Elizabeth Drew: Why Obama Is Not Nixon

tags: Barack Obama, Richard Nixon, Watergate, scandals, Elizabeth Drew, NYRB



Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review and the former Washington correspondent of The Atlantic and The New Yorker. She is the author of fourteen books.
 (March 2013)

References to Watergate, impeachment, even Richard Nixon, are being tossed around these days as if they were analogous to the current so-called scandals. But the furors over the IRS, Benghazi, and the Justice Department’s sweeping investigation of the Associated Press, don’t begin to rise—or sink—to that level. The wise and pithy Matt Dowd, a former Republican operative, said recently, “We rush to scandal before we settle on stupidity.” Washington just loves scandals; they’re ever so much more exciting than the daily grind of legislation—if there is any—and the tit-for-tat between the president and the congressional Republicans over the budget was becoming tedious. Faux outrage is a specialty here.

Obama, anxious not to be seen defending everybody’s punching bag, the IRS, quickly ceded ground on what could be perfectly defensible actions. He may come to regret taking what seemed a trigger-happy decision to order a criminal investigation of the Internal Revenue Service, a sure way to drag people who may have—may have—simply made errors of judgment through a long and expensive legal process that is likely also to keep the agency from examining the validity of the application for tax-free status of any group with powerful allies. If, following the Citizens United decision, there is a sudden doubling of the number of new organizations with similar names and missions, and these organizations apply for tax exempt status—and also the right to hide the names of their donors—might it not make sense to use a search engine to find them? This what the just-fired sacrificial acting IRS commissioner, testifying before a congressional committee on Friday, termed a “grouping” of the cases that had already been almost universally condemned as “targeting,” which he insisted it wasn’t. But this simple explanation wouldn’t do, didn’t warrant the term “outrage” routinely conferred on the IRS case. Could it just possibly be that the Tea Party and their allies see a great benefit in making a stink over this? How better to freeze the IRS examinations of these groups?...

Compared to Watergate, on the basis of everything we know about what are the current “scandals” amount to a piffle. Watergate was a Constitutional crisis. It was about a pattern of behavior on the part of the president of the United States abusing power to carry out his personal vendettas. It was about whether the president was accountable to the other branches of the government; it was about whether the Congress could summon the courage to hold accountable a president who held himself above the law. It was about a president and his aides who were out of control in their efforts to punish the president’s “enemies.”...




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