Trump, Nixon, and the Media

Back to the future.

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, the media have been grabbing at everything they could come up with to smear him – and have been shameless lemmings in echoing one another's nonsense. He's in bed with Putin! He's got Alzheimer's! And then there's this one: good God, he's the second coming of Richard Nixon!

Just a sampling. In May, Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, Nate Hopper in Time, and Alyssa Rosenberg in Washington Post wrote articles drawing parallels between Trump and Nixon. In their efforts to yoke the two presidents together, all three journalists seemed desperate to find likenesses. “As Trump does today,” wrote Rosenberg, “Nixon faced questions about his tax dealings and whether he was using the presidency for personal profit.” I don't remember Nixon facing major questions along those lines, but I do know that Trump, far from using the presidency for personal profit, has waived his salary and took a financial hit for entering politics; it's the Clintons, of course, who over the last quarter-century have cashed in on their political positions to a degree that has made fellow grifters the world over gasp in wonder. 

In a June issue of New York Magazine, Frank Rich joined the Trump = Nixon club, suggesting that The Donald, like Tricky Dick, would end up being brought down by a scandal; on August 1, CNBC's website ran its own Trump/Nixon story, claiming that “[o]n Russiagate, Trump appears to be taking his playbook directly from Richard Nixon and Watergate.”

That's only the tip of the iceberg. Nothing new here, of course: the news media have been trashing Republican presidents ever since the cultural revolution of the 1960 – since, that is, the Nixon Administration. In order to maximize the impact of the trashing, to be sure, the media invariably argue that most previous GOP commanders-in-chief were actually not that bad, but that the current one is terrible. This has led to a great deal of silent self-revision on the media's part. While Reagan was in the Oval Office, the media, by and large, depicted him as an out-of-touch Hollywood amateur who would destroy the economy, oppress minorities, and maybe even start a nuclear war with the Soviets. When George W. Bush was in charge, however, the same media contrasted him with Reagan – whom they now professed to consider an accomplished statesman – even as they painted W. as half idiot and half evil incarnate, in some cases even equating him with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Predictably, now that Trump is head of state, Bush Derangement Syndrome has been dropped down the memory hole – in fact, he's being widely rehabilitated (how wonderful his paintings of wounded soldiers are! How knowledgeable he turns out to be about art! And look, he and the whole Bush clan are chummy with the Clintons!) – and been replaced by Trump Derangement Syndrome. Trump, it turns out, is the worst GOP president since Nixon – if not worse: in July, Politico trumped the Trump = Nixon line with a piece by Susan B. Glasser headlined: “Don't Compare Trump to Nixon. It's Unfair to Nixon.” Glasser, it turned out, had interviewed veteran Washington insider Elizabeth Drew, who argued that Trump is dumber than Nixon and that his abuse of power had already eclipsed that uncovered by the Watergate investigations.

One trait that Trump does share with Nixon, and that the media enjoy mentioning, is his contempt for them. In March, for example, New York Times book critic Jennifer Senior reviewed a new biography of Nixon. The headline was not subtle: “‘Richard Nixon,’ Portrait of a Thin-Skinned, Media-Hating President.” Senior didn't waste time getting around to the comparison with Old Orange Face. “John A. Farrell,” her review began, “could not possibly have known who would be president on the day his fine book was published. That it happens to be Donald J. Trump is, for him, an extraordinary stroke of luck....The similarities between Nixon and Trump leap off the page like crickets.” For example, “their Old Testament fury at the news media....Their thin skin. Their skyscraping paranoia. Their cavernous memory for slights.....Like Trump, Nixon was a monomaniac on the stump, obsessed with the enemies lurking within.”

OK, fine. But whether or not one accepts Senior's characterization of either president, one can't help noticing that she doesn't have the honesty to look at it from the other end – and neither does anyone else in mainstream media. What I'm talking about is their refusal to acknowledge that Trump's “fury at the news media” is entirely justified. So was Nixon's. There's no reason to revisit here the night-and-day difference between the media's approach to “reporting” on Trump and their approaches to Obama and Hillary. But how many people remember what the media did to earn Nixon's wrath?

Nixon had a speechwriter named William Safire, who later became a token conservative columnist at the New York Times and wrote a memoir, Before the Fall, of his White House years. It's a terrific book. I read it with relish when it came out in paperback in 1976 – I was nineteen – and the other day, catching a glimpse of the old, yellowing volume on my bookshelves, I took it down and started paging through it, perhaps for the first time in forty-one years. It was an absorbing – and instructive – interlude. During his 1968 campaign, recalled Safire, Nixon grumbled about how the press “hate to get up and look at the size of those crowds.” I'd forgotten that. 

Some journalists, noted Safire, actually “spread rumors” that Nixon was “planning some kind of Nazi-style putsch.” Sound familiar? Not a few top-flight journalists, in Safire's words, simply refused “to recognize his legitimacy.” Again: sound familiar? The Washington Post actually denounced Nixon for putting his name alongside those of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the plaque they left on the moon. The Times, for its part, savaged him for spending a couple of minutes on the phone with those astronauts while the Lunar Module was parked in the Sea of Tranquility. The space program, charged the Times, had been a Kennedy and Johnson venture – a Democratic project – and Nixon, who just happened to be in the White House “by accident of the calendar” at the time of the moon landing, was horning in on his predecessors' achievement.

It took the Richmond Times-Dispatch, one of the few American dailies that were capable of showing Nixon at least some sympathy, to point out the cold, simple truth: “As unhappy as it makes the New York Times, the fact is that Richard Nixon is now President of the United States.” And that was really what it came down to: then, as now, the mainstream media could not bring themselves to accept the legitimacy of a Republican incumbent.

A year or so prior to reading Before the Fall for the first time, I read another book – All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Back then, I thought it was terrific, too. I also admired the 1976 movie version – and I still do, even though I can now see through the outrageous propaganda. I wasn't the only American of my generation who bought the line that Woodward, Bernstein, and their colleagues at the Washington Post were heroes of freedom because they'd brought down a crooked president. What I, at least, didn't know at the time was that the same executive editor, Ben Bradlee, who oversaw the Post's Watergate coverage was an old JFK crony who had systematically covered up a whole swamp full of Kennedy crookedness – crookedness on a far larger scale, as it happened, than anything Nixon had been up to.

Among other things, as none other than William Safire wrote in a review of Bradlee's 1995 autobiography, the Post editor had taken part in the destruction of a relative's diary recounting sexual trysts with JFK. Even though Kennedy had told Bradlee personally, moreover, that he'd won Illinois's electoral votes in 1960 with the “help of a few close friends” (cue theme music from The Godfather), Bradlee had chosen not to order a Post inquiry into this staggering admission. And even after Bradlee offered up this information in his 1995 book, the rest of the mainstream media showed little if any interest in following it up.

The bottom line is clear: when it comes to the media smearing of Republican presidents and whitewashing of their Democratic counterparts, very little has changed since the Nixon era. The problem is that memories are often very short – and many people who are buying into the media lies about Trump are too young to have seen it before and can't help but be sucked into thinking that in this whole sea of slime, some of it has to be true. Perhaps those of us who are old enough to have seen all this before should be doing a better job of sharing our experience with our younger fellow citizens – so that it doesn't take them as long as it took us to recognize just how dishonest the mainstream media can be.

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