High Crimes And Misdemeanors

It’s hard to believe, but 40 years ago, Richard Nixon quit.

The nation’s crooked president, approver – if not the author of – the felonious coverup of the myriad White House constitutional crimes collectively known as Watergate, told the nation on August 8, 1974, that he would resign at noon the next day, and did so.

Had Nixon not left in disgrace, the House would have impeached him for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” to use the Constitution’s words.  The Senate would have convicted him.

Before we go farther, it might be useful to summarize the Watergate constitutional crimes:

  • Manipulation and emasculation of the electoral process through sabotage and espionage against “political enemies.”
  • Approval of myriad burglaries, plus potential arson at the Brookings Institution, to get at sources of leaks or discredit leakers, or for political espionage, or for all of those reasons.
  • Use of federal agencies – notably the IRS – to investigate, intimidate and harass those Nixon deemed enemies, including the late United Auto Workers President Leonard Woodcock.
  • Perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice to cover up the whole mess.

And that’s just for starters.

New books, including one by former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, discuss new specific evidence of Nixon’s role in the constitutional crime.  Dean’s detailed memory and heavy involvement in the coverup provided the basis for the original charges against Nixon.

Now he draws on the famous White House tapes –- including newly released recordings – to show his old boss was even more involved in the coverup, or coverups, than everyone realized on the day Nixon quit.

It isn’t just Nixon ordering the CIA to tell the FBI to halt the Watergate investigations, or telling Dean to pay $1 million to the original Watergate burglars and their handlers – Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy – to buy their silence.  And it isn’t just Nixon acknowledging Dean’s warning on March 21, 1973, that Watergate was “a cancer on the presidency,” in the same conversation where the president approved the hush money.

It’s top aide John Ehrlichman telling Nixon a month later that “there were eight or 10 people around the White House that knew about this” coverup of the burglary and other political espionage – and Nixon replying, “Well, I knew it, I knew it,” for example.

And before Watergate, it’s Nixon’s team sending GOP operative Anna Chennault to South Vietnamese officials in 1968 to sabotage progress in the U.S.-Vietnam peace talks his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, started.  Nixon promised Vietnam “a better deal” if he won.

That confirmation comes from another book, not Dean’s, also based on newly revealed tapes.  The Nixon-Chennault mission also subverted U.S. foreign policy, in a way that is illegal.

All this is relevant to us today, for several reasons:

First, it is useful to remind people of the real high crimes and misdemeanors Nixon committed, which forced him from the presidency in ignominy.  That’s because since Water-gate, almost every garden-variety political scandal has had the “-gate” suffix attached to it.

Few, if any, of those scandals rise to the level of the constitutional crimes and what Dean calls “the ruthless abuses of power” Nixon committed.  “He was in almost every instance the catalyst, if not the instigator” of the crimes and particularly of the coverup, Dean writes.

Second, there are rabid backbench House Republicans who scream for impeachment of Democratic President Barack Obama.  They’ve been doing so for more than a year.

To those Radical Right Wingers, Obama’s regulatory delays in implementing the Affordable Care Act, his executive orders – especially the one allowing youthful Hispanic-named “Dreamers” to stay and work and go to college and serve in our military – and his actions in a host of other areas rise to impeachable offenses.

Somehow, we have the feeling Obama’s real crime, to those backbenchers, is his race.

To his credit, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has flatly rejected impeachment, even though his Tea Partyites and a large hunk of the Republican rank-and-file froth at the mouth for it, at least according to opinion polls.

And to their discredit, Democratic operatives are using the rabid GOPers’ impeachment rhetoric as a money-raising device on the campaign trail, trying to scare the daylights out of their own donors, to get them to fork up more funds.  They’re apparently successful, but they drag their party down to the GOPers’ level.

Yes, the Republican Party has a scorched-earth mentality in campaigns and the Democrats have never realized that, or found a way to counter it.  But even if the Democrats do, and fight fire with fire, there is a line, for the good of the country, that party partisans should not pass, regardless of what the opposition does.

The final reason is because what the nation really needs is a detailed, reasonable, unemotional discussion of the chief executive’s powers and responsibilities, and limits on them.  In today’s poisoned political atmosphere, achieving that dignified dialogue is doubtful, at best.  Partisans and spinmeisters on both sides will scream and keep screaming, instead.

What are “high crimes and misdemeanors”?  Richard Nixon’s actions provided many of the answers.  It’s useful to recall them, and to see what, if any, executive actions rise to that level, now, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.

The current answer may be “none,” but we won’t know unless there’s a civilized discussion of presidential authority, and these days, there’s no chance of that.