On August 16, 1971, John Dean sent a memorandum to Lawrence Higby. Both Dean and Higby were players within the Nixon Administration at the time, as Dean was the White House Counsel and Higby was an assistant to the White House Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman. Printed in the middle of the memorandum’s cover page were the words: “SUBJECT: Dealing with our Political Enemies.” What immediately followed the subject heading would go on to be a notorious line both during and after the Watergate Investigation. It read thusly: “This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
Within the remaining pages of the memorandum was the initial list of twenty names that identified Nixon’s biggest enemies, as well as a hinted intention to utilize the Internal Revenue Service to either apply pressure to them or completely bring them to heel. This plan would prove a complete failure when the then-IRS Commissioner – Donald C. Alexander – refused the White House’s request to audit the designated targets. You mentioned the idea that Nixon might have been “a little foolish, and even more than a little paranoid.” I would say that he was undoubtedly paranoid. And if he himself wasn’t foolish or incompetent, it would seem he was complicit in foolish incompetence.
Nixon’s list of “political enemies” made its grand debut on the public stage on June 27, 1973 when Dean, who had already left the White House, acknowledged the existence of such a list while testifying in front of the Senate Watergate Committee, and submitted a printed copy of his memorandum detailing the list for evidence. CBS News reporter Daniel Schorr received a copy of Dean’s submitted document that night while live on the air, and quickly began reading the names aloud on the evening news. It wasn’t long before he got down the list – #15. Stewart Rawlings Mott. #16. Ron Dellums. #17. Daniel Schorr. Next to Schorr’s own name was a notation: “A real media enemy.” Now that’s good television.
While Schorr would later go on to say – as would Paul Newman – that being on Nixon’s list was a great point of pride for him, he felt the full pressure of Nixon’s scorn in that moment of revelation. It also wasn’t a great comfort that Schorr, and other members of the list, were consistently being harassed and wiretapped by the FBI on Nixon’s orders. In fact, Number 8 on the list, Morton Halperin, was spied on for years by the FBI, who listened in on his phone calls from the FBI field headquarters in Washington, which is now the top floor of a Trump hotel.
The lists of those that Nixon labeled as his enemies – both the initial twenty and the much larger list that was compiled throughout Nixon’s time in office – are widely available online. It’s possible for someone to observe the depth of Nixon’s paranoia, and discover who he feared as a threat to his status, legitimacy, and power. When scouring the catalogue of names, one would encounter people of great renown and obscurity. Academics, businessmen, celebrities, labor leaders, whole organizations, and many media personalities form the index of hostile threats, but very few names of politicians are listed.
That fact leads me to your comparison of Nixon and Senator Mitch McConnell. You’re most definitely right in saying that McConnell has a laundry list of political rivals, no doubt. When you’re the longest serving U.S. Senator in Kentucky history, you’re bound to make a few enemies. However, I see a few realities of the situation that make me view the comparison as a false equivalency. And, for the sake of being open, one of those realities isn’t because of any love I have for McConnell, because I have none.
The biggest difference is that McConnell isn’t the President of the United States of America. Some scholars might point to the Constitution and argue that being president doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes to abusing power, because the president’s power is purposefully restrained. So, there aren’t many powers for him to abuse. This argument is entirely naïve. The office of the presidency has been accumulating more unchecked powers since Washington took office in 1789. A modern-day president is now as powerful as the American public always believed him to be – maybe not in terms of lone gun legislation, but in other ways. The president has the power to install wholly loyal agents in top political positions – as is a fear with President Trump – and use them in whatever way he sees fit, legal or otherwise. McConnell doesn’t have those overarching perks of the presidency. He’s certainly a powerful player, but not on the same level as Nixon or Trump. So, if McConnell decides to illegally attack his opponents by using his power as a politician, he doesn’t even come close to being equipped with the firepower that is the executive branch.
Another difference is that it’s one thing to have political opponents or rivals, but it’s a whole other thing to be purposely attacking regular American citizens. If a possible McConnell enemies list came out tomorrow, I doubt we would see names like Chris Hemsworth, Justin Bieber, or Elon Musk on it. Those people don’t live in McConnell’s state. What would he care if they don’t like him? They’re no threat to his firmly indented seat on the Senate room floor. He’s focused on other senators, Washington insiders, lobbyists – players. That would just be McConnell playing the game, but Nixon seemed to be taking names for a countrywide crusade against liberal bogymen. Terrifyingly enough, Trump seems to be doing the same thing. He hears shadows whispering behind his back, and sees a conspiracy everywhere he looks. “Oh no, Don Jr. Obama is a socialist from Kenya! I must take to Twitter to expose him! How do you spell birth certificate?”
Nixon and Trump have a responsibility that McConnell doesn’t have. Representatives represent their districts, Senators represent their states, and Presidents represent their country. Congressmen have the luxury of having enemies within and without the political realm, Presidents don’t. Trump and Nixon shouldn’t hate any “average” American, because those are the people they’ve sworn to serve. McConnell, on the other hand, can hate Justin Bieber all he wants, until the teen heartthrob moves to Kentucky that is. I’m guessing you’ll disagree with me on those statements, so I look forward to your response.
Now I move on to the related subject of Trump’s tweets. I’m glad we agree that Trump’s Twitter attacks and rants are “unbecoming of the stature of the office of the presidency of the United States.” But then you go on to say that the President’s internet offensive is just a case of him defending his reputation – as if he’s a medieval lord desperately holding on to some fragile sense of honor. Well I listen to the commentators of the day, and, if that was indeed his intention, it would seem he has failed miserably. With every attack – or what his supporters see as defenses – on Twitter, Trump loses more reputation with everyone except the staunches Trumpeters.
But this idea that Trump is charging his critics head-on in a misguided attempt to hold on to his dignity brings up an interesting question. Is he who occupies the office of the presidency apart of the public, or does he reside in a higher position that requires a higher sense of decorum? While I believe it’s important for any incumbent president to personally connect with the American people, I tend to side with the latter answer to the question at hand. When we vote at the ballot box, we vote for human beings. So, I realize that a president can’t risk being so rigid that he loses his humanity. In some ways, that was the downfall of Hillary Clinton. I don’t want that any more than anyone else.
However, when one is elected to the position of president, an arm’s reach is put between him and the public. Some may disagree, or perhaps even despise the notion, but it’s a necessary process of allowing the president to shed the emotional mind of the public. As we’ve discussed several times before, the Founding Fathers knew democracy didn’t work. That’s why we’re a republic. So, if the president was constantly being swept up in the fury and fighting of the people, then the American system of governance would be in a state of disarray. Trump has done just that several times in terms of governing during his presidency, and many more times when handling his personal attacks and affairs.
If a parent’s two children are fighting or one of the children insults the parent, does the parent join the fray and go on the attack? No, because the parent isn’t a child. There’s an undeniable connection between parents and their children, but with that position and title comes the responsibility of settling strife in a way that stands above childish aggression.