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Nixon and Bush: Presidential Parallels?
Sacramento Bee (California)
By Pete McCloskey
The eerie parallels between the Richard Nixon and George W. Bush administrations continue.
Once again the famous words of Lord Acton in 1887 come to mind: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Both Nixon in 1972 and Bush in 2004 won re-election to a second term. Both had impressive agendas for domestic reform, but both were at war - Nixon in Vietnam, Bush in Iraq. Both faced what they felt was disloyal, if not treasonous, conduct by former federal employees. Marine veteran Daniel Ellsberg had given the then top secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, and the Times risked prosecution for publishing excerpts, among which was the damning statement by Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton that 70 percent of the reason for fighting the war was to save American face. The Nixon White House was desperate to discredit Ellsberg to preserve dwindling public support for the war - to allow a "decent interval" to elapse before South Vietnam fell to the North, in Henry Kissinger's words.
Nixon's chief domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, ordered the burglary of Ellsberg's California psychiatrist's office to obtain records that he thought might show Ellsberg to be mentally unstable.
One of President Bush's stated reasons for going to war with Iraq was that Iraq had sought to purchase bomb-making materials from Niger. In 2003 respected former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson said it wasn't so. Then someone high on the White House staff, equally desperate to protect the president's election, sought to discredit Ambassador Wilson by suggesting to the press that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent who had suggested that her husband be sent to Niger.
Both in 1971 and 2003, the actions of these zealous presidential aides had dire results.
Both brought on Justice Department investigations. Ultimately, not only Ehrlichman and White House Chief of Staff Robert Haldeman, but two attorneys general, John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst, lied to a grand jury and/or congressional committees, and all four were indicted. The truth came out, not by the Justice Department, but by two courageous reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and vigorous investigations by Sen. Sam Ervin's committee and the House Judiciary Committee. Less than two years after his smashing re-election, Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace.
Now, in 2005 as in the Nixon days, there again appears to be White House obfuscation. In retrospect, it is recognized that if Nixon had come clean at the outset rather than directing stonewalling by his staff, his administration would certainly have survived, and perhaps left a notable record of both foreign and domestic achievement.
George W. Bush might be well-advised to do what Nixon did not. He and his attorney general should forthwith order a full disclosure of who went to the press about Ambassador Wilson's wife, when and how. Bush should obtain a new and untainted press secretary and get on with the daunting tasks facing the nation.
John Ehrlichman, the man most directly responsible for Nixon's downfall, was no wartime slacker. He had flown 50 missions as a lead bombardier over Europe in a unit that suffered extremely high losses both in planes and aviators. He had made an enviable record as a lawyer, was a fine father and husband and had entered public service for reasons of patriotism, not power or financial gain. We were close friends in law school and, save for his last two years in the White House, remained so until his death.
I visited him at the federal penitentiary in Safford, Ariz., one Thanksgiving Day and asked what had caused him, an honorable lawyer, to lie for his president. He looked for a long time across the desert at the distant mountains where Cochise and Geronimo once ranged, and finally quietly replied: "It took us three-and-a-half years to be corrupted by the power. ..."
Can it be that that awesome power has once again corrupted the aides and spokesmen for another Republican president?
Whatever the truth may be, it will ultimately come out. The parallels of the Nixon and Bush White House with respect to Lord Acton's words grow ever eerier. Let's hope the president will do the right thing this time.
Former U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey attended Stanford Law School with John Ehrlichman in the late l940s and early 1950s, one year ahead of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. A Woodside Republican, he was elected to Congress in 1967 and lost to President Nixon after challenging him in the 1972 New Hampshire primary. On June 6, 1973, McCloskey made the first floor speech suggesting consideration of the impeachment of President Nixon for obstruction of justice. McCloskey lives in Rumsey, California.