continue to shape national politics, we have no idea how different our nation might have been. All we know is that today’s extreme partisanship is fruit from the seeds of culture clash sewn in Nixon’s dark days.

Historians long have drawn a line from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan as the two major figures in the trajectory of the modern conservative movement, bypassing Nixon as a moderate who let himself get caught up in wrongdoing. But that does not give Nixon his due. Goldwater railed against liberalism like a hell and brimstone preacher, while Reagan was more effective doing the same thing with a big smile on his face; however, it was Nixon in-between the two who turned culture clash into enduring partisan warfare, pitting solid citizen white guys (silent majority including blue-collar folks who voted Republican) against out-of-touch elites (unpatriotic young people, radical minorities, intellectuals, and news media types who voted Democratic). It was Nixon who capitalized on the dissension among Southern Democrats over 1960s civil rights legislation.

Most of all, Nixon’s downfall set the stage for the rise of the reactionary part of the Republican Party whose “idea for broadening the party,” as a Newsweek reporter was quoted saying after covering a mid-1970s gathering of conservatives, was “purifying it.” Indeed, that is the Republican Party of no-compromise that paralyzes government today.

What we should be teaching young people about the Nixon scandals is that the system worked. When President Ford made his “national nightmare” remark, the people serving in government had done the hard thing to preserve democracy. Having to oust a president was not seen as a partisan win; it was a grim duty.

Forty years later, it’s hard to imagine Congress rising above partisanship to act responsibly. It’s hard to put a positive spin on the legacy of Nixon and Watergate. 

(Note: The author of “Ordinary Grace” is William Kent Krueger. His first name was given incorrectly in last week’s column.)

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email